Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast.
The podcaster: Scott Aukerman made his name as a writer and occasional performer on the legendary sketch-comedy classic Mr. Show, but he’s best known now as the host of Comedy Bang! Bang!, a podcast and television show. In 2002, Aukerman and B.J. Porter, another Mr. Show alumnus, started a stand-up comedy showcase in Los Angeles called Comedy Death-Ray, which would become a Tuesday-night staple at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater until Aukerman stopped doing it late this year. Along the way, Aukerman adapted it for a radio show in 2009, then renamed it Comedy Bang! Bang! last year. The podcast, a lively, improvised mixture of celebrity interviews and segments involving outrageous characters played by the likes of Paul F. Tompkins, James Adomian, Jessica St. Clair, and Andy Daly, has become a hugely influential success and the flagship of Earwolf Media, a podcast network Aukerman started with partner Jeff Ullrich. The network also features popular podcasts like Sklarbro Country, Who Charted? (hosted by comedian/rapper Howard Kremer and actress Kulap Vilaysack, Aukerman’s wife), and How Did This Get Made? Aukerman’s empire continues to expand: Earwolf recently released Low Hangin Fruit, Adomian’s acclaimed debut stand-up album, and Comedy Bang! Bang! was adapted into a hilarious, surreal IFC show pairing Aukerman with one-man-bandleader/sidekick Reggie Watts.
Episode #120: Farts And Procreation: Adam Scott, Harris Wittels, Chelsea Peretti
Scott Aukerman: Harris Wittels has been on the show quite a few times, and on one of his previous appearances we’d had a poll online on whether he should continue on the show or not. I think he got several hundred votes that he should never return, as opposed to thousands and thousands of votes that he should, of course. But I just loved rubbing it in his face that there were a couple hundred people out there who thought that he should never come back. But Harris is a really dry comedian and loves wordplay. In one of the previous episodes he had been on, he had asked if he could debut sort of an anti-comedy character. The character was “Jack From The Lumberyard,” and what he wanted to do was play this character and actively try to never say anything funny. We do these shows and we barely talk about what we’re going to do beforehand. It’ll be a one-line idea, essentially, you know, “Hey, I want to do this character.”
So Harris wanted to play this character who was not even going to be funny, which is really difficult as a comedian, because your natural timing takes over, and even if you’re not saying anything funny, the timing can be funny. So it was a really interesting choice for him to try to do something that was never funny and never interesting. That was the other part of it: It could never be interesting. So we’d do that for a while, and it was really making me laugh. This character who never told jokes, nor was funny at all. So then he contacted me a little while later and said that he really enjoyed doing that, but he was talking to Adam Scott at Parks And Recreation, where Harris is a writer, and Adam really loved that episode were Jack was introduced, and Adam thought it would be fun to play a character who’s a co-worker at the lumberyard, and they were going to come in and both of them play this really strange game of never saying anything funny.
And then also Chelsea was on the writing staff of Parks And Recreation at that time, and she had a bunch of character ideas she wanted to do, so they thought it’d be fun to come in and, as they pitched it to me, do a Parks And Recreation special with the three of them, because they’d been hanging out so much together. So the one thing you have to know while you’re listening to it is that they could only come in at night after the writers’ room was shut down, so I believe it was 9 o’clock at night. And in the studio, the air conditioning turns off at 7 because most of the businesses there are early-morning-to-7-o’clock businesses, and this is in the middle of the summer and it was incredibly, incredibly hot. And you can’t turn on the fans because it’s bad for the recording, so we’re just dripping sweat during this thing, if you can imagine that. So the interesting thing about the show is we go back and forth, and I think at the beginning Chelsea says something about the bit saturation in the room is really high.
AVC: What does that mean?
