Scott Aukerman on the evolution of 'Comedy Bang Bang'
Over the past 10 years, the Comedy Bang Bang brand has periodically undergone fairly radical transformations, moving through four formats while always maintaining the wryly bizarre comic voice of its host and mastermind, Scott Aukerman.
Comedy Bang Bang’s latest iteration, the traveling stage show (appearing tomorrow night at the Highline Ballroom), is a culmination of that decade of work and a hybrid of all that came before: the stand-up comedy showcase; the radio show; the wildly popular podcast; and its latest incarnation, the recently-debuted TV program on the IFC network.
Aukerman and his fellow former "Mr. Show" writer B.J. Porter started the whole enterprise (initially a stand-up show named Comedy Death Ray) out of necessity.
“For some reason, back in 2002 L.A. was going through sort of a lean period in terms of venues," Aukerman said when we spoke on the phone last week. "There really was just the Largo comedy show, in terms of big shows that people enjoyed doing. I was doing a lot of stand-up at the time, and I’d been sort of going around to really tiny rooms and doing open mics. I got to know a lot of really great people who had just moved to L.A. and were looking for places to perform. People like B.J. Novak from 'The Office' or Dan Mintz from 'Bob’s Burgers,' and we all would grouse about how there wasn’t really anyplace to perform at the time.
“At the same time, B.J. Porter was talking to his friend who owned a place called the M Bar and he was looking for shows to put up, and B.J. suggested a comedy show. And he knew that I knew all the good people, so we just started doing it together.”
The Comedy Death Ray live show was a success, spawning a popular anthology album featuring comics like David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Doug Benson. As Porter’s involvement lessened and the show came to reflect Aukerman’s taste and vision, the name was changed to Comedy Bang Bang, the banner under which it still happens weekly at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Los Angeles. Despite the wild directions later taken by the podcast and the TV show, the UCB stage show has maintained a consistent vision.
“Our commitment when we first started doing that show,” Aukerman said, “was we wanted to have the big people that people wanted to see, your Bob Odenkirks, your Zach Galifianakises, your Louis C.K.s, but we also had a commitment to breaking new acts and giving new comedians a place to perform on a bigger show than they would normally do at little open mics. So on any given night we would have Louis C.K. doing a half hour of new stuff and then we would have someone who just moved to town, like Jonah Ray. So that’s been sort of the credo. It’s been 10 years now and I’m still having relatively new people come on the show every week, so I think it’s a really great combination of seasoned veterans and new comedians.”
Once the stage show had built a considerable reputation in the L.A. comedy scene, Aukerman was given the opportunity to host Comedy Death Ray Radio for L.A.’s Indie 103 station in 2009. Through various fits and starts, this would yield not only the podcast but the Earwolf Network, the company co-owned by Aukerman that now produces many of the most popular comedy podcasts.
“The podcast started out as an advertisement for the live show,” Aukerman said, “where I would have the person who was going to headline that week on the show beforehand in order to sell more tickets to the live show. Pretty quickly, it veered off from that and became a show where we actually started doing comedy rather than talking about comedy.”
Unlike the standard podcast format of “comedians sitting around gabbing” like that found on Jimmy Pardo’s "Never Not Funny," or the probing conversations of Marc Maron’s "WTF," the Comedy Bang Bang podcast tends to be a feverishly imaginative exploration of comedy concepts found through games and collective improvisation. Typically, the show begins with Aukerman chatting with his main guest (an actor, comedian, or very occasionally musician), only to be interrupted by a second guest, another comedian, barging into the studio posing as any number of wild characters. Some of these are wholly invented (like Andy Daly’s lecherous stage director Don Dimelo or Nick Kroll’s Latino radio personality El Chupacabra), while others are fantastical approximations of actual celebrities, such as Paul F. Tompkins’ impersonation of Andrew Lloyd Webber or James Adomian’s Jesse Ventura.
For the impressions, the focus is less on sonic accuracy (though Adomian is a very good mimic) than providing a platform upon which the improvisers can build impossibly crazy scenarios. Tompkins as Cake Boss doesn’t sound much like the actual Cake Boss, but then the actual Cake Boss is unlikely to have been granted the ability to see into the future after being bitten by a radioactive “cake bug.” (In his most recent appearance, it was revealed that Cake Boss is actually some kind of immortal being that has existed since the dawn of time, making cakes.) While mostly positioning himself as the “straight man” during these excursions, Aukerman ably steers the improvisation with a mix of sci-fi wonder and chat-show-host cool.
It was just this sort of madness that IFC was after when they offered Aukerman a TV show last year. Executives at the network were big fans of the podcast, but Aukerman chose not to attempt a straight translation.
