For many comedians, being awake and functional before noon is a chore. However, on a hazy L.A. morning, Jonah Ray has been up for hours dealing with personal business and doesn’t look worse for wear. Sipping on a fresh cold brew outside Silverlake Coffee, Ray learns that his co-hosts on the Nerdist Podcast — Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira — partook in some locker-room ribbing regarding Ray's absence behind the mic on the latest episode. He couldn’t help but roll his eyes, shake his head and let out a sly chuckle.
“As we started getting busier and busier, with the success of the podcast, we had to work around Chris’ schedule,” the bespectacled 34-year-old says. “I would expect that from them. As I started getting other work, it got harder to break away from my jobs to sit in on an interview.”
Born Jonah Ray Rodrigues, the comedian grew up in Kailua just outside of Honolulu. From an early age, Ray became immersed in the local punk and hardcore scenes, playing drums in several bands during his teen years. While it's a wonderful place for a vacation, Hawaii isn't exactly known for its thriving music scene, let alone comedy scene.
Ray skipped college and moved to San Pedro with his sights set on breaking into the notoriously fickle L.A. comedy scene. In a new city, he was initially apprehensive but started showing up at open mics at night, while working ragtag jobs the rest of the time. As an usher/greeter at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, he heckled the crowd in the Dome at the beginning of Star Wars: Episode III. That didn’t go over well. He also worked at Amoeba, but got fired for giving discounts to his friends. Meanwhile, as the comedians he was surrounded by started getting their big breaks, Ray started to get smaller breaks here and there.
“It’s all these little things that you do that start to accumulate, as opposed to seeing other people who get one big thing out of the gate,” he says. “When I was starting out, I was doing open mics with B.J. Novak [The Office] and Dan Mintz [Bob’s Burgers], who each skyrocketed to success, and that’s how I thought it was. The way I saw it at that point was that I wasn’t going to be a star, but I’d put in the work and just focus on my own thing.”
Ray’s early credits include time on The Andy Milonakis Show, X-Play, SuperNews!, The Rotten Tomatoes Show and Web Soup. During his time at the latter, he quickly realized culling pop-culture clips wasn’t for him. Ray would be so miserable that he’d watch “disaster porn or emotional internet cutting,” like 9/11 footage and other horrific events in order to expound on his general disgruntlement.
“I was working a show that relied on other shows,” he remembers. “You look at this thing you wanted to do and it can get really frustrating. You have to make a decision and say ‘Fuck it’ and do what you want to do and it will make you exponentially more happy.”
Soon, Ray and Kumail Nanjiani ended up turning their weekly stand-up show at the NerdMelt Showroom into a Comedy Central series. The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail first aired 2014 and ended last year. It was Ray’s first taste of independent prominence, and he was able to parlay it into bigger gigs.
Being one of the co-hosts of the Nerdist Podcast allowed Ray to meet many of his childhood heroes, including Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000. “When I was visiting my uncle in Carson City, Nevada [in 1996], I made him drive me to Reno to see [Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie] because it was playing in a theater there,” Ray recalls. Hodgson was a guest on the podcast in 2012 and again at Comic-Con in 2016. Following the first broadcast, Ray and Hodgson would run into each other at functions across town and soon became fast friends.
Hodgson loosely floated the idea of bringing the show back and prodded Ray to get involved. Eventually the formerly chubby boy from Oahu was offered the role of a lifetime: host of MST3K. Now that the rights to the show have been cleared and a successful Kickstarter campaign is complete, MST3K is back and streaming on Netflix. The reboot has many of the original's signature quirks, which is sure to make it a hit with longtime fans.
“As I’ve tried to figure it out in my head how to talk about how overwhelming it is, I haven’t been able to figure it out,” he admits. “It’s still very crazy and it’s very out-of-body. When I was doing it, everything felt like it was in the right spot.”
Ray also hosts the “fake” Seeso travel show Hidden America With Jonah Ray. The web series keenly spoofs the types of travel programs that have become popular in recent years, most notably Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, which Ray legitimately likes.
“As I started getting into Bourdain’s show, I started realizing it was perfect for a sketch show,” he explains. “You’re coming out of all these scenes and situations and characters, so I thought I should do a version of that.”
Thanks to some professional connections and a shared love of Iggy & the Stooges, Ray was able to enlist the notoriously surly Bourdain to appear in a bit part in season two, which premieres on May 4. “The first season was out and some people were tweeting at him about it and it was brought up in a couple of interviews in a row,” Ray says. “My ex-roommate [L.A. Weekly’s Katherine Spiers] brought up Hidden America to him and he knew about it and thought it was funny. She called me up right after and said he’d do a cameo if he was able to play a big buffoonish asshole version of himself.” In this season's New York City episode, the fictional Ray character and the fictional Bourdain get into a scuffle, a scene that's teased in the season-two trailer.
As his calendar continues to fill up, Ray hasn’t had the bandwidth to contribute to Nerdist as much as he did in the early days of his career. His co-hosts tease, but there are no hard feelings. In fact, Hardwick is moderating a Q&A following an upcoming screening of Hidden America. Having first met in 2002, Hardwick and Ray remain close. Hardwick’s relentless work ethic and his razor-sharp focus were instrumental in shaping Ray’s view of what he wants to do — and doesn’t want to do.
“Hearing him say he wanted to focus on the stuff he liked, with the nerdy stuff instead of the stuff he said that he thought people wanted him to be. To see him dive into something he was so passionate about and see it start to work out for him — by him working on stuff he liked — it was cool to see him take jobs but make them hits,” Ray says.
Despite having little time for extracurricular activities, Ray recently dusted off his old drum kit and formed PRESSERS, a punk trio with Denver Dalley from Desaparecidos and Cody Votolato from The Blood Brothers. He's busy at the moment, but he's also a realist.
“Things are working out now, but they may not in the long run,” he says. “The business is fickle and you realize success isn’t necessarily work. It doesn’t mean longevity, you’re just jumping and hoping the thing below you doesn’t crumble too fast.”