Baron Vaughn on ‘Fatherless,’ ‘MST3K,’ and the Ocean of Joy
On top of being a standup comedian and a classically trained actor, Baron Vaughn will soon make his debut as robot Tom Servo in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot premiering April 14th on Netflix. He is well known for his role on the hit show Grace and Frankie alongside comedy legends Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. If that all weren’t impressive enough, Vaughn is also the subject of Fatherless, an hour-long documentary about finding his birth father premiering on April 2nd on Fusion. Vaughn took some quality time to discuss audience discomfort, being Tom Servo, and oceans of joy.
You went to theater school at Boston University. What was the strangest acting exercise you were ever asked to perform?
Well, apocryphal tales notwithstanding, it’s hard to say, because I don’t think of a lot of it as weird now. Fortunately I saw what the value in each of those things was and how I can apply it in acting and standup. There are plenty of times where people would ask, “What do you actor guys do over there? Curl up on the ground and cry?” And it’s like well, yeah, if that’s what happened in the class that’s what happened. But I guess the weirdest thing was when we were asked to embody an inanimate object: “Today, I need you to be a table for ten minutes.” And I’d sit there in a table-like position for ten minutes, trying to really feel what it means to be a table.
It sounds like having those experiences would make other uncomfortable situations seem much less significant.
Absolutely. I’m prepared for any situation. Theater school is essentially like training. It’s boot camp. It’s like an academy to put you through all these different situations that sometimes are more extreme than what you’ll come across in the field. But now you’re emotionally prepared for it so that when it does happen, it’s not a big surprise. It’s like, oh, well this isn’t as bad as the time I had to pretend to be a table.
I read an interview with you where you described standup as somewhat of psychological study on human behavior. What are some of the observations you’ve gathered about your audiences?
An audience is an interesting thing. I think actually that Lenny Bruce might have said something to effect of “When you get a laugh from just a few people in the audience it doesn’t really count, because it could be a drunk person or just a knucklehead.” When the audience reacts all together it’s genius. The audience is its own being in a way. It’s a weird, amorphous beast that is also somehow a golden emperor that is also somehow every adult you’ve ever come across in your life who doesn’t approve of you — all in one place. The smaller an audience is, the more self-conscious they are. People are always looking at each other to see who is laughing. Because the thing about laughter is that it exposes who you are. So sometimes people don’t want to laugh because they don’t want to say who they are. Sometimes it’s easier for people to sit there not reacting to anything, because if you laugh, people will know you think that something is funny. But when audiences are bigger, people are more likely to laugh, even at things that aren’t that funny, because there is a communal experience happening. That’s why a good comedy room is one that focuses the laughter in a way that everyone feels like they are in an ocean of joy.
I feel like in the environment we’re in politically, people don’t want to hear anything that they don’t already agree with. If someone expresses a viewpoint about identity or politics that you didn’t agree with, it’s essentially an allergic reaction. It only takes one drop of pollen to make your whole body flare up if you’re really allergic to it. So people are on high alert. Any little thing that sets off your senses could expose the entire set. Someone could entertain people for a full hour and say one thing that people didn’t like and they’ll walk out of there saying, “I really hated that.” There’s an extremism to people’s reaction to comedy right now.
That’s interesting. So you felt that shift after the election very clearly, like there was a before and after to the audience response?
I felt it leading up to the election. I felt the division already in this country. It’s that kind of division that got the election result that we got. I think it was comedian Janelle James who said if you were working in the middle of this country, you’re not surprised at the election results. When I saw that, I was like yup, that’s exactly how I feel. Like I’ve been out in the country seeing how far apart — even though people are physically close together — seeing how still far apart we are.
Was there a city or a venue where you felt that division the strongest?
