Scott Aukerman of Comedy Death-Ray
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Just as the beloved HBO sketch series Mr. Show served as an incubator for some big names in “alternative comedy” in the ’90s, the live stand-up series/radio show Comedy Death-Ray has provided the same support since it debuted at a Los Angeles bar in 2002. The torch-passing is no accident; co-creators Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter wrote for and performed on Mr. Show (Aukerman, most memorably, as taint model Theo Brixton in the Taint Magazine sketch), and they’ve fostered a similar comic sensibility with CDR. The live show, now housed at L.A.’s UCB Theatre, draws from well-established comics (Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Maria Bamford), up-and-comers (Reggie Watts, Garfunkel And Oates, John Mulaney), and, of course, Mr. Show alumni (Sarah Silverman, Brian Posehn, Mary-Lynn Rajskub). CDR has since made the leap to other media via a double-disc CD compilation, yearly calendar, and in spring 2009, a web-radio show/podcast for indie1031.com on Friday afternoons. As host, Aukerman mixes guest interviews with comic shenanigans (Paul F. Tompkins, Seth Morris, Nick Kroll, and others often show up in various guises), and the loose silliness has made Comedy Death-Ray Radio one of the web’s most reliably enjoyable podcasts. Aukerman, who spends most of his time as a screenwriter (he also produces and directs the popular Between Two Ferns web-video series with Zach Galifianakis) has begun occasionally taking CDR Radio on the road. Just before a trip to Chicago for the Just For Laughs festival, he spoke with The A.V. Club about the live and radio shows, punching up a script for the Olsen twins, and the surprisingly secretive Between Two Ferns.
The A.V. Club: What made you decide to take the show onto the radio?
Scott Aukerman: Well, I’d been doing bits on the morning show on Indie 103.1, and when it went off terrestrial radio, I noticed all of the DJs left or got fired, because they couldn’t pay them. [Laughs.] So I thought there was kind of a hole there for people who were willing to do shows for no money. My friend Joe asked them if I could do the show, and I’ve always wanted to be in radio. I’ve always been fascinated with radio and broadcasting. I did fake radio shows as a kid, where I was a DJ and stuff like that. It was very exciting, and I didn’t really care that I wasn’t gonna get paid anything to do it. It was kind of an exciting thing that I was just gonna do for fun as a hobby, one hour a week.
AVC: The time limit seems pretty loose—the show usually goes longer than its allotted hour.
SA: For a little while it was pretty rigorous, like I was supposed to end at 1:00. But as the show got better—the early ones were pretty shaky—and hit its stride, the station manager didn’t really care anymore if it went longer, and he stopped scheduling any shows directly after me. It’s kind of hard when you’re doing a show; if you’re on some tangent that you’re really enjoying, it’s difficult to wrap it up in 60 seconds. I would much prefer to play it out and take an extra 15 minutes on the show.
AVC: You have a lot more freedom with web radio in that regard.
SA: Yeah, there’s so much freedom, because no one is listening. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you know how many podcast listeners you have?
SA: I do know. Uh, a lot. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re going to keep this vague?
SA: Yeah, I hate to be vague about it, but it’s surprising to me. I had no idea; I think a lot of people had no idea how many people are into podcasts. I certainly didn’t. The podcast was kind of an afterthought, because I was just excited about being on the radio. Then I found that the podcast listenership is some 20 times what people are listening to on the radio. It was very surprising to me how popular they are, and it continues to surprise me, and any guest who’s on the show is always surprised by the residual aftereffects. Because it can really impact their touring, but they have no idea when they come to do it. Because most people view podcasts as like, “Oh, I’m going to go to my friend’s garage and record something to a shitty tape recorder, and it will be on somebody’s website, and a hundred people will listen to it.” But it’s actually way more huge than that. None of these answers are funny.
AVC: Could you jazz them up a little bit?
SA: Okay, so there’s a hundred million people listening in a jazzy fashion.
AVC: You started by doing characters on the Indie 103.1 morning show. How cognizant are you of the hacky “morning zoo” pitfalls?
