Up a nondescript dead-end street in North Hollywood, nerdy magic was rekindling. The new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was bearing down on the end of its all-too-brief production schedule and the cast could see the end in sight. It was a sweltering day in September when I visited the set during its final week, which just happened to be when all 14 episodes’ worth of host segments were being filmed. In between set-ups, I was able to speak to the exhausted new cast members Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, and Baron Vaughn, and despite their proximity to work-induced comas, they couldn’t have been more jazzed for the show they were making.
“I’m at a kind of a state of mania,” Ray said, as we chatted during his lunch break. “I guess, all the time. I’m trying not to overthink this stuff. I want it to be good, but if I start to get stressed out about something, like a song I might have later in the day, I will start not doing as well in the scenes we have leading up to it. Robert Cohen, the director, said ‘Just let them hit you. When you’re done with one thing, start looking at the next thing.’ That’s kind of been working as a way of – I can look at it and go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this one,’ and then it kind of soaks in a lot faster. But it’s been really nuts, but it’s also the excitement of everything helps me not think about it too much or get overwhelmed.”
And it certainly wouldn’t have been hard to be overwhelmed given the shooting schedule. Unlike the way the show was done in its Comedy Central and Syfy days — the cast had the relative luxury of a week to write and shoot each individual episode — this series had to shoot its 14 episodes on an incredibly condensed timeframe. The way it was explained to me, following the initial writing sessions for each movie, Ray, Vaughn, and Yount had a blistering week-long period in a sound studio in which they recorded just the audio of the riffs.
“[We were doing] two movies a day,” recollects Yount, who voices Crow T. Robot in the renewed series. “Two a day, but you’re not watching it at movie speed, you’re watching it at production speed, which is like a 14-hour day.” Recording it this way allowed the actors, writers, and creator/director Joel Hodgson the ability to perfect each and every joke until it was absolutely perfect. “You’re watching the ten-minute section over and over,” Yount continued, “slowing it down and trying to just break every comedic beat.” But rather than think of it as a slog, they approached it like artists sculpting a masterpiece. “We’re also comedians and really anal about specifics, saying ‘I know I could do that better. I know I could take that joke better,’ or even, ‘Let’s tweak that dialogue a little bit more.’ So we’re all opening to getting everything just right.”
Ray revealed that this writing and recording process allowed for as many jokes as possible. “The riffs are really packed in,” he said. “It’s so many jokes all the time, and not in a way where I think it’s too much. I think it’s kind of close to some of the best episodes, I feel.” For comparison, Ray used the pace of some particularly beloved original series episodes. “[If you look at] Diabolik or Mitchell or This Island Earth, the one from the [MST3K] movie, you notice their pace pretty well. They’ve got more jokes than, say, Manos. There are long gaps and because it’s a terrible movie that’s hard to even talk about. If you watch Manos, even as a Mystery Science Theater episode, it drags at certain spots.”
But making sure there weren’t any Manos-like dragging was a major concern for the group. “At the beginning, Joel was like ‘No, no, you don’t want too many jokes,’ and as we started doing them we’d be like, ‘let’s throw something in there,'” Ray explained, adding that it didn’t always have to be a joke to be funny. “Even if it’s something like ‘aaaagh’ or just a sound or something like that. Hampton was always saying ‘We gotta do more stuff like that [noise-making] cuz I love that stuff from the original.’ And that’s another cool thing is that we, the three of us, from what we love about the show, were able to bring that which wasn’t on the page.”
“When we did the sessions in studio with the movies,” Vaughn — playing the super-suave Tom Servo — remembers, “by the end of that week, my voice was just shot. I couldn’t talk for two days, so hopefully I don’t go as far as that [while filming this week]. That’s the most difficult part, is staying physically okay to be able to do it to the best of my abilities.” He said it was a particularly hectic few weeks, but that it will also help them should the show continue. “Obviously when it’s all said and done,” Vaughn said, “we’re going to be like, ‘I’m so happy,’ but everyone’s already thinking about ways to streamline the process for next season.”
Following the recording of the actual riffs, Jonah and the puppeteers headed into the silhouette stage for a week of acting out visual gags and movements along with the already-synced audio jokes. That’s another way to speed up the process, they said; the robots now have two separate puppeteers, one working the physical body of the puppet and Yount and Vaughn with an RC car remote moving the mouth so they only have to worry about the vocal performance.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on with the silhouettes now,” Ray explained. “We’ve got these great people from Jim Henson Studios performing the bots. So there’s one boring scene in a movie that’s set in this meadow and Crow gets bored and wants to play fetch, so we were able to do that. We have all these things that are kind of fun and visually funny, because the host segments are so visually funny all the time just with the way it looks. If there’s nothing funny being said in the movie, and there’s nothing funny on the screen or interesting on the screen, you need to do some kind of more dynamic things.”
Which brings us to the day I was there, a week where each and every one of the series’ host segments was filming. The Satellite of Love set on one side of the sound stage, and the mad scientists’ lair on the other. Fourteen episodes-worth of these segments — usually five or six per episode — is necessitating Jonah to be on stage, doing these different bits, all day every day. There’s almost no time for reflection, or sometimes even a second or third take. “There’s only been a couple times where they’re like, ‘Okay, we’re good!’ and I had to be like, ‘I’m not. I wanna do it again,'” he explained. “Because they’re looking at it in a general sense, so I have to, every once in a while, make sure I feel okay with it. I mean, sometimes, I mess up.”
Ultimately, the harshest critics on the three new leads are themselves. They certainly feel the pressure (much of it self-inflicted) of shepherding this incredibly beloved series into the new era. “We’ve always been able to voice our concerns as fans,” Yount pointed out. “We were like, ‘well, that feels like it wasn’t exactly the way it was in the original series, is that okay?'” Vaughn then added that if they enjoyed it, chances are fans would too. “It helps me not be too precious,” he said. “It has to be funny to me, and it has to be funny to us, or it’s just not going to work, because it is about, when it comes down to it, it is about the chemistry between me, and Hampton, and Jonah.”
And perhaps no on has felt more pressure than Jonah Ray, the new guy in the jumpsuit. “The real fear is that there’s a lot of people working on this and technically I’m the head of it, visually speaking,” said Ray. “So I wanna make sure I do the best I can and also just as a service to myself, to make the return of my favorite show of all time the best it could be.”
From what I saw, that the show is updated, a little more polished, but still just as weird and irreverent as ever, we MSTies won’t have anything to worry about.
Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s 11th season drops on Netflix on Friday, April 14. Let us know your excitement level in the comments below!
Images: Netflix/Shout Factory