Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 finally got their wish this year, when their favorite tv serious about a guy trapped up in space and forced to watch bad movies with robots finally returned, courtesy of a massive Kickstarter campaign and, eventually, Netflix. Series creator Joel Hodgson is back at the helm, standup comic Jonah Ray has taken over the hosting duties, and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are the evil mad scientists, and the movies are even in widescreen now.
I’ve been interviewing Joel Hodgson about Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return for a year now, starting with last year’s Comic-Con, followed by an in-depth podcast when the show debuted. But the dust has settled, it’s time to take stock, and it’s time to look to the future. Netflix hasn’t officially announced the next season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 yet, but given the show’s enormous cult popularity – and the fact that it’s not a particularly expensive program – it seems like a pretty safe bet that MST3K is coming back sooner or later.
I was able to get Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray on the phone at Comic-Con 2017, the day before their big MST3K panel, and ask some leftover questions about the eleventh season, and find out what’s on the horizon in Season 12. It turns out that they’ve already selected their movies and started writing, one of the films will be in black-and-white next time, the shorts are coming back, and a throwaway plot point from Season 11 might be more important than we originally thought.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is now streaming on Netflix.
Crave: I had Joel on my podcast recently, but in case you didn’t know, Jonah, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is like my favorite thing.
Jonah: Mine too.
Actually I want to start there. Jonah, you started off as a fan. Now you host the show. What is it like to live out my own, personal, very specific dream?
Jonah Ray: Well, you know, it’s pretty mind-blowing to be living your dream. I incepted you, so you had it, and I took exactly what happened in your dream and made it my life. But other than that it’s just crazy to me that I’m getting to be the host of the show because really, it was my dream too. Wanting to be involved in something like this show is what pushed me into doing standup in the first place, doing comedy and getting involved in having a career in comedy. So it’s pretty crazy that it all kind of worked out.
You guys were at Comic-Con last year and everyone was very excited for the new season but they hadn’t seen it yet. Is it different this year? Are you getting different reactions? Different conversations with people?
Joel Hodgson: Well, this is our first interview so we checked in with Sarah De Bruin, our publicist, and she said that is really different just because people have seen the show. So we’re getting more and better, I guess, interviews. That must be new too, that we’re getting more high profile interviews and requests for interviews. Think there’s anything to that?
Jonah Ray: Yeah, we just rolled in.
Joel Hodgson: Yeah, this is our first interview so we don’t really know. We haven’t really dipped our toe in yet.
Well, I’ll try to make this as easy as possible by asking a question that’s been kind of bugging me. At the beginning of every episode, Jonah is sucked back into his ship to reenact the credits sequence. Why doesn’t he just NOT reenact the credits sequence and fly away?
Jonah Ray: Because I get hit with a cattle prod.
Joel Hodgson: Yeah, they’ve got his spaceship all chained up and taken all the fuel out so it can’t do anything.
Nice. Good to know. That’s been bugging me.
Joel Hodgson: Were you about to say “Touché?” [Laughs.]
I’m glad you thought it out! I always appreciate the attention to detail.
Joel Hodgson: Were you thinking I was going to say, “Oh shit, we forgot about that! Why DOESN’T he fly away?”
No, I just wanted to know the answer so I’m glad to know there’s a great one.
Jonah Ray: That’s the great thing about Joel is that he always has an answer for any weird thing. Even when you think you can stump him, he’ll have it all backed up. It’s like he basically has an entire bible in his head of backstories for each and every thing in his show.
Well, what is the bible for Jonah, the character? We don’t really know much about him and who he was before he ended up in the theater.
Joel Hodgson: Well, we know that he works for Gizmonic Institute. We know he was collecting meteorites of precious metals, that he was [trawling] through space, that he was coming from a mission deep into the solar system, coming back, and that all got thwarted when he got shanghaied by Kinga. We also knew that he released his meteors and they’re drifting towards Earth. So those are things we know about.
Are the meteors drifting towards Earth going to be important later? That sounds like kind of a big deal.
Joel Hodgson: I really don’t want to comment about that.
I respect that. Jonah, I was really impressed by your very first episode when you had to perform an epic monster rap in just one take. I was wondering what that was like for you and how many takes you needed?
Jonah Ray: Well, when Paul and Storm sent me the rough version to start practicing and rehearsing, I listened to and I was like, there’s no way. There’s now way I can do this. So for about a week before we started shooting I was just pretty much in my car, constantly just going “Reptilicus is silly but he really illustrates the great array of monsters…” Like, Baron Vaughn would always make fun of me because it would be like, “How’s it going, Jonah?” and I would say, “Reptilicus is silly but he really illustrates!” Just like, I was rehearsing it in my head all the time just because I knew we had such a short shooting schedule and I didn’t want to make go way behind while I was trying to do the rap. But I think in the end we ended up doing it maybe four times. We shot it four times and I remember one of the times it was like, I did the song perfectly but there was a technical glitch and we had to do it again.
Joel Hodgson: The other thing too that you have to realize is Jonah handles over 50 props in that sketch, and it’s an amazing amount of work between just doing the rap and handling all those elements. And the idea of that sketch was to really get everybody to just sign off on Jonah and Baron and Hampton [Yount] being able to handle sketches. That was really the point of having such an elaborate first sketch, is to just get it out of the way. Okay, these guys can do it. Let’s just relax and they don’t have to prove themselves after doing this. So that was kind of the whole purpose of that sketch.
Joel, what’s it like coming up with the sketches for the show? Half of them are really elaborate and half of them are REALLY laid back. Just like, it’s raining today, we can get a whole sketch out of that.