SA: I listened to a lot of radio back when it still existed—there are still radios, aren’t there? I’m not sure—so I know of them. My friend wasn’t doing a typical morning-zoo-type program, so I would do very Comedy Death-Ray Radio-esque characters on his show, which is weird, because I never do them on my own show. I remember once I called in with a really horrible Robin Williams impression that was just making fun of Robin Williams and his act, but we never said it wasn’t Robin Williams, so everyone who was listening in L.A. thought it was the real Robin Williams, and called up to talk about how funny he was. I’m cognizant of the pitfalls, but I sort of enjoy them. I enjoy the format of radio, and I sometimes try to play into it a little bit and use those—sort of what Letterman did with his show when he first started out, trying to take what people already do in the medium and put their own twist on it.
AVC: You can be meta in that regard.
SA: If I knew what that word meant in regard to this context, I would agree.
AVC: [Laughs.] Well if you’re cognizant—
SA: Again, another word I have no idea—if you could dumb it down for me, I’ll try to jazz it up.
AVC: What about the early shows was shaky?
SA: Well, I think I was figuring it out. The first time I came in there, I had no plan. I just was gonna talk, and I wondered if I could talk for an hour. Now it’s hard to get me to stop after an hour. I didn’t even know if I could talk that long, so I stacked the deck with friends like Rob Huebel and Tom Lennon, who I knew would at least take the brunt of the shoulder of the something. But I think I did three shows, and then all of the sudden I started writing for the MTV Movie Awards last year, so I had to take off a couple of weeks, so it was one of the most inauspicious starts in show business. I did three kind of shitty shows and took two weeks off. But when I came back after a couple of weeks, I sort of figured out exactly what I wanted to do with it. Originally when I first started, I also had a view of podcasts as just some bros sitting around talking. The station really wanted it to be more like a comedy program, with bits and stuff like that. People hate taking notes—they talk about when the suits give them notes and stuff—but that was actually a great note, and made the show kind of what it is now, where I have a conscious eye toward it not being just people sitting around chatting.
AVC: Speaking of the MTV Movie Awards, you incited a small frenzy last year when you mentioned that the Brüno-Eminem confrontation was staged—and that got you fired from this year’s movie awards.
SA: The whole thing was sort of unfortunate. It was my mistake, in that I had no idea how important that was to anyone. We were so isolated from everything else that was going on in the award show that none of us knew anyone was supposed to think that was real. So it surprised me the next day when a couple of my friends were saying, “Hey, that was fake… right?” I mean, everyone knew it was fake, but everyone was couching it like there was some uncertainty about it. Of course it was fake, which is why I wrote the thing of like, “Of course it was fake, what do you mean?” But it was just unfortunate that I had no idea how stupid the American public is, to the point that there was some confusion about it. But yeah, it was just an unfortunate situation. But the fact that they’re still mad about it amuses me.
AVC: When you’re doing these road shows, why do a Comedy Death-Ray Radio show as opposed to a comedy showcase?
SA: Well, there’s going to be so many comedy showcases in Chicago with people doing that kind of stuff. I’ve done those for five or six years now in festivals, and at this point in my life, I’m enjoying this more. I think it’s a little more different. It’s a place where all the guests who are gonna be on the show will be doing something unique to this one performance, and you’ll never see it anywhere else, as opposed to their great comedy acts, which they’ve been honing. Which is fantastic, and that’s mainly what they do, but at least in these shows, something weird will happen that you’ll never see in any other show.
AVC: You’ve said that you want to keep the live performances at UCB intimate. What do you think that allows for?
SA: I personally like comedy when it’s interactive with the audience, in a way. This is going to sound super-nerdy. [Laughs.] Let me see what I can do with this. But in a serious answer, when I say “interactive with the audience,” I don’t mean that people are talking to the audience, or every act talks to the audience, or incorporates the audience in their bit. I guess what I mean is that the energy from the audience is part of their performance, and is directly impacting the performer. So a lot of times, if you’re doing a show to 500 people or more in a theater, it’s hard to have that connection with the audience, and have it be part of your thing. It’s almost like a performance in that case. Whereas I prefer it when the audience is directly stacked on top of each other, and the performer is playing off that.
