In 100 Episodes, The A.V. Club examines the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity and/or longevity. In this edition: Comedy Bang! Bang! will air its 100th episode as part of its fifth season, which begins Friday, June 3 on IFC.
There are three Comedy Bang! Bang!s—all related, none exactly like the others. The stand-up showcase Comedy Bang! Bang! was known for most of its existence as Comedy Death-Ray, playing host to the likes of Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, and Aziz Ansari during its 10-year run. Comedy Death-Ray spawned a spin-off record and a radio-show-cum-podcast, and in 2011, the whole enterprise—which now included a pilot for a series on IFC—was rebranded as Comedy Bang! Bang!
Confused? Just try explaining the premise of the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show: It’s a talk show where real celebrities promote their actual projects, but the talk-show framework is mostly a launching pad for absurdist sketch comedy. The guest roster for each episode is filled out by notable comedic performers, appearing not as themselves but as the type of characters who take advantage of the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast’s “open door” policy. The host is a bit of a boob—though that’s an act, too—and the bandleader doesn’t have a band.
It defies description, yet Comedy Bang! Bang! has become one of the most inventive, distinctive TV comedies of the 2010s. What set out to be a “take on any kind of show that had a host in it” evolved into a wide-ranging parody of TV conventions—some of which it eventually followed. It’s far from a ratings hit—the audience for its fourth season peaked at 83,000 viewers—but the show has achieved a longevity that often eludes non-topical sketch series.
“It’s such a niche show and it came about at a point in time where television shows that were niche were no longer considered failures,” Comedy Bang! Bang! creator and host Scott Aukerman told The A.V. Club.
Aukerman knows from niches. He was a writer and cast member for the final season of Mr. Show With Bob And David, making his most memorable onscreen appearance as Taint Magazine coverboy Theo Brixton. In 2002, Aukerman launched Comedy Death-Ray with then-writing partner B.J. Porter out of the 95-capacity M Bar in Hollywood. After the weekly live show moved to L.A.’s UCB Theatre and Comedy Death-Ray Radio’s freewheeling improvisations laid the groundwork for the Earwolf Podcast Network, the seeds for Comedy Bang! Bang!’s IFC incarnation were planted around reruns of cult TV shows.
In 2010, the cable channel founded as the Independent Film Channel was shifting its focus from indie movies to cutting-edge comedy. To supplement original series like The Whitest Kids U’Know and Onion News Network, IFC acquired the rights to rebroadcast Arrested Development, Freaks And Geeks, The Larry Sanders Show, and Mr. Show. Aukerman was tapped to conduct Comedy Death-Ray-branded interstitials for these reruns, putting him opposite fellow Mr. Show alums (Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins) as well as cast members (Seth Rogen, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Cera) and creators (Judd Apatow, Paul Feig) from the lineup’s other shows. As Aukerman later learned, these segments were part Q&A, part audition.
“They were testing me out to see if I froze up on camera or if I could do a relatively entertaining interview,” he said. “I remember the Paul F. Tompkins one was really funny and we didn’t really talk that much about Mr. Show, we just kind of riffed the entire time.” Dan Pasternack, a friend of Aukerman’s who was also a development executive at IFC, sensed the potential for a show, and a deal for a half-hour pilot was struck.
“It wasn’t necessarily based on the podcast at that point—they just said, ‘What would you do as a talk show?’ I figured it would be like Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live or something.”
It would, in the sense that Watch What Happens Live also features a host, his guests, and a lively living room set. But Andy Cohen’s bookings eschew “stabby” little orphan boys and fainting singers with adult-onset freckles, and his couch is decidedly non-verbal.
The Comedy Bang! Bang! that debuted on June 8, 2012 shared a basic structure with its audio precursor, built around improvised conversations with famous guests and their less famous, play-acting co-stars. Adding visuals to the equation opened all sorts of avenues for joke telling, and early episodes pile on the optical trickery with relish—some Pee-wee’s Playhouse-type talking furniture here, a blatantly obvious wig on Amy Poehler there. Joining Aukerman as co-host was musician and comedian Reggie Watts, who had previously contributed theme songs for the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast. In their ad-libbed exchanges (“Reggie is an improvisational genius,” current bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic told The A.V. Club), Aukerman and Watts struck up a winning rapport, but their on-the-spot conversations presented some unexpected hurdles.
