Scott Aukerman has come to possess something coveted by most of his peers in the crowded field of comedy podcasters: a televised adaptation of his show. Funnily enough, he wasn’t even trying to get one made.
“I had kind of given up on my dreams of hosting a talk show that I had when I was 16 and obsessively watching Letterman every night," Aukerman says. "I didn’t go in and pitch it, I didn’t chase after it at all. It was really a surprise when IFC offered me a TV version of the podcast, but a very welcome surprise.”
Comedy Bang! Bang! is more than a TV version of its source material, however. While it is loosely based on the podcast of the same name, in the sense that Aukerman talks to celebrities and characters on both programs, that’s where the similarities end. With the IFC show, Aukerman has taken the delirious deconstructionism of his former gig, Mr. Show, suffused it with the playful, pretend-time feel of Peewee’s Playhouse, and filtered it all through the prism of talk shows. In doing so, he just may have reinvented the format.
The podcast that inspired this satirical take on talk shows arose from humble beginnings. “As a writer, I’m kind of cooped up all day. So I just really started doing it to have fun with my friends and express myself," Aukerman says of Comedy Bang! Bang!'s roots. "I never thought about translating it to any other medium." Of course, that was before the show went on to rack up over 10 million downloads and lead its host to create the Earwolf podcast network.
Initially, Comedy Bang! Bang! was a radio show called Comedy Death Ray, named after a weekly show Aukerman and his writing partner BJ Porter produced at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in LA. (The partnership has since dissolved, part of the reason for the name-change.) That show served as a galvanizing force of the West Coast comedy scene, and soon many of the comics who darkened its doorways ended up interviewed on the airwaves.
At first, the show consisted of straightforward interviews, devoid of the absurdity that would come to be its calling card. After a while, though, Aukerman began experimenting with having the visiting comedians inhabit their characters from the UCB show on-air, injecting some much-needed improv into the proceedings. Somewhere around the eighth episode, things began to get weird.
“I kind of found what I think my strengths are as an interviewer," Aukerman says, "which is letting the improv go off, and steering it into interesting directions that they wouldn’t ordinarily go in.”
Eventually, the executives at IFC caught wind of the unhinged extravaganza the show had become. By this point, the channel had begun making itself over into TV’s new destination for alt-comedy, rerunning gems like The Ben Stiller Show, and acquiring original series such as Portlandia. Between writing and performing on Mr. Show in the 90s, and hosting comedy’s current vanguard on the podcast, Aukerman served as a connective tissue for the space IFC had moved into. In 2011, the channel began putting him on TV in short, interstitial segments between shows, interviewing some of its stars such as Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogen.
“The intention was to get Scott on the air, attach his brand to the channel, and then bring it full-blown as a show," says Jennifer Caserta, president of IFC. "We were able to dip our toe in the water with those interstitials in a way that was faster than having to develop a show from scratch, develop a pilot, and get it on air."
The finished product is unlike any show that’s come before it, even its closest spiritual predecessor in the fake talk show realm, Fernwood 2-Night. Comedy Bang! Bang! offers a unique combination of scripted sketches, improvised chats with celebrity guests, and more improvised chats with guests cloaked as characters. Like the podcast that spawned it, the show is an acquired taste, with some of the effed-up flavor of Tim & Eric, who were also mentored by Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk. The sketches are laced with absurd, "meta" touches, such as the trippy dream sequence that makes fun of trippy dream sequences. As for the interviews, these tend to capture the upbeat rhythms of late night talk shows, only with much darker content that turns those shows’ time-filling chatter on its head.
“We knew we wanted to bring the format to life somehow, but we really left it up to Scott how he would do that," says Caserta. "In all honesty, all I envisioned was a chair and a couch. I knew it was gonna take on some kind of talk show format, but the way that it’s put together is his genius.”
Aukerman adds, “The writers and I were working off of all these talk show tropes. Is there a desk? Is there a couch? Do all the guests stay onstage the entire show after their segment is done? The challenge was just coming up with a lot of disparate elements that I liked, figuring out how they could stitch together, and deciding how much time to spend on each of them."
Another huge trope on talk shows is the bandleader and sidekick. In the case of Comedy Bang! Bang! both functions are served by interstellar comedian Reggie Watts, who makes up wonderfully silly song lyrics off the cuff, and spits them out over loops of his own syncopated beatboxing. Watts is an integral part of the show, playing music as the guests walk on and bantering with the host in his own weird timing and delivery. His presence shouldn’t surprise fans of the podcast, though, who will already be familiar with Watts both as a recurring guest on the show and the creator of its theme song.
If the new show is different from the podcast, it’s by necessity. Most episodes of the audio show take very little preparation. They are like bridges whose construction is decided as the builders move across them. On the TV show, however, only about a third of the show is improvised. The podcast usually goes for 75 minutes, leaving conversations to flourish or flounder over a long stretch. The show, however, is only 22 minutes long. "I really wanted each second and minute to count and have a new crazy idea in it," Aukerman says. "I didn’t want to have a lot of time where we’re just sort of waiting for something to happen.” Sure enough, Comedy Bang! Bang! moves at a much faster clip than the talk show territory it mines, and a lot of things are always happening.
One frequently recurring motif on the show is that guests are always coming and going; at least three or four of them per episode. In order to secure as many A-list names as possible, Aukerman basically called in every favor that he could. Together with the booker, he was able to get an dazzling roster of celebrity comedic talent to appear on the show, including Jon Hamm, Amy Poehler, and Zach Galifianakis, whose popular web series, Between Two Ferns , Aukerman co-wrote and directed. In addition to working with friends and peers, the host also reached out to some of his comedy idols like Dave Thomas from SCTV, who also ended up coming in on the show.
The guests are seamlessly integrated into the quirkiness of the TV show in a way that transcends their appearances on the podcast. If they happen to have a movie release, guests on the podcast will talk about it, albeit briefly. On the TV show, however, they’re just there to play. “Not everybody can make celebrities comfortable enough to just hang out," says Caserta. "They’re really just having fun and being funny on the show, whether they’re funny people or Scott’s leading them down a path of sometimes ridiculousness.”
Of course, just as on the podcast, some guests are not playing themselves on the show, but characters. Watching Comedy Bang! Bang! offers the sublime spectacle of actually seeing these heretofore auditory characters. (You just knew Andy Daly’s pervy theatrical director Don Dimello would wear a golf hat and drape a sweater over his shoulders.) Some of these characters existed before the podcast; for instance, El Chupacabra, the Spanish language DJ, is something Nick Kroll has been doing for years and involves a costume that he is very particular about. Other performers, like Paul F. Tompkins, rarely do their characters outside of podcasts, so there was a bit more discussion about what they would look like on the show.
As of now, there are ten episodes of the TV show Comedy Bang! Bang! in the can, while the podcast is 161 episodes into its run. If the latter was going to end any time soon, though, it would likely have ended while Aukerman was working 13-hour days on the IFC show and coming in on his day off to record the podcast. As it stands, even if the TV show is a huge success, its host is committed to doing the thing that inspired that success in the first place.
“I think the reason to podcast is that you get to do whatever you want to do. I don’t have a boss, I don’t have anyone telling me I can’t do something, or that I have to be funnier—I just get to have fun,” Aukerman says. “Once it becomes a grind, that’s when the residual benefits from the podcast end. I made a commitment to keep doing it, though, so I’m going to do it for as long as I can. As long as I’m still having fun.”