On a warm night in late September, a young man named Jonah Ray stands at the center of a mock space station in a yellow jumpsuit, flanked on either side by two robot puppets. This can only mean one thing: production on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” Season 11 is in full swing.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” or “MST3K” as it’s been dubbed by its fans, was a cult TV series created by Joel Hodgson that first appeared on a Minneapolis UHF station in the late 1980s. The story, or what passed for one, was that a guy is trapped aboard a space station called the Satellite of Love with two wisecracking robot companions named Tom Servo and Crow.
In each episode, they stay sane by providing a running joke commentary to a terrible B-movie they are forced to watch by a mad scientist. The show was particularly popular in the Midwest, given that most of the people who worked on the show were from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. While any given episode featured a wide range of jokes, it also mixed in plenty of one-liners about the Green Bay Packers and the frozen wasteland that is Minneapolis. It would go on to air 10 seasons between both Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) for a total of 197 episodes and a feature film. Now, following a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, Hodgson is bringing the show back for an 11th season on Netflix with Ray as the new host.
On the set, which looks like a cross between a hobby shop and Frankenstein’s lab, props are being assembled on every flat surface. The old show was famous for taking toys, models and other knick-knacks and integrating them in unconventional ways. Hodgson is clearly keeping that tradition going.
But not everything is the same, of course. The new Satellite of Love set retains the almost-homemade quality of the original while still looking brand-new and better lit. Likewise, the mad scientists in the series — who will be played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt — will no longer be based at the secret underground lab known as Deep 13. Instead, they will transmit all their cheesy movies from a moon base known as Moon 13.
Around the corner, Ray and the entire crew are hard at work. Everyone is working at break-neck speed trying to get the show finished on schedule. Presiding over everything with the watchful eye of a concerned parent is Hodgson, who stands just off-camera watching Ray and the puppeteers. He steps in to make adjustments here and there, coaching Ray through host segments that span multiple episodes.
“Man, I’m tired,” says Hodgson. “We have a really tight schedule. We recorded like 40 pages today, 45 pages yesterday.”
He says he’s thrilled to be back with the crew, comprised of those who worked on the original show (right down to prop designer Beth “Beez” McKeever) along with new rising stars like Ray, Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount, who provide the voices of Servo and Crow respectively. “Everybody is taking everything and improving the work,” he says. “It’s coming out better than I expected. So many talented people really love the show and want to make it better.”
Case in point: Ray shoots multiple takes of a segment involving an axe-throwing contest, bringing the same energy and humor to every single take. Fans have been curious as to how Ray will measure up to the previous two hosts, but from the looks of things, he is bringing a love to the show that only a fan can. “I just remember seeing the silhouettes,” Ray says of his first memories of the show. “A lot of people I’ve talked to, they say that was the first thing they saw. I was still really young and I had to explain it to my friends and it doesn’t make sense when you tell somebody about it. ‘It’s like a puppet show, I guess?’”
But his obsession with this “puppet show” saw him trading tapes of every single episode with a friend. He also convinced his uncle to drive him 30 miles to see the “Mystery Science Theater” movie in theaters.
Years later, he met Hodgson when Hodgson was a guest on the Nerdist podcast, which Ray co-hosts. A few chance meetings followed, and the conversations they had led Hodgson to ask for Ray’s phone number from Nerdist creator Chris Hardwick. Shortly thereafter, Hodgson began calling Ray on a regular basis.
“It seemed just innocent at the time,” Ray says. “He would call me every couple of months and talk about comedy, ask about stuff I was working on. He started dropping things like, ‘I’m thinking of bringing [“MST3K”] back. If there was a good way to do it, I’d bring it back…’ It became a thing where he’d say, ‘You’ll work on it somehow. Maybe you’ll be a writer on it.’ Then maybe a year and a half ago he called me and said, ‘I’m thinking you’re the guy, you know, the me, the Mike, the human.’”
Talk about a Hollywood dream come true.
Flash forward now nearly five months to the famous Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd. in February 2017. A sea of people wearing “MST3K” shirts and costumes fill the theater as they prepare to watch the very first episode of Season 11 at a special premiere event.
As the theater fills up, Joel makes his way to the front of the crowd to introduce the episode. For all the fans in the room, this is the culmination of a journey that has lasted over a year. Hodgson first announced the Kickstarter campaign in November 2015, and now here they are, months later, preparing to watch the first episode. From the applause in the room, it’s clear they’re far from disappointed.
After the episode ends, Hodgson and the cast sit down for a Q&A with the fans. Most people, in lieu of questions, simply want to tell all involved how happy they are that the show is coming back. Some, though, want to bombard Hodgson with continuity questions, focusing on how this new season does not jive with the previous seasons, given that the bots got off the Satellite in the end of the original series.
Hodgson elicits a major round of applause when he tells one woman, “Repeat to yourself: ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.'”
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” Season 11 premieres on April 14 on Netflix.