Comedy Bang Bang’s Scott Aukerman talks about turning his podcast into a strange, funny TV show
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2012 has been a good year for comedy podcasts. It seemed like there were more of them than ever, and IFC optioned two of the most popular ones for television: WTF With Marc Maron and Comedy Bang Bang. Whereas WTF will be a sitcom based on Maron’s life (as a guy who records podcasts in his garage), Comedy Bang Bang is a televised re-imagining of its podcast alter ego. Hosted by creator Scott Aukerman, the show tweaks components of the podcast: a loose, generally silly interview with a guest (who’s later joined by one of the show’s comic characters) and goofy games. Comedian-musician Reggie Watts joins Aukerman as a one-man band, and the show has a more pronounced inclination toward sketch comedy—particularly the surreal silliness of Mr. Show, where Aukerman worked as a writer. (Aukerman also co-created and directs the popular web series Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.) It’s one of the strangest, funniest shows on TV this summer—exactly what fans of its podcast sibling would expect. Before the show debuts June 8 at 10 p.m. EDT, The A.V. Club met up with Aukerman in Los Angeles to talk about making a podcast work on television, how Mr. Show still influences him, and why Andrew Lloyd Webber would wear a dad sweater, not a tuxedo.
The A.V. Club: IFC approached you to do interstitial interviews with people for the network last year. How’d it become a TV show?
Scott Aukerman: Well, it was kind of the easiest sale I’ve ever made in my show-business career. Usually when you go in and have a show idea, you have to jump through so many hoops and talk to so many people, and just beg and plead with them to buy your idea. This one was, IFC called me up one day and said, “Hey, would you like to do a TV show?” And I said, “Yes, okay.” And that was pretty much it. It was really easy: They were fans of the podcast, they all listened to it, they all had a lot of ideas about what they wanted from the podcast to translate into the TV show. But they were also really supportive. After they watched the interstitials, they knew I wasn’t some goblin on camera, and that I could hold a relatively interesting conversation, and they liked the talent that I was attracting, so they thought they would take a chance on it.
It was really easy, and I think more people should buy shows like that, where you trust the people who are involved. I’ve found the power of just offering something to someone without making them jump through any hoops is so enticing to people, because in this business, you have to… To sell a movie, you have to go in and pitch, if someone has a rewrite on a movie, you have to go in and pitch exactly what you would do with the movie, meaning you have to plot it out and practically write it before you even know if you can get the job, and they have five people doing that. So, Leo Allen, who’s one of the executive producers on the show, I basically said to him, “Do you want this job?” [Laughs.] There’s something to that, where people just ask you, “Do you want to do something?” that makes you go, “Thank you, it’s so refreshing not to have to go through all the garbage.” I would rather do it at a place like IFC, where I’m not getting paid a lot of money, than have to go through the rigmarole you usually have to go through.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine Comedy Bang Bang working at a place that doesn’t do that. I’ve only seen the first two episodes and the 10-minute teaser of the pilot, but it has some strange tangents…
SA: Yeah, one of the first scripts that we turned in for the pilot was the Dr. Reggie-as-the-optometrist sketch. And the first joke, if you can even call it a joke, is if you need an extension cord, you should talk to Jimmy Page, because his chords have been heard all over the world. Now, that makes me laugh to no end. I think Neil Campbell wrote that and turned it in, and I laughed my head off. But I’ve been in the position with other networks that are supposedly in charge of comedy where you turn in a script, and every single joke is noted to death.
One experience I had on another pilot I did was for every single line they asked, “Can we beat this? Can we try something different? Our audience isn’t going to get this. We need to make sure that it’s something that everyone gets.” There was one joke that we wrote for a previous pilot that mentioned the band Bread, because it was a play on someone’s shopping list, and he noticed bread on his shopping list and he’s like, “What is that doing there? Oh, this is my ‘CDs to buy’ shopping list.” And the network got back to me and said, “Can we change this to Green Day?” [Pause, then laughs.] These are the types of notes they usually get. So I was understandably nervous turning this script in. You almost psych yourself out sometimes and say, “Oh, we should change this, because the network’s not going to get it.” But I said to myself doing this show, “I’m just going to take a stab at doing it exactly the way I want to do it, and not compromise and fight battles,” and there have been no battles to fight. They have been so incredibly supportive. I got the notes back on that script, and they were like, “This is hilarious!” and then suggested a couple of minor changes that made the thing better.
