To say 2017 has been a bumper-crop year for Jonah Ray would be an understatement. Aside from pulling double duty as co-host of Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist Podcast and solo-host of his own Jonah Raydio, the 34-year-old comedian also has not one, but two hit television shows airing concurrently. His Netflix reboot of the cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 was released (after a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign) last month to critical acclaim and a stamp of approval from the loyal fan base of the original. The other is Ray’s own original show Hidden America, a faux travel show that has the visual veneer of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown but the beating heart of a Zucker Brothers production, whose second season is now streaming on Seeso.
Hidden America finds Ray playing a heightened version of himself as he travels to very un-sexy locations, experiencing the local cuisine and culture with the social grace and self-awareness of Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, which is to say none at all. Expertly deconstructing the tropes we’ve grown to love of our favorite travel shows, from the hyper-kinetic camera work to the pun-filled narration, Hidden America thrusts Ray into increasingly absurd —and often tragic— adventures. His incompetency as host is only outmatched by the colorfully cartoonish characters he encounters in each city. And with cameos this season from David Koechner, Yvette Nicole Brown, and even Anthony Bourdain himself, let’s just say things go off the rails in epic, hilarious fashion. I recently spoke with Jonah Ray about the new season of Hidden America, how he convinced Bourdain to play “an even more asshole-ish version of himself,” and what he feels about the state of comedy today.
So 2017 has been treating you quite nicely, wouldn’t you say?
I would’ve never assumed that I would ever be in a position of having this. To have two shows out at the same time still seems like a thing of fiction. It’s been really overwhelming in the best way. What’s great about it too is Mystery Science Theater finished shooting in October, so it was a good thing I had making Hidden America to distract me until it came out.
It must feel surreal bringing back a program that was not only universally beloved, but one that was also extremely foundational to your own comedic sensibilities.
The weirdest aspect of it —and this might sound odd — was the weekend MST3K came out. It was a really weird weekend for me. Here is one of my all-time favorite shows back on with all new episodes, one that hadn’t been on in years, and I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it. I couldn’t even enjoy it properly. I can’t really watch myself perform. I still have a hard time doing that. So it was strange being online and seeing people talk about the show so passionately. Of course that part felt good and I really dug how many people liked it, but there’s this really out-of-body, removed aspect of it all. MST3K was something that meant so much to me. And now that I’m a part of it, I can’t even tweet my favorite moment about it! Well, I could, but it would feel hammy. [laughs]
So this is all still a “holy shit” moment for you?
There’s a weird thing that happens when I’m doing any kind of comedy or creative endeavor that, since I was a kid when I started doing open mics, it never feels real in the moment. It doesn’t feel like I’m actually doing this stuff. I’d say things like, “Once I get booked a gig at that coffee shop then it’ll feel real!” Then you get booked at the coffee shop and you say, “No, it’s gonna be when I get a TV spot!” Then you get the TV spot and it’s, “This will feel real when I get my own show!” So right now I’m feeling with Mystery Science Theater that it won’t be until we get a second season that things will really sink in. I guess that’s just my brain protecting itself.
Hidden America has been part of this uptick in pitch-perfect genre parody programs like Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ and Documentary Now! Why were the luxury tourism/food shows something you wanted to lampoon?
You know, it wasn’t so much food and travel shows as much as much as it’s I’m just really into Bourdain. I really loved No Reservations and even more so Parts Unknown because it’s the travel show for movie buffs. His show is shot so beautifully and there are all these references to different aspects of cinema. It was a multifaceted reason that I realized this would be so fun and ripe to parody, but I’ve seen other parody travel shows. There was Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust on Comedy Central back in the day that paved the way too.
In my head Hidden America could be this multilayered comedy thing where it’s not only a parody of a specific travel show or Bourdain, but it also exists as a sketch show and a narrative show about a guy who is delusional enough to think he can host a travel show and how quickly things go wrong for him. Basically, Bourdain’s shows already set up the idea of parodying specific styles and tropes while still being able to smooth that into a connected, serialized sketch show. It’s almost like a confluence of all the things I find funny. I’m just trying to shove all my favorite things into one show.
The attention to detail —down to the editing, cinematography, and voiceover work — makes Hidden America feel almost indistinguishable from an actual travel show. What’s your approach to mining comedy out of a genre that tends to take itself very seriously?
It certainly takes great care to hit those beats that define these types of shows. One of my favorite comedic things is Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character. I love the way he’s been able to use Alan Partridge as a vessel to parody different things about TV and TV personalities. And because Alan Partridge is very British— and I do love me some British comedy — it’s able to be very dry and drab but allow itself for a broad, cartoonish moments to happen. Because of the structure of a travel show, once something big or weird happens you’re on your way already. You gotta keep things moving, so it’s about finding that pace and tone. When something happens out of the ordinary you don’t have to necessarily sit in the moment longer than you have to, which is the benefit of the sketch show format.
This season you journey to anti-exotic cities like Reno and Cleveland. What’s your process for deciding which cities you want to shoot segments in?
I want each location to have its own very specific look, and I also want to differentiate this season from the cities we did in the first season. For season 2 someone brought up that we should shoot in Philadelphia. We had already done Boston last season and if you really break it down, comedic trope wise, there’s an overlap of similar things you could talk about with both of those cities. You got rabid sports fans, American history, and a similar city aesthetic on the surface level. So it really comes down to what gives the writers the most inspiration. It can be tricky. Like last year we did Austin and then this year we did Nashville. They’re both big music cities, both all-American cities. We try to pinpoint what elements would give us the most authentic and dynamic differences from episode to episode.
