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Comedy Bang! Bang!

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Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

The final episode of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s first season hinges on a brilliant, live-action-cartoon motif, in which the “real” Comedy Bang! Bang!—merely host Scott Aukerman and sidekick Reggie Watts in front of a green screen—is periodically exposed. As IFC rolled out the second season of its entry in the booming talk-show parody field, that finale felt more and more like a declaration of purpose for every Comedy Bang! Bang! that followed. If the show is going to be an artificial riff on a format where everything is artificial, it ought to be the most artificial. In becoming so, season two of Comedy Bang! Bang! turned up some of the most incisive television criticism of the year.

Rare is the TV show that calls for its every attribute to be couched in scare quotes; rarer still is the comedy show that can do so while retaining its sense of humor. Remarkable for a series with 20 episodes under its belt (and 30 more on the way), Aukerman’s put-on smile never hides a sneer of condescension, the sign of a unique fascination and amusement with the plastic nature of show business shared with the rest of the Comedy Bang! Bang! team. (Full disclosure: This season, that team included Seth Reiss, head writer of The A.V. Club’s sister publication, The Onion.) Even when a guest seems caught off-guard by the concept—like the eponymous star of “Zoe Saldana Wears A Tan Blouse And Glasses”—the joke is never at their expense. The point is to laugh at the absurdity of showbiz, never to damn it.

That sense is most apparent in season two’s sixth episode, “Gillian Jacobs Wears A Red Dress With Sail Boats.” Running a gauntlet of flashbacks and flash forwards, the episode puckishly nullifies what’s happening in the present—critiquing viewers’ Internet-age habit of staying one step ahead of their favorite shows. “Gillian Jacobs” even sticks an elbow in the rib of IFC’s corporate cousin AMC, casting Chris Hardwick as the hashtag-spouting host of the talk-show-within-a-talk-show Comedy Talk! Talk!, cleverly exaggerating the current TV culture’s search for the latest and greatest “best show ever.”

And still, Comedy Bang! Bang! resists taking potshots at rabid fans of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead. Its satirical targets are ideas, not people. When the fish-out-of-water reality show Cop Swap lets Watts and Officer Ned Dooley (John Carroll Lynch) trade places for the day, the show shares in Officer Dooley’s bewilderment. It helps that there’s authentic warmth to Aukerman’s fake sincerity; it also helps that the show lampoons from a place of knowledge. Gags like Cop Swap, a hidden-camera “Date-Zaster,” or the Jimmy Pardo-hosted game show that hijacks “Bill Hader Wears A Grey Button Down Shirt And Sneakers” aren’t “everything sucks” drive-by hits. They’re cleverly constructed bits of sketch comedy, ones that demonstrate a knowledge of their subjects that simultaneously exposes the seams of television production—and the seams of Comedy Bang! Bang! itself.

In season two, the show grants itself an increased number of opportunities to show those seams, pausing to let a reaction linger or blocking a shot in order to catch the edges of the set walls. Comedy Bang! Bang! offers constant reminders that it’s just a silly talk-show parody. But it’s one that’s deeply, hilariously committed to every angle of that silliness, be it Bobby Moynihan’s performance as “stabby” orphan child Fourvel (“It’s like Fievel but one less”) or Aukerman’s deadpan reading of the ad copy for the fictional Comedy Bang! Bang! Cruise (“The bottom of the boat keeps hitting fish”). Tightly controlled chaos still reigns on Comedy Bang! Bang!, but the show finds new facets of itself (ones borrowed from its podcast predecessor) by easing up enough to, say, let Paul F. Tompkins call attention to the phoniness of his Garry Marshall dye job.

The next steps for the show might be to relent even further, to the point where it can let some of the more rigid aspects of the talk-show format fall away. That central conceit provides stable ground for Comedy Bang! Bang! to return to after its wildest flights of fancy, but it can also be limiting—the musical extravaganza “Casey Wilson Wears A White Lace Dress And A Black Blazer” falls short of total lunacy, because it’s tied so tightly to Aukerman’s mock living room. The strain also shows in an upcoming Halloween episode, starring Paul Reubens in full-on Pee-wee Herman mode. Aukerman and Reubens try their damnedest to capture the spirit of Reubens’ trick-or-treating appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, but the episode doesn’t really get going until it’s treading more on the overlap between Comedy Bang! Bang! and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Still, you have to hand it to Aukerman and crew: Getting Reubens to play Pee-wee in a Halloween costume in a re-creation of 30-year-old late-night appearances just might be the newest height of Comedy Bang! Bang! earnestly fakin’ it.

Created by: Scott Aukerman
Starring: Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts
Returns: Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern on IFC
Format: Talk-show parody
12 episodes watched for review

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