AVC: Notes that are actually useful?
SA: Yes, their notes are great. And they’re very supportive of the uniqueness of a person’s vision. So it’s really been a fantastic opportunity, and one that I’ve never experienced, really, at any other network.
AVC: You said that IFC had some ideas for how it would translate. What were those?
SA: Well, they had ideas more in terms of supportive, “Hey, what if we did this?” ideas, rather than ultimatums. For a while, they were trying to figure out if we could do “Would You Rather…” on the show, which, when we do it on the podcast can sometimes take half an hour, 35 minutes to get through one question. They just love it, so they wanted to see if we could do it. I thought about it for a little while, and I tried to act out in my mind what it would be, and I quickly figured out that I don’t think I could do a short version of it. So what we try to do to honor that is, usually the shows end with some sort of a game. They’re more like desk pieces, honestly, they’re more excuses-for-comedy pieces, and the ones that weren’t we’ve cut out of the show. They worked with me on a lot of things.
The fact that Reggie is there is something that we talked about pretty extensively. Every choice I made was based on, “Okay, what do you do with a talk show? How do you reinvent a talk show?” Even though I don’t think I’m reinventing it. They were adamant about doing it single-camera without an audience. We do it with five cameras, but without an audience, which was great. I was very happy they were supportive of that, because that’s the way the interstitials were. I’m really comfortable doing it that way. The Between Two Ferns stuff is without an audience. So I’m comfortable in that zone. They were fine with that, and that was great. But in talking about what to do with a band leader, we had various ideas about what we could do, but we kept returning to, “Well, I hope that Reggie will do it,” because he’s such an amazing improv comedian that it’s like having someone with two different talents. Not only is he musical, and not only is he a funny actor, but he can also improvise. So that’s three talents. And the stuff that we use from him in the show is mostly just me and him going back and forth and improv-ing. That section of the show is very improv, and there’s nothing planned when we do it.
On the very first day of shooting, we were with the crew, and it’s a bunch of people I’ve never worked with before. Everyone’s nervous, because we’re going to be working on the show for six weeks. Is it going to be good? Is it going to be funny? We shoot the show chronologically, so the very first thing we did was me and Reggie doing long takes of improv. But you could sense about two minutes in, the whole crew relaxing, like, “Oh, okay, this is going to be good.” Because no one knew me, no one knew Reggie, no one knew our style, and we just started riffing, and there’s something really cool and, dare I say, magical about our style of riffing that really works well together.
AVC: What was the biggest challenge of translating the show? Was it intended to be just the podcast on TV, or were you trying to approach it differently?
SA: Well, when IFC first asked me to do it, I thought they were asking me to do a daily or weekly show akin to Watch What Happens on Bravo. So when we first started talking about it, that’s the impression that I got, that it would be me talking to a celebrity, really low-budget and low-concept—sort of like I did on the interstitials for them. That’s where my mind was when they first said, “Hey, we’d like to expand the interstitials and do a show with you.” I was thinking about what I would do, and I thought it would have very few bits. But then I talked to Dan Pasternack at IFC about that. I was like, “Is that what you mean?” and he was like, “No, no, no, I think this could be a combination of what you do on your podcasts, but also the sketch show that you’ve always wanted to do.” Because I’ve known him for a long time—I’ve worked with him on a different sketch show. When I started thinking about it like that, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it like the podcast. That I should take the idea of what I think the podcast is and try to make a totally visual version of it and not be slavish to what the podcast is. Hopefully, be something that people who listen to the podcast enjoy. But if people are watching it expecting it to be exactly like the podcast, it’s probably one-fifth the time and it has moving pictures, usually about 30 per second. The challenge for me is figuring out what the podcast is to me, and what is a visual version of that that’s short.
