Jonah Ray was the kid who watched Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Growing up, Joel Hodgson’s cult-classic show was almost like a code word for him, a way to find others who reveled in the magic of watching a janitor, trapped by mad scientists on a spaceship, who’s forced to watch utterly terrible movies with his crew of robot sidekicks.
“I think the first social-networking thing I was on was a dumb site for hipster indie kids in, like, 1999 called makeoutclub.com,” Ray recalls. “I remember even then — and it’s been on pretty much every profile or social network I’ve ever had since — I’d always mention Mystery Science Theater. It’s just a nice litmus test.”
Ray says the show even played a role in the women he chose to date.
“Pretty much every girlfriend I’ve had a serious relationship with has been a fan of MST3K,” he says. “That might sound snobby, but I don’t care.”
Ray is certainly entitled to a bit of snobbery. After all, it’s not every day you end up starring in a television series you grew up idolizing.
Before he was tapped to star in the MST3K revival that hit Netflix in April, Ray was already practicing the art of riffing on terrible movies. He made several appearances on fellow comedian Doug Benson’s The Benson Interruption, a show that takes place in actual movie theaters and, unlike MST3K, relies on improvised jokes instead of a script.
“I’ve always done bad movie nights with my friends, but when Doug started doing those shows and asking me to do them, I was so excited, because it’s something I’ve always felt I’ve been pretty good at,” Ray says. “If anything, it gave me a couple of bad habits, because Doug doesn’t care about people really knowing the movie. With [MST3K creator] Joel [Hodgson], the thing is that you’re playing along with the movie, so you can’t talk over the dialogue. He wants people to understand what’s happening in the movie.”
Hodgson’s respect for these films — despite how utterly terrible many of them are — is what sets MST3K apart from things like The Benson Interruption or the time comic Gil Ozeri live-streamed himself watching every single episode of Entourage in advance of the release of the Entourage movie.
As Ray sees it, there is definitely some love for these movies mixed in with the ridicule.
“When we were writing the new episodes, we would talk about the parts of these movies that were actually pretty cool and interesting more so than how bad they were,” he says. “There was stuff you’d point out. I remember telling all of my friends about The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t because it’s such an interesting, weird take on the Christmas movie. It’s about evictions and a lawyer helping Santa Claus. It’s just so ridiculous.”
One movie that Ray has no plans to mock is The Big Sick. Before his time aboard the spacecraft Satellite of Love, Ray and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani co-hosted The Meltdown, a weekly comedy showcase at L.A.’s Nerdmelt Showroom. Each week, Nanjiani’s wife, Emily Gordon, booked the show, which featured a mix of local talent and surprise, drop-in appearances from folks like Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle.
The Big Sick — which tells the true-life story of how Nanjiani and Gordon fell in love — is currently in theaters, representing a fortuitous confluence of timing for the Meltdown alumni.
“Man, I read reviews and I start to tear up,” Ray says. “I’m so proud of them. I feel so much immense pride every time I see someone going to see it, every time I see someone tweet about it, every time I see a good review. It’s one of the most beautiful things, and it’s really just making this tour feel so much cooler too, because it’s like I get to track what they’re up to as well.”
Of course, not every film has the good fortune to turn out like The Big Sick. For many of the movies in the new MST3K season, one gets the feeling that nothing went right — but Ray says the pitfalls between an idea’s inception and the finished product are numerous.
“I’ve worked on so many things in my career where you have this idea for something you want to make,” he says. “That idea is perfect in every way, but every step you take to making it a real thing ruins that idea.”
Fortunately, the ideas that have been swirling in Joel Hodgson’s head for nearly 30 years continue to yield gold. It’s the reason Ray fell in love with MST3K as a kid, and the reason he’s so excited to be a part of the madness now. Apparently, it’s an excitement that transcends generations.
“The really cool thing I’m seeing on this tour is that there are fans from the original series who are bringing their kids to the show, and these kids are fans from the new season. That’s so incredible to see, just talking to people after the shows and they tell me, ‘Yeah, I’ve always been a fan, but I never really got my kid to watch it, but then I showed him the new series and they really dig it.’ It’s really heartwarming to see that happening in the audience.”
MST3K Live! ‘Watch Out for Snakes!’ Tour, Wednesday, July 26, at 8 p.m. (screening Eegah) and Thursday, July 27, at 8 p.m. (screening a secret, surprise film) at the Warfield, 982 Market St.. $39.50-$49.50; axs.com