Comedy Bang! Bang! debuts tonight on IFC at 10 p.m. Eastern. The second episode is available here.
Few comedic works have tapped into the true, unlimited nature of improvisation like Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast. The rambling, tangent-prone audio program is defined by its “open-door policy,” which allows a rotating cast of celebrity impressions, alter egos, and other assorted kooks to wrest control of the program from Aukerman week in and week out. Set in a parallel universe where, to cite one recent example, the host can share a recording studio with filmmakers Bobcat Goldthwait and Garry Marshall, Comedy Bang! Bang! asks a lot of the mind’s eye. The fact that the podcast exists in the audio realm has enabled it to head down some singularly bizarre paths, like a 2011 episode that began with a villainous Alan Rickman (voiced by CBB all-star James Adomian) hijacking the Earwolf studios and ended with Aukerman morphing into a disgruntled leprechaun. (Between points A and B, Adam Scott was also revealed to be a malfunctioning robot.)
Bringing Comedy Bang! Bang! to television threatens to constrain the “anything goes” vibe of the podcast—many of the program’s most surreal moments would be cost-prohibitive to even the most deep-pocketed network. Thankfully, Aukerman and his fellow co-producers and co-writers have gone to great lengths to establish the Comedy Bang! Bang! television series as a separate entity, while still maintaining the uniquely skewed perspective of its namesake and inspiration. It’s a trick the host successfully pulled of once before: Comedy Bang! Bang! started out as Comedy Death Ray Radio, an audio offshoot of the long-running standup showcase founded by Aukerman and his fellow Mr. Show alum B.J. Porter.
Whereas the podcast simultaneously revels in and subverts the conventions of talk radio (and its unruly frat-house neighbor on the airwaves, the morning zoo), the first two episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang! take inspiration from the whole of television, cinema, and web video, marrying its inspired silliness to source material as disparate as post-apocalyptic thrillers, body-swap comedies, game shows, and, most importantly, late-night talk shows. The core of the series and the launching point to its frantically paced and tightly edited tangents is the latest in a long line of anti-talk shows that includes Fernwood 2 Night, the David Letterman era of NBC’s Late Night, Space Ghost Coast To Coast, and a pair of web series with direct ties to Comedy Bang! Bang!: Tim And Eric Nite Live and Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis. (The former produced by CBB production company Abso Lutely, the latter co-created by Aukerman.)
But unlike any of its predecessors, Comedy Bang! Bang! boasts an accessible sleekness while remaining proudly peculiar and lo-fi. Sure, tonight’s première is probably the weirdest half-hour of TV you’ll see all week (until Kurt Braunohler bounds into your living room to initiate the first episode of CBB’s IFC companion, Bunk) but it lacks the public-access shagginess of Between Two Ferns or Abso Lutely’s other ongoing anti-talk show concern, The Eric Andre Show. When Thomas Lennon’s sommelier character Guy has a Casey Tatum moment during the first episode, it’s disturbing—but it’s also captured in crisp, high definition video and set against a gorgeously minimal, wood-paneled set. It’s a strange thing to say about a show where Andy Daly dons a pair of tight-fitting workout capris and a “Caution: Extremely Hot Dancer!” tank top, but Comedy Bang! Bang! looks fantastic.
It’s great that a program as outwardly surreal as Comedy Bang! Bang! can convey its strangeness with a visual palette that doesn’t feel like an acid bath for the eyes; the simple, professional look of the talk-show segments also aids the transitions between the main set and sketch-and-video interludes. While it makes no pretensions toward reinventing the talk-show wheel, the series take strides toward creating a new type of space from which comedic scenes can be spun. Rather than present a series of sketches with little to no connective tissue, segments like tonight’s post-apocalyptic interlude with Gillian Jacobs find organic ins and outs from Aukerman’s time with his guests. These momentary detours could make the show feel fidgety and devoid of focus, as the first two episodes move from segment to segment at a mad gallop. But the sketches are just the outgrowth of the podcast’s open-door policy, and the main set is always available as a place for an episode to regroup and re-focus. The set is also the site of some of the show’s funniest scene work: In next week’s episode, David Koechner arrives mid-show as “substitute host” Mr. Doublebutt (it’s pronounced “Doo-blay-boo”), suddenly transforming Daly, Amy Poehler, and bandleader Reggie Watts into restless elementary students eager to take advantage of Koechner’s stern-yet-naïve sub.
The presence of Aukerman and Watts is crucial to keeping Comedy Bang! Bang! from pulling itself in too many directions as well. On the podcast, Aukerman is more director or ringmaster than host; given the chance to guide the TV show in post-production (rather than in the moment), he’s free to channel all the confidence he’s built through podcast multitasking into playing show-biz-insider straight man, a calming presence in the face of the various CBB crazies. (Naturally, that confidence makes it all the more funny when the craziness rises up and takes hold of the host.) As the show’s resident music man, Watts is both ally and enemy to Aukerman, checking on the specifics of the host’s apparent hangover one minute and damning him through song the next. It’s a malleable relationship that trades in Aukerman and Watts’ pre-existing dynamic, giving the show a lived-in feel on loan from the podcast.
The early episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang! present the series as its own beast, but overlap with its aural forebear will always invite comparisons. Luckily, there’s little here to disappoint the ’cast’s devoted following. (In that vein: If you think Aukerman’s games are pointless in audio form, then you’ll find their TV equivalents even more frivolous. But that’s kind of the point, so loosen up, blowhole.) On a basic televisual level, it’s the welcome return of a surreal, silly comedic voice that hasn’t had a regular TV home since the heyday of Mr. Show. In constricting Comedy Bang! Bang!’s sprawling tendencies to a rapid-fire half-hour, Aukerman and company may have discovered new levels of comedic freedom.
- In an extension of Aukerman’s tendency to introduce himself under a number of podcasting pseudonyms (Hot Saucerman, for one), the host is identified onscreen as “Stop Tacoman” and “Shop Talkerman” in the first two episodes of the TV show.
- Another nod to the longtime fans: In his podcast appearances as Don Dimello, theatrical director, Andy Daly has developed a tic of touching Aukerman’s hand while promoting his latest work of onstage depravity. In the second episode, we finally get to see how creepy that looks.
- Extending off a point made in last night’s Burning Love review: At this point in time, the comedy communities on both American coasts (and, soon, Chicago) are pumping out enough parodies of formulaic TV fare to populate entire, uproarious evenings of alternative-universe programming. You could start with ONN web videos in the nightly-news spot, follow that with Bunk, give primetime over to Burning Love, Childrens Hospital, and NTSF: SD: SUV::, put that upcoming Newsreaders spinoff where Nightline would go, and make Comedy Bang! Bang! and The Eric Andre Show the Late Show-Late Late Show combo. In after-hours syndication: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Fernwood 2 Night, Soap, Police Squad!, and Sledge Hammer! reruns.