AVC: I was psyched to see that Andy Daly was in a couple of episodes, because his characters are so funny.
SA: It’s really been a challenge to figure out how to do some of those characters in the show, because we have such a small amount of time. We only have three and a half minutes with each guest. We edit them down from longer conversations. The interesting part is, in some of the earlier edits, we edited them down too severely, and some of the conversations needed to breathe a little more. So that’s something that we’ve been experimenting with in the final edits, making sure that we don’t have too many ideas in the show, where we need everything to be two minutes or it can’t be in the show. So we’ve actually been cutting things in order to make room for the other stuff. It’s been an interesting challenge to explain who Bob Ducca is to an audience who doesn’t know in a way that’s satisfactory and they can enjoy what he’s talking about.
AVC: You’ve always had the option of editing the podcast, but you don’t do that much, do you?
SA: Sometimes I do, but not too much.
AVC: So this is a much different situation, where you can edit down to the good stuff.
SA: But the weird part is, one-third of a TV show is totally improvised—it’s trying to find it on the set. Even though you’re going to edit something down, while you’re on the set, you have to think on your feet and go, “Okay, there’s an idea. How do we turn it into something shorter?” Sometimes I’ll do three different takes with someone, and the first take is just exploratory, what are we going to do, what are the performer’s ideas of how they want to do it. We’ll go off on tangents and riffs, and then we’ll stop and go, “Okay, that was really good, let’s hone that and let’s do a version of that,” and then usually the third take is the shortest possible variation on this so we have short responses and short questions to cut to, just so everything is not long and rambling.
Actually, during the pilot, they were giving me cue cards with time signals, much like a real talk show, and we threw those away after the first take. We were like, “These are not working,” because Paul Tompkins was doing Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I got the cut-to-commercial sign before he’d even explained his first point—we were just riffing around so much. So I was like, “Let’s get rid of these, and we’ll just consciously try to shorten them up for the third take.” But for the most part—I’ve seen most of the shows at this point—it’s worked out pretty well, the issue of how much do you include, how much do you not include. I think we found a pretty good balance and a pretty good tone so far.
AVC: How did you come up with visualizing these characters on the show? The visuals add a significant new element to everything. Like when Paul F. Tompkins comes out as Andrew Lloyd Webber, he’s wearing a cape.
SA: The thing that I want to do, which is what I do on the podcast, is I want to work with the performers themselves on what they want to do. With Paul, it was a process where I talked with him on the phone one day and was like, “How do you want this to look?” I’m not a huge fan of a lot of makeup. I love fake mustaches and fake wigs and such, but I don’t want them to look exact. With Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] on Mr. Show, that was a big thing with them. They would want the walls to shake on the set and the cheap-looking stuff, because it’s easier to laugh when something is silly and stupid. So we landed on that. Paul was very strongly interested in wearing a sweater. I do remember that we had a back-and-forth where he convinced me that a sweater was the way to go. I think the cape was a compromise? I don’t recall. In my head I was thinking he should be wearing a tuxedo, but he thought he should be wearing a dad sweater. So the cape was where we landed. But yeah, Paul doesn’t look like him. He had a mustache. It’s very Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon, or Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford. But each performer has their own idea of how they want to look. James Adomian likes to have a little more makeup and look almost exactly like the person, and I think I asked him to pull it back a little bit because I didn’t want it to be just a makeup festival. But Nick Kroll has been doing Chupacabra for years and has his costume and brought it. I always wanted the feel of the show to be dumb, silly, fun, and not trying to fool anyone that we have Andrew Lloyd Webber.
AVC: There are pretty common strains of the Mr. Show aesthetic here: the surrealism, the willingness to be very silly. Because you worked on Mr. Show when you were so young, did the Mr. Show style became your style?
SA: I think that Mr. Show was a huge influence on me. It was literally the reason I started doing comedy, because I was asked to do a bit at The Comedy Store, and B.J. Porter and I went to see Bob and David—who I’d never heard of—do a live show, which was one of the shows that got them the Mr. Show show. And it made me realize that I could do it, that my sense of humor wasn’t something that no one would get. So I think that style is something that I’ve definitely kept going.
