Jonah Ray Explains Why 'Mac And Me' Beat Out 'The Room' And 'Plan 9' For 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' [Interview]

Over Thanksgiving, we had new Mystery Science Theater 3000 for which to be thankful. Netflix dropped a new season of six episodes, titledĀ The Gauntlet. Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) and the robots were forced to watch six movies back to back and riff on them, although Netflix allowed people to watch them movie by movie.

Those movies included Mac and Me, the infamous McDonald's and Coca-Cola produced E.T. ripoff, Asylum's knockoff Atlantic Rim, the Roger Corman Abyss knockoff Lords of the Deep, The Day Time Ended, Killer Fish and Ator, the Fighting Eagle. All had plenty of opportunities to drop running gags like "Look out for snakes," "Pretty nice" and sing some song parodies.

Now that we're all back at work, Ray spoke with /Film by phone about some of the specific jokes in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet, plans for next season, and what kind of movies he'd never do on MST3K.

Mac and Me may be the first time I've heard of a movie before it was on MST3K. What was the decision to do a more well known title?

Well, Netflix kind of was pushing for marquee movies. They wanted something with some name recognition, kind of like when they did Mystery Science Theater: The Movie and they did This Island Earth which was a Universal film. That was a big studio film when it came out. I think they were looking for something in the same vein, what is considered a good bad movie. Mac and Me truly falls in there and I'm sure was other titles bandied about, such as Plan 9 or The Room or stuff like that. Mac and Me is such a specifically great movie of that era, it just felt right. Especially because last year, one of our bigger movies or one of the more popular episodes was Cry Wilderness. That was something to the effect of people of my generation that grew up watching Mystery Science Theater but weren't really familiar with the movies they were doing because they were from a different generation. Movies like Cry Wilderness are very akin to Mac and Me, all the ripoff of "A boy and something," A boy and some kind of beast, a boy and an alien or a boy and a dog. There were a couple of those elements that led to us picking a movie like that.

Did Mac and Me lend itself to more movie references than most movies? You had "O'Doyle rules," "Give me back my son," The Year We Made Contact, Meatballs II, Rocky, Vacation and tons of others.

We do those in every episode. "Give me back my son" was something that I put into The Christmas That Almost Wasn't last season but it was taken out because in the context, it seemed so aggressive. There was this evil guy, during an enjoyable moment from him, but he turned this child around really violently in this shot and I threw in the "Give me back my son!" Those have always been around. I think people picked up on it because of the familiarity in the era of movie and the references themselves. "O'Doyle rules" was in Yongary last season when there's a car going off the cliff.

Did every writer have pitches for Mac and Me?

I mean, yeah, that's kind of how we write the show. Everybody works on it. Everybody watches the movie on their own and writes a riff. Then we all get into the writers room and pitch those riffs and make more riffs and do a room pass on the stuff. Yeah, everybody's involved in that aspect. When your job is to write on the show, you can't go, "No, I'm going to sit this one out." Which we all would have loved to do for Atlantic Rim.

So no more than usual just because it was Mac and Me.

No, I think people go, "You guys really tried hard and did a good job with Mac and Me." People think we will try more or less on any given episode which is ridiculous because we're all comedy writers. We're going to try our best to write as many jokes. It's just that Mac and Me, it's for the most part a really well done movie, so it's giving more to us to do. If you think about a movie like The Day Time Ended, there's stuff in there but it's kind of spread out. There's not a lot to go on.

The Day Time Ended left you a lot of room for long riffs, didn't it?

Yeah, it's a real bad movie. That was probably the hardest one I think to riff because it just trudged by. It was just like oh, geez, now they've gotta go look out the window again. Ugh, now they're going up the stairs, now there's a thing that's taking its time going through the door. A lot of those moments make it harder, but the thing is with Mac and Me, it's a well paced move. It moved along really well.

Did you ever try to get the Japanese ending of Mac and Me where the kid gets shot?

What's funny about that is that's probably something that if we had that version, we would have cut out because it's a little too violent for Mystery Science Theater. We have stuff with violence, like Ator, they have violence in them but we try our best to be TV-14. Not that Mac and Me wasn't a kids movie, it's just that the kid getting shot was rightfully taken out of the American release. It's a bit much. They bring him back to life but he's still in a wheel chair.

I didn't notice the 15 minutes taken out of Mac and Me. Was it anything significant?

We try not to cut anything significant ever. We just try to cut it down for time. We still need the movie to make sense. I did a podcast with Joe Dante where he was complaining about how we cut down the movies. That's very common for movies that go on TV, this has been edited and formatted for time. We don't want to hobble the movie. We need the movie to be able to stand on its own so we can dance with it and do riffs for it. We just try to take stuff here and there that might be redundant and a little unnecessary. That dance scene in McDonald's goes on a lot longer than what we show.

With Atlantic Rim, how did you pick one Aslyum ripoff out of their entire library?

