Felicia Day And Jonah Ray On Returning Mystery Science Theater 3000 To Its Scrappy Roots [Interview]

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" started in the mind of show creator Joel Hodgson before debuting on KTMA in Minnesota in 1988, with the show eventually moving to The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) for several lucrative seasons, and then shunting over to the Sci-Fi Channel (later SyFy) to wrap up its run, before returning on Netflix (still Netflix) for two additional seasons. Now, "MST3K" has been rescued once again, this time by Kickstarter backers, so that it may make its debut on its very own streaming service called The Gizmoplex

The Gizmoplex is debuting the first new episode on May 6, 2022, which will feature the "MST3K" cast from its two Netflix years — most notably Jonah Ray and Felicia Day, reprising their roles as Jonah Heston and Dr. Kinga Forrester, respectively. It will also feature the cast of comedians that toured the country to perform live shows, including Emily Marsh, previously seen during marathons and riff-along YouTube specials

Backed by Kickstarter money, and broadcasting on its very own streaming service, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is coming back to its homemade comedy roots, allowing for an environment wherein the actors and writers can feel a little bit more free and relaxed. /Film sat down with Felicia Day and Jonah Ray to talk about the differences between working on a large-scale production vs. a more personal one, as well as the fineries of acting and comedy.  

'A scared, hairy boy'

"Mystery Science Theater" started in 1988. It had gone through many, many seasons. It had gone through several iterations. You came in late in the game. Was joining a legacy like this at all threatening?

Felicia Day: I was super nervous. And being a Mad ... When I told my brother ... My brother is hardcore. It was the one thing that unified us, me and my brother, watching "MST3K." Otherwise, we hated each other and hit each other and fought to constantly. But "MST3K" was the one thing that we'd be like, "Let's sit down and watch this together." And it really formed our sense of humor and the core part of our relationship. So when I told him I'm going to be a Mad, he was like, "What?" I could not have been cooler.

But it was intimidating. And the funny thing is when you hear Joel's voice — he has such an iconic voice — whenever he talks to me, I just don't even know if... I'm time traveling. His voice has such quality to it that I'm like, "Is he here? Or am I watching you on TV?" It was so cool.

Jonah Ray: Time is a flat circle. So both of them could be true! ... I was, as I've said to Felicia before, I was petrified. I was very, very scared because the show meant so much to me and I didn't want this to go badly. I look at sometimes an episode from the first Netflix season and I just see a scared boy. A scared, hairy boy just hoping that it works out. But ... to be a fan is to know what it is to be a fan. And to know what that was like. "Man, I don't know. I've said some pretty nasty stuff about remakes in my time." 

It was scary, but because there was a lot of us that were new there, I think we all took care of each other. And I think that was very important for us to be supportive of each other and champion each other and be there.

'When you look stupid is when it's the funniest'

Was there ever a point where you realized that the fear was melting away and you were getting a little more comfortable? Or are you still nervous to this day?

Felicia Day: The great thing about this season is that there's a lower scale to it. It was an amazing record-setting Kickstarter, but the shows themselves were done on a smaller scale that was a lot more organic to what "MST3K" is. And being from web video, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I can handle this scale." So the crews were smaller, not only because of Covid, but because just of the way that they were shooting. We were on green screen. There were fewer people on set. It was a more intimate, spontaneous atmosphere. There was not a Netflix to approve the script so we could change stuff on the fly if it didn't work. And it was a lot more collaborative. And really, I think it has the spirit of the original show a lot more than the last two seasons.

And so I just loved getting on stage and knowing that I could do it, whatever the hell I want. And Jonah actually directed a lot of the segments that I was in as a performer. And we've known each other for a long [time]. I just trusted that he wouldn't let me look stupid. I'm like, "If you think it was funny, let's go with it." 

Jonah Ray: Which usually is when you look stupid, is when it would be the funniest.

Felicia Day: Thank you. 

Jonah Ray: And that's the one I would always... That's the take I would use.

Felicia Day: Yeah. Cool.

Jonah Ray: Yeah. But I think this is the season that... I think because of that Kickstarter and seeing how many new people had donated to it. I think it was more than half of the people who donated to the last Kickstarter didn't donate to the one before. And so that made me at least kind of go, "Oh. These are people that want our version. They want more of our version." That was a very confidence-instilling moment. So it's like, "More of us? This is the money for us to make the thing?" It's like, "Sure. Okay. Let's do it." And having a bit more of that confidence.

And just like Felicia said, the way it was, we came in knowing each other better, knowing each other's strengths as performers and comedy chops and just being able to go, "I don't know. What do you think? What can we do to make this a little better?" Coming in with a bit of a steadier hand. And knowing the sillier we were, the more fun we were having, it almost doesn't matter what happens after that. And hopefully, it reads. Because that's not true for all. When you have a fun set doesn't necessarily always mean it's going to come across. But I think these have been. There's a bit of an unwieldiness. Yeah.

'We're all eating the same Tostitos'

Would you agree that this is maybe going a little bit back to "MST3K's" roots in a way? That a "big" production of "Mystery Science Theater" seems almost antithetical to the spirit of the thing?