I learned a lot on that show. I look back at some of the stuff I wrote on that show and say, “Oh, I wish I could rewrite it now, knowing what I know now.” Those guys taught me a lot about trying to make your work mean something, or not doing something offensive just because it’s offensive, but trying to make a point while you’re doing it. There were some sketches that we would do around the office, some characters that Bob would do or David would do around the office that were so funny, we always were like, “We’ve got to do that on the show!” And they would say, “Well, why would we do it? There’s no point to it yet.” If they did something offensive, they always wanted to be making some statement about it. It wasn’t just because they think farts are funny, or they think the concept of fucking your mom is funny. Their whole sketch about mentally challenged acting awards is about something. When I was writing the Eric Clapton sketch with David, it wasn’t because we thought Eric Clapton’s son dying was really funny, it was because we thought the whole point of people going up and receiving awards for art that was meant to be cathartic was a little strange. Plus, we’d seen Matt Damon and Ben Affleck jumping around making idiots out of themselves.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, I learned so much on that show. I learned how to write, and I learned a really good sketch-writing process that I still use to this day. It’s kind of natural that that style would continue, and the way my show is different is, I’m not really aiming to be offensive in it or controversial. In fact, I have taken pains to cut or bleep cursing out of the show, for the most part. Every once in a while, we’ll leave something in because a joke just can’t work without it, but I want this particular show to be a little more fun and a little more lighthearted than Mr. Show could get. I was watching an episode the other day going, “Wow, this is a lot like what Mr. Show would have been if there had been no studio audience.” Now I feel like I’m comparing it to Mr. Show, which is sacrilege. I feel like I should retract that.
AVC: It seems like it was definitely a strain to do the podcast every week while shooting and writing the show. If you could do it again, would you do it differently?
SA: I made a promise to myself that doing the show, I wouldn’t stop doing the podcast. I mean, the podcast is the whole reason I got the show. It’s the whole reason so many great things are coming to me right now. I feel like it would be disingenuous to stop doing it. It was very important to me to continue and to make sure I not only put it out, but put it out weekly. I sound tired on some of them, but the important thing to me is that I put it out. And that’s what a podcast is to me, not sitting around editing together—like the TV show—the 10 best shows that I can do and then putting out those. It’s about putting it out every week, doing the best show I can that week. Would I do things differently? I tried my best to record a lot of them before the show started, but I quickly ran out of them in the middle of it. So I was doing the show Monday through Friday, 13 hours a day, doing a podcast Saturday morning, and then writing my screenplay Saturday and Sunday, which I had to finish by the end of February. It was a grind, but what are you going to do, not work?
AVC: Can you talk about the screenplay at all?
SA: I don’t know that I can talk about the subject matter or the project itself, but it was the screenplay I wrote in the Imagine Writers Lab, which was a program I was in for a year. Ron Howard had this interesting idea asking, “Why aren’t movies written like TV shows?” where there’s a group of people contributing and making things better, and not just for one day in the middle of shooting with a punch-up session, but from the inception of the project. Because any time you write a screenplay, you have producers assigned to you, and basically you don’t talk to them that much. You go in there and talk to them for an hour maybe, and they’ll let you write, and they’ll always say, “Yeah, come in and talk to us if you need help,” but writers usually sit at home and do it. He thought it would be a cool idea to have a group of writers who are helping each other and meeting every week. So I did that, and Jason Mantzoukas also did it. We were on the comedy end of it. There were nine of us, I believe, and it was a disparate group of people. Some did thrillers, some did dramas; we were two of the comedy people. What’s weird is the script I wrote is funny, but it’s not a… I got hired because they wanted a Judd Apatow-style comedy, but it ended up not being that at all. It’s a really huge-budget, giant kind of adventure movie. So I can’t really talk about what it is because it’s not set up yet, and it’s basically been sitting there since I finished it in February. [Laughs.] But they’re looking at directors right now, and I hope it gets made. That would be nice.