“Around the ninth or tenth episode, I was looking around and going ‘I don’t know what to talk about anymore,’” Aukerman said. “The first season feels slow to me now. Knowing our pace, I look back at the first season and go, ‘Oh, man, if we were doing this show now we would do it this way and it would be a little more brightly paced.”
But a logy episode of Comedy Bang! Bang! still moves faster than the average TV comedy, and the slack of season one is disguised by sharp editing and the unyieldingly forward momentum of the talk show format. There’s always another guest to get to, another sketch to set up, another running joke to indulge—qualities that kept Comedy Bang! Bang! humming as more scripted material and narrative was integrated into the proceedings. (A necessary adjustment when IFC ordered 20 episodes for seasons two and three, and then doubled that order for season four.) Balancing these alterations, later seasons have been more apt to momentarily drop the show’s deadpan façade. Comedy Bang! Bang! works as well as it does because the on-camera talent commits to even the silliest of premises and characters, but as they say in one of the show’s giddiest moments of breaking character, sometimes “you gotta laugh.”
The spirit of spontaneity also gave the show its greatest gift: The relationship between Aukerman and Watts. With the writers wrapping greater amounts of story around Comedy Bang! Bang!’s talk-show skeleton, the collegial connection between host and band leader bloomed into an onscreen friendship with a deep backstory. In the show’s “never-before-seen pilot episode,” Scott plucks soft-spoken “Reginald Watersmith” from the ranks of a traditional late night band; when season three flashes forward to the series finale, there’s a tearful reunion between Scott and Reggie, who’s apparently joined the army and ceded his duties to Jenny Lewis.
“By the mid part of the fourth season, we had done 70 episodes where we had gone through these emotional journeys, and people became really invested in our relationship,” Aukerman said. “It was unexpected because we were just doing a fake talk show—but at the same time, the writers and I had really started building up this relationship and making the stories a little sweeter.”
With the Scott and Reggie duo, the show simultaneously lampooned and emulated TV tradition. Their functions on the show are positively vaudevillian, and they toggle between them with ease: Aukerman’s straight man routine grounds the absurd proceedings, which jibe with and are enhanced by Watts’ eccentricities. By the time one half of the act took his talents to an honest-to-goodness late-night talk show, he’d more than earned a fond farewell: Watts’ departure for The Late Late Show With James Corden was prefaced with a heartfelt send-off penned by CBB fixture Neil Campbell. That episode, “Judd Apatow Wears A Polo And Blue Suede Shoes,” is as moving as a Citizen Kane-riffing alien invasion saga gets.
“It was a really tough nut to crack,” Aukerman said. “But once we were in it, I was looking forward to it, because that’s something that TV shows have to do. And I really wanted to face every challenge that every TV show has had to face.”
Those challenges have since included the introduction of two new bandleaders/sidekicks in two seasons. One-time guest star Kid Cudi took over the role in the middle of the show’s super-sized fourth season, and he’s since passed the mic to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Yankovic, a fan of the series and a frequent presence in its first four seasons, went to extensive lengths to pick up where his predecessors left off, leaving his accordion at home to learn the looping techniques employed by Watts.
“I wanted to be respectful to the job,” Yankovic said. “Scott told me that the musical component to bandleader isn’t as important as it used to be—it’s more about doing the comedy—but my thought was, ‘If you want me to be the bandleader, I’m going to put a lot of thought and effort into this.’”
The face behind the keyboard keeps changing, but the world of Comedy Bang! Bang! is firmly in place. Just as Pee-wee’s Playhouse kept its doors open to Miss Yvonne, Reba The Mail Lady, and Cowboy Curtis, the Comedy Bang! Bang! set is frequented by lovable dope Slow Joey (Haley Joel Osment), Zeke the security guard (Baron Vaughn), and a revolving battery of authority figures (David Alan Grier as the network president, Matt Walsh as producer L. Jefe Manincharge). The first 90 episodes have fully stocked the Sullivan’s family of fine products, from farting trucks to all-purpose powders. Like the dense mythology and myriad inside jokes of its podcast counterpart, Comedy Bang! Bang! rewards those who pay attention. It’s made for and by people who watch TV too closely, and its multilayered approach gives the show tremendous replay value—for those who’ve discovered it, at least.
“It’s not a conventionally popular show, but the people that watch it are the people that really care about comedy,” Yankovic said. “I think it’s the ideal show for comedy nerds.”
“A lot of TV right now is finding those small audiences who are passionate about something and making it their favorite show,” Aukerman said. “Television now is really about finding the margins, and that’s where our show landed, and we were one of the first shows to take advantage of that.”