MST3K’s Emily Marsh on swinging through KC for The Time Bubble Tour
"Just scream when you see Movie Sign!"
In the role of Emily Connor as part of the long-running movie-riffing series Mystery Science Theater 3000, actor and puppeteer Emily Marsh makes the fourth person to be trapped aboard the Satellite of Love. Forced to watch atrocious movies with her robot pals, she keeps her sanity by making fun of the flicks being screened, following in the footsteps of Joel Robinson, Mike Nelson, and Jonah Heston.
Marsh came to the series not via the TV show or Netflix series, but as part of the live tours which started back in 2017. Debuting during The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour and riffing on the Jean-Claude Van Damme classic No Retreat, No Surrender, Marsh has gone on to appear in multiple livestream shows. She will appear in the upcoming 13th season of MST3K when it debuts as part of the new Gizmoplex online platform.
Marsh, along with Yvonne Freese, Nate Begle, and Conor McGiffin, will perform live as part of the latest MST3K live show, The Time Bubble Tour, when it comes to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday, Jan. 22.
We spoke with Marsh by phone about riffing, creativity, and the joy of bad film.
The Pitch: You are a new form of cast member. You were introduced to people through the live shows, as opposed to being on-screen. What’s that experience been like for you, witnessing people’s reaction to your character in real-time?
Emily Marsh: Oh, man. Well, definitely the thing I would say is that it’s been super interesting that I started on the tour, then we did the filming, and then we went back to the tour. Your question made me think of doing natural filming in a weird way.
I was like, “Wait, this is weird. Why is no one laughing?”
It’s actually been nice that, basically, my whole experience with MST3K at this point was theatrical. It was experiencing MST-ies and live fans and people laughing or not laughing sometimes, you know? It’s actually been nice that that’s the experience that I’m more used to and it was interesting augmenting it to the filming. It was definitely so much focused on fans and fan experiences and it was nice to come from that place to the franchise.
It strikes me that so many of the folks involved over the years have been actors or comedians who learned puppetry, but you are yourself a puppeteer. Was that part of the appeal for you—getting to have both sides of your career in one program?
I like to think having a background in puppetry makes me a better actor with puppets in terms of what is so nice to understand, especially about MST3K. I feel like the host, for the most part, gets to be the straight man foil against these chaos Muppets that are Tom, Crow, and GPC.
It’s nice to come from that understanding of “I am here to be like the calm humanity for all of you to bounce off of.”
Also, it’s nice to understand that they are working way harder and it is showing way less than when I pick something up. It’s much harder to make a puppet pick something up.
I read an interview where you talked about the fact that the reward, so to speak, for creating a successful stage tour is that you then now have to go do this 200 more times.
“You’ve done a great show, now go back out there and do it more.”
When I’ve talked with other folks who have done MST3K live shows, they’ve talked about the idea that what’s really nice is that you get to see how different jokes land in different areas and you get to tweak the show on the fly—as opposed to it just being done once, and then it’s this thing that exists digitally forever.
At this point in the tour, we’ve probably done this show like 40 times and there have been certain riffs that I know, personally, I’m still tweaking. I’m still, like, “There has to be a perfect thing to say for that moment,” and I’m sure it’ll come into place exactly at that last show of the tour. I have no doubt. But no, yeah—it’s funny to think that we spend all this time crafting the show and then at this point, I’ve honestly forgotten a lot of what we did when we filmed for the two weeks, ’cause we did a bunch of episodes in a short period of time.
Now I’m like, “Oh my gosh, how, how are those going to turn out? We probably did them only once or twice. I’ve forgotten what mostly we did.” Definitely, there’s something that’s so nice about [filming]: You’re like, “Ah, I feel super about the delivery and the crafting of every single one of these riffs for the live show and for recording.” You’re exactly right. You do it once or twice and it’s like, “Okay, cool. It’s the editors now. We’ll see what happens on the other side.”
In terms of going in and filming: you’ve done a few shorts here and there and you’ve done some Zoom things, but what is it like–having done all the theatrical performances–going in and sitting down and doing the classic MST3K thing where you’re backlit and all of that?
I would say it’s definitely—smaller is the word I would use—and more intimate, ’cause especially when it’s the three of us–me, Nate and Connor, who puppeteered Tom and Crow for my episodes for filming—it definitely feels like there’s just more presentation when you’re on a stage. You need to leave time for people to laugh. There has to be sort of like a theatrical timing to everything versus when you’re on film, which can be scary. It’s like, “Oh, it’s smaller,” and, “Oh, I don’t know if this will be funny to a lot of people watching.”