It’s like when I went to go see The Rolling Stones—not to brag, but I have that kind of money—it was an intimate performance at Dodger Stadium. But you could pay a ton of money to get a seat on the stage, as they called it, and I thought that was a really cool idea: “Oh wow, they’re gonna be playing and interacting with the crowd.” But when I saw the tour, it was basically like they had erected a huge balcony that was super far away from them, and way up high. And it was like, “Ugh, I would’ve hated to pay that much money to basically be getting a view of their asses the entire time, super far away.” But I really enjoy when a performer is just right there in the middle of something, and has to deal with everything around them.
AVC: After all these years, have you developed a sense of comedians who will likely go on to bigger things?
SA: Well, it’s weird, because it should take people years to hone their act before you can see that in someone, so I hate to be like, “Oh, the first day I saw Aziz Ansari, I knew he had it. He was gonna be a bigger star than anyone who had been doing it for 10 years.” But there are those people like Aziz or B.J. Novak who are really good when they start off, and you go, “Oh wow, they’re gonna be famous.” But that’s not what everyone should strive for. People should take a while to get good at what they’re doing, and there’s no shame in sucking for a long time. You shouldn’t count those people out. Not everyone can be as successful a performer as myself, who gave 10 great performances the first time I ever did comedy, and then toiled in obscurity for years.
AVC: You don’t really perform stand-up much, right?
SA: No, you know, I’m not incredible at it. I do it—I actually did some shows in Austin this year, and I was just like “You know what? I’m sort of disrespecting this medium, in a way, by dicking around and only doing jokes that I enjoy.”
AVC: Like what?
SA: Well, I have a really funny joke where I say that I’ve lost a lot of weight and that I’m on a diet. Then I tell them about my diet, and it’s a seafood diet, where I see food, and I eat it, as long as it’s seafood. Then I list different types of seafood for a really long time that are on this diet. And then I reiterate I can eat any of that, as long as I see it. It tickles me to no end to just list seafood for a really long time, and no one seems to understand it. So I will do stand-up every once in a while, but I just don’t have the time to perform it as much as you need to in order to get great at it. When we were putting together the Comedy Death-Ray record for Comedy Central Records, I performed every day for a month in order to get my chops back up in order to get good enough for my shitty set on that record. But that’s what it takes. It takes you going out every single day, and no matter how bad the club is, just getting up and doing it. I don’t have that kind of time to commit to it, so I feel disrespectful of other stand-ups when I put myself on shows. It’s not something I’m really great at, but right now, I’m just focusing on my radio show with my performing.
AVC: You aren’t getting paid for your radio show, and it’s a ton of work. How do you divide your time?
SA: Well, the good part about it is that it’s still fun for me. It’s something I really look forward to, so I don’t mind that I’m not making any money for it, and spending that time doing it. It’s something I really enjoy, and feel that I’m good at. I probably do spend too much time on it, as opposed to my real work. I probably could be a world-class screenwriter by now if I had spent the kind of work I devote on Comedy Death-Ray to that. But I do okay, in that regard. I mean, my stuff gets bought, so it’s all right. But you’re really making me rethink this whole thing. Are you trying to say that I’m never gonna be successful? Just like my parents?
AVC: So you spend most of your time screenwriting?
SA: Yeah, that’s mainly my job.
AVC: I interviewed Kyle Kinane a few weeks ago, and we were talking about what it takes to make the decision to finally move to L.A. and go for it. For someone like you, what does it take not to just grind it out, but actually prosper out there? Do you basically live project to project?
SA: Sort of. It’s interesting, because I do have a lot of sympathy for comedians who are really great stand-ups, who that’s what they’re great at, and I wish there was more money in it. Unless you get to the Jim Gaffigan level or whatever, where you’re selling out the Wiltern or clubs like that wherever you go, if you’re just a stand-up, there isn’t a lot of financial upside. So I guess I would encourage anyone to sort of diversify. But it’s hard to tell that to someone who’s great at stand-up, like Kyle, because he works super-hard at it. That’s where he devotes his energy, and he’s amazing at it.
The flipside of saying “diversify” is, I know a lot of stand-ups who go get a day job writing on something, and they never do stand-up anymore. They let the art form that got them that job languish. I’m talking to Harris Wittels right now. It’s difficult to say, “Hey, take the short-term money and let your art form languish,” but I guess some of my early managers felt I should have devoted a little more time to performing, and less on writing, I’d always wanted to be one or the other, and a lot of my early stuff with B.J. Porter got a lot of acclaim, and my work on Mr. Show and stuff like that. It was easier for me to kind of get into the writing side, which I really, really love, and think I’m good at. So for me it’s not a grind, as you put it.
