Beyond

Interview: Jonah Ray of MST3K, Nerdist, The Meltdown Talks Comedy, Chicago and Friendship

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

As we already mentioned, Jonah Ray’s recent stint at @North Bar this past weekend was fantastic, and we had a great time. With all the great standup and movie riffing, and a great audience, it’d have been hard not to. We had a little extra fun though, when Beyond Editor Marielle Shaw got the chance to sit down with Jonah and talk about his career up til now, what it’s like to be a part of something you grew up with and loved with Mystery Science Theater 3000, and what it’s been like for the actor/podcaster/musician/comedian as he’s been running from project to project. Their talk covered everything from the comedy scene to his time on The Nerdist Podcast (now ID10T) with cohosts Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira, his home state, Hawaii, and his own favorite interviews.

3CR: Hi Jonah! Thanks so much for doing this! One of the first things I wanted to ask you was if you felt like you were sort of misunderstood in the beginning of Nerdist and on through MST3K? I always thought people thought you were a jerk when you just seemed sarcastic, like most of us are here in the Midwest.

It’s funny, because I always felt that. I was talking to Bill Corbett about that. He was on Jonah Raydio a week or so ago. When I got announced, there was a ton of people tweeting me, “You’re too much of a dick to be the host of MST3K…those are nice, Midwest type people, you’re not. You’re dark and you’re mean.” In my head I was like…”did I misconstrue what I thought those guys were like?” No, that’s kinda how I felt we were doing it. I think there’s a lot to say about not swearing. When you don’t swear, people think you’re just…it’s very nice comedy, but when you think about Weird Al–some of his songs are incredibly dark, like tying people up in a basement, you know? All those crazy, acoustic songs he does, the prettier the song, the darker the subject material.

I missed Weird Al last time he was in town!

I got my tickets–I bought them immediately for the Self-Indulgence Tour. It’s funny because I got the tickets and then Liam Gallagher announced a show at the Greek. I’m a big Oasis fan but same night, can’t do it. It’s always Weird Al first above all else.

That’s a good policy.

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

I know Kumail Nanjiani has done a lot of standup in Chicago and got his start here–have you done much in Chicago, like run the rooms?

Not necessarily. I’ve never really done the road too much. I came out here once with Nerdist when we did the Vic, which was awesome, and I came out here for Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows, which was of course, great. I love this place. I came here and shot an episode of my old show, Hidden America–we did an episode in Chicago. I love this town. It’s a great comedy town and a ton of my friends in comedy are from here. My wife is from here.

That’s right! I’d forgotten!

Yeah she’s from Highwood, so from the ‘burbs. And everyone always assumed I was from Chicago, which was always just I think an attack on my drinking.

I think they might get the impression you’re from here from the sarcasm. I mean, it snows on April 20th. You have to be kinda like “It’s O-KAY!” That belongs here.

Yeah that Midwest like…it’s just sarcasm. Sarcasm was born in the Midwest and I think it’s perfected here. It’s a communicative version of saying what you mean. You know, in the South, they’ll say “Everything’s great!” but they sound like they mean it when deep down inside they don’t. When a Midwesterner goes “Well, everything’s GREAT!” you know what they mean. It’s a very performative city–the whole Midwest, too. You’ve gotta move around to keep warm.

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

Do you have a sense of what’s different between the LA comedy scene and Chicago?

LA comedy is hard to define, because it’s always inundated with outsiders. No one’s really from there. I started there and I know other people who started there, but it’s hard to give it a definitive style as much as New York or Chicago. New York has this very “metrop0litan” style. You’ve got John Mulaney, Max Silvestri or even Mike Birbiglia a little bit, and it’s very specific. Like, “Now I’ve never been to the opera but I can surely tell you it’s the best thing ever.” Sipping martinis with a whip of a tongue. Chicago is more of this thing I’ve always read as incredulous wonder. TJ [Miller] had it, Matt Braunger, Kumail has it, Pete Holmes…where it’s just like this “WHAT? What are you talking about? This thing is GREAT!” It’s this big bombastic…they’re almost angry with how awesome or crazy something is.

I know you love music–do you still have a band? And what got you into comedy vs. music? According to some of the bios I’ve been reading you came from Hawaii to be in a band but then you got into comedy instead.