AVC: You said something interesting to another interviewer, that after doing a podcast for three years, you’ve become much more aware of your comic limitations. What did you mean by that?
SA: Hmm. What do I mean by that? What the fuck am I talking about? I think when you do a show, you just try to do the best show you can do. Everyone is the person they are. We’re all born in these bodies our parents gave us, we have the brains that we have. I try to get better in doing the show, but the show evolved from something very different—I thought the show was going to be very different—into what it is now. I try to get better at it, and the interesting thing about being an artist now, with the Internet, is you get a lot of feedback. [Laughs.] So, what I do is not to some people’s taste, and there are some shows that I do where I feel like I do a really great job. The Jason Mantzoukas-Andy Daly “Mayor Of Hollywood” one, I think, is one I did a really good job in. We do these shows and nothing’s planned, and for that one, Andy Daly basically said, “Hey, I think I want to be a guy who wants to be the mayor of Hollywood.” And we said, “Great, press record.” And then we started. I think I did a pretty good job in working with both of those guys to come up with an interesting storyline that had a satisfactory conclusion. But, you know, that’s the thing. You put one out a week, and do the best you can do, and not all of them are going to be winners, but I’m not going to not put out a show because it’s not living up to the standards of what I should put out. The standards of what I put out should be to put out a show every week.
AVC: You did hold a couple, at least.
SA: I held a couple trying to figure out what to do with them, because they were so strange, but then I just felt weird about it. Those guys came and gave me their time. The Ed Helms one is one that I was really wrestling with, because I felt like it was not fair to Ed. I don’t care, personally. I’ll put anything out. But I felt that it was not fair to Ed to put it out without some sort of disclaimer in case people were to listen to that episode and go, “That’s Ed Helms coming in with a great character?” Basically, he was thrown and was trying to work with what we could do, and I think it’s interesting for historians, if there will be any. Then I thought I would pair it with the [Will] Forte one because the Forte one was kind of a weird episode where Forte, who’s great on the TV show, by the way, just didn’t know what the show was all about and got very serious at times, which I think was interesting. But yeah, he got very into reflecting upon the tragedy of the Brothers Gibb at one point, and I was just like, “Where is this show going?”
Back to your question, the limitations with the construct of the show and being a host are such that I have a job to do. I have a role, which is to steer the thing, to get it on track, to lead it into a certain area. I feel like I can’t always be the way I am when I guest on other people’s shows, like Never Not Funny or Doug Loves Movies, where I feel like I can just be loose and pick my moments and say something really funny every couple of minutes. My limitations are, I don’t have the time to craft the show, I don’t have the time to plan out what I’m going to do, I don’t have time to sit and write out a monologue that I can start the show out with. It’s got to continue to be what it is, which is a sort of free-flowing, “Hey, what if we did this?” type of thing, which hopefully will be worth people’s time.
AVC: What’s your ideal work situation?
SA: You know what, I get inspired when I look at Tom Lennon, who did Reno 911! for six seasons while writing huge movies and directing, and also doing other pilots; he did that FX pilot, the Star Trek thing. I mean to say Tom and Ben [Garant]. I don’t mean to leave Ben out—I know Tom better, so my mind goes to that. But I’d like to do that, where I can do this show for part of the year—IFC doesn’t pay me enough to do it full-time—so I’d have to figure out other stuff to do during the year, but the thing about the Imagine script is, I feel like I got really good at scriptwriting. Sitting there every week, breaking down why a script doesn’t work, or does work, and making it better, I feel like I really got into a zone where I was really good at it. So I feel like it’s a waste not to be doing that. I’m trying to do another project before season two starts for this show. Yeah, I’d like to break the year up into doing the TV show, writing some movies, maybe directing some movies or TV shows, and then doing some more web shorts. Am I missing anything? What else do I do? Acting on someone’s show, I would love to do that. I think it would be boring to just do one thing the entire year, or to do the TV show, and then take the rest of the year off to go on vacation or something. I’ve never had that type of mentality. I’ve always tried to fit a million things into what I’m doing.