Las Vegas Academy grad stars in ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ reboot

Updated April 13, 2017 - 2:31 pm

With three shows on the air, there’s never been a better time to be Baron Vaughn.

“Man, when you put it like that way,” the Las Vegas Academy alum says, “I guess I should tell my therapist to say it that way.”

The documentary “Fatherless,” about Vaughn’s search for the father he never knew, is airing on Fusion. The third season of the Netflix comedy “Grace and Frankie,” on which he co-stars, debuted March 24. And he voices robot Tom Servo on “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return,” the reboot that hits Netflix on Friday.

“I was in the middle of filming Season 3 of ‘Grace and Frankie,’ ” says Vaughn, 36. “Then the writing process for ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ was happening at the exact same time. And then the pre-production for ‘Fatherless’ was happening at the exact same time as well. I was trying to juggle all these things at the same time, and it was a little insane when I was in the heat of it. But now I’m, like, so happy I did that. But never again.”

‘Investigating myself’

Vaughn’s mother, Scharlotte, went to school in Las Vegas, and the family — minus his father — moved here from New Mexico when he was in the third grade. It took nearly three decades and plenty of therapy for Vaughn to reach out to the man who left a large hole in his life. That decision led to “Fatherless,” which can be seen at 5 and 8 p.m. April 20 on Fusion, as well as on demand.

“The last couple of years, I’ve been investigating myself, as I encourage most people to do — accentuation on the most,” Vaughn says. “But in that, I kind of saw that there was this big story that I was holding onto about not having a father — what that means, my own male identity in relation to that stuff, kind of having a better relationship with my mom and her becoming more comfortable talking to me about things we never talked about. … The combination of all those things kind of led me to the conclusion that I’m ready to tackle this subject and to face these things and to see if this man is out there, what he’s about, and put what happened in perspective.”

Learning from the masters

A member of the LVA class of 1999, Vaughn graduated from Boston University’s theater program. Small roles in the likes of “Cloverfield” and “Law & Order” followed, as did a two-season stint on the USA drama “Fairly Legal.” Then in 2015, he was presented with a master class in acting on the set of “Grace and Frankie.”

Vaughn portrays Bud, the adopted son of the characters played by Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. The series also stars Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen.

“A lot of it is seeing people basically do what I’ve been taught to do for a long time,” Vaughn says of what he’s learned on set. “Like, just little lessons that I’ve gotten about acting — throughout high school, throughout college — that didn’t really make much sense to me. And now seeing people who have been doing it for so long, who are true pros, kind of do that, you’re, like, ‘Oh, that’s what that lesson meant!’ ”

No ordinary robot

Acting opposite legends is one thing. Assuming a legendary role — well, legendary among a constituency of die-hard nerds, at least — is something else entirely.

Asked if he had any trepidation about voicing something as beloved as Tom Servo, the sarcastic, gumball-machine-looking robot, on the “MST3K” reboot, Vaughn responds, “Oh, helllllllllll yeah.”

“It’s a legacy character,” he continues. “I’ve likened it to basically being the new voice of Bugs Bunny. There’s an expectation for how that voice is supposed to be. People have a very strong association with that voice.”

“MST3K” debuted in 1988 with creator Joel Hodgson starring as a janitor trapped on the Satellite of Love by mad scientists who forced him to watch B-movies alongside his homemade robots: Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy. When Hodgson was casting the robot voices, Vaughn says, he turned to his friends. Hodgson suggested the same to Jonah Ray, the star of the crowdfunded reboot, which is how Vaughn came on board.

“There’s this glut of science fiction, fantasy and horror films that they pull from because people think those movies are easy to make, and they are not easy to make,” Vaughn says. “So there’s a lot of them from around the globe that are horrible in various and amazing ways.”

Respecting the original ‘MST3K’

The first season consists of 14 episodes, meaning Vaughn and the other writers spent plenty of time in front of truly awful movies. Vaughn watched most of them at least twice, and the process is more difficult than it sounds.

“That was the thing that Joel was constantly warning us about,” he says. “The cognitive dissonance will get to you. There will be a point where you watch the movie and you’re like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And everything that you write will be like, ‘Stop it movie! Stop existing!’ That’s not funny.”

In addition to acting, Vaughn is an accomplished stand-up comedian. With “MST3K,” he can add puppeteer to his resume. Two professional puppeteers worked the body, while Vaughn had a radio-controlled trigger that moved Tom Servo’s mouth so any improvisation would sync up.

With topics ranging from the Island of Sodor to They Might Be Giants lyrics and the Church of the SubGenius to “The Muppet Movie,” the new “MST3K” offers a barrage of jokes with varying levels of obscurity. But Vaughn isn’t worried about gags flying over viewers’ heads.

“I don’t worry about people not getting it, because there’s not enough time to think about it,” he explains. “Because by the time you’re, like, ‘Hey, what is that?’ there’s another joke that’ll hit you before you’re, like, Googling what that other reference is.”

It’s the same scattershot formula Hodgson and his buddies used on the original “MST3K,” which ran from 1988 to ’99. And familiarity is what Vaughn and the rest of the cast and crew sought for the new version — up to a point.

“There was a lot of nervousness on my part, I think on everyone’s part, about being able to serve the show and capture the style and basically respect the classic version of it, but take it into a new way,” Vaughn says. “And I think we found a good bridge between those two things. I think people will be very happy.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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