It’s funny because I’ve seen that in my bio, too. It’s alway such a weird thing. Like, “He gave up on music.” But I grew up playing in bands. When I moved to LA it was all I really knew, so I hung out with the bands and toured with them as a roadie, but the whole point of coming to LA was to do comedy. I love music and I try to keep up with it. I’ve worked at record stores, and it’s always been such a huge part of my life. Recently, a friend of mine, Denver Dalley, who plays with Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos and Har Mar Superstar, who’s actually in the Bonehead Band in MST–he was in town for a while and so was my friend Cody Votolato, who’s from a band called Blood Brothers that I grew up being obsessed with. He was staying in LA for a bit and we were like “Hey, let’s jam!” so we played a couple of shows and we recorded something, but since we recorded none of us have been in the same city. It’s kind of a fun band and we’ll do it whenever we’re around. I like it. I love playing the drums and I do miss it. But yeah, comedy and performing was always kind of–even when I was in bands growing up, everyone would be buying records, I’d be buying SNL and MST3K VHS tapes and stuff like that.

Yeah, hearing you talk now it seems obvious you didn’t give up anything but those bios definitely did read differently.

Yeah, sometimes people take what sounds more interesting. I was 20 when I started doing standup and the idea that some kid was in bands–some hipster that was in bands is now doing comedy, which now is probably more common than anything else, but back then I guess it was something a manager thought sounded cool.

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw

When did you start with Nerdist?

We started back in 2010. Super Bowl 2010. I was 28. By the time we started, I’d been doing comedy for a while. I started doing comedy in 2002. I’d already been doing standup for a while and I’d been writing on shows–The Andy Milonakis Show and some other stuff. That was another [weird] thing–the idea that Chris plucked two random nerds out of obscurity to start this podcast that’d become this monolith. I was already a working writer/comic and making videos and directing stuff for the show [that Chris Hardwick worked on.] He was hosting Web Soup on G4 and he and the guys were looking for writers and directors for sketches and stuff. Those guys, and Chris, vouched for me. Though Matt was working at an Apple Store.

I do remember that.

Matt’s story is like–that’s the people’s champion right there. He was kind of doing standup and he was always so funny when I saw him, but he wasn’t really doing it full time. He was just kind of living his life. The exposure that we both got from the podcast was incredible, but for Matt it really just was insane.

Is Nerdist what got you into Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s revival? Was it the Joel Hodgson episode?

Yeah, you know, and same with Matt–he’s a writer on the Goldbergs now, and he got it because Adam Goldberg was on the podcast. I don’t doubt that I’d have met Joel, but it’s one of those things where I was one of three people that he had to pay at least some attention to for an hour, and he knew I was a fan, and then I was comfortable enough to be funny, and then I just ran into him the next night and the night after that. It was one of those things where I’m like “I’m not stalking you, I just also like cool things.” One of [the events] was Wayne White, who was a set designer on PeeWee’s Playhouse and he’s this incredible artist–he has a great documentary called Beauty is Embarrassing. They showed the documentary and Wayne was there and Joel moderated a Q&A. Then I saw him at a Harmontown podcast taping the next night because I was in the area and I didn’t know he was on, but those guys are all my friends.

Sometimes there’s this circle of people–I found Nerdist, then Thrilling Adventure Hour. I’d already been a fan of Paget Brewster from Criminal Minds, but then I found Kumail Nanjiani and I’d never heard his comedy before. I feel like that too sometimes, because of that. “No really, I’m not stalking you, you just run in the same circles as all the people I like.”

Yeah, I’ve always benefitted greatly from my friends being really talented.

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

With you and Kumail both, I feel like it’s so cool to see you living your dreams–him telling the story of him and Emily in The Big Sick and to have that work out there, and then you with MST3K. I was emotional with you when you were announcing you were going to be the host. So many of us grew up on MST3K–that’s our sense of humor.

Yeah. It was a new familiar glove, I guess would be the way I’d describe when I started working on it. It just was so mind blowing but it felt like I’d been training for it, you know, cuz I go to sleep to movies. I’ve got tinnitus real bad, from playing drums and going to shows and never wearing ear protection, and when I was a kid I got used to putting on a movie that I’d seen a million times to go to sleep to. I didn’t need to see the screen to know what was going on. So now I’m kind of obsessed–well, addicted to it. One of the things I would listen to all the time was my favorite MST3K episode (Diabolique, as he revealed in Friday’s movie riffing show) or Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. I just had it on VHS so I watched it and listened to it all the time. You know, you go to sleep listening to that rhythm and that style of comedy so much that you can’t help it. It’s like osmosis. It just kinda seeps into your DNA.