There’s more of a question mark, but it is nice that moments can kind of breathe a little bit more. We were allowed to kind of laugh at each other’s riffs and interact with each other. There was a freedom, a looseness.
Definitely, I would say is my biggest difference is you’re very conscious of the audience when you’re riffing with the audience and then, when it was just the three of us, it definitely felt like, “Oh yes, the three of us just watching and making fun of a movie..”
Coming into a show that’s been going in various forms and in various places for three decades—how was that for you? What’s the onus that hangs over you when you’re joining something?
Equal parts excitement and terror. I think the biggest thing—and I’ve been watching the show since I was a kid—what was nice is there’s definitely a lot of pressure that I was putting on myself before we filmed. In particular, just definitely that feeling of, “I’m going to try and do the thing and we’ll see what happens,” but I feel like it all got summed up very well with filming.
You only get to do something once or twice, and then you kind of have to let it go and that actually was super-helpful when it came to, “Okay, I’m going to deliver ‘We’ve got movie sign in this way that’s going to be me, but a whole homage to the other hosts.’”
You have all these grand schemes and plans and then, the reality is, we get there Jonah [Ray]’s directing and it’s like—the desk was a little bit too tall for me, so I had to stand on apple boxes, and exit in and out on these apple boxes, which was a little precarious.
Then we had to do the whole scene in one. He was like, “All right, when you start seeing a flashing light, just scream and run out, just scream ‘Movie sign.’ It was almost like there were so many things to juggle that the moment went by so fast that I don’t even know if I did, like, even one of the things I was thinking about doing for my delivery of “Movie sign” when I sat in my apartment thinking through this, and honestly? That was the best lesson about MST3K. Just like, you can get so wrapped up in your head trying to make it different, but in reality, what’s nice about the host is they’ve always been true to who they are.
You meet Joel [Hodgson] and you are meeting Joel from the show. The nice thing is just trying to earnestly be me as much as possible and be true to what I loved about the show growing up. It’s all you can do, sometimes.
I’m curious as to like what your movie tastes are outside of what you have to watch for work, so to speak.
I would say it goes to two extremes. I was definitely raised with a father who loved MST3K and is very opinionated about movies. If there’s anything I know about myself, it’s that I’ll go, “Hey, did you see that movie? Here’s what I thought of it. Now, what’s your opinion? Do you agree? Or get off the bus.”
But in a weird way, it’s meant that I watched movies with very high standards. I very much enjoy watching bad movies in my spare time. And in a weird way, I think by having a high standard for movies, watching something that’s so bad it’s good is almost relaxation because it’s almost a judgment-free zone.
I would say we are totally monsters on this tour. Actually, when we’re not watching a bad movie for work, we actually watch bad movies for fun on the bus. I know we watched one of my personal favorites, which was Maximum Overdrive, pretty early on in the tour, and oh man, I adore that movie.
I would say it’s a mix of high and low brow. Man. I do love a bad movie, especially in times like these, when things are stressful, and we’re on the road, dealing with COVID-19. It’s like, “Man, I just want to watch a bad movie that’s just for laughs.”
Given that you have seen the movie that you are riffing on this tour, 1985’s Making Contact, literally hundreds of times at this point, do you discover things at the 200th viewing that makes it at least tolerable to have to sit through it again?
Yes. We actually wrote on this show. We got to be with it from its conception, basically, to performing it, which is crazy. But it does mean, like you said, we have probably seen this movie close to a hundred times and man, it’s a bad movie.
There are still moments that do stick out to me that I’m like, “Wow, I never heard that weird line that they said,” and honestly, in a weird way, you become this expert on this terrible movie.
The nice thing is, we travel with 12 people on the tour in total, and it’s almost like they are the only 12 people who will understand your weird obsession with Making Contact because everyone else will be like, ‘Yeah, that movie was bad,” and you’re like, “When they cut away and there was a weird book that was at a weird angle, did you see the title?” No one’s seeing these things, unless they’ve seen it this many times, but it’s nice to be among a group of people who actually have been watching it as much as you just sort of be like, “Oh yeah, I did notice that thing.”
There’s actually an extended cut of this movie on YouTube—the German one. And for some reason, Connor has been showing it to us on the tour because it kind of explained some of the weird moments of the movie. I think that’s a perfect example of it definitely gets old to watch this movie, but definitely to stay sane and stay engaged, man, you just got to try and pick this movie apart and it definitely becomes kind of a weird obsession that I’m very excited to let go on February 6.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 LIVE: Time Bubble Tour comes to the Kauffman Center on Saturday, Jan. 22. Details and tickets are available here.