“They are different entities,” he said. “[Though] they do have the same sort of through-line. There’s a reason why I call the TV show 'Comedy Bang Bang.' There was some discussion at a certain point of, ‘Well, do I call it something totally different like 'Scott Aukerman’s Fun-Fun Goodtime Show?’”
While the podcast relies on a freewheeling sense of playful exploration, "Comedy Bang Bang" the TV show is a tighter and more polished affair—though no less imaginative. At its base an interview-centered chat show, it piles on sensibilities from a wide range of influences: the dry anarchy of early Letterman, the talking-furniture whimsy of "Pee Wee’s Playhouse," the mouse-trap conceptual continuity of Aukerman’s comedy alma mater "Mr. Show with Bob and David," and the deconstructionist approach to talk-show tropes from "Fernwood 2-Nite" and "Between 2 Ferns," the popular series of Internet shorts produced by Aukerman and featuring Zach Galifianakis. "Ferns," in particular, seems to inform Aukerman’s interview style; while he’s a good deal more affable than Galifianakis’ tense and terse host, the spacey nonsequiturs clearly come from the same comedic mind.
Similarly, the "Comedy Bang Bang" podcast and TV show share a strong creative voice despite the differences in format and execution. Comedians like Daly, Tompkins, Adomian, and Kroll appear as their now-familiar characters, and all of the TV show guests have appeared at one time or another on the podcast too. Still, Aukerman feels many longtime listeners to the podcast found the differences unexpected.
“That’s been the thing that some viewers are surprised by,” Aukerman said. “It’s not exactly like the podcast, where it’s an hour and a half and audio only. It’s been great to see people wrap their heads around ‘Oh, it’s a totally different thing,’ but to me the throughline is the aesthetic behind it, the fact that the podcast and the TV show both feature me as the host and comedians that I love being interviewed and also doing characters.”
In its first season, each episode of "Comedy Bang Bang" features a main guest from an impressive array of A-list stars, including Jon Hamm, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and others. While the guests uniformly acquit themselves terrifically well in the improv setting (and all have ties to the “alternative” comedy scene in some way or another), that level of star power can seem surprising on such a small, odd show.
“I think having a big name in the main guest spot serves two functions,” Aukerman said. “One, it’s great for advertising the show. People get to wondering what Jon Hamm is going to do on the show. It’s the same reason 'Saturday Night Live' has a different celebrity guest host every week, where people are wondering what Alec Baldwin or Charles Barkley is going to do. Two, we are sort of doing a riff on talk shows, and one of the main parts of a talk show is you have a big celebrity guest come on.”
Yet while the format is familiar, guests engage in none of the latest-project-plugging hype that they would on other shows. Rather, they all dive headlong into the absurdist tone set by Aukerman, and it’s impressive that such diverse performers are able to match that tone so effectively, as when actor Michael Cera describes his intensive studies in ornithology to prepare for a big-screen Angry Birds adaptation, or when Poehler takes Mad Magazine to task for a (fictional) parody of her sitcom, “Farts and Procreation.” And unlike other shows where the Q&As are prepared and mapped out ahead of time, Aukerman’s interviews, while nutty, are closer to actual conversations: “For the most part, the guests don’t know what questions I’m going to ask. It’s all improv.”
Aukerman even has his own off-kilter version of Ed McMahon/Doc Severinsen in sidekick and “bandleader” Reggie Watts, whose elastic singing voice and extemporaneous loop-pedal compositions provide fittingly strange music cues for the show’s transitions. Watts also brings a charmingly disjointed anti-rapport with Aukerman, in his interjections and mumbled responses.
“We were really lucky to get Reggie,” Aukerman said. “I’m surprised that he agreed to do it but once he did, it was fantastic.”
Unfortunately, Watts won’t be joining Aukerman for the "Comedy Bang Bang Tour," but a number of other great comedians will be, helping him to tie together the stage show, podcast, and TV show ideas into a traveling comedy juggernaut.
“For the live show what I wanted to do was a combination of all of these things,” Aukerman said. “Half of it is going to be what you would see in the live UCB show where it’s gonna be me and whoever is with me that night—in New York it’s going to be Tim Heidecker [of 'Tim And Eric Awesome Show Great Job,' whose company AbsoLutely produces the 'Comedy Bang Bang' IFC show], James Adomian, and the host of IFC’s "Bunk," Kurt Braunholer—and we’re going to be doing prepared material for the first part. Then I’m going to show people a sneak peek of what’s coming up on the TV show, and then halfway through the show we’re going to stop and reset and do a totally improvised show that’s akin to the podcast with people doing characters.
“I think it’s going to be a cool combination of prepared stuff and also flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants improvisation.”