Building on Sacred Ground with the New Cast of ‘MST3K’

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) is one of those cultural touchstones – much like Doctor Who, Firefly, and the works of Terry Pratchett – that seem to always get brought up at least once at parties (at least the ones I go to). So many of us discovered them at just the right age to be completely taken in with the worlds they offered, and accordingly they shaped how we made friends, how we viewed ourselves, and how we defined our interests further down the road. So when that thing changes and evolves, it’s understandable that people who love it would feel personally affected. These shows are pretty much sacred ground for a lot of people.

With this in mind, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson has boldly undertaken the task of reigniting the MST3K series. He has banded together a new crew of carefully selected cast members to carry the torch onward and, as he describes below, the show has come together as a mixture of the old and the new. The show, due to hit Netflix on April 14th, will absolutely maintain its original flavor and beloved wackiness. In chatting with the new crew – Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, and Baron Vaughn – it is clear that they deeply resonate with the concerns of the show’s fans (“MSTies,” as they’re called). Recently I sat down with Ray (the new host), Yount (the new voice of Crow T. Robot), Vaughn (the new voice of Tom Servo), and Hodgson to discuss what approaches they had to rekindling such an important cultural touchstone.

So how did this all get rolling to begin with? When did the new crew start coming together?

Joel Hodgson: I’ve been thinking about this for like seven years. I went back, found my notebooks and basically for the last seven years I’ve been thinking about how we should do it again. I’m trying to think when we first started… [to Jonah] When did I ask you to be the host?

Jonah Ray: I’m trying to remember the timeline. We can start with when you were on Nerdist, ‘cause that’s when we met.

Joel: Right.

Jonah: I was still at The Soup at the time, but then we met up at a con and you were talking about, like, “Yeah, I’m thinking about bringing it back, I’m not sure how I want to do it or in what capacity” and then you said, “Oh, you should be a writer on it!” And then the next time you said I should be a producer on it. And then eventually, I think a year after that, you called me up and you said “I’ve been thinking about it, you should just be the guy!” I was like, “Which guy?” and you said, “The me! The guy! The host!” So I guess that was like three or four years ago?

Then, a year after he asked me to be the host, he started saying, “Who do you think would be good for the bots?” And I immediately thought of Baron [Vaughn] and Hampton [Yount]. And then we went to Umami Burger and you got to meet ‘em!

Joel: My thinking was that I felt like if I were to cast the guys to be Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, then there’s all these shake-down crews, like, “Do we know each other? Do we like each other?” And I felt like, if it came from Jonah, it would be a lot better, ‘cause he understood the people that he wanted in there.

And that was true of the old show too, where we basically went to Josh Weinstein and said, “We need a writer. Can you go find somebody you think is funny?” So he brought me into a comedy club and we watched Mike Nelson, and he was an open-stage act, so that’s where we found Mike. And then Mike found Frank, and so, yeah, that’s kind of the method I use so that people are comfortable. Like, if I were to pick them out, I wouldn’t understand it, I wouldn’t have that dynamic.

Jonah: And also, I mean that’s the thing that I think anyone would agree about Mystery Science Theater, that it does feel like it’s some friends getting together and goofing off. And that’s how I always felt about the show.

Sure, just being tortured by mad scientists, as friends do.

Jonah: Yeah, we’ve all been there. But yeah, I’ve known both of these guys for so long and they both kinda remind me of those robots’ personalities anyway. So it wasn’t too hard of a decision. Like, I knew Baron would be so perfect for Servo when they did some Star Wars sketch for Funny or Die, and I texted them, and I said, “Hey guys, you did a great job on that sketch.” And then Baron was like, “Well, they cut out my improvised Shakespearean monologue.” And I was like, “That sounds like something Tom Servo would say.”

A key characterization point! So what’s it like getting to do this, presuming you all also grew up watching MST3K. Did you ever imagine that you’d be involved like this?

Jonah: My vision board did. And all those sacrifices.

Hampton Yount: No way, we could have had no inclination we would work with the show.

Jonah: Yeah, the show was gone.

Jonah: The first showbiz meeting I ever had was in 2003 and I had a general meeting with some agency, and they do that general meeting thing where they were like, “What would the YOU show be?” And I said, “Oh, I would be the host of Mystery Science Theater. We should bring it back and I should be the host.” And then they laughed at me.

Hampton: They all laughed!

Jonah: Little did they know nostalgia would be big bucks in the future! But, yeah. It’s hard to understand it in my own brain. It’s a literal dream come true. It’s not a version of a thing. Like we’ve all kind of had a version of our dreams coming true, in doing comedy for a living. But this is a legit one-to-one… There’s no analogy. It’s just straight-up a dream come true.

