MST3K’s Joel Hodgson & Jonah Ray talk touring, music, Turkey Day, GWARbar & more in BV interview
Twin Peaks was not the only show to have a "Return" this year. Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- the cult series about a "regular guy" kidnapped by mad scientists and forced to watch cheesy movies -- was revived on Netflix by creator Joel Hodgson thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Comedian Jonah Ray took over as host, there's new mad scientists (Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt), new voices for his robot friends Tom Servo, Crow T Robot and Gypsy, and even a house band led by Har Mar Superstar. Yet the core of the show -- cracking jokes at bad movies -- holds up remarkably well, and the new season is pretty great.
More treats for MST3K fans followed, including a live tour featuring Jonah, Joel and the bots live riffing classic MST3K film Eegah!, along with a secret "surprise film." MST3K will also be holding its annual live Turkey Day Marathon on Thanksgiving starting at noon ET/9 a.m. PT, via shoutfactorytv.com, the Pluto TV MST3K channel and their official YouTube channel. The lineup of Turkey Day movies is being kept a secret, so you'll just have to watch.
We recently talked to Joel Hodgson and Jonah Ray about their experiences on tour, including visiting the GWARbar in Virginia, the new season, the future of the show, their own personal projects and more. (Joel had to split midway through the interview, but Jonah still had plenty to say.) Read below...
BrooklynVegan: You guys embarked on the Watch out for Snakes! tour across North America, which wrapped up in August. Any interesting road stories? Especially memorable tour stops?
Joel Hodgson: It’s really fun being on the road with Jonah, since he’s such a man of the world. And I think one of my favorite things was getting to go to the GWARbar with Jonah. Getting to do that was really fun, and I just enjoyed the hell out of it.
Jonah Ray: Yeah, it was a blast. The whole thing was kind of a blur, cause in each city, you’re in the back alley of a theater, then you go and load stuff in, and try to get your bearings, and even try to take a shower, and then it’s time to do meet-and-greets. We rarely had time to do anything in the cities, but I was very adamant about going to the GWARbar in Richmond, Virginia. It’s such an awesome city, and topping it off with a GWAR-themed bar was really great. Joel lives in the suburbs now, so he’s not too hip on the new crazes, and when I took him to a place to get an acai bowl in Phoenix, the place that served acai bowls also happened to have breakfast burritos. And so it got in his head that every place that serves acai bowls also has breakfast burritos. Later on, there were like two or three other places where we would go “Hey we’re going to this acai bowl place”, and he’d go “Yeah, get me one of those, and also another breakfast burrito.”
Joel: (laughs) It even took me a long time to correctly pronounce "acai". I thought it was like, “ah-kah-yee”. But yeah, [Jonah] completely schooled me, it was like a revelation.
Jonah: And nothing washes down a good acai bowl like a breakfast burrito.
Joel: It was just an amazing experience, and I never had done a bus tour. And like Jonah said, we had this routine every night. It was pretty amazing, and soon I felt like I started to hit that groove where we got really good on the road. We improved throughout the entire six weeks.
Jonah: Another really fun idea was getting the opportunity to constantly keep tweaking the show every single night. We got the idea where we said, “If we do another season, should we do these movies?” Joel brought up the idea, and we agreed that it would just be so good, and it would be better than just the regular writing process. We wrote [the live show], and it was just as good as any other episode, but they got rewritten every single night. And by the end of it, we were just firing on all cylinders.
Joel: But I feel they’re too powerful to recreate on video. They’re unrecordable.
BV: You guys already touched on what I was going to ask next: was there anything you found better in a live setting than filming on set?
Jonah: Joel really wanted the energy of a live event, and that’s how he wanted the show to be too. While filming [season 11], we kept flying through our scenes and sketches, and it translated really well to doing it live on stage. It had that same frenetic energy. When you’re live, you’re still doing all the same motions, but the one difference is that your rhythm while riffing has to be completely changed based on the audience’s reaction. When you’re doing the riffs in the studio, you’re just in a backroom trying to get all the jokes in. But when you’re doing it live, you get a joke in, and then you can’t have another joke while people are laughing, because it would ruin that joke, then the next joke, and so on. That was a really interesting thing we had to do, we definitely had to slow it down live.
Joel: Another thing is that you’re basically editing while you’re making the jokes, because all audiences never react the same way.
BV: Did you ever go off-script while riffing live?
Jonah: We were really scripted, but sometimes one of us would mess up, or there was an interesting reaction from the crowd. It’s live, you know, and what makes live events so fun is that tightrope walk. Some things would happen, such as props going wrong, and videos not playing on time.
