jonah ray interview

Over Thanksgiving, we had new Mystery Science Theater 3000 for which to be thankful. Netflix dropped a new season of six episodes, titled 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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