AVC: It seems like a lot of people do script work as well, punching up scripts, which can be pretty lucrative.
SA: I think the most I’ve ever been paid per hour was when I did punch-ups for that Olsen twins movie, New York Minute. That was a crazy day. First of all, the Olsen twins weren’t there, but their weirdo manager was there, who came to the meeting wearing a dirty T-shirt and unkempt hair, and then kept leaving for the bathroom every 15 minutes. I don’t know what he was doing in there. Maybe he just has a small bladder, but I thought he had large nostrils. The director [Dennie Gordon] was on teleconference from Canada, where the movie was shooting. We went for about an hour, and talked about the script, and how to improve it. And about an hour into it, the director’s video screen froze, and she assumed that ours froze too, and we couldn’t hear or see her, the way she couldn’t see or hear us. She turns to her assistant—and we can see all of this—and she says, “Wow, this is really interesting, isn’t it? I mean, I’m not going to do any of what these people are talking about. I mean, these ideas are horrible, but it’s kind of interesting to just sit and hear this stuff.” We were all just shocked, and the producers of the movie were shocked, and laughing and trying to cover it up. Very shortly after that, we broke for the day—they knew that nothing was going to happen out of this. So that was about an hour’s worth of work, and it’s the most amount of money I’ve ever been paid for an hour.
AVC: How much did being involved with Mr. Show help you?
SA: You know, it really helped for a few years after that, but show business is constantly about reinvention. People stop caring after a few years, and then you have to do something else good in those three years that people can point to and say, “Oh, but he also did this.” Then people stop caring about that after a while, and then you have to do something new. Right now, I’m lucky enough that people can say, “Oh, he does the Between Two Ferns stuff,” so that association is now helping me and opening doors, but people will stop caring about that very soon, if I have anything to do about it. Mr. Show was an immeasurable help for a few years, but after that, you kind of have to get something going on your own.
AVC: You’ve produced all of those Between Two Ferns videos and directed a couple of them. How did that get started?
SA: B.J. Porter and I were doing a pilot based on the Comedy Death-Ray live show for Fox, to take the place of MADtv, until they realized that nothing could take the place of MADtv. [Laughs.] We knew we really wanted Zach to do something on it, and he agreed to do a piece for it, which turned into the first one, with Michael Cera.
AVC: Was that a one-off, or were you already planning it as a series?
SA: The first one—okay, let’s see how much can I go on the record about all of this. The first one was for a Fox pilot that B.J. Porter and I were doing. And we just decided to put it up on the Internet as a lark, or as a goof, on a whim, and people liked it.
AVC: If it was for Fox, was there some weirdness with whether you could continue doing it?
SA: Oh, I don’t want to bring their attention to this. [Laughs.] Well, you know— it’s a very strange situation where when we get to them, we never know when they’re going to happen, and all of the sudden we’ll just get called the night before, and then they’ll just kind of occur. And there’s really not much more to it than that.
AVC: Are they completely improvised?
SA: You know, whatever happens, you see.
AVC: How much do you direct?
SA: Well, I usually say “Point the camera there at Zach” or “Point the camera at the guest”—that’s pretty much the extent of it.
AVC: How long do the shoots take?
SA: You know, what you see on the Internet is what it is. [Long pause.] [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s like we’re talking about Area 51—so you can neither confirm nor deny that Between Two Ferns exists.
SA: It does exist, they happen, we point cameras at them, then we put them on the Internet.
AVC: Why is it so secretive?
SA: There’s really not anything else to say about it. It’s really not interesting.
AVC: But it’s become popular, and it’s something you can refer to when you’re getting new work.
SA: Yeah, but the process of them—there’s really nothing to say other than they just kinda happen. I wish there was a more interesting story about them, but we get three or four minutes of these people’s time, and then we put them on the Internet.
AVC: So whatever happens, happens.
SA: Uh, what you see is what happened. It’s like Lost says: “What happened, happened.”
AVC: You know you’re getting into dark territory when you’re using Lost to explain something.
SA: [Laughs.] I know. It’s exactly as confusing as Lost.