Jonah Ray Talks MST3K Revival and Hidden America

Comedian Jonah Ray tells us about what his new travel show parody and what it's like to be the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 host.

With a heavy background of stand-up and television writing already under his belt, Nerdist Podcast co-host Jonah Ray has seemingly been granted his wildest dreams when it comes to his success. Now, with his new online show Hidden America (Produced and Directed by Troy Miller through his production company, Dakota Pictures) Ray is already starting his newest opportunity, fulfilling yet another lifelong dream of his, hosting a new iteration of the cult classic, Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Den of Geek: I was interviewing Joel [Hodgeson] a few years ago, might have been 2012, but I remember when we got to the, “always will be asked” question about MST3K’s long life in the hearts of fans, Joel brought up that he had just done the Nerdist podcast and how the reception he received from all of you and the fans still feels as special as it was when the show was originally on the air. He then went on to praise all of you at Nerdist, so this begs the question, was he talking about you joining the show, all the way back then?

Jonah Ray: Well, I mean, That’s when I met him, when he came on the podcast and I was very excited because I’m such a huge Mystery Science Theater fan and I nerded out about every episode and he made fun of me when I tried to do an impression of him, but I didn’t really mean to, it just kind of came out. I was just so nervous. But then the next night, I went to a screening of the Wayne White documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing, and then I ran into Joel there and he said, “Oh, hey, man. Good to see you again.”

And then the next day, I just swung by the Harmontown taping and I saw him there again and he was just kind of like, “Hey, I’m seeing you everywhere.” I thought, “Oh, yeah…” You know, trying to be cool. And then a couple weeks later, [Chris] Hardwick texts me, “Hey, Joel Hodgson just asked me for your number.” I said, “What? For what?” And he came back saying, “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

Ad – content continues below

And so Joel just calls me while I’m at work; I was on The Soup at the time and he just calls me and we just start chatting and there’s no real agenda, we’re just talking; “Yeah, it was really cool to see you. What have you been up to…” And then we start talking about comedy and he was telling me stories about when he would share a space, a warehouse space, in Minneapolis with Hüsker Dü you know, way back when he was a comic building props. And it was just a conversation. Then he says, “Oh… Anyway, man… Yeah, it was really nice talking with you. You know, I might be coming out to L.A. again sometime in the next few months. I’ll give you a ring.” And it was just that,  a friendly call from a new buddy kind of thing, you know?

He would call me a couple of months later and then we’d just chat more and every time we would talk, it would just be something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m thinking about bringing it back, man. I don’t know in what way yet, but I’m still just kind of trying to think of how I would do it.” And then a couple months later, he would call me again and then he started kind of inching towards my involvement in it. He’s commenting, “Yeah, it would be really cool if you wanted to, you know, maybe submit some riffs for it.” I was like, “Anything. Anything you do with this, I will do it. Even if I’m just a PA, I will do it.”

And then a few months go by, call again, we chat about whatever.  “Yeah, I’m still thinking about bringing it back. I’m not sure of the rights on this stuff, but it’d be cool if you wanted to… Maybe have you help produce it or direct it or something like that, be one of the directors.” So there I am and, “Oh, of course, yes. Can’t get any better than that.” And then just you know, a month, two months later, he called me and said, “Yeah, I was just kind of thinking about it. I think you should be the guy.” And I thought, “What do you mean, the guy? What guy? Which guy? What guy are you talking about?” And he said, “You know, the guy, the me, the Mike, the human; if we bring him back.” Taken aback with shock in my head, “I don’t know if I could do that…” And he’s like, “Oh, no, no, no, man…” I almost didn’t know what to say, “No, it’s just that that’s all I’ve ever wanted…” He almost seemed surprised now, “Oh, really, man?” As if he has no idea.

Then from there, it was still a couple years before anything really got going.

So let’s expand on that surreal feeling. For example, I also do concert photography, and when Faith No More got back together, I said, “I need to shoot that show, since they were everything to me, growing up.” Then I got the confirmation email and the wording said, “You’re on the band’s list.” Sure, I know they didn’t put me on there themselves, but the idea that Faith No More has a guest list, and I’m on it.

So, I imagine you must have some similar feelings when I see an email from your rep about what time we would be talking stating, “He’ll be coming out of the MST3K writers room.”

Ad – content continues below

Yeah. [LAUGHTER] All of it is very, very surreal and it’s been kind of a constant… I think. I don’t know why I’m not better at it because ever since I started doing comedy, it’s been one little weird surreal thing after the next. I started doing open mics and Sarah Silverman saw me and said one of my jokes was really funny. You know, I just was, “Wow. That’s all I needed. That’s all I need. I can go home now.”

And then you do another thing and then you know, I started it with Scott Aukerman in 2002. Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, who are from Mr. Show. From Mr. Show! They said, “Hey, we’re going to start this new comedy show in Hollywood. You should come and perform on it and hang out.” And that would become Comedy Bang! Bang!

It’s like all these little things happened because of The Nerdist. I got to meet Mel Brooks and I also have gotten to work and write sketches with Weird Al and it’s just a nonstop weird thing and it all feels fake. It all feels like when I was 14, I hit my head and this feels as if… I’m still in a coma.

Well, let’s talk about Nerdist, because the “Nerd” culture is really taking over the mainstream, and through your work with Nerdist, I’m sure you’re used to hearing about stream of backlashes where people think their precious memories are going to be destroyed by a new iteration of something they loved. Do you worry about being the target of some people’s ire?

Nothing but. But no, you know, that was the weird thing, to go from just being part of the unwashed masses of… Unwashed masses, that sounds like a derogatory term… What I mean is, I was just another guy that would talk about MST3K with Joel and Mike and I was just another guy. I was just another fan that would talk about it and then I got the point where It was my favorite show. It was my favorite show, and then to have the opportunity to host it which was all I really ever wanted when I was getting into comedy, it was that.

I had a meeting when I first started doing comedy and they’re like, “What would you want to do?” I said, “I want to host Mystery Science Theater.” They said, “Well, that’s been cancelled for years.” I said, “Well, let’s bring it back.” And you know, 14 years later, I get to do it. And to all of a sudden be the guy… Like now I’m the guy that I would have made fun of. I’m the guy that if I was picked… If someone like me was picked, I’d be all, “Oh, who’s that dude? Screw that dude.”

Ad – content continues below

It’s the same thing I did when Mike took over. And even though I knew he was a writer on the show, I mean, he was Torgo from Torgo’s Pizza. You know, I knew he was there. I would complain about him. I would tell a lot of these guys that were coming down on me and saying I was going to ruin it, I thought, “How do you think I feel? I can’t complain about the new guy.”

One of the things I’ve been doing for 30 years is talking about if that guy’s going to be good at playing Wolverine, or you know, it should have been Glenn Danzig. I still think so. I still think… Even though… [LAUGHTER] Hugh Jackman’s great, I still think a little bit it could have been Danzig as Wolverine. But those are still the things I like to talk about and to have… Not be able to be able to do it and have to kind of defend myself from a bunch of people, just like me, was really surreal.

What is tougher for you to grasp at this point, writing the riffs, or getting the backstory and live action comedy ready?

Well, right now we’re just writing the riffs which I had no idea how crazy hard it is and it’s a lot of fun and it’s really fulfilling and it’s a dream come true, but it’s a lot of work, man. To get through 10 minutes of a movie is most of a day. You’re just crawling through these things.

Me and Baron Vaughn [the new Tom Servo] were talking about how we underestimated how hard our heroes worked on this show. But that’s why it was so good. That’s why it stood the test of time because of how hard it is to do it well and how they did it perfectly and that’s the thing that’s hitting me right now. And I’m sure it will be every time we move forward more in production because we’re not shooting anything until September, I think, and so we’re just writing right now, trying to find the best combination of jokes because you can’t do a bunch of character voice jokes in a row, you have to kind of dice it up with a comeback joke or a song or a, you know… a conversation, or a larger bit where it’s better to mime than be talking, so yeah, it’s all just a really neat, awesome learning process.

So none of the live action bits have been scripted yet?

Ad – content continues below

Well, no, we have those… We have what’s going on there and it’s like sketch writing almost, and everyone kind of has the outline of what the bits are going to be and what the adventures are going to be and stuff like that and then from there, it’s just kind of punching up and filling out and writing jokes and stuff like that.

That stuff is somewhat a little more fun because you have a bit more leeway within it. You’re not working with a confined amount of time. If you have a longer joke, you can put it into the sketches. If you have a longer joke in a movie and someone starts to talk, you’re done. You can’t use that joke.

Now you also have another new show premiering on the online service Seeso, called Hidden America. Do me a favor, and just give your own quick description of the show before we go any further.

Hidden America is a travel show parody. It’s a travelogue show parody where the places are real, but the people aren’t.

Ok, perfect, because I didn’t want to spoil it if it wasn’t supposed to be known as a parody. I watched the Boston episode and as it started, I thought maybe it was going to be a real travel show, and then I saw Jill Talley, speaking of Mr. Show, and Kevin Meaney; then it all started making sense.

You know, I wrote the thing, the pilot, which was the New Orleans episode on my own and I pretty much was able to formulate the show with the help of Troy Miller, the director also from Mr. Show and Flight of the Concords. But he gave me so much leeway to make exactly what I wanted to make and he just was so down for the idea and me and supported me so well that I was able to kind of just really finally kind of try and make the thing I wanted to make, a dry… You know, sometimes… The dream was that it was on actual television, someone would be flipping through the channels and see what looks like a travel show and then be sorely mistaken after a while.

Ad – content continues below

As if someone thought maybe you were becoming Michael Palin.

Yeah, and that was the idea. That’s why we kind of started.

We didn’t give my a character name. We just kind of named me Jonah. I do kind of play a character, but we didn’t want people think I was someone else, like Hidden America with Tony Fidduci. You know, we didn’t want to make it an obvious parody right away and even a lot of comedy friends of mine, they still ask, “Oh, how’s the travel show going? What did you eat? Oh, if you ever go to this town, you got to eat those. You should do a bit on this place.” And I go, “Well, I’ll make a bit out of the idea of that place, but I won’t actually film a segment there.”

Yeah, but it was fun to kind of have this idea and then working with the writers who are all so amazing and kind of expanding the idea of what some of the segments could be. That was a blast. Once we got to the writing part of it, it was a little bit of a fight to see what worked. And it was a bunch of people in the room going, “I don’t think this show would do that necessarily…” And you know, pissing everybody off. But it was trying to find a cohesive version of every sketch that could exist also within the world of the episode that could also exist in the world of the series in general.

Was it also your dream to have a travel show? Was that something that made this the right idea to produce?

No, it was basically, I love parody. I love Mel Brooks, I love kind of playing within the world of a pre-existing style and I also love sketch comedy and I like the idea of kind of playing with the parameters of sketch and narrative as well as parody shows.

Ad – content continues below

So it was kind of like it was just a combination of a way to kind of also show off a bunch of funny bits and then kind of have them seem like you don’t restart every time a sketch ends in those sketch shows which I think Comedy Bang! Bang! does so great with the idea that it’s a talk show, but it turns into all this other stuff. And you know, that’s what I love so much about the Alan Partridge special, Places of My Life. I mean, that was the main inspiration for this… Just about those kind of narcissistic, egomaniacal guy that’s not smart enough or good enough to be hosting a travel show, but trying so hard to be good and so hard to look smart and intellectual and Bourdain like.

…And it is very Bourdain like.

Yeah, and I love Bourdain so much. This is kind of  tip of the hat to that. It’s almost a celebration of how much I love his show and the look and him and stuff like that. But what you notice since Bourdain is that there’s been so many guys that think they can do exactly what he does and they can’t because they haven’t lived how he has and they don’t know how to write how he does and they don’t know how to drink and pontificate like he does.

You get all these copycat guys that think they can do… They’re just like, “Yeah, I can go around and act real smart and eat food and drink.” No, you can’t. That guy can do it because that’s what he does. That’s his life and I like the idea of kind of making fun of those Bourdain wannabe guys that are just not talented enough to pull off what he does.

You can find Hidden America on Seeso right now. Mystery Science Theater 3000 will return in 2017.