SA: What it means, I think, is that we’re never having a real conversation. We’re just doing bits, which, if you hear any question I’m asking, I’m not really ever asking a real question that I really mean. I’m asking a question to lead into a bit, which is kind of my favorite way to interview people. And when people are on that wavelength, it’s really fun for me, and I think I picked two of the episodes that have people in there where we’re on that same wavelength of, “We don’t really care about the conversation we’re having. We’re just using it as an excuse to go into comedy.” Adam is always really great at that, as long as I’ve known him. He’s really great at that kind of dry, super-dry, not answering questions, that kind of thing. So very quickly we get into that, but when we get into what I thought was the reason for the episode, this Jack From The Lumberyard character and his friend—I thought they were going to go into just a super-dry, not funny piece. It’s just so difficult to do that, and they just naturally went into jokes, which was very unexpected, but it led to just bizarre improv between these characters, and it’s one of my favorite episodes. I got to do what I find is really fun in it, which is lead these characters, by the questions I’m asking, into stranger and stranger details of their life, and details that neither of them had thought of before they walked in and that were surprising to all of us and really making us laugh. The fact that the characters are married to each other’s sisters was not discussed, and then the fact that they were both having affairs with each other’s wife, which meant that they were having sex with both of their sisters. And it was a surprise to them, ’cause they hadn’t thought of it that way before. All of that really, really makes me laugh.
AVC: One of the things that’s striking about the episode is that Wittels and Scott have similar deliveries and voices, whereas in most comedy teams the partners are very different in complementary ways.
SA: There’s always something interesting about comedy teams that have the exact same energy. The one time I really noticed that was Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers. I love that movie so much because when you go in and pitch a movie or TV show or anything, they always want the characters to be really distinct from each other, and they’re always saying, well, exactly what you said: One has a high energy, one’s a low energy. One’s fat, one’s skinny. And I think Step Brothers and then this, it just really makes me laugh ’cause they’re trying to play the exact same game and be the exact same person. There’s just something really interesting about that comedic form that a lot of people don’t explore.
AVC: The episode plays like a meta-commentary on improvisation.
SA: Yeah, I mean, it is.
AVC: It’s an exploration of what improv is like when it seems to yield absolutely nothing.
SA: Yeah, I mean, it started as, “We’re going to do the worst, least funny improv of all time,” and then became really funny and one of my favorite episodes, but at the same time it, when it came out, it was a very controversial episode. There are some people who cannot stand it, because they want people actually being funny and not people doing sort of a metatextual take on comedy. But one of the great things about the show is, it’s not the same people every week. I don’t have the same guests every week. Every week we can do a different style of comedy if we want to. And this episode just swung for the fences in irony, basically, and just never being real.
AVC: And then there’s Chelsea Peretti.
SA: Yeah, Chelsea, just everything she says is funny to me. She’s one of the great comedians out there to me, where her whole persona is funny. Every single thing that comes out of her mouth is just gold. The great part about the episode is, everyone is on the same wavelength. It’s not like some of the episodes I do where it’s three disparate people that get thrown together, and we figure out what can come out of that. It’s really just four people who are on the exact same wavelength and finding the exact same things funny. And when she starts to go into character in the middle of it, they’re very anti-comedy characters as well. I mean, the Curious Latina, who only says, “Where’s the thing?” And then I remember someone gave her a note of, oh she doesn’t even know what the thing is, and she changes it to “Where’s the thingy?” It’s such a subtle change, like adding to the color of, she doesn’t even know what it is. She doesn’t know what to call it. “Where’s the thingy?”
AVC: And she’s just saying things, so she’s performing in a vacuum.
SA: Yeah, I think one game that we got into on that, if I remember correctly, is that the character bits she wanted to do were very simple ideas. I think she had told me a couple of them right before we taped. She said it was going to be the Curious Latina, who just says, “Where’s the thing?” And so I think the game that we got into that was funny for us was really before she even did the character, really dissecting it and trying to get into the character’s headspace before she actually debuted the voice of the character. Which is just another thing that I really enjoy doing, is just taking something really seriously that ultimately leads nowhere. So just really going into the woman who’s tired all the time, going into her psychology and why she has so many jobs and how relatable that must be to people in this economy currently. And it ultimately leads to just a character who yawns.
