The Benson Interruption debuts tonight on Comedy Central at midnight Eastern.
Who knew that a greeting as generic as "Hey, everybody" could serve as a catchphrase? At this point, it's as much a part of the Doug Benson persona as stoner humor, movie fandom, and the quick-draw wit that's all the more impressive for emerging from a cloud of Afghan kush smoke. Benson is a great entertainer, no doubt about it, but his talents haven't been served particularly well by the stand-up format in the past, and his albums are mixed bags of good-but-not-great material that pale in comparison to his finest work from the Doug Loves Movies podcast and his live show, The Benson Interruption. A bit unfocused when working solo, Benson is a world-class riffer when he has someone to bounce ideas off of and room in which to do it. Which is what makes the uneven premiere of Comedy Central's TV version of The Benson Interruption hilarious and frustrating in (nearly) equal measure.
But we'll get to that in a minute. For those who haven't had the pleasure of attending the non-televised version of Interruption, it's built around your standard lineup of joke-slingers, the key difference being that Doug serves essentially as a heckler/collaborator operating from the front row. In the Comedy Central version, Doug sits on stage in a swanky high-back chair, but his role is the same as in the original, where he derailed bits, questioned the authenticity of anecdotes, and sometimes hijacked entire sets. Some performers—especially those with improv chops—were excellent at rolling with the punches, and the additional friction enlivened material and gave the shows the energy of a high-wire act. Other comedians were more resistant to Doug's intrusions, as they were too focused on just putting one foot in front of the other.
Who better than Nick Swardson to kick things off? He has his own Comedy Central show (the filthertainment sketch program, Pretend Time with Nick Swardson), he's demonstrated chemistry with Doug on Doug Loves Movies, and he enjoys an audience that's similarly split between the "Whoo! Party!" set and alternative-comedy aficionados, most of whom probably fell in love with him via his roller-skating Reno 911 character, Terry Bernardino. Doug wastes no time in getting his interrupt on, heading his guest off before he can even dig into his first bit, and sparking a discussion of what exactly the phrase "power orgy" would mean. The next chunk—which is all about lazy, alien-themed restaurants—sees Nick making use of his "Wheelchair Cat: Trust Fund Kitty" voice from Pretend Time to order "orbit soup." I'm a sucker for space-humor, and Doug's joke about the restaurant missing the obvious opportunity for "Saturn Rings"—and instead just calling them onion rings—was just the kind of riffage I was counting on from him.
Recently ubiquitous The League star Nick Kroll fares less well. Here's another performer like Benson who's unstoppable when working within his specialty (in his case, over-the-top improvised characters like Bobby Bottleservice or trashy That's So Raven craft-services coordinator Fabrice Fabrice), but is ho-hum in other contexts. Of the three performers, Kroll is the most insistent on sticking to the script, recounting the story of his first stand-up gig where he tried to fake pissing himself for laughs but forgot the all-important prop: a water-balloon. Forced to wing it with a difficult-to-pop sandwich bag, he ended up accidentally simulating masturbation to a confused audience. Kroll's material is a bit disappointing, and he finishes on a weak bit where he translates things into Spanish (but actually just says them in a Spanish accent), before he and Doug engage in a head-scratching bit of business called a Tweet-off. More than any underwhelming material or the show's compressed, breathless pacing, the act of two comedians reading one-liners that were already available on their Twitter feeds to each other feels like the show's most ill-advised move. As far as I know, this was invented solely for the TV version of The Benson Interruption; it's a segment that might work live, but falls completely flat on-screen. It's the comedy-world equivalent of going to see your favorite electronic music performer live only to have them work exclusively from their laptop.
Last up is Chris Hardwick, who probably wouldn't be featured in the premiere if he weren't pulling double duty as theme-song composer. (He also supplied the evilly catchy tune for Doug Loves Movies with partner Mark Phirman.) Hardwick strikes a good balance of bantering with Doug and actually making headway into his set. Too bad that he comes from the school of comedy that insists on continuous yelling and putting the. same. emphasis. on. every. word. I tend to lump motor-mouthed comedians like Chris Hardwick and Jimmy Pardo together; they're obviously bright and quick-witted, and they have a good reserve of knowledge to pull from, but their punchlines have a tendency to drown in a sea of loquacity. That said, Hardwick holds his own here and tees up the funniest lines of the night for Doug: When he describes how that nineteenth Duggar baby probably just dropped right out of its mother, every-sperm-is-sacred-style, and made a run for it, Doug's right there with "Good thing he's on a leash that's connected to me." And when Hardwick likens Vegas to a stripper pole that looks all shiny from afar but actually smells like poop and sadness when you get up close, Doug laments that he never knew you were allowed to smell the pole: "All this time, I've been sitting back in my seat like a gentleman, wondering what that pole smells like." What's the perfect follow-up to these on-point gags? More Tweet reading!
So, what worked and what didn't? Doug's goofing was uniformly funny, and dark horse contender Chris Hardwick had a surprisingly strong set. Kroll and Swardson are two extremely funny dudes who managed lackluster and adequate performances, respectively. And the Tweet-offs were a waste of time in what's already an extremely compressed 22 minutes of comedy that saw three performers completing maybe five bits between them. Despite my reservations, I'm going to keep watching, because Doug Benson's up there with Andy Kindler, Paul F. Tompkins, and James Adomian on my list of performers who are golden if you catch them on the right day. Also, the list of likely comedians for the next five episodes features Patton Oswalt, Thomas Lennon, and other ringers who are as quick or quicker on their feet than Benson himself.
Note: I'm working from a rough cut, so some of the bits I mention might not make it to air.
- Lest anyone forget who Doug Benson's intended audience is, the opening animation shows a heavy-lidded Doug lunging out of a TV at a pair of red-eyed stoners, one of whom is equipped with a handy roach clip.
- Nick Kroll used the "Oh, [unruly individual], you're incorrigible!" klassic komedy construction near the end of his appearance. It seems like it's time to put that line to bed. Am I alone here?
- Doug asks Swardson for an alternate, less filthy punchline to his joke about self-pleasuring at the Super Bowl in case Comedy Central can't use it, but don't comedians usually have to submit their prepared bits for approval beforehand?
- And speaking of Swardson, do you guys actually believe his story about the Naughty AIDS nurse Halloween costume? Or do you think it's just your standard sleight-of-hand comedian setup?
- "When I die, I'm coming back as a vuvuzela so I can be really annoying and still get blown a lot."
- Friend of Benson and Sarah Silverman Dave Rath was one of the executive producers on the show. Listen to the first Doug Loves Movies appearance of Silverman for the most disgusting goatee story of all time.