Joel: I think what’s amazing is that when you manufacture the show every night, there’s always differences in the texture and mood of it. That has to do with the cast and the audience, and the really fun part is that Jonah, Tim [Ryder], and Hampton [Yount] were so good. It almost always ended the same, but it started from all these different points. Both the audience and cast are in different places, and we all work towards this one end.
Jonah: As a performer, you tend to have your body, mind, and heart all in the same spot while doing a live show. There was a rare instance in San Francisco where we had two shows, but one per night. This gave Hampton and I a full day to walk around, and he mentioned that he’d never been to Fisherman’s Wharf. I was like, “Let’s go to Fisherman’s Wharf and get some seafood!” When we got to the seafood place, I got oysters, and for the next two days in Portland and Seattle, I had really bad food poisoning. I was having a hard time sleeping, and I wasn’t doing too good out of both the front and back, and I even remembered Joel sensing that I was wobbly and needed to release some tension. When we went to intermission, I remember as I went off the stage, Joel gestured towards the bathroom, and I just ran over there. It was a team effort. (Laughter) What I meant from that story is that people would see us after the shows and say, “You guys were on fire!” I would have thought those shows weren’t as good, because of me feeling so terrible.
BV: In some ways you were "on fire."
Jonah: Exactly. My butt was on fire, and I told someone “It must have been those oysters,” and they said, “You’re not supposed to have oysters over there!” And I was thinking, I’m not a sea shanty captain, I didn’t grow up in Cape Cod.
BV: You said “if you were to have a new season” of MST3K...what’s the situation on the new season, and would the “secret film” from the tour be included?
Joel: My impression is, we didn’t want to use it because it was so figured out, and it would be inconsistent with the new ones we were doing. It would be glaringly polished compared to the other ones. We’re not gonna bold that one into the mix
Jonah: We’d love to make those into concert films though. That’s what we were talking about.
Joel: Yeah, that’s probably what will happen. They’ll remain intact as what they were designed to do, which was being live. The other thing is that we had to build in room for laughs, and it’s very light on jokes. The other side of it is that we’d have to write new jokes to fill in the gaps, and it’s just not worth it.
Jonah: Nobody wants to hear the studio version of “In-Da-Gadda-Da-Vida”. Give me that live version with the drum solo.
BV: Are you planning to release it as a streaming special?
Joel: We would like to, but we don’t have any plans yet. We don’t have any announcements on that. But it's something we’d like to do. You want an announcement so bad, but we can’t give you anything yet! (laughs)
BV: (laughs) I’m just speaking on behalf of the fans.
Jonah: Yeah, we’re hopeful. We’re feeling good and confident to do more, but no word yet.
BV: You guys just announced this year’s Turkey Day marathon recently, which is set to feature both you guys, and Felicia Day. Will the ‘bots be making any appearances?
Joel: NO! I have one rule, never bring up the ‘bots! Childhood is over! (laughter)
Jonah: It’s gonna be a real fun one. Felicia, Joel and I’ll be getting together and it’s gonna be great, but Joel adding the bots would be a little too much. But we’ll be showing some clips from the tour, as well as some behind-the-scenes stuff.
Joel: Yeah, it’ll cover a bunch of different stuff that happened throughout the year. We released a [soundtrack] album, and we got the CD coming out, and it’s gonna be out on vinyl soon. We’re also gonna be coming out with a comic book that’ll be out in the new year.
BV: I guess there’s a lot to look forward to! Perhaps asking for the ‘bots was a bit too much, since there's already a lot on your plate. (laughs)
Joel: Yeah, sorry man.
Jonah: In this year’s Turkey Day marathon, there’s going to be a lot of stuff people haven’t seen before, so that’ll be fun.
BV: One of the biggest differences between the old series and the new series is the theme music. Especially the new closing theme, where you used an orchestra rather than just a synthesizer, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. How did the new musical directions for the show come together?
Joel: I felt like a lot of it came from Charlie Erickson, who made the theme song with me, and was also a producer for us. He pitched the idea of having an orchestra play the closing theme, and I thought it was a great idea, so he worked with the arranger and produced that. We also got to work with Har Mar Superstar, who’s a good friend of Jonah’s, and also from Minneapolis. He worked with Charlie to produce all the interstitial music and the new theme song.
Jonah: I met Har Mar in 2001 in San Pedro, California. I was on the phone, and there was a knock on my door, and I was like, “Hold on, I have to go, Har Mar Superstar is at my doorstep.” We introduced ourselves, and he went, “Is Cheeto around?” Cheeto was a friend of mine who lived a few houses down from me. I went, “I think he’s still at work, but if you wanna just hang out and wait, you can come inside.” And then we just became friends. We began collaborating on some things, and he even led the band at my wedding. When I found out he was gonna be a part of the show, it was really exciting. We had him doing the music, Hampton Yount as Crow, and Baron Vaughn as Servo, and it resulted in my life in the arts and entertainment all coming together in a very insane trip.