Again, Netflix wanted something current. They wanted something that would have name recognition or a pop of some sort. Considering Atlantic Rim was their larger scale ripoff of Pacific Rim which also Pacific Rim was just having a sequel come out. It was just a thing timing-wise. This is a pretty good new movie to do as opposed to Transmorphers or any of those that they did. It has giant monsters and giant robots which is very much a Mystery Science Theater thing.

Aren't they all the same so it doesn't matter which one you pick?

Yeah, I mean, we kind of just go for what it looks like on screen. Transmorphers is just giant robots, but if you go with Atlantic Rim you have monsters and robots. You have more than of course some drunk actors. And Graham Greene, that's really cool too to see such a great actor in such a low Z-grade movie.

Asylum also does Sharknado but would you not do a movie like that for MST3K because it's so obvious?

It's not that it's obvious. We can't do those movies. Those movies are self-aware. They're made to be bad. They're made to be clickbait fodder. They're purposely silly. I view doing any of the Sharknado movies like trying to riff on Top Secret or Hot Shots. They're doing a parody, or the newer Piranha movies which were done well because all the actors are taking it seriously, but it was done in a tongue in cheek way. Whereas Atlantic Rim, they're just trying to confuse grandparents to buy the wrong DVD for their grandkids. "Oh, they like the Pacific Rim." They get it confused. That's just a ploy whereas Sharknado was made essentially fro the Internet generation to live tweet and watch ironically.

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Did you discover the whole cast of Lords of the Deep looked like other more famous people?

Yeah, that's one of those movies where it's a lot of "Oh, she would have gotten this role." What's funny too is [Priscilla Barnes] in Lords of the Deep was the one who took over for Suzanne Somers in Three's Company. So in a sense, she was already a poor man's Suzanne Somers.

She was their one A-list star in that.

Well, Roger Corman shows up. I think he's an A-lister in the history of film.

I hadn't thought about The Dress in a few years. Have you gotten feedback that people still remember when you mention the white and gold?

It was a cultural flashpoint that puts you at a time and place. I think that stuff is very silly to throw in there. It's just like saying, "Where's the beef?" or "Time to make the donuts."

What made you think it was time to say "I have nothing but regrets" instead of "I regret nothing?"

"I regret nothing," we've done it a ton. We threw in an "I regret nothing" for the live show. Sometimes you just want to change it up a bit. For the character, for them to say, "I have nothing but regrets" is such a sad take on "I regret nothing" which is such a positive bravado. "I have nothing but regrets" is so full of sadness. Sadness is always really funny to me.

Could steak milk become a thing?

I hope not. That would be a terrible thing to do to the animal, to your body and to the environment. I think Elliott Kalan really liked the steak milk thing, or it might've been Joel [Hodgson]. I was like, "All right, we're really going all in on this steak milk bit. Let's do it." That's the fun of trusting the people you work with. Also, Elliott and I, when some of writers were like, "Are we doing too much of 'pretty nice'?" Elliott and I were like, "No, there's not enough 'pretty nice' in Mac and Me."

For all the times they call out Jenny in The Day Time Ended, was there no room for a Forrest Gump reference?

Well, now you're just kind of critiquing what you would have done on the show. The terrible part of doing a show is, "Why didn't you do this?" A lot of people were upset that we didn't mention Paul Rudd and Conan O'Brien in Mac and Me because they had kind of co-opted the wheelchair falling off the cliff thing. When you get to riff The Day Time Ended, feel free to do as many Forrest Gump references as you want.

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to critique it. I was more interested in the creative process.

Oh, totally. It never occurred to me and you're totally right. It's also how do you pull off a Forrest Gump Jenny. I'd have to go back in. I don't know. Thinking about it now, you are completely right.

It's not like I'm pitching you a better line. I just thought of another movie with a Jenny.

Yeah, also, we did 867-5309. Now that you brought up Jenny my brain is now turning into, "Oh, we kind of dropped the ball on a couple Jenny references" because they do yell Jenny a lot.

Killer Fish turned out to be an especially musical episode, didn't it?

We popped in a song a couple times like we did in season 11, into the riffs. That was a lot of fun. Also just getting Rebecca Hanson, because she has such a great voice, to be able to showcase that in a song was a lot of fun.

When you sing "Jenny" or "Starman," do you have to clear those songs?

No, you don't because it's parody. It's commentary or you're using something in the context of referencing it in commentaries. There's all these little rules with that stuff that you're allowed to wiggle around when it comes to comedy.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return Season 2

How do you decide who gets the line between you and the robots?

You write all the riffs into our script and then there's kind of a line assign. That's done kind of at random but there is a second pass. It would be so much to take every line and go, "Who should do this? Who should do this? Who should do this?" But, as we go through it, once all the line assignments are in, we do start tossing stuff back and forth. It's like this line is a bit more of a Tom Servo line. This is kind of chaotic and angry. Let's give Crow this line. I'll get a lot more commenting on stuff just because I don't have to do a voice and we can cut real quick and fast. That does kind of happen as we're going through them at the end of the line.

