MST3K's Joel Hodgson & Jonah Ray on the pressures (and obscure references) of the Netflix revival

If you're like a lot of MST3K fans, you've been spending a lot of time lately in the not-too-distant future – oh, about next Sunday, A.D. – reveling in the next wave of invention exchanges and riffs on cheesy movies.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has entered the 21st century via a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign kicked off by creator Joel Hodgson — and the Netflix streaming model — for its 11th season. But while this is a new era of the 28-year-old MST3K, it still feels like the familiar, low-tech, lovable series (down to the "la, la, las" in the theme song) I discovered on The Comedy Channel in the early '90s.

The concept of subjecting a Gizmonic Institute employee to, let's say, "not great" movies and monitoring his mind remains the same, but this time the jumpsuit is worn by host/writer Jonah Ray, with original Satellite of Love gizmocrat Hodgson returning as a director and writer.

Hodgson and Ray recently joined me to talk about the new slate of movies, keeping the spirit of the original show alive, the Metallica joke that never made it, and the obscure Jersey joke that survived.

First off, congratulations. This does feel like a return to the show I loved years ago. But when was the moment for you when you felt like, “This is it, we're back"?

Joel Hodgson: For me, it was when we started recording everything. It was a long process to figure out post, because it's such a long show. There was a certain point when we got the sound mix right. The embodiment of the show is so much about sound, and so that was the moment I started to relax and it started to feel good to me, like a worthy, new iteration of the show. That was confirmed when we got to show it to the backers and it was pretty much unanimous that they liked it.

Jonah Ray: For me, it was the screenings. When we saw it with the audience at the premieres, it felt like MST. Sure, it was me in there, but if I took myself out of the equation, that's when I realized we had done it.

What are the pressures of doing this show that nobody else understands?

Hodgson: I had a lot of empathy for Jonah because it's a tough gig; you're the only person on camera for most of the show. The rest of the performers are off camera with the puppets and it's all on you. When Jonah was in that position, I wanted to make him comfortable. It's a tough gig that I don't think anybody understand except maybe me, Mike Nelson and Jonah now.

That was when a lot of unspoken feelings came out. I remember back in the day, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy would give me sh** for not knowing the lines, but I had to memorize my lines and they were behind the desk with the script. It's tough and nobody understands that.

Ray: It was more work than I'd ever done before. For the first time in my life, I felt like old-timey showbiz. It was nothing but songs, magic, dance moves, props, quick changes. I won't compare myself to him, but reading stories about Sid Caesar going crazy at the end of a week of doing his own show -- I could see how that could maybe drive someone insane.

Why did you go with the Danish monster movie Reptilicus right out of the gate?

Hodgson: Danes! People love Danes! I don't know, I think I picked it just because it was the most emblematic of a classic MST. It was to demonstrate how good these guys were and I wanted to get that locked in with the audience. Also, it's ultimately a nice print and the sound is nice. It's a funny environment to spend 90 minutes in.

Jonah, what did you find is the trick of letting the movie breathe between the riffs so the audience still gets a sense of the movie itself?

Ray: This was a big part of Joel saying let the movie be itself and to be a companion piece to the movie. I looked back at some of my favorite episodes and the ones I connected with were ones where you could tell what was going on with the movie and not a lot of riffs went over the dialogue. That's something we tried to do a bunch. They're not terrible stories, just poorly told. So, if you let the story reveal itself, you just help it along with jokes.

Hodgson: We listen to the movie and let it deliver its dialogue and we work with the negative space that's available.

What were the jokes you had to cut that you were sad to see go?

Ray: In one of our movies, I was fighting hard for a Metallica reference, which I thought would be an easy play because Elliott Kalan, our head writer, is also a big Metallica fan. Nobody else was on board. I think someone says, "For whom the bell tolls," and I wanted to go, "Time marches on! Yeah!" But no one cared. Also, I just don't think it fit. That's the one that got away.

Hodgson: Then you went on to do something that was ten times more obscure. What was that song?

Ray: Elliott fought for it real hard. I think it was the only time I saw him get adamant.

Hodgson: It was so fun because he cared about it so much. [Sings] "Some kind of lake in July!"

Ray: Yeah!

[Both Ray and Hodson start to sing together: "All you ever need/Is Love everything/Beautiful lake country Liiife" -- I think]

Ray: It was a commercial for a summer resort in New Jersey.

Hodgson: It used to play on TV in the afternoon. There is this moment in one of the movies [The Time Travelers episode] where it looks like they're going to a resort. He wanted it, and everyone loves Elliott, and we want to make him happy. We just let it happen and said, "This is your incredible obscure reference only five people will get." But I do love that riff now and it's one of my favorite just because I know it makes him happy.

Can you speak to some of these episodes that are especially your favorites in this bunch?

Hodgson: I don't want to talk about my favorites because I don't want to shape the audience. I have a couple I really don't like or aren't as strong as others. I don't want to color it because I know the audience will get to different things. And it will make me look like I don't know what I'm doing, which is my biggest fear [laughs], and that I absolutely hated the one everyone loves.

That's kind of true with Manos: The Hans of Fate. Everyone loves Manos, but I kind of look it like a fantastic weird movie but not that good of a riff. And I'm mostly proud of what we bring to it. We're not here to showcase terrible movies but to do riffs with them.

Ray: Probably the one I had the most fun on was Starcrash, because I got to wear weird outfits and do two completely different characters – the villain and weird hero. Those were my favorite sketches.

What did you find are the benefits to the Netflix model?

Hodgson: When we were shopping the show, it's these platforms like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix who weren't daunted by it being 90 minutes long. All the commercial cable networks said, "We can't sell advertising for a 90-minute show." And Netflix is in most homes and we've always kind of been on the outskirts. We never got to be on primetime and that's exciting to me.

And you get to play with narrative more with regards to Jonah's character.

Hodgson: That's the other cool thing about Netflix. I thought people would watch the series in order. Back in the day, I never assumed anybody watched it in order. The "story" is the movie we're riffing on. We don't have a narrative that gets paid off at the end of the series. But we're lucky that people would see these in chronological order so we took advantage of that to tell a few stories that build up and hopefully pay off at the end.

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