BV: Jonah, I assume it wasn’t very hard for you to adjust at all, since you basically knew everyone involved.
Jonah: Yeah, that was Joel’s idea when he decided that he asked me to be the new test subject. Of course, my next question was “Who would you think would be Crow and Servo?” In the back of my head, I had two ideas. And Joel said, “I think you should pick them, so you already have a rapport.” Because when they were originally making the show in Minneapolis, everyone already knew each other from the comedy scene, so there was already a pre-established dynamic. A lot of what people like about the show is that comfort and familiarity, not just with you and the characters, but between the characters themselves. Hampton, Baron, and I have known each other for so long, just from doing stand-up over the years, so it was great to have those guys there in order to feel comfortable and have a good time.
Joel: I didn’t want to cast people, and just basically assign them to Jonah. It’s much better that he had the autonomy to pick and do that himself. It worked out really well.
Jonah: It works within the concept of the show, where there’s a guy making his robot friends. And while Jonah Heston didn’t make these bots, it’s just the idea of familiarity that’s there.
--------(Joel leaves here)--------
BV: One of the best host sketches from the new season is the “Every Country Has a Monster” song from the season’s first episode, Reptilicus. How did that come to be? Whose idea was it?
Jonah: Joel really wanted a song in the first episode, and he wanted it to sort of be a pilot episode, without it necessarily being one. He wanted to show that this new crew could do things all the old group could, including songs. He liked the idea of doing a song about monsters from all over the world. Eventually he wanted to make it a rap, since you could name more monsters that way. We went to Paul and Storm, who wrote most of the songs for the new season. They don’t really do rap stuff, but their reference for rap at the time was Hamilton, and they decided to do something like that. When they first sent me the lyrics I thought, “I have to do all this so fast, and handle all these props based on the monsters I’m talking about and make it look effortless?” I rehearsed it in my car so many times for that song, and we ended up doing four takes of it. I messed up a few times, and the camera messed up once -- that was probably the most gnarly thing that happened. I did a take that was flawless, everything worked and I didn’t get any words wrong, and then as the camera pushed in for “movie sign,” it jumped the track and slipped to the side. I was like, “No! We can’t fix it with the magic of computers?”
Jonah: The rest of the songs were relatively easier. I’m not a very strong singer, so I had to work on that for songs like “The Magic Inside of You” from Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, and other ones like that.
BV: Still on the topic of you and music, I know you grew up drumming in a lot of punk bands. Your current band, Pressers, features Denver Dalley from Desaparecidos and Cody Votolato from Blood Brothers. What’s the status of your album?
Jonah: We recorded [the album] on our own, cause Cody is off touring with other bands, and same with Denver, who had to go off on the Har Mar tour. We recorded it without really having any plans, and thinking we should just really get down these songs. Since we recorded, none of us have been in the same city at the same time. And right now, Cody’s on the road with King Krule, and I think Denver’s off on some weird adventure… he likes to take solo trips to Belize and jump off cliffs, cause he’s a weird dude. We recorded it, and we liked it, but it’s not mixed or mastered yet. We just kinda sent it around friends and labels, and asked if we should put it out with them, and to kind of see, when we get back together, what exactly what we want to do with it. It’s hard to sell to a label a band that won’t be able to tour. But yeah, the album will totally be coming out sometime next spring.
BV: Moving back to MST3K, what were some of your favorite episodes of the new season? Any favorite riffs or host segments in particular?
Jonah: My favorite episodes to watch back again are probably Yongary and Cry Wilderness. Cry Wilderness has a sketch where Tom and Crow are dressed up as raccoons, and we’re all just laughing and goofing off, and that was one of my favorites. Elliott Kalan, our wonderful head writer, loves silly, whimsical nonsense, so that was a great sketch. I loved Starcrash cause I got to do impressions and wear costumes. Actually, as far as sketches go, Starcrash might be my favorite that I shot. I also loved the riffs in Carnival Magic, and doing that movie was a blast. I also really enjoyed The Beast of Hollow Mountain; the riffs were really solid on that one, and it also had one of those silly Elliott Kalan bits where Tom and Crow were just chanting, and I start freaking out. Nothing really happens in that sketch, and the only escalation is that it gets louder. It was such a fun, dumb thing, and I love it.
BV: You mentioned the episode Carnival Magic -- there was one scene with a man in a purple jumpsuit that briefly appears for a split-second. Any explanation behind that?
Jonah: It seems to me that Kinga has multiple test subjects going on at the same time. But honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. I was just as confused by it in real life as I was in character.