Well, I did a show in Des Moines, Iowa that was very interesting. It was organized by a couple of comedians that I really like there. I get that the audience was expecting something a little different. I had come to Des Moines before and it was good, and I thought the show would draw people who had come before. But I’m not sure how many people had seen me before. In this age of the internet, if you are going to go see someone, you usually look them up first. It can be an advantage and disadvantage. Most of the time people can google you and see a couple clips and say, “Oh I am going to go.” They can kind of co-sign off on you. But I’m not sure that a lot of people that were there that night in Des Moines knew what I was about. So I had a bunch of people walk out. That’s the other thing, if people feel uncomfortable then they walk, they think it’s you that made them uncomfortable. Instead of thinking it’s something inside of themselves they hadn’t thought about or examined that makes them uncomfortable, it’s much easier to say, “This person made me uncomfortable, so as long as I stay away from this person, I’m good.”
Right. There was kind of an opportunity there to prompt introspection, but instead the person chose to let that discomfort propel them out the door.
Yeah. And that’s because — and when I say this I’m not being sarcastic — who has time for introspection? Who has time for it? Comedians. That’s pretty much it. People are stressed out. They’re trying to feed their children. Trying to take care of their elderly parents. Trying to figure out what’s going on with their healthcare and their community. So it makes sense that people come to comedy to escape. It’s just that, when it’s me, we happen to disagree on what the point of comedy is right now. You want to come to escape, I want to come to arrive. We have different motivations for being here. And I can’t blame people for wanting that, it’s just you can’t expect that out of everybody. And you can’t say that if somebody doesn’t fit what you believe comedy to be, then it isn’t comedy. It’s just not the same. But unfortunately, comedy is one of those things where instead of people saying, “Oh, I don’t think you’re funny,” they say “Oh, I hate you, I hate the fact that you even talk.” That’s how extreme people’s reactions are.
Wow. They really take it to the furthest extreme. When did you first figure out that you were funny?
The first time I looked at my face in a mirror, I was like “Gross,” and from then on I was a comedian. I think I have the classic story that a lot of comedians have. I was a little smaller than the other kids, I had crooked teeth, I was watching weird shows on TV and really into things that other kids were like “What the heck are you talking about?” So that turned into wanting to survive where I was at. And that was making someone laugh. Being funny is being liked. Making someone laugh is them liking you. If you can make someone laugh you are cracking into some deep thing inside of them that they don’t even know is there. I made people who I was scared of, physically, laugh and then saw it work in a way. Once I could make them laugh, I saw that the tough identity shell they were putting on was just that: “Oh look, you’re all soft inside. A little puppy dog!”
Your documentary Fatherless about going on a search to find your biological father is premiering this weekend. What prompted you to tell this story in a documentary?
I did a lot of soul searching and self-work in the last couple of years. I think for most people when you get to your thirties is the first time that you have kind of a long lens on your life. In my twenties I wasn’t taking stock of what I had left behind. What kind of things I was contorting myself around to fit into what I thought I was supposed to be. In my thirties I could see the gap between what you say you believe in and stand for, and what you actually did. In my twenties I’d say I’m about this and kept moving forward, but in my thirties, I see oh, I said I wanted this, but when confronted, I keep making a different decision, so maybe I’m really that.
For me, something that was a big deal that I didn’t think was a big deal was growing up without a father. I didn’t see until my thirties how much of my identity was wrapped up in having to wing it. I didn’t have a model of how to be, so I kind of cobbled a father together out of TV and movies. Or men in my neighborhood. So I was aspiring to be that, even though it wasn’t really for me. So a lot of the formative years of my life were without a father. I never considered that until I saw how I was making decisions from a place of lacking, of void. I started to notice how little I talked about these things. More people were asking, “Oh, what was that like?” It kept coming up. And I realized that I had the same practiced response to it. It felt like I was reading a script. I was like, “Oh, I actually don’t know how I feel about these things.” That was why I felt that it was time to go into that if I was going to grow as a person and have a better understanding of myself. The short answer: it was time.
How was the whole experience of making the documentary once you set your mind to it?