Absolutely. And I think you hit on this when you brought up the nostalgia factor, that’s got to be a thing I imagine you guys are all wrestling with right now. Like, people constantly asking “Where about the previous cast and writers?” and that sort of thing.

Joel: That’s a great question, and people really care about it. I think the funny thing for me was just that my perspective was different, ‘cause I created it and I always thought the concept was great. I think a lot of people felt the same way but more about the people making it. I think it’s both, obviously, but with the latest iteration, which is a new cast, I really saw it clearly. And I don’t feel like anybody understood that. Like, “Wait, it’s gotta be you or Mike, don’t you get that? The switch for my brain only says ‘Joel’ or ‘Mike,’ how can there be a third switch? It’s Joel or Mike!”

So that was always there. And when we were approaching the Kickstarter, a lot of the original cast was involved. Like, we were six weeks out before we shot the Kickstarter video. They were all on board and we were making arrangements, like airfare and stuff, and I was writing the script and sending it to them, and then for various reasons they all dropped out from the Kickstarter. So it was much more of an amalgam of the old and the new when we were like six weeks out.

Fortunately, on the other side, after the Kickstarter, Mary Jo [Pehl] and Bill [Corbett] and Kevin [Murphy] agreed to come back. Mary Jo and Bill are writing on it, Paul Chaplin who’s a longtime writer, he wrote over 150 episodes, he came back and wrote an episode and he performs in it. And then Beez McKeever who built all the props in the Mike episode and did all the costumes for the robots, came back. So did Charlie Erickson, who wrote the theme song, he came back and did a bunch of music. So we tried our best to lay in as many of those original people as possible. And also to help seam the new show with the old show, so Pearl and Brain Guy and Bobo come back to the new show and make appearances.

And if this is moving into a new generation of MST3K, are we gonna see a new aesthetic or anything to that effect?

Joel: Yeah. I mean, my feeling was, I didn’t want it to be like a love letter to the past. Like, “Oh, well it’s sealed in amber. You made everything with hot glue and kryolan paint, now you have to keep making that.” I just kinda wanted it to be the latest iteration. But I mean to me if you look at it, it’s similar but it’s just slightly upgraded. Like, part of the narrative of the show is that Jonah’s a maker. So he uses CNC machines and laser cutting, and he has a fab lab in the satellite loft, so these props he’s building look like that. I did feel like people wanted that, like, they wanted the old – like, “you’re gonna make it look shitty like the old show, right?” And I was kinda like, “I don’t think I want to do that, I want to do as good as we can for the money.”

Jonah: It does feel like our show now looks as if the show had stayed on. Like, this is where it would have ended up. Everyone would have gotten better at miniatures and set design and props. It does feel like it’s not a jump, like they would have ended up here at this point anyway.

What concerns do you keep seeing or hearing about the most?

Baron Vaughn: I’ve been touring around, and I keep having Mysties coming up to shows on the road and, you know, everyone’s expressing their joy and their excitement, and also their concerns. People love the show and have a very intimate relationship with the show. It’s as simple as, like, it keeps families together. People are just like, “I loved that I watched it with my family.” And so it’s like, you’re messing with people’s family. And that’s how people are talking about it. And I just keep saying, “Trust me, it’s gonna be great.” Because I think people get scared because something that they love gets taken, gets redone by people who didn’t love it. But we all loved it, and I keep telling people, “Joel’s here.” It’s not just a bunch of people who never saw the show.

That’s the mantra I see online a lot. “Trust in Joel.”

Joel: And the guys that worked on the models, they really cared about it. You could tell it was really important to them. So that’s kinda what the attitude was, like “We’re gonna try to take care of it.” And I think everybody liked it enough to not want to get reckless with it, like “Oh, let’s just erase, let’s just remove these things, this ritual of the show, what’s the purpose?”

Jonah: We were all hyper-aware of the show and what it is and what it means to people because we think it means a lot too.

Hampton: If we messed with the aesthetic of the comedy and we were trying to make it super pop-culture references, like right now, it wouldn’t really work. Then it just becomes a standup show.

Baron: I mean, there are the references, ‘cause that’s another thing, like, it’s references from today and further back.

Jonah: All the hits from yesterday and today!

Baron: Yeah it’s like, all of history that we are at least aware of… From vapes to the time when kings wore capes, to the czars of Russia…

Hampton: Someone asked me if there was gonna be a lot of Midwestern references…

Jonah: I said anytime we were gonna reference, like say there’s traffic or something, I’d say it has to be a road in Minneapolis, or just the Midwest. I had to put in a bunch of those.

Right, like it’s important to keep the older references alive as well, since you’re carrying on the thread of the entire show.

Joel: Right, you need to know the whole… If you want you can learn about the whole life of the show. This is a section, this is the part of the iceberg that’s exposed right now but there’s a whole bunch underneath that you can know about if you want.

