Comedy Bang! Bang! is an odd little series: not quite a talk show, not quite sketch comedy, not quite a variety show. Its tone is distinct, but its appeal can be hard to explain. But like most mysteries, the curious case of the talk show’s charm yields to careful examination.
In the world of the Comedy Bang! Bang! studio, Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts host their famous guests and eccentric passers-by with all the trappings of a talk show, but the show’s devices don’t restrict themselves the format. “Jenna Fischer Wears A Floral Blouse And Black Heels” plays on the conventions of detective fiction, board games, advertising, cartoons, and even, as the slogan for the “Who Has Done It?” game indicates, Comedy Bang! Bang!’s own loose genre, “the hipster comedy show.”
As Pam Beasley on The Office, Jenna Fischer served as the voice of reason and compassion, and she brings the same genial accessibility to her guest spot. That warmth softens the backstage murder mystery that leaves Guy, new CBB tour guide, sprawled bloodily on the studio floor (with other victims to follow) and the on-stage antics of the Calvins brothers, “the preeminent promoters of the sport of horse-fighting in these great United of States.” Comedy Bang! Bang! is never afraid to go dark, but this one-two punch of morbidity could easily spin its usual absurdity into grimness ill-suited to the show’s light tone.
The episode balances its darkness and whimsy by honoring the series’ tacit guiding principle: It’s ironic, but rarely sardonic. (This is just one way the IFC show differs from the podcast, which often weaves a caustic tone into that glib brightness.) Comedy Bang! Bang!’s greatest appeal comes from its amiable intelligence, the ease with which it fondly mimics the tics and tropes of light entertainment, re-contextualizing the familiar to make it fresh and funny, proving that parody needn’t be biting to be accurate.
An extension of this logic—the virtue of a sharp wit that isn’t cutting—leads Inspector Gantlet, Detective Extraordinaire (Jason Alexander sporting a trench coat, deerstalker, and effete accent), to strike Reggie and Scott from his list of suspects immediately. “They make the world a happier place by making people laugh, not a sadder place by making people dead.”
Even the Calvins twins are imbued with earnest purpose and emotion, however perverse. Yes, their vocation relies upon depraved and habitual acts of animal cruelty in which two magnificent thoroughbred horses “get up on they haunches, they put on the gloves, and they punch each other ’til they dead,” and yes, these horse fights occur several times a day every day, leaving an incalculable number of horse corpses littering the Calvins Twins’ Family Bee Honey Taffy Farm and Horse-fighting Ranch.
But the Calvins brothers, Smith and Jones (Taran Killam and Paul Brittain), are passionately dedicated to their craft and sensitive to the sacrifices it demands. Smith Calvins chokes on suppressed tears when he observes, “These horses, they’re like our own sons and five of them are guaranteed to die–” (“Before breakfast!,” his brother interjects.) “So… when you surrounded with that kind of sadness… you gotta laugh!”
Aukerman’s piqued indignation alone might have made this segment feel slight and out of balance, but as she so often did on The Office, Jenna Fischer silently grounds the scene, her steady gaze of repulsion lingering as the brothers rhapsodize about their many, many certain-death horse-fighting bouts. Her horror nicely foils Scott’s disgust and the Calvins brothers’ zeal, giving the moment a depth that makes its inhumanity, and their oblivity, preposterous. (“This is inhumane!” Scott exclaims. “That’s right,” Smith Calvins helpfully clarifies, “It’s horses.”)
Nathan Rabin describes the value of earnest, knowing enjoyment in his essay on Analyze Phish, the Earwolf podcast in which Harris Wittels teaches Scott Aukerman about the appeal of the often derided jam band. As Rabin observes, “honestly attempting to understand a much-derided but enduring pop-culture phenomenon isn’t just better for the spirit than glibly making mean jokes; it’s a hell of a lot funnier.” Comedy Bang! Bang! takes that honest understanding of its pop-culture targets and wrings comedy from mimicry, not mockery, skewing talk-show rhythms without skewering them.
As always, the weird and happy world of Comedy Bang! Bang! resets at the end of the episode, with the string of murders solved not by the smug Inspector Gantlet but by Reggie Watts, who sums up the evidence with the plummy aplomb of Poirot, unmasking the culprit and restoring order even as he confesses to accidentally providing the cover of darkness that allowed the killer to continue his murders.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of the many lives lost during its filming: Guy Balfour, Mark Paul Posner, Gwendolyn Bruznik, Prof. Hans Ketchup, and the horses of the Ca. Fa. B. Ta. Hu. A. A. Ho. Fi. Ri. Ra. As the names of the dead play across the screen, the survivors belly-laugh over Reggie’s fatal flub… because you gotta laugh.
- Scott’s screen credit: Khaki Dockerman. This episode included several pairs of khakis. Can you spot them all? It’s Spot The Khakis, a fun learning game from Sullivan’s, the inventors of Zordic Assassin and Clive Bryllis’ Adventure In Time!
- As a horse lover, Scott objects to horse-fighting. Jenna Fischer agrees, “I’m an animal lover in general,” but not Scott: “Oh, I just like horses.”
- That’s Ron Lynch of Home Movies as Prof. Hans Ketchup.
- Who else wanted to hear the Transylvanian equivalent of “You bloomin’ onion, go clean a chimney”?
- It’s no surprise the Murder, She Wrote tag nailed the mystery series’ distinctive font, but the Jessica Fletcher-approved Royal typewriter illustrates a gratifying attention to detail. Comedy Bang! Bang! feels like a seat-of-the-pants production, but that’s a carefully constructed allusion.