Episode #131: Mayor Of Hollywood: Andy Daly, Jason Mantzoukas
SA: “Mayor Of Hollywood” was recorded on a pretty atypical day, where I taped three episodes in a row. Andy Daly is one of my favorite people to do this show with. He’s also obviously a huge fan favorite and was instrumental in the evolution of the show, because he was on maybe the 12th show, a show with Andy Samberg and Zach Galifianakis. At the time, I was still trying to figure out what the show was, and I had Andy on because I’d seen him do this character several times at the live show, and I knew what it was and I thought it would be funny to basically do that bit in an interview format, in a panel format, in a traditional talk-show panel format. And he started doing this character about a suicidal person who was going to commit suicide by buying a really heavy coat and walking into the ocean. And we got off on a tangent where I started asking a lot of questions about where he got the coat, and we got into a lot of detail because he’s one of the best improvisers in the world, so he was able to roll with that. And we turned it into a really funny kind of sidebar tangent. At one point he even commented to me, “Wow, you’re really interested in this coat.” That struck me as a really fun thing to play, to be the person who sidetracks a really great improviser rather than setting him up for bits. That can lead to some really great, unexpected moments. That’s what I love doing with Andy.
Jason Mantzoukas is also one of my favorite people, and at the time we were actually hanging out a lot together ’cause we were working together, so were really on the same page. The first 15 minutes of the show is just the two of us talking and doing the kind of bits that we were doing while we were working together. When Andy comes in, first of all, I think it’s really funny that Jason and I are shutting down Andy at every possible opportunity. I know that that infuriated some fans of the show because Andy is their favorite person to have on the show, and I remember getting messages like, “If you’re going to have Andy Daly on the show, let him talk!” And Jason wasn’t as well known at the time. Often comedy is based on really understanding a comedian’s psyche and understanding their rhythms. Because Jason wasn’t as well known at the time, some people thought, “Who is this Jason guy and how dare he talk over Andy Daly?”
People didn’t know that Jason is just as funny as Andy Daly. Any time Andy tries to interject something, you know it’s going to be pure gold, so it’s basically like Jason and I are saying, “No thank you, sir. We do not want your gold. Please throw that in the garbage.” So that was really making us laugh at the top. But this is one of my favorite episodes because we really get into the story of Andy’s character, and none of that was worked out beforehand at all. Andy got to the studio and we said what we usually do before each episode, which is pretty much, “Okay, well, do you have any idea of what you want to do?” And all Andy said was, “I think I want to play a guy who wants to be honorary mayor of Hollywood,” and I nodded and he said, “If that doesn’t go anywhere, I can do something else after the break.” We thought, “Let’s try to make it go somewhere.” He didn’t have anything planned. So if people thought, “Why are you shutting him down? He’s got a really funny bit planned.” No, he didn’t have anything planned. That’s part of it. Don’t worry about us shutting down Andy’s bit. He didn’t have anything planned, but we’re going to get to it. So once he started, it’s one of my favorite episodes for me as a performer simply because I felt like I was really adding to the storyline of what Andy’s character ultimately ended up being. I thought it was a really great synergy between Jason, Andy, and I throwing out things, which we would all agree were part of the story and then it ultimately led to just the craziest conclusion and the fact that we all knew each other and the fact that Jason and I were children on this weirdo’s TV show. None of it is planned, and I think it’s one of the more satisfying endings to any show that we did, that we’ve done so far.
AVC: You can almost hear Daly thinking of all the stuff he suddenly has to make a reality for his character. It’s like you and Mantzoukas are talking him into a corner then seeing how he gets out of it.
SA: Well, that’s the thing. When you have someone who’s the best at what they do, you don’t want to see them just breeze through an episode and have it easy. You want to throw challenges at the person to make them rise to those challenges. What we loved about doing this episode is that Andy, you can sort of hear him thinking, but he also is so lightning-quick that he just says yes to everything immediately. It’s the opposite of the Parks And Recreation episode, where that was very much “no, but” improv, which led into strange of “no, and” improv. But this is just a pure example of one of the best improvisers in the world. Jason is a great improviser as well. I don’t mean to discount him. I just mean Andy’s in character and the one that we’re reacting to, and he’s so great at it and so great at improv and incorporating every strange thing we would throw at him into the story that it just led to such a great conclusion because he was able to successfully meet all those challenges.
AVC: By the end of the episode there’s an insanely elaborate backstory for the character where he’s a cross between Dr. Moreau and Marquis de Sade. Is it difficult keeping track of everything that you’ve introduced in an episode?