I fortunately was set up with Dawn Porter, who is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and was a great help to me. I didn’t know how I was going to feel. I didn’t know how I was going to react. We spend a lot of time planning, but we are always wrong. I knew that and thought, “Okay, I think I’m going to be fine…but maybe I won’t.” So luckily Dawn was there to kind of guide me through all that. Look, being an actor and comedian, I was used to being on stage and being on camera. But with acting it’s a script that was written and I have memorized and I’m justifying choices, it’s different when it’s just you. I was not expecting that to be an issue. Suddenly I was in a situation where I had to just be. There was no bit for me to perform. I’m just reacting to a situation. Having to just be myself. That’s the greatest fear of any comedian, just being yourself.
Yeah, talk about making yourself vulnerable in such a big way. Do you feel ready for the world to see the film?
I’ve seen it and I think it’s good. I think it’s funny and I think a lot of interesting issues come up and get addressed in a lot of interesting ways. Of course, it’s hard to tell what color your house is when you’re standing inside your house. I’m so close to this project that I have no idea how someone else will react to it. I’ve shown it to a few friends of mine who have all been very moved and had positive things to say. My other feelings are that I’m happy to have made this because I hope that this will give people permission to ask these questions in their own lives. To examine the things that were kind of kept away from them by their parents. Everybody gets to that age where you finally realize that your parents are people. We think of them as gods but they’re adults. They’re flawed individuals who had painful things happen to them that they never figured out. So this was an experience for me to delve into things that I was never told about because they were painful for my mother to experience. Her fear of feeling that pain made these things not talked about, kind of brushed under the rug. My mother is also part of the documentary. She goes through the experience with me. She had to go through her own experience as well. We examined some things from a different point of view so she could see she had come such a long way since these things happened.
I hope this gives people permission to confront things that they think that they can’t. All of these things need to come out. Of course there are ways to bring things out that are really constructive and there are ways that are really destructive. I hope this shows people that there are ways to confront painful things from the past in a constructive way that helps you let them go as opposed to let them run you into the ground.
That sounds incredible.
Sounds hilarious, right?
It sounds like it has the potential to make a really meaningful impact.
That’s what I hope. But that’s a lot of expectation to heap on an hour-long television documentary.
You also have a lot of expectation on you for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot that’s about to come out.
Do you now ever find yourself thinking in a Tom Servo voice?
I found out that I’ve always been thinking in a Tom Servo voice, that was the biggest surprise. I was walking down the beach one day and I saw two sets of footprints, so it turns out he was with me all along. No — he doesn’t have feet.
I mean, yes, I do. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was hugely influential on me, as I think it was for a lot of comedians of my generation. The way that I think about writing jokes and the kind of references I make and the way that they can sound and flow. So that voice is always in me and it can have other outlets like standup and writing, so it’s a really surreal experience to step into a show that really influenced me. A show that I thought was gone forever. It’s especially hard to watch a movie now without busting a joke in the middle of it. Tom Servo is me and I am him.
If you had free reign to pick a movie to comment on as Tom Servo, what would it be?
Recently I was with a group of friends and we watched Batman Returns, the glorious Tim Burton Christmas movie. Don’t forget it, it was a Christmas movie. Gothic Christmas, that’s Tim Burton’s jam. I realized how perfect it was to riff over. I don’t know that it’s really a fit for Mystery Science Theater 3000, but personally I would like to do Batman Returns. I have a lot of insight into why exactly Batman is returning.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Well first of all, if I don’t have a statue of myself erected in front of LA City Hall, I have gone horribly awry as a person. A statue of myself holding a baton with an eagle on my shoulder. Because life is a parade and this parade is for the birds.
You deserve it.
Thank you! Well, I hope to still be making television. It would be cool if Mystery Science Theater 3000 is still on. I hope Grace and Frankie is still on. Making movies. That’s the next level.
I hope to still be doing standup. I hope more people will be coming to shows that decided to come on purpose.