Joel Hodgson: You know, you just try to do a certain amount of contrast if you can. If you have an elaborate sketch you try to go for simple ones. The contrast is kind of what’s important, I think. At a certain point you don’t want them to all have the same texture, so you just try to do that. We actually write the sketches first. We actually kind of determine what the sketch will be comprised of and basically what the premise is, what the props are, and that kind of goes out in a package with the writers and they’ll come back and submit ideas. So we actually determine the breaks where the sketches go and what the sketches are way up front, so all the writers can participate with them. But they also have to be built. There’s really a lot of R&D that goes on because a lot of props have to do stuff. They have to be mechanical and we can’t fix things with editing because everything’s done in one shot. So there’s a certain amount of prep time to build those props and get them so they function properly.
What are the odds that we’ll ever get some other characters in the theater, like King or Max or bring back Leonard Maltin?
Jonah Rah: [Laughs.]
Joel Hodgson: Yeah, I think so. I think that Felicia [Day] said that was her dream last season, so I think we’ll try to make that happen.
What about the return of Joel Robinson, the character. Do you feel the urge to return as “Joel” or are you content to stay mostly off-screen?
Joel Hodgson: Oh man, you know, fortunately I don’t feel the need to do that right now. I don’t know, maybe downstream…
Jonah Ray: Oh, come on…
Joel Hodgson: Maybe downstream we’ll do it. I mean, the thing that’s going to really shock people is the different in scale between Jonah and I. I think they imagine us to be the same size, and when you see me standing next to him it is very sobering how small I am.
Jonah Ray: Jonah Heston has to call out Joel Robinson now. I’m going to just start putting that out there. I’m going to start challenging Joel Robinson to like a maker-off, where it’s going to be a challenge where you both have to make stuff on the fly, and that’ll maybe prompt him to come back and reclaim the throne.
Joel Hodgson: Yeah. I think I’m just so happy we’re kind of off the whole Joel-Mike-Joel-Mike-Joel-Mike thing. I’m just so glad that we’re off that. It’s very relaxing not to have to think about that anymore, to not have to be in the mix and let Jonah do it.
Are there any particular types of movies you’d be looking for in Season 12? Like a genre you’ve never done before, or from a particular time period?
Joel Hodgson: Well, it’s kind of the same. We’ve picked a bunch of movies to start, just in preparation for a Season 12. I think the difference is I avoided doing black-and-white movies the first time out, and so now that we’ve landed it and people seem happy with the way we’re doing it, we might go back in and do a black-and-white movie. That’s something that we avoided in Season 11 that we might go for.
I know you also avoided shorts. Have you thought about maybe doing some shorts in Season 12?
Joel Hodgson: Yeah, we’ll do shorts but they’ll probably be manifested in different forms, not necessarily the show.
What about holiday specials? You’ve had three MST3K Christmas shows, and of the course the Turkey Day marathons, but have you ever thought about a Halloween episode?
Jonah Ray: Isn’t every episode kind of like a Halloween episode?
Joel Hodgson: [Laughs.] Yeah, you know, it’s so weird since you’re on Netflix. Even for us to do a Christmas special was extra weird, and I felt like our other two Christmas specials are so strong that I was just really grateful that we got off a good one. So I kind of don’t want to mess around with the holiday specials very much unless we have to, because they all end up being really good episodes, so I don’t want to screw it up. I want to kind of stay away from the holiday specials for a while. I just feel super lucky that we did The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t and people really liked it. That could have gone really bad and then they would have gone, “Wow, the other two are really good, what happened?”
Jonah Ray: Plus, with Roseanne coming back, Roseanne was always the best at Halloween specials, so you know… I guess they got that covered.
For that Christmas episode, you cut out the weirdest song in that movie. It’s “I’ve Got a Date With Children?”
Joel Hodgson: No, it’s “I’ve Got a Date With Santa.” “I’ve Got a Date With Santa” but it’s sung by children. Yeah. Yeah, there’s certain things you can’t make funny. You know?
Well, I know you’ve got a big panel planned. Do you want to tease anything?
Joel Hodgson: Well, the big thing is we’re right in the middle of our live tour, the Watch Out For Snakes tour, so we’re in the Balboa Theater tonight and tomorrow night, and then Sunday we’re at the Ace Theater in LA, and then we go up to San Francisco. So we’re doing a nationwide tour right now, so that’s kind of the big thing.
Is that something you’re going to keep doing for the foreseeable future. Will there always be live shows going concurrently?
Joel Hodgson: Well, this was a big experiment and it’s been going really good, so I think at the end of it we’ll just try to sit down and think about it and hopefully, if everybody enjoys it, thinks it’s worthwhile, we’ll do it again. But this is just kind of one. But I hope so. I’m loving it. I was kind of terrified of doing it because I’ve been on a bus tour. I’m 57 years old and I’m on a bus tour, so I was a little afraid of it but I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
Jonah, you’re hosting MST3K. It’s kind of like Doctor Who. Only so many people get to do it. Is this your life now? How long do you think you’re going to stick around?
Jonah Ray: Until they pry the part from my cold, dead hands. That’s pretty much… I can’t imagine ever voluntarily leaving something that has really been as huge a part of my life as this show was and is. Until Joel and I have some sort of falling out and get into a huge fistfight, I can’t imagine leaving.
I guess my last question for both of you is, what’s your big fantasy for the future of MST3K? Is there anything you want to get to that you haven’t done yet, or any sort of crazy film you want to do?
Joel Hodgson: I kind of want to do an MST3K miniature golf course. I think that would be super cool.
Top Photo: Netflix
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.