Jonah Ray can’t remember the first time he saw Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he remembers being confused by it. “It was night,” he recalls, “and I got home and I turned the TV on — and Comedy Central had just started in Hawaii — and I tuned in. And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s an old movie. This sucks. I thought it was supposed to be a comedy show.’ And then there were the silhouettes and it was like… I thought my TV was broken, shoving two images on top of each other.” Talking to Ray, the host of the newly revived Mystery Science Theater 3000, alongside his co-stars Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount, over lunch in Chicago on a February afternoon in the company of series creator Joel Hodgson, it becomes clear that they can divide their histories into two halves: before encountering MST3K and after.
“I had a similar experience,” Yount says. “Seeing the seats and hearing the voices as clearly as the voices in the movie and laughing and just being, like, everything that they’re saying is much better than this movie. And then it went to a host segment and I’m like, ‘What is happening?’ And that was it. I stayed.”
It’s unlikely, however, they could have imagined how long they’d be staying. But with the relaunch of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just over the horizon — Netflix will debut 14 new episodes on April 14th — Ray, Vaughn, and Yount have become a part of the history of the show that shaped them. They’re also largely responsible for proving MST3K can make a funny, vital return, winning new fans and pleasing the old ones, nearly two decades after it aired its last episode. But, hey, no pressure, right?
Launching The Satellite
If they’re nervous, they don’t let it show, despite being longtime fans who can each recall stacking up VHS tapes of the show from cable airings. (“You would do the long style recording on it, so you could fit multiple episodes on one cassette,” Yount recalls.) Ray points out that he, Yount, and Vaughn are close in age but come from a different parts of the U.S. MST3K gave them a common language: one rooted in mockery and powered by wit, with a broad range of cultural references and an assembly-line pace.
The original MST3K made a low-key debut on the Minneapolis station KTMA in 1988 but soon found a wider audience on as part of The Comedy Channel, a cable outfit that would later merge with its rival, HA!, to become Comedy Central. Quickly becoming a cable staple, MST3K was the sort of show that created obsessives rather than fans, even if many tended to find it by stumbling on it and wondering what they were watching.
Its premise was simple. Hodgson — then a veteran of the stand-up circuit whose dry wit and prop- and magic-based humor had won him admirers like Jerry Seinfeld and slots on Late Night With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live — played Joel Robinson, a janitor imprisoned on the Satellite Of Love and forced to watch bad movies by mad scientists (who came to be known as The Mads). As the theme song goes, he built some robot friends to escape the solitude: Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow, the latter two serving as his movie-watching companions and partners-in-wisecrackery.
The show earned a devoted following and critical acclaim but that didn’t stop Hodgson from walking away from it at the height of its fame, due to disagreements with producer Jim Mallon. He made his last appearance — apart from a late-run cameo — midway through the show’s fifth season on October 23, 1993, at the end of an episode riffing on the scuzzy ‘70s cop movie Mitchell, which would doubtlessly have gone down as one of the series’ most memorable even if it didn’t end with Hodgson getting unexpectedly ejected into space (after leaving behind a plaque with a quote from the Tony Randall-starring fantasy film The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao). The show carried on without him, bringing in head writer Michael J. Nelson as a new host, releasing a theatrical film, and moving to what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel, which canceled it after 10 seasons in 1999.
But MST3K never really went away. The original show found a new audience via DVD releases and the internet. In 2006, Nelson and MST3K vets Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy launched the likeminded RiffTrax. From 2007 to 2013, Hodgson and a different set of MST3K vets performed as the Cinematic Titanic, a movie-riffing venture that toured the country and released DVDs. But even if Hodgson and the others had abandoned watching and commenting on bad movies, MST3K’s inspired, smart, fast-paced silliness would still loom as an inescapable influence on the comedy that followed. The rapid-fire references of everything from 30 Rock to The LEGO Batman Movie all exist in a world that MST3K helped create.