With Killer Fish, was there a debate as to whether making fun of Margeaux Hemingwy's lisp was fair game?

You know, I didn't feel the most comfortable with it, but everyone else seemed to be okay with it. It's not the nicest thing to do, I'll be honest. I can't defend it but it was fun.

Well, SNL always did Barbara Walters.

Yeah, Baba Wawa. There is something to it where you're kind of making fun of the lisp but at the same time you're just speaking as the character. Let's say some guy has a southern accent or a German accent, or someone is drunk all the time like some of the actors in Atlanta Rim. We're just going to try and talk like them to add the lines or the riffs that we want to. It's more about coming into the idea of sounding like them to comment on the movie or situation more so. But sometimes you're just making lisp jokes.

I noticed The Day Time Ended was cropped from a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and it's probably not the first time you've had a widescreen movie. Was that a decision that had been established a while ago on MST3K?

When we were writing the riffs on it, the file we had was a really terrible print. So they started really working on trying to find a better print. The way it pan and scans, that was because the best looking print of the movie we could find was the version like that. Again, we still need these movies to look good. They can't be hard to look at because people have to be engaged for 90 minutes along with our silliness. We try our best to get as good of a print of the movie as we can. Just the way it turned out with that one, that was the style that we were able to get which still wasn't that good.

I don't think I've ever seen a widescreen letterboxed movie on MST3K, have we?

The theatrical movie, This Island Earth is letterboxed I believe on home video but that was a theatrical release. I think it's just the print we got. It's the way we got it.

When you go to the movies and watch a movie, do you watch in complete silence or can you not help but riff a little?

No. It's funny, I went to see a 3D conversion of the original Dawn of the Dead a couple weeks ago at the Aero out here in L.A. It was great. The Beyond Fest guys and Cinematic Void presented it. Greg Nicotero was there, a ton of die hard fans. It's one of my favorite movies of all time. It was a beautiful 3D conversion. I sat next to my friend Joe Lynch, the director who's made a bunch of great movies. He just got done watching Mac and Me twice with a kid. He sat next to me, we're old buds, and he kept wanting to say stuff to me. I was trying to be like, "Joe, I'm the last guy that should be allowed to be seen talking in a movie." I remember one time when the last season came out, I sat down and some guy was like, "Ugh, here we go." Someone really thought like in all movies I laugh. I like riffing on movies in the context of the show, but in reality I'm not an *sshole.

Do you have a wish list for next season?

The thing is, the movies I really like are either too bad or they're too violent for the show. This past season I really wanted to do Maximum Overdrive because we're in a Stephen King renaissance and it would be so rad to have that movie. It's so fun and so silly and so cool. It's a little violent, but we didn't end up doing it. I was able to do the commentary with Ryan Turek, the producer of Halloween, on the Blu-ray of Maximum Overdrive. The Everything is Terrible people found this movie called Get Even but everyone refers to it as Geteven because the printing on the title page is so bad. It's just this guy, almost in the same vein as Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen or the guy who did Miami Connection [Y.K. Kim]. This guy was a trial attorney in L.A. and he funded and directed, wrote, starred and made music for his own movie. It's real bad and we had a blast watching it. Those movies are kind of too bad to put on.

Do they fall into the self-parody category like Sharknado?

Respectfully, I think you're wrong. I don't think they're trying to make a bad movie. Sharknado, they're trying to make a bad movie. No one on it is taking it seriously. These guys are really trying their best to make a movie. I went and saw John De Hart talk after Geteven. The guy was really self-serious and pretentious. I saw one of the first screenings in L.A. of Birdemic and this guy really was surprised to hear people laughing. I think they become aware of the culture afterwards, but I really think they're trying their best. That's what makes a really great MST movie sometimes. People are trying their best. They're not trying to be like, "Wouldn't it be funny if we did this?" which is essentially what Sharknado movies are. Movies that are supposed to be bad on purpose is a waste of everyone's time.

Would another example of that be like Machete? They're trying to make a bad grindhouse movie.

That one's tricky because it is schlocky on purpose, but it also I think can go into the world of parody a little bit more than Sharknado. At least it's done with a steady hand of talent like Robert Rodriguez only can, where he really loves that. I think that's the difference. Machete, these guys love those movies. I don't think the people making Sharknado love those types of movies. They don't like giant monster movies. They don't like these sci-fi blockbusters. It's all about the heart that is put into it and the intent that I think can really change the outcome of it. Sharknado is done cynically where Machete was done for the love of that style of movies, with a lot of talent behind it.

You have Patton Oswalt in live-action segments. Does he ever want to riff movies with you?

Of course, he would love to. I know Felicia [Day] would go crazy for it. There's been ideas bandied about, ways to get them in there for riffing which they did in the old show too. There was a Forrester and Frank once riffed part of a movie, or maybe it was Pearl. It's been done before and I'd really love to see Patton and Felicia in there riffing on movies.