Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Flying Circus
Depending on who you ask, IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! is either the worst thing on television, or the best. According to Scott Aukerman, host and series creator, “that’s how you know you’re swinging for the fences.”
Adapted for television from the podcast of the same name, Comedy Bang! Bang! is more of a variety show with sketches, celebrity guests, and a one-man band wearing a talk show mask. It may look like a talk show, and sound like a talk show, but don’t let that fool you, IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! is a talk show with real guests, talking about sometimes imaginary things.
“We took any show that had a host and applied our spin,” Aukerman tells me. “It’s a slightly more skewed perspective, but it’s optimistic. In the Season 3 premiere, the mailman gets his head chopped off.”
IFC never asked Aukerman to pitch the show. Network fans of his podcast approached him to create a series of interstitials that would lead the channel’s other shows in and out of commercial. On the strength of those early shorts, IFC then asked Aukerman for a pilot, which turned into an order for 10 more episodes. “At the time, that was the largest order for shows IFC had,” Aukerman says. The only other IFC show to begin with such a large order is the channel’s longest-running scripted series, The Whitest Kids U’ Know (still appearing on IFC in syndication).
Beginning with the cult classic, Mr. Show with Bob and David, Aukerman has spent almost 20 years writing for television. Asked about his comedic influences, he says, “There was a girl in middle school who took me to her house after school and introduced me to Monty Python. I had never heard of them before… she put on Holy Grail and I fell in love.” Other early idols include Late Night with David Letterman (to whose early seasons Auckerman most likes to compares his show) and Zucker, Abrams, Zucker movies like The Naked Gun or Airplane, although “it was seeing Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] in Vegas that made me want to get into television. Comedy Bang! Bang! has a lot of the same elements, but with a more optimistic point of view. Mr. Show and Between Two Ferns are a lot meaner.”
Instead of a monologue, each episode of Comedy Bang! Bang! begins with a short repartee between Aukerman and co-host/one-man bandleader, Reggie Watts. Equal parts Mozart and Wesley Willis, Watts provides most of the show’s sound with only a keyboard and an awe-inspiring mastery of musical improvisation. Yet just as the style he makes appear so effortless, his involvement with the series was a matter of chance. “Reggie happened to be in the studio when we renamed the podcast. He wrote the theme song,” Aukerman says. The show benefits from their complementary patterns, with Watts’s music as the punctuative response to Aukerman’s talk show-ese call.
If someone were to walk into the middle of a Comedy Bang! Bang! episode, it would be almost indistinguishable in tone from any other talk show on television. It is only upon closer inspection that the series’ true genius stands out. “It was our take on what other TV shows were doing, with a sensibility like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse or the early Letterman show,” Aukerman says. “We often get lumped in with [shows that are] parody or satire, but that wasn’t our intention. The aesthetics separate it from a ‘normal’ talk show, but we’re doing a genuine show. It’s a talk show with jokes. There are some references to other shows and those tend to function more as an homage.”
The episodes also introduce a celebrity guest as themselves for a short, if surreal, interview. First-season guests included The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret stars David Cross and Jon Hamm, as well as superstars of large and small screens, past and present, like Pee-Wee Herman, Zoe Saldana, and Bobcat Goldthwait. The main guest is followed by a sketch, another interview segment with one or more comedians (appearing in character), interspersed with various talk show standards like Hidden Camera/Word of the Day segments, or anthropomorphized set dressings, like Bookie the talking book. Aukerman promises that the upcoming third season will continue to feature appearances from comedians because they can “roll with any stupid questions” and an expanded array of main guests from all facets of the industry, like Wayne Coyne, Tony Hawk, and Josh Grobin.
With the third season of Comedy Bang! Bang!, the format of the program continues to evolve. “The talk show elements have been played down since the first season when segments would often mimic other hosted shows,” Aukerman says. “Now it’s almost more like a sitcom.” SCTV’s Dave Thomas and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse’s Lynne Marie Stewart will return as Aukerman’s mother and father. Also returning are longtime writers, Neil Campbell, Erin Keating, and David Ferguson and series illustrator, Paul Hornschemeier. “Because we don’t have to be topical like a ‘normal’ talk show, we’re able to create episodes that are more rewatchable than a regular talk show,” he says.
The production of the show has remained largely unchanged with episodes scripted well in advance of filming. Like the second season, episodes will air in two runs, with the first 10 appearing from May 8 to July 10 and the second half from October 16 to December 18. “For 20 episodes, we’ll spend about 15 weeks writing,” Aukerman says. “Then we film the whole season. At the end, I feel like I’ve been in a war.” Already renewed for a fourth season, IFC has expanded their order to 40 new episodes, making Comedy Bang! Bang! one of the most prolific shows for the network.
“A funny bit that kills in the clubs doesn’t always work on television,” Aukerman says. “We're not trying to be toothless, but we sometimes cut jokes that are too mean. We put stuff in the show that will jolt you and make you laugh, but it's not worth it to jar people out of a show they're enjoying. If the joke is well constructed, there is temptation to use it. At the same time, you have to experiment with what you can get away with. Why take a shot at someone who is a really nice person?”
Always an integral part of television, comedians have proliferated as hosts on the small screen and beyond. Asked why the medium is so fond of standups, Aukerman says, “Comedians try hard. When they host something, they actually try. An actor is there for visibility. They're not trying to entertain anyone. A dramatic actor isn't going to do a monologue.”
Aukerman also sees comedy as a unique vehicle to take people’s minds off the terrible realities of life without the responsibilities of a dramatic program. “Comedy isn't viewed as being as important as drama, but it’s called comic relief for a reason. It really helps people out in tough times.”