Jonah: Yeah but this is gonna be available in all English-speaking countries, too. A lot of these countries never got, you know, the earlier seasons. For a lot of people it’s gonna be the first time. So we had to make sure the show would be fine for someone that didn’t even know there’s, you know, almost 200 episodes in the past.

Hampton: And it’s moving forward but it’s reaching back at the same time.

Joel: And we try to walk that walk where it wasn’t just a love letter to the past ‘cause that’s kind of boring. What we want to do is start traveling into the future. But it’s not just about the future either, it’s both.

Jonah: And it’s kind of like, I never watched any old Dr. Who. I started when the Chris Eckleson stuff started. And there’s a ton of references to people and stuff that happened in its long history.

Baron: It’s just like these are shows that have these great concepts and they kind of continue on forever.

And really no matter what you’ll always have people who are ill at ease with the new things, and then they kinda fade away over time.

Joel: It’s like the Beatles, if you just say, “I don’t want to hear anything, I’m not interested in ‘Let It Be.’ I only want to hear ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Please Please Me.’” It’s gotta make room for new things. And again I want to be careful about what I say, but they kinda said, “It’s bigger.” That’s what a few people have said.

In getting ready for being Crow and Tom, how did you kind of walk that line between building on the characters that already existed and bringing your own thing to it?

Hampton: It’s hard not to be informed by the character because I grew up watching it. So it’s more like yeah, keeping the sensibility of what I feel people liked about Crow and trying to just add my own sensibilities inside of that. And trying to keep my own voice but also making sure it sounds like Crow, because I feel like he has a pretty distinctive voice.

Baron: I appreciate that. I on the other hand did a week-long workshop with Daniel Day Lewis–

Hampton: Oh, can we give a joke answer? I winged it! I winged it all! It was improv!

Baron: I always hated Tom, but that’s fine because so does he. I’m joking. I was nervous for a long while but I kind of look at this in a way like a legacy voice. This is a character that a lot of people love, so it’s almost as if I’m stepping into the role of Bugs Bunny and I’m the new Bugs Bunny in some way. And once I let go of that level of intimidation, I was able to kind of infuse it with what I know has happened but also kind of take it in my own direction.

Jonah: But like I said, Baron is perfect for Servo ‘cause he’s totally pretentious. And Hampton might be one of the funniest most nihilistic people I’ve ever met in my life. Which I’ve always felt that about Crow.

Baron: Pretentious is not the same as well-read, just so you know!

Joel: Going into it, I really just told them to play however they wanted. Because the truth is, when you’re riffing, you have to have access to all your voices. You don’t want to impose a voice so that you can’t then adopt a dialect or an impression, ‘cause they do so many that it’s almost like saying you’re a chef in a restaurant but you gotta use ketchup in every dish. I didn’t really want them to have to feel like that. It’s more important to me that they’re available to do all the things they can do. That’s really what movie riffing is. It’s a rearview mirror reaction to them liking the riffs and then reverse-engineering in their minds what the character is. It’s kind of the reaction. If they like it, they’ll then like the character. It’s not like you go in saying, “What do people like about the character and we’ll give ‘em that?” It’s not like that.

Is there anything you guys are particularly excited for once you’ve had a chance to rest from all the hubbub?

Joel: Yeah. We’re getting prepped for next season. We don’t know for sure. But we’re just getting ready.

Jonah: Doing this was like a learning curve. Because even though the show was already established, we all had to kinda figure out how we worked together, how we worked on the show and all this stuff and so, having those episodes down, I think everyone feels the same way.

Baron: You learn the rhythm of the show and especially by the end it was like, the way we were doing episodes, and I think people will see that when they actually watch the whole season. You’ll just notice maybe a slight difference to the flow of how we all bounce off each other. It’s a lot of more casual at the end.

Sure. I imagine it was pretty stressful trying to find that groove at first.

Baron: It’s very stressful. Not to say that it wasn’t great and rewarding. But there were some long, long days, yeah.

Jonah: The schedule was really intense. And the days were long. But also we had to put everything we have into this show because it was a lot of people counting on it to be good. And we cannot half-ass any bit. Joel would even be like, “You guys are too hard on yourselves!”

Hampton: We would text, like, after the first couple sessions, just all the time to be like, “How do you think this went or that went?” Or “What do you feel about this?” Just trying to get into kind of a perfect harmony.

Jonah: And we would try to be open with each other like, “That was really funny when you did that,” give each other praise. So we felt that we could kind of know each other’s strengths.

And then moving into the second season…

Joel: I think just being able to look at all fourteen episodes completed is gonna be so useful for everybody across the board in the production, pre-production, post-production. These episodes are the model of how we will proceed. So it was really a lot of work to get there.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

Building on Sacred Ground with the New Cast of ‘MST3K’