Jonah Ray: Yeah. I was confused by the size. I remember walking onto those sets for the Netflix seasons: Gigantic sound stages. Which in itself is exciting, and you're going on to a lot — It's show biz! You're walking around and I'm in the jumpsuit, and you're in your costume. And you're like, "Oh, this is like in 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure.' When the centurions are walking by, and the spacemen and cowboys." And it feels like show biz, and it's super fun.

But it's also antithetical to what the show is. We're not too dissimilar from the movies we're watching. We're just some scrappy people trying to make some entertainment, trying to make some people happy. And we're no better than the movies we're watching. We're just having fun with them. And we should embrace what they embraced, which is, a lack of major resources. And just swinging for the fences. And that's what it felt like this time. It did feel like how [the original cast] would make it. And I remember, even on that second season. When Joel was talking about this season, I was like, "We can bring it way down." And I was trying to tell him, I was like, "Me and Felicia, we come from web videos and sketches and DIY."

Felicia Day: I would rather be on a set that has nothing. We're all eating the same Tostitos. That's fine. Honestly, I realize about myself I'd rather be on a low scale where people's spontaneity can come out. There's less management, there's less intimidation. There's just less.

Jonah Ray: Yeah. When there's 70 people on set and you're just trying to go, "Okay. Sorry. Keep on messing that line up. All right. Let's do it again. Action. [Robustly exaggerated] "What do you mean?" And then just some guy, some gaffer, some union guy, just waiting to get off, just waiting. 

Felicia Day: This was a union production, but yeah.

'We're just kind of odd'

Now that you sort of have this freedom to be a little bit more relaxed and do things at your own pace, are you starting to think ahead?

Felicia Day: I think the Gizmoplex itself ... Jonah and I aren't in charge of finding the financing or making more episodes or any of that. The vision that Joel has for the Gizmoplex is pretty impressive. And it is a living, breathing entity, in a way. So people can get on there and chat with each other. They can talk to each other. Where they watch an episode, there's going to be live streams with cast and creators, all that stuff. And I think it's really brilliant in a new media way to build community and have that sort of spontaneity.

Jonah Ray: Yeah. And I feel that's seeing what people gravitate towards, what people like. It's going to help us almost in a live comedy way of "How does this score? Hey, when we did that thing, there was a good response. Okay. Let's lean towards that thing that got the good response."

And now we can have that feedback almost in real-time with this stuff to pivot, as opposed to chunking an entire season and going "Hope you like it the way it is." And yeah, we've shot all these [episodes], but moving forward, we're going to get this ... real-time feedback and it's good. I think it's going to be very, very good for the show. We've still sped up the process of this season to try and get it out within the timeline of what we set with the Kickstarter and whatnot. And so I do think if and when we get to do more, we're going to try and really expand what it is, to what the show can be.

This is more of an acting question: I know a lot of "MST3K" characters are extrapolated from extant stage personae; Joel Robinson is based on Joel Hodgson, for example. How much of yourselves were you permitted to bring into your roles? And how much it was study and getting into character and really delving into the past of Kinga and Jonah Heston?

Felicia Day: I have tomes of backstory for Kinga that I've actually written a book on her backstory. It's her diaries from when she was 10 to 12 years old. I'm writing them in Wattpad.

No, I definitely ... watched my "relatives" [in the clan Forrester]. And I tried to be a little broader, a little more expansive, a little bit more out-of-control. And it certainly was not something that fit me like a glove. I really had to work at being ... because I have a different style of acting. I hadn't really done as much sketch and stuff and it was super fun to just let it go. Patton Oswalt was really key in helping me find that. Because it really was him setting that energy tone and me kind of, "Oh, I want to match him." And I needed to be bigger than him because I need to be in charge of him. So having him at this level allowed me to aim for that level.

And this season. Oh my ... We're just kind of odd. We just went crazy. We're just a little out of control in a good way. I'm like, "Is it broad enough, Jonah?" And he's like, "Go with it." And I was like, "Nice."

'No one's done goofy before'

Jonah Ray: Super silly. There's a lot of the nerdiest aspects of Felicia now being funneled through the chaotic anger of Kinga in this season that I really, really love.

Felicia Day: I feel like I've really found Kinga this season in a way that we haven't before. And it's mostly just being just as silly and broad and not even caring what is on screen. Just really just inhabiting the character in a way that I really appreciate.

Jonah Ray: And I really love how you let yourself cry immediately a lot with the character. A small thing going wrong ... And then this anger! And because the fun thing I like about Kinga this season is that it's yet another attempt to get something going. And it's that desperation is really starting to kind of trickle in and the emotions are kind of getting in the way. I think it's super fun. [As for] Jonah Heston: I was super nervous and excited to be there and I figured I might as well utilize that. And because I hadn't seen that [before]. Joel's this guy and he's the father figure. And Mike is just this Midwest dry ... His dryness and flatness of his delivery is just perfect. It's one of my favorites. And I figured, well, no one's done goofy/excited to be there. That was my approach to it. If I'm already super excited to be there, I might as well use some of that through the character.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" season 13 premieres May 6, 2022, on The Gizmoplex.