Comedian/actor Baron Vaughn is busy, but not so busy that we can’t shoot him into space for our amusement. The erstwhile local—he grew up here, even attended Las Vegas Academy—is promoting a new standup album (Blaxistential Crisis), a Fusion TV documentary (Fatherless), an acclaimed Netflix comedy (Grace and Frankie) and too much more to list here. But today, we’re talking about his moonshot: Vaughn provides the voice of wisecracking robot Tom Servo on Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot. Here, now, is Baron Vaughn, speaking live from orbit.
How’d you get involved with the new MST3K? When [new MST3K host] Jonah Ray and [MST3K originator] Joel Hodgson started to become close, Joel started to think about bringing the show back. He asked Jonah to sort of help him as a writer and producer, and little by little it became, “Why don’t you become the new host?” Jonah was all about that, and part of the show’s charm and appeal is that it feels like you’re hanging out with your buddies watching a bad movie and cracking jokes. So Joel put it into Jonah’s hands to pick some people that he thought it would be easy to riff with. Fortunately, I was one of those people, because I’m a very theatrical person, and so is Tom Servo. It was a match made in riffing heaven.
Did you watch MST3K as a kid? Yes, indeed. I stumbled upon it one day and at first I thought it was just a bad movie. Then I was curious: “What are these people wearing green makeup doing with Santa Claus?” Then I saw the [theater] seats at the bottom of the screen and I was like, “Hmm, what’s going on?” And I could hear what the characters in the seats were saying as clearly as the dialogue in the movie, and I started listening in. It was so weird and so funny that I just kept watching. Then I would go to school and try to find who else was aware of this show … basically, who else was gonna be my friend. I found some friends that I still have to this day.
How nerdy were you, from a scale of one to mint-in-box action figures? I’d say I’m a six, because keeping up with all the stuff is pretty dang expensive. You can’t constantly be shelling out money for the new comics, new toys and new card role playing games. And I’m a theater nerd, which is the nerd that most nerds really dislike. So I would be, like, “And also August Wilson, and Shakespeare.” And they’d say, “Get outta here. We’re talking about Wolverine; how dare you?”
Does the process of making MST3K—sitting in a room riffing on a bad movie—feel theatrical to you? The process has evolved. Joel has fought long and hard to streamline it, and make sure there are more jokes. So there were times that Jonah and [Crow T. Robot voice actor] Hampton Yount and I got into a room, riffed the movie live and recorded it, writing down our riffs to enter into the master document of jokes. Then Joel and the head writer, Elliott Kalan—who was head writer of The Daily Show when Jon Stewart was still on it—would go though the master document, pull out their favorites, rewrite them and put them into a script. Then we’d see the script and we’d rewrite them again, and when we actually go into the booth to record the riffs, we’d rewrite them again, and we’d also start to improvise. We’re kind of in the mind of the show by then; our brains are firing on all cylinders. Joel and Elliott are open to all those suggestions. They want it to be collaborative.
Did you ever get to work with MST3K’s “mads,” Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt? I’ve never met them ever in my life! No, I’m joking. Yeah, there’s been a couple days on set when Felicia and Patton where there. But I didn’t work with them directly. It’s sort of mimicking the old show, where it’s single camera. One camera, one stationary shot, with not a lot of cut, and we’re on opposite sides of one studio. All of the host segments were done at once, and then all of the “mad” segments were done at once. We didn’t necessarily have to be there for that, but I went to hang out with Felicia and Patton a little bit. Jonah had to be there for all of it.
Speaking as a longtime fan, are you satisfied with the new show? People are gonna be really happy. I think it’s as good as the old show, though a lot of people will disagree with me because I’m not Kevin, which the internet continues to tell me every day.
Speaking of: Did you have any conversations with original Tom Servo voice actors Kevin Murphy and J. Elvis Weinstein? I did. Jonah used to have a show here in LA called The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, which has been immortalized as a Comedy Central series. Once Kumail [Nanjiani] couldn’t be there and Kevin Murphy happened to be in town, so Kevin co-hosted the show with Jonah, and we did a little bit in front of the audience where Kevin kind of christened me as the new Servo. And J. Elvis wrote me a very nice email and I got to meet him at the Los Angeles screening of [MST3K new season episode] “Experiment 1101.” Both of them have been very encouraging, saying, “Make it your own. Everyone’s gonna say that you’re not me, and that’s exactly why you shouldn’t worry about trying to be like one of us.”
I’m not the last Servo. I hope that the show continues to go on and that there will be other Servos after me. And that people will debate about it, like they do Star Trek captains, or who’s a great Doctor Who, or who’s a good Batman.
Kevin Murphy was Servo for 185 episodes. Do you have that much riffing in you? As long as the world keeps spinning, I’ll keep riffing.