SA: Sometimes it can be really difficult to keep track of everything. Sometimes I’ll listen to an episode and think I wasn’t listening enough, that I was trying to steamroll my own bit. But one of the reasons I really like this episode in particular is because I feel like we all were listening to each other. We were all remembering the details of what everyone said. That’s something I really like doing: remembering all the details and finding contradictions in those details of why they shouldn’t make sense and forcing the improviser to figure out a way to make them make sense together. And I think this episode in particular is my favorite example of us being able to achieve that.
Episode 150: Time Bobby: Bobby Moynihan, Paul F. Tompkins
SA: I really enjoy this episode, first of all, because Paul F. Tompkins is probably my favorite person to do the show with merely because I think that we enjoy each other’s company. We’re always on the same page in that we have very common references. If I throw something out there to him, there’s a really high probability that he’ll know what I’m talking about when I throw out a reference like, “Hey, what were the colors in Joseph’s coat?” I know he knows that song and he won’t go, “What do you mean?” I know that he knows that song and will be able to volley it back to me. So he’s probably my favorite person to do the show with in that regard.
AVC: Has he done the show more often than anybody else?
SA: I believe so. I think he’s probably the person who’s been on more than anyone other than me. And I think that he’s done more podcasts in general than anybody else as well. He is the king of podcasts. Not only as a host but also as a guest. Bobby Moynihan had been on the show twice before. I’d only met him very briefly at UCB in New York, but he’s one of those rare celebrities who’s a fan of the show, and I’m always surprised when someone that I don’t know listens to it. So he was a fan of the show and actually asked me if he could be on it, and every time he’s on it, he’s so thrilled and so appreciative to be on it. It’s so nice to hear that someone that you respect is a fan of what you’re doing, but usually when celebrities do the show, they don’t want to do characters, but Bobby was very insistent that he wanted to do a character and that’s what’s fun for him.
This is one of the rare episodes where it’s a two-character episode. The normal structure of the show is that it’s me, one celebrity, and one character. In the “Farts And Procreation” episode, it’s no one really doing characters other than the Jack and Bryan pieces thing. But this is a rare episode where there’s no one real other than me. I really like doing these types of episodes because there’s never any kind of expectation that I’m going to have to do a real interview. A lot of times critics of the show will say, “I want to hear Patton Oswalt talk. I don’t want to hear a goofy character talk.” What they don’t realize is, well, Patton doesn’t want to talk about himself. He can do that on any other podcast.
Bobby came to the studio and we said, “What do you want to do today?” He said, “I think I want to be an orphan.” And we said, “Okay, go. Roll tape.” That was all we needed to hear, that he was going to be an orphan. I love this episode because everything coming out of Paul F. Tompkins’ mouth is genius. He has so many interesting references that he kind of just makes, and they’re throwaway references. They’re not even the best part of the episode, but just some of the sentences he says, like “a plague upon your lack of a house.” Everything he’s saying is so funny, but then add to it Bobby Moynihan’s character, which—another reason this is one of my favorites, is because it started from nothing and no information and then led into a really rich tapestry and a really interesting background for Bobby’s character, but also an interesting, very active, playable presence, meaning he wants to be adopted and he wants Andrew Lloyd Webber to adopt him. So not only do you have the fun of hearing about this guy’s background and this strange elderly man who adopted him and who he murdered in his sleep, but you have a very active storyline that we can participate in right now, which is he wants Andrew Lloyd Webber to adopt him. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scared of him. And if you set this guy off, he’s likely to murder us all.
AVC: He’s sweet but he’s also psychotic.
SA: There’s an animator named Sara Pocock who was so enchanted by this character that she started to animate the two of them together. It’s a really interesting voice that Bobby is doing. A lot of people were remarking that they couldn’t imagine it coming out of Bobby’s mouth. If you were just hearing the episode without knowing who was on it, I don’t know that you would imagine it was Bobby Moynihan necessarily, because it just seems like such a lovable, sweet kid until his voice drops when he gets scary.
AVC: When I think about Webber or Ice-T for that matter, it’s Tompkins’ version I think of rather than the actual person. I love that in this episode Webber talks about writing “Cop Killer” with Ice-T.