What are some things you miss about Hawaii?

The pace I think, sometimes. No one’s in a rush because you’re already there. Why are you going to work hard and do something big and meaningful? For a lot of people, the idea of doing something like that is to get to the point in their lives where they can move somewhere or go on a trip somewhere like Hawaii, or even literally Hawaii, so when you’re there, it’s very relaxing, because there’s that vibe wehre everyone’s just there. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. LA is pretty fast-paced for my tastes and coming to Chicago and even New York it’s a bit much for me, so I do miss that, but that’s just about it, you know? It’s one of those things where I was kind of a bored kid while I was there, and that’s why LA suits me, really, because it’s still really pretty and sunny all the time but I never had seasons, so I don’t need ’em.

I’m getting sick of ’em.

I miss the pace and the lifestyle. There’s not a lot of expectations in Hawaii. In a city, everything is a list of things to do.

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

So back to Nerdist for a bit–what was the hardest interview for you personally? I remember the Harrison Ford interview being a difficult one in particular…were you there for that?

I was there for that! I’m proud of myself for doubling down. He tried to Harrison Ford me…I remember steppin’ to him.

Was there a favorite interview you did? Who was cool to have on?

The Rock, Weird Al, Jeff Bridges twice, Tom Hanks twice. John Cena was a crazy surprise. I’m not a wrestling guy but he really blew me away with how thoughtful he was about performing in general and in breaking down storylines in wrestling, and I thought that was amazing.

One of my favorite moments out of all the Nerdist times was the second time Jeff Bridges was on. He was like, “Yeah man, I’m getting kind of nervous. I’ve gotta go to the Dodger game and throw out the first pitch.” He’s like “I’m not really a ball player man, you know.” So I was like “Oh you should just make a bit out of it. Just act like you’re gonna do a regular pitch and bowl instead.” And he was like “Oh yeah, man, like The Dude would.”

So the next day, we  had Jason Biggs from American Pie and Orange Is The New Black on, and he walked in and was like “Did you guys see what Jeff Bridges did throwing out the first pitch?” And I was like, “wait, what?” And he says, “He was winding up to pitch, and then he bowled it, like The Dude!” and I was like “I told him to do that, man!”

That’s an amazing story.

And I’m not going to take credit for–well, I’ll take credit for that. But what I won’t take credit for–we had Paul McCartney on, which was another crazy thing, and I went and walked over to Strawberry Fields adn the park and over to the Waldorf and where Lennon was killed. When he was on, Chris was doing a great job. Chris has become one of my favorite interviewers over the years.

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

He’s really good at steering the conversation.

Yeah, and he’s gotten better and better. Seeing him do it, it’s just such a pleasure now.

Matt is, too, though, especially with After Trek.

Matt is! Matt is–I’ll go on record and state it, Matt is the best podcaster in the world. I think he’s great at interviewing, and when he’s not interviewing he’s really thoughtful, and funny and in the moment all the time, and his laugh is infectious–I just think he’s the best podcaster of all time.

You guys seem like you’re all really good friends…

Yes! I mean, Chris is doing a show in Milwaukee tonight and he called me this morning and we just chatted. We’re still buds and we’re just incredibly busy.

There’s been so many rumors about the podcast going away!

ID10T—Yeah it’ll never stop. It’ll fade and consistency might waver, and I’m talking about the three of us, when it comes to the original three–but then there’ll be times where we’ll do more frequency-wise, and it’s nothing that can ever go away. I mean, unless something terrible happens within our friendship where we all simultaneously all cheat on each other’s wives or some defining terrible moment, but we’ve been through tough moments in our friendship and we’ve been able to kinda get past it and that makes it better and stronger I think.  

Jonah Ray at @North Bar. Photo by Marielle Shaw.

That is so good to hear. Thank you so much, Jonah, for your time.

Thank you!

We truly appreciate the opportunity we got to talk to Jonah, and if you’d like to hear more from him, you can follow him on Twitter, where he often announces shows like this one, find him on Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix, on his music podcast, Jonah Raydio, or hear him with Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira from time to time on the ID10T podcast, which you can check out here.

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