Inside ‘MST3K’ and ‘Grace & Frankie’ with Baron Vaughn

Season 2 of Grace and Frankie just premiered on Netflix, with Season 3 about to begin production. According to comedian and actor Baron Vaughn, who plays Nwabudike “Bud” Bergstein on the series, his role on the show is something he never could have dreamed of. “When I auditioned for it I was like, ‘Is this actually happening?’ When they said, ‘We’re going to cast you,’ I was like, ‘Is this a joke? Is this April 1st? What day is it?’” In addition to Grace and Frankie, Vaughn will also be starring as Tom Servo in the much-anticipated reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I talked to Vaughn about the latest news on MST3K, the influence of movies on his comedy and acting, and what he’s learned from working alongside some of Hollywood’s heavy hitters.

Were you a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you were growing up?

Obviously, like anyone who watched it, I was like, “This is incredible.” I can’t say that I know the details of every single episode, but I was a big fan. I devoured it. I couldn’t be happier that I’m involved and bringing it to a newer generation.

I know that you and everyone involved will have some creative flexibility to make it something fresh and new. What’s your spin on it?

I think a lot of it comes down to the pop culture references. I grew up on a very specific diet of certain weird movies. Of course, being black, there are more black movies in there. I’ll get to bring some of those references into Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are plenty people of color who love the show, so I’m trying to speak to them a little bit more than maybe they’ve been spoken to in the past.

You guys are scheduled to do 14 episodes plus a holiday special. Have you started production yet?

We’re at the beginning of the writing process. We just started coming up with riffs for two different movies.

This is one reboot that I’m actually excited about. You and I are about the same age. There are so many things from our childhood that are being redone or re-imagined. I’ve been disappointed by most nostalgic reboots, but I’m optimistic for MST3K because it seems like the kind of show where you can take the premise and format and truly make it something modern and different without having to have too many patronizing nods to the original. The basic premise of talking over movies with these characters is simple enough to provide the flexibility needed to make it relevant and good.

You’re absolutely correct. Joel Hodgson created the show as a tribute to things like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, which have all had many, many iterations. Star Trek is the perfect example of something where you can change the ship and change the crew, but it’s still Star Trek. The premise gives itself to expansion, to making the universe more and more detailed. That’s one of the pieces of foresight that Joel had.

I think it’s a really great fit that you’re doing this show, considering that you’re also on the Maltin On Movies podcast. Have you always been a movie buff?

Yes, I have been. The name of my first comedy album was Raised by Cable. Coming up and watching all of these weird movies on different channels was such an influence on me and an influence on how I do standup. It informs everything I do. I’ve always been a big fan of entertainment. Having cable gave me access to HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel. Constantly taking in all these films from different eras and different styles has really given me a good vocabulary in how to talk about movies. The Maltin On Movies podcast is like a college class for me because he knows so much. I absorb from him because of the way he sees things. It’s making me even more of a movie buff than I once was.

What’s a movie that you’ve seen recently that blew your mind?

I just got back from SXSW. We had Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass on the podcast. Mike just made a second movie that Ira produced called Don’t Think Twice. I was fortunate enough to see the screening of it at SXSW. I’m still thinking about it, man. It really blew my mind. I was like, “Birbiglia is a hell of a director.” It’s not even like, “He’s got a future in this.” He’s doing it. The movie is honest, funny as hell, with a great cast that brings the funny and brings the truth.

That’s the mark of a good movie to me. Sometimes I watch a movie and I won’t even know if I liked it or not, but if it stays on my mind for days, makes me look at the world differently, or question my own ideas and opinions, I’ll classify it as a good movie.

I totally agree with you. A wise writer once said, “Whether you like something or not, that should be the beginning of the conversation, never the end.” “I like it.” “I didn’t like it.” Ok, that’s fine, but why? Sometimes I watch a movie that didn’t make me feel good, but it still made me feel and still made me think about it. That’s how I know that movie was effective. They achieved a goal with me at least.

The second season of Grace and Frankie is about to drop and the series already got picked up for a third season. As a younger comic and actor, did you ever think that you would be working with the likes of Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda?

Let me be clear on how I feel about this: hell no! I never knew while watching Laugh-In as a kid that one day she was going to be my mom. Heck, when I auditioned for it I was like, “Is this actually happening?” When they said, “We’re going to cast you,” I was like, “Is this a joke? Is this April 1st? What day is it?” We’re going to start shooting the third season in a month. As a performer, I’m shocked and amazed that I’ve been employed consistently for two years. The employment itself and what it is is shocking and amazing to me. It’s not lost on me that I’m doing a lot of stuff that I’m proud to be a part of and happy to be doing.

What are you learning from working so closely with entertainment legends?

Working with people like Lily and Jane is incredible. They are heavy hitters. Oscar-winning, Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe carrying, Emmy in the pocket performers. If I have a scene with them I’m like, “I had better bring the heat.” I’ve learned that I have to be present. Another big thing I’ve learned is that I have to give as a performer. Jane, Lily, Martin (Sheen) and Sam (Waterson) are such giving actors. You hear about that conceptually, what it means to be a giving actor. But what is it? What it is is that they stay with you. They are present with you. They’re not just there to say their lines and look good. They are there to connect with someone and find truth in the scene. Leonard Maltin is also very giving. He is someone who, as a lifelong nerd – and he would say that himself – knows so much and has seen how film has changed because of the industry and how industry has changed because of film. He has helped me see that just because something doesn’t make money doesn’t mean it isn’t good. There are so many good movies that get caught up in some mistake, bad marketing, wrong timing, the star was not hot yet, things that sink movies. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t paying attention. People like Leonard Maltin are paying attention. I’ve learned from him to keep my eyes open and see that there actually is quality out there and it can be done.

Clearly you’re a busy guy. What do you do in your downtime? How do you unwind in between juggling all these different projects?

What is downtime? [Laughs] I’m a big fan of PlayStation 4. I like watching movies, TV shows, comedy specials, and listening to comedy albums and music. I’m also a big fan of getting coffee with a friend or catching up on the phone with people I’ve known for years, people who keep me grounded, who knew me before.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Inside ‘MST3K’ and ‘Grace & Frankie’ with Baron Vaughn