BV: To bring up another mystery, in the beginning of each episode of season 11, there was a “secret code” hidden. Has anyone been able to crack that?
Jonah: Nobody’s been able to crack it yet. You know, Joel is such a mad genius, so much so that he’d keep secrets from most of the crew. The way he thinks -- it makes sense in his head, and he won’t really let you in on how it does. So, it kind of reveals itself naturally within the show. As far as the code goes, I don’t know what it means. I think there’s a Reddit where people have been trying to figure it out, and it’s just that weird, extra-chaotic magic that Joel has in his heart.
BV: Perhaps that’s the point: there is no meaning, it’s just Joel.
Jonah: That is one of the theories, actually. I’ve described Joel’s creative process as similar to a sculptor -- he’d bring in this block of marble and say it’s great, and you’d say “I don’t see it.” He’d then keep chipping away at it until you eventually get it. He has these ideas physically in his head, but you just have to keep working on it with him until you understand it.
BV: Although a lot of the old MST3K episodes have been released on DVD, many fans watch these old episodes on YouTube. What’s your opinion on that? Does it fit in with the “keep circulating the tapes” ethos?
Jonah: I mean, it’s hard to say, but I feel the show’s always been about circulating the tapes, and in this day and age, YouTube is “the tapes.” As long as it gets word out on the show, that’s meant a lot to people, I can’t really see it getting in the way of anything.
BV: Although there are DVDs, and there is YouTube out there, many people did get into the show when some classic episodes were released on Netflix. Do you think more classic episodes will be released on Netflix in the future?
Jonah: Early on, I heard this idea of Netflix just always having 20 episodes on there, cycling through many of the old episodes. Maybe taking some away, and putting others in. I don’t know what’s up with that now, I’m not sure. It feels like if Shout! Factory wanted to, they could start their own streaming service, and have every single MST on there. But I like the idea, with Netflix, since so many people have it, that they could just keep cycling more episodes in so more people could get into the show.
BV: On the topic of streaming services, I’m a big fan of Hidden America, your fake travel show. I’m sorry about Seeso shutting down, so is VRV going to pick it up for a third season?
Jonah: Thank you for saying that, I’m really proud of Hidden America. VRV picked up four shows -- Cyanide and Happiness, My Brother, My Brother and Me, Hidden America, and HarmonQuest. HarmonQuest had a season that hadn’t come out yet, while the other three didn’t have any unreleased material not previously released on Seeso. So there was talk that if [Hidden America] did well on VRV, they’ll discuss doing a third season. It’s hard to tell people to sign up for yet another platform after they’ve already seen it, and it’s a very complicated problem. They say people are watching it, but their main push right now is season two of HarmonQuest, which is an incredible show. I really hope in the future I can do a third season, but in my mind, it doesn't need to happen right away, cause maybe Hidden America is my No Reservations, while something in the future could be my Parts Unknown. Nothing’s certain, and it’s a type of show I really like making, and the type of character that I really love playing. So, I’m excited to see if I can continue to do it as I get older. And as I get older, it only makes my character even more desperate and sad.
BV: It's too good not to get a third season.
Jonah: Aww, thanks. My plan for a third season was actually gonna be a docu-series on Hidden America’s failed attempts at trying to do a South American season. It was just gonna show everything going wrong, and to take another step back from the parody. We can actually show everything screwing up, rather than an editor trying to fix every mistake.
BV: Are there any albums or songs you’ve been enjoying as of late? Any favorites of the year so far?
Jonah: I’m really digging the new Superchunk single that came out recently. The new album from The Bronx, V, I think that’s some of the best stuff they’ve ever done. I also really liked the new The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die record. The new Ted Leo and the Pharmacists is great too. The new album from Open City is a GREAT punk rock album. Oh, and the new Grandaddy album, Last Place.
BV: You were in a video for Grandaddy, so you must have been a fan to get that opportunity. What was the experience like, working on that video? How did that come to be?
Jonah: Isaac Walter, a guy I knew from around town, helped me get Sub Pop’s music on Hidden America. He knows the Grandaddy guys, and he also knew the director, Aaron Beckum -- an incredible director. They were just looking for someone to be in the video, and he just asked me if I wanted to be in it. I agreed, and they also said there was going to be an ex-girlfriend role, and if I had any recommendations. I said that my wife was a good actor who loves Grandaddy, and they thought it was perfect. They used old pictures of us, so we didn’t have to use any badly-photoshopped pictures of a couple.
BV: Are you currently working on any other projects aside from MST3K? Any big plans coming up?
Jonah: Nothing concrete. I’m developing and writing a couple different projects right now, like writing a movie to direct, and I might appear in a movie sometime next year. But no deals have been really finished, so I can’t say for sure.