Comedy Bang! Bang! may very well be one of the weirdest things on television — an absurdist talk show parody with sketch elements, cheerfully hosted by Scott Aukerman and sidekick/bandleader Reggie Watts. The show has gone through numerous name changes and iterations, starting out as a live stage show, then becoming a popular podcast, and finally landing on IFC, where its 20-episode second season premieres Friday. I talked with the very busy Mr. Aukerman — who not only created and hosts the show, but co-founded the podcast network that runs it — about the evolution of the show, what’s new in Season 2, and how he helped create the web phenomenon that is Between Two Ferns.
Flavorwire: The show seems very much like an evolving organism — it’s had different titles, you’ve done a stage show, a podcast, and the TV show, and they all are very different things. So for readers who are new to you and the show, walk me through its evolution to the point it’s at now.
Aukerman: I think the whole journey, for lack of a better word, started about ten years ago. My friend DJ and I started producing a live comedy show because we started to realize — I’d been doing a lot of stand up at the time and