How much do you improvise once you’re on location?
It’s all prewritten. We have an insanely good writing staff. But really I just never want to count on anything. I want to make sure we have something concrete when we go out there. We need our location. We need to be clear on all the specifics. We need to have our actors on the same page. So if all else fails, we at least have a script that has beats and jokes and we can get through it. But once when we’re in the physical space, we have more space to improvise and have fun on the fly. We get to cross shoot when we can, which is tricky because once you start shooting with two cameras to get the improvised scenes you start to take away from how good you can make the scenes look. So there’s a bit of compromise there. You can have some fun and play within certain setups and improvise a lot, but if we want the show to be as good as it can be and look like a Bourdain show, we have to keep that in mind.
Speaking of which, this season you actually got Anthony Bourdain to appear on the show as an extremely unflattering version of himself. What kind of conversations did you two have in order to make that happen?
When the first season came out, people were tweeting at him about it and I guess he watched an episode because tweeted back that he thought the show was very funny. Everyone involved with our on our show was like “Well shit, if we get a second season let’s see if we can get him on!” The conversation was always about how we could even do that. He was very busy at that time, doing his usual round of promoting and interviews, and one of the interviews happened to be with my old roommate Katherine Spiers, who’s a food writer for LA Weekly. She had him on her Smart Mouth podcast. She brought up Hidden America and asked if he would ever be on it. Bourdain’s response was like, “Jonah Ray? Yeah he’s very funny. I totally would love to if the schedule works. My only request to them is that I have to play a bigger asshole-ish version of myself that’s even more pretentious.” And it just clicked. We just rolled with that information and made a play and got ahold of his people. They were on board and asked us to pitch them some ideas.
Were you impressed with his comedic chops?
We wrote up a ton of ideas and we had a few different versions of where we could take things. It was mostly a function of time, because that guy is insanely busy. So we were just like, “If you’ll give us an hour we could shoot this kind of stuff.” He picked the ones he liked best and then I just combined them into one bit. Then he was down. When he got there, he knew his lines and was so naturally funny and game for changing it up. He improvised an entire phone call from Guy Fieri, which was fucking great. He just gets it. It was crazy shooting with him too because he’s such a superstar. Just walking along the street, people go crazy. Like, we were eating pizza on the sidewalk in New York and the most New York moment happened where some guy in a yellow cab shouts, “Yo Tony, you eating pizza on 8th Avenue? What’s the matta with you?!” [laughs]
It’s hilarious watching you two play off each other, because even though you’re playing heightened versions of yourselves, it manages to still feel grounded. And shit definitely gets dark for you this season.
It’s all about trying to usurp the expectations of the person who’s watching the show. We didn’t want it to be the same bit every time, where I’m coming into a scene and the punchline is how Jonah is going to mess it up with his ego or hubris, or how is Jonah going to recover from this intense or silly character trying to derail my show. This season I wanted my character to get a bit more comfortable and think he was able to pull off more things in the show when he’s clearly not equipped to. Comedically, for me, if you have an underlying amount of sadness and anxiety it makes the character even funnier and more relatable.
What are your feelings on the state of comedy, especially with Netflix, Seeso, and other digital platforms like Funny or Die providing an unprecedented amount of opportunity for comedians to not just put out content, but to reach bigger audiences?
We all think about it a lot. It’s a constant conversation that it does feel a bit saturated in that there is a bubble that’s beginning to pop. People like me —and I’m not trying to downgrade myself or anything like that — but people like me are benefitting from it. With all these niche things, there’s a lot of room for other people to break in. It’s working out nicely. If there weren’t as many channels or outlets, I wouldn’t work nearly as much in the capacity that I do. But because there are so many outlets and there’s this higher demand for content, it’s gotten super competitive. There’s just a lot more people doing comedy, so the money isn’t as good as it was. Now you have to have a couple of things going on to work and live off of. But overall that’s a good thing.
Look, if I was a kid who was becoming a fan of comedy today, I’d be overwhelmed. I remember when Kids in the Hall ended and the next season they had The Vacant Lot and Exit 57 and one more sketch show and even that felt like there was too many options. But there’s an audience there. I’m sure this analogy has been used before, but it’s become like subgenres of music. There are enough people you can find who like the thing you do. You may not get super famous or rich off of it, but there’s enough people that demand your supply. Think about it: there are tons of bands, DJs, and rappers that make a living off of their music that most people don’t know about. But the people who do know them love them and want to pay for their stuff. I think it’s about finding a loyal audience and hoping, when the bottom falls out, we’ll be fine.
So what’s next for Jonah Ray?
Right now we’re just prepping the Mystery Science Theater tour. It’s public knowledge that we’re doing one, but we haven’t confirmed the dates yet. So those will be announced soon. I’ve also been developing a screenplay with Susan Burke based on one of my favorite comic books, The Li’l Depressed Boy. We got the rights, we got the script made, and now we’re just trying to find the time to shoot it within the next year or so. It’s one of those things where it’s been a couple of years of “Here we go! Oh wait, nevermind.” We keep putting it off because of some conflicts in schedules. So now it’s just all about trying to find that window.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.