SA: And Body Count. Collectively as one. When I was listening to this, I was wishing that we had done a riff on how it should have been called “Bobby Killer.” Since we had just talked about “Time Bobbies” but instead of it being called “Cop Killer.” But, oh well. It also get confusing because Bobby Moynihan is, his name is Bobby, so it’s a lot of Bobbys to be thrown around in one episode.
AVC: Do you have a master document that tracks the continuity of Comedy Bang! Bang!, or is it something you just try to keep in your mind?
SA: I wish we did. It’s very hard to remember everything you’ve talked about. We’ve done almost 200 of these. Counting the tour episodes, we’ve probably done more than that. It’s very difficult to remember the backstories of everyone, and oftentimes we’ll be sitting there before a show saying, “What did we talk about last time?” And we’re kind of trying to remember it. At a point, there was someone who had made a Wikipedia entry on all these characters and gave all the details that we could easily access. I believe that is gone now. But several times in earlier episodes you could hear me reading from the Wikipedia page to recap where we had left off with the character, but it’s definitely hard. The fans remember these, I think, more than I do. And sometimes they’ll catch me in inconsistencies, but I sometimes if I’m having a person back, I will re-listen to the episode just so I can remember all the details that we went into. But Fourvel in this episode was on one of our New York tour episodes, and I didn’t get a chance to listen to it back, so it really was Bobby and I sitting backstage in this New York theater going, “What did Fourvel talk about? Who was he again?” Then he had to remind me that he wanted to be adopted by Andrew Lloyd Webber. We were like, “Oh that’s right. Did we ever adopt him?” And then we were like, “No, no. Oh, wait. He murdered us all at the end, right? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” So it’s very difficult, and we try to do as many references as we can to previous episodes if we can remember them.
AVC: For a long time you had a running gag that Reggie Watts would come into the studio to do the theme song live, then leave.
SA: We were doing that for a while where I think for about a year I would thank him for doing the theme song live. Another part of what I really like about doing the show is, I got very fascinated when I was younger with David Letterman and repetition and how he was doing that show five times a week. And so he would latch onto a bit and repeat it over and over, and it’s like the intro to Would You Rather? Speaking of which, did we play Would You Rather? in any of these episodes? I don’t think we do, do we?
AVC: I don’t think so.
SA: It’s kind of odd that I would pick three, during none of which we played that, but yeah. So the intro to Would You Rather? the game, I always enjoy how it’s the same all the time. I always enjoy saying it the exact same way and then figuring out some kind of new wrinkle to add to it, like, “Now don’t send them to me, my personal Twitter, because I’ll put them on the Would You Rather? Pile, which by the way is not a pile of Would You Rathers? that I’m going to use like you would use wood from a woodpile. It’s actually the Would You Rather? discard pile.” I always enjoy finding a new wrinkle on that and exploiting it for weeks and weeks and repeating it for weeks and weeks. And then ultimately discarding it, which is why I got rid of [former catchphrase] “What’s up, hot dog?” After a year of doing it, I was tired of it. And then I did it probably another year where I talked about how I got rid of it. And some people enjoy that and some people don’t, but I really enjoyed that when Letterman used to do it, so I try to do that as much as possible.
AVC: Within the continuity of the show, I believe Weird Al now has the rights to “What’s up, hot dog?”
SA: Yes, did I give them to him?
AVC: You did.
SA: Okay, so I didn’t sell that. I should have sold them to him. But what’s really funny about that is, we talked about that in one episode of Weird Al, and I immediately forgot about it and Al remembered it the very next time and said it during the episode and it reminded me of it. I always really enjoy that, when a performer comes back to the show and remembers the little details like that.
AVC: In hosting the show, it seems like you have to remember an awful lot, but also exist in the moment and have fun, which is a lot to handle at once.
SA: Yeah, that’s also why I like doing it with Paul. Usually when he brings up a reference, I’ll know what it is. We seem to have watched the same television programs growing up. We’ve seen the same musicals. And so it’s very easy when Paul comes in for me, because I know that it’s going to gel and we’re going to have a good time and it’s not as much work. I imagine it’s the same as when Bill Murray or Steve Martin comes on Letterman. Letterman gets to kind of sit back and relax, and he knows that the audience is going to be in good hands and he doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting.