Coinciding with the premiere of its just-launched 13th season, and the attached, independent streaming platform known as The Gizmoplex, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is poised for yet another rebound into the cultural consciousness. The cult classic bad movie riffing show has proven itself even more durable than the likes of Gamera, defying every cancellation and every setback—and even defying the COVID-19 pandemic itself, when all is said and done. Truly, nothing can seemingly stand in the way of MST3K and its creative team for long—and that includes the series’ newest host, Emily Marsh.
As this season neared its public premiere after raising more than $6.5 million on Kickstarter, I knew that I wanted to have a conversation with MST3K’s newest, and first female, host. After all, I’ve previously interviewed every other canonical MST3K host at some point within the pages of Paste, from series creator Joel Hodgson, to Rifftrax’s Mike Nelson, to Netflix series anchor Jonah Ray. Hell, I’ve even ranked every single one of the 197 episodes between seasons 1-12 of the series. This was clearly the time to sit down with Marsh and get a feel for how she intends to make her own tenure on the show distinctive.
There is of course history being made here—Marsh’s first episode, season 13’s Beyond Atlantis, is the first in series history to be hosted by a woman in the “person stuck on the Satellite of Love” (or in this case, the “Simulator of Love”) role. But Marsh is by no means the first prominent female voice of MST3K, a show that has thankfully always had at least a few women in the writer’s room, most notably the likes of Mary Jo Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson. Marsh simply carries that tradition onto the SOL bridge itself, ready to run wild alongside likewise new voices for Tom Servo (Conor McGiffin) and Crow T. Robot (Kelsey Ann Brady). It’s an episode that is jammed to the gills with new experiences and precedence for the show, which is still forging ahead and discovering new ground in its 13th season.
Below, check out our conversation with Marsh, as she details the origin of her “Emily Connor” hosting name, her philosophy on what makes for a perfect MST3K movie, and how this era of the show may differ from the two Netflix seasons.
Paste: I know you’ve been an MST3K fan since you were little, which is the same way for me—I sometimes wonder what exactly it was I was even getting out of the show as a little kid, because there’s no way I could have understood most of the jokes. Was it the same for you?
Emily: I feel the exact same way, because as a child watching this with my dad, my favorite episode was The Killer Shrews. Which is a funny episode and all, but for a child, most of that movie is just the characters standing in the living room and drinking.
It’s mostly just jokes about their alcoholism!
Emily: Right, so I was like “why as a kid did I even think this was funny?” Oh, it’s because I was watching my dad laugh, and thinking “If he thinks this is hilarious, then it must be funny.”
It’s such a dull movie for a kid, too.
Emily: It is, until the very end, when they’re in those stupid, stupid garbage cans and they have those puppets coming in underneath, they’re just like dogs covered in bath towels.
It sounds like MST3K was a big bonding moment for you and your dad.
Emily: It was, though I have to give my mom full credit as well. So my dad really loved MST3K, and him and my brother and I would watch it when my mom would go on business trips, because she doesn’t care for this show at all. In fact, telling that story to Joel when I auditioned is I think 99.9% of the reason I’m here today.
Honestly, I don’t think either of my parents understood a lick of it either.
Emily: I think that’s a super common experience. I think there’s an extremely common part of the MST3K experience where you love the show, and try to show it to your friends, and have that moment where you instantly know where if your friend also thinks it’s funny, or if they don’t get it at all and they’re just placating you.
In this new, independent era of the series, is there an aspect you think stands out as being refreshingly novel, or something that maybe couldn’t have been done during the Netflix era?
Emily: From the stories that I’ve heard from the Netflix era, I think the trade-off you have when making a show that is pretty highly produced is that there’s a little less freedom for making creative decisions. So something I really liked about the filming we just did for the show, was that if we really wanted to do something, you just sort of turn to Joel and ask “Can we do this?” As opposed to what I’ve heard from the Netflix series, it seemed like things were a little more … what’s the word …
Emily: Yeah, sort of supervised. Which does have its advantages, but I think for a show like Mystery Science Theater, you almost don’t want it to be squeaky clean. That’s part of its charm. If you can see the paint on one of the props, or the tape holding it together, this has never been the kind of show where fans react by saying “ugh, I’m turning this off, these production values!”
I know you’ve said you were shocked to be offered the live tour hosting gig, because you didn’t know you were interviewing for it at the time. But once you started touring, did you have any idea that eventually hosting taped episodes might be in the cards?
Emily: I really had no idea, though as people have pointed out later, in the farewell tour I was introduced as a host at the end of that show. So people have asked me: “How did you not know?” But honestly, I was just so happy to be there, and it felt like such an impossibility at the time, that I didn’t take it seriously. But I had an inkling that maybe something was going to happen after the live show, when there was this one day when Joel said something like: “Hey, do you want to riff a bit for part of the show? I’ll go off stage and say I’m having a bathroom break, and you go out there and do it for me? And it was that moment that I figured I was being—not being “tested,” because tested is a strong word—but at least that maybe the idea was starting to percolate.
But in the end, Joel never really asked me straight up if I wanted to host—I mean, the answer would have been yes, absolutely. It was more like when they were planning season 13, one day someone just said “and then you’ll host four episodes,” and on the outward I’m saying “okay sure,” while inwardly I’m screaming “be cool, be cool, the dream is really happening!” I definitely had my cool shaken a little bit when I finally saw my face on the MST3K patch. That’s when I knew it was really happening.
Does the “Connor” name mean something specific?
Emily: It does! It’s actually a reference to Sarah Connor of the Terminator series. I was actually really pushing to be Emily Norris, as a Chuck Norris homage.
Wasn’t it “Emily Crenshaw” during some of the first live tours? I always wondered if that was a Boggy Creek II reference, to the horrifying mountain man “Crenshaw.”
Emily: Now that was actually a reference to the builder of our puppets, whose last name is Crenshaw, so that was a pretty internal reference. But I was pushing for Emily Norris, to pay tribute to the action stars, and for about two seconds I was also saying “What about Emily Van Damme?” But then Joel came back and said “why not have it be a female action hero, for the first female host?” And that’s how we landed on Connor.
So I’ve seen Beyond Atlantis now and enjoyed it a lot, but at the same time I was almost overwhelmed by just how much new stuff there is to discover in this one episode. It’s not just a new host—the fourth in series history—but also two new voice actors as Tom and Crow as well. I don’t know if there’s ever been a single MST3K episode with this much new stuff in it. Do you think folks are ready for it?
Emily: It’s hard, you know, because MST3K is something that has such nostalgia attached to it. So many people, including me, go back to these old episodes to watch them as comfort food. And so, how do you make something new with something that possesses such a rich history? I will say, something I’ve loved about Joel from the beginning is that he genuinely loves making things that are new. I’ve never met a more creative person in my life—even on tour, he’d be writing new script ideas, new gag ideas. I think that ultimately a lot of his impulse is never to rest on his laurels and keep trying new things. And the nice thing about this season is that although it does have a lot of newness, it has a lot of familiarity as well, with Joel coming back for a few episodes. So I’m hopeful that by the end of the season, once we tie a bow on it, newness and familiarity will combine to form something new and entertaining that people haven’t seen before, that is still recognizably MST3K.
Beyond Atlantis is sort of like an exploitation action movie, if all the exploitation and action had been removed from it.
And of course with more episodes and more seasons, the newness becomes familiarity.
Emily: Absolutely. I will say, there’s nothing more intimidating than getting to be part of a show from your childhood, as a new addition.
Do you get to do a lot of writing for your episodes? And what about other episodes you’re not hosting?
Emily: That was one of the greatest things about this process, actually—we were invited in as writers not just on our episodes, but the entire season. And at the time we did all the initial writing, we actually didn’t know who was going to host each episode … which was nice, we had a lot of freedom to play around. And then later, once the hosts were assigned, there was some finagling that could happen, some continuity for the season, all of that.
For Beyond Atlantis, it sounds like Kelsey must have stepped in as the voice of Crow on fairly short notice. Was she there for the original filming?
Emily: She was, actually, and she did puppeteer on that episode. It was short notice, but she ended up being a fantastic addition, because she comes from a very extensive puppetry background. We had all just been on the road together beforehand, so she fit right in as a member of the team.
What, in your eyes, is the most important aspect for what makes for a perfect MST3K movie?
Emily: Well, this is my philosophy personally, so bear with me. I know there have been a lot of movies getting attention more recently that are intentionally trying to be bad, or campy. Those definitely do have their place in general, but I don’t think they make for good Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies. The attempt at making a real movie is important for MST3K. A bad-on-purpose movie will just never be as interesting to dissect as Pod People or Beyond Atlantis. You need to be left with some curiosity in terms of “I want to know how this got made. How is this possible?”
There has to at least have been a basic attempt—and failure—at providing something entertaining.
Emily: The attempt is important. And I think also, there are some things practically speaking, MST3K has always been a family friendly show, so you need movies that either generally fit that description, or are salvageable in removing the worst of their material so all audiences can watch them, while still having the film make sense. Joel has also always said that comedies don’t really work for MST3K, and I can see why that would be the case, because comedy on top of comedy is like too much of a turducken.
Well, before I let you go I guess I have to ask the obvious: What are some of your all-time favorite episodes?
Emily: Well I told you before, The Killer Shrews, but it’s not a very satisfying answer because everyone just kind of shrugs at me when I say that! And going along with that, Assignment: Venezuela, the Mike short, that one is great. And some other favorites for me include movies like Hobgoblins for the bad puppetry, Mitchell, Pod People, Space Mutiny—those are always fun to come back to.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.