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'Mystery Science Theater 3000' host Jonah Ray and the art of riffing on really bad movies

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" has a new host, Jonah Ray.
Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP
'Mystery Science Theater 3000' host Jonah Ray and The Frame host John Horn.
Michelle Lanz/KPCC

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On the new "Mystery Science Theater 3000" reboot on Netflix, the original host and creator Joel Hodgson is behind the scenes.

Hosting duties have been handed down to comedian Jonah Ray, and of course his robot friends, Tom Servo and Crow, are still in the mix.

It’s been 17 years since the original series went off the air, but the show has remained a cult favorite ever since. In fact, the reboot was possible only because of a very successful Kickstarter campaign that earned nearly $6 million.

But rebooting such a beloved show means a lot of responsibility for its new host, who grew up watching the original show, himself. 

Interview highlights:

On the challenges of writing jokes for the show:

I knew that production and TV writing is a slog for the most part. The concept of the show — being tortured by bad movies — is also what you have to go through while making the show. You just are crawling through these terrible movies and you have to write jokes. Everyone's got jokes after someone says a funny line — there's a space after it. But no one has very good jokes for the third time a guy walks across a room and it takes him 30 seconds. That was probably the real part, just slogging through these movies.

On the attributes of a bad movie that works for the show:

It has to be pretty good to be bad. A bad movie is only really for lack of resources and lack of talent, but the spark is still there. You've got to realize these are movies where there were enough people who said, This is a good idea. We should make "Carnival Magic." And then later, after they're done and wrapped with the movie, decide that the ape in the movie should talk. You realize that they're just not that good at making movies, and so the pacing is a bit off and the performances are a bit weird. They didn't quite get the right [footage], so there are awkward transitions. It's the pacing, really, that ends up making a movie good to be riffed for — having these awkward silences so that you can fill it in with jokes and riffs.

On the show's use of obscure film references:

We have so many writers from so many walks of life that have different upbringings. At the end of "Time Travelers," they're walking into a meadow and apparently it looks just like the meadow from a commercial for a resort in Jersey. Our head writer, Elliott Kalan, who was previously on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, was like, "We should sing the jingle for that commercial." We were like, "Nobody is going to know that!" He just had to fight for that. He's like, "But my brother will and it will blow his mind!" There's enough jokes in all these episodes where you [say], Let's give it to someone. I threw in one of those references to "The Replacements" or a "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" reference, which a lot of people love finding. 

On not using any dirty jokes in the show:

Joel's whole thing about keeping it clean was the idea that parents do want to watch stuff with their kids. They do want to find some common ground, but what they don't want is something to come up where they have to pause because the kid goes, Wait, what does that mean? 

There's a thing in the opening credits where I originally said, "What the hell?" Joel was like, Let's just change it to, "What the heck." I said, "Why? Are you becoming an old comedy guy, softening in [your] old age, doing a movie for his kids?" He said, "No, but someone's going to hear hell and their brain is going to spiral into, Well, what else do they say?" And I'm guilty in my own material and my own standup that I've gone dirty. I never would have expected in all of my life to be involved in something as squeaky [clean] as this.

On famous people making bad films:

That just goes to show that some of these movies have the best intentions. That's what also makes a good bad movie. It was neat seeing it with "Starcrash." That's [David] Hasselhoff's first theatrical appearance. He shows up 45 minutes in, pre-"Baywatch." He had just started on some soap opera that year. Very interesting thing, it might be the biggest star in any of the movies we have — in "Starcrash" — is Christopher Plummer. At least, as far as talent goes. Christopher Plummer is in there and I was like, What is Christopher Plummer doing in this movie? I found an interview where someone brought it up to him and he said, "I've always had a stance when it comes to acting: I would even do porn in Italy or Rome." He took a gig and it's clear that he put in a couple days. It's really neat to see. It just goes to show, these movies, they wanted to be good. They can't purposely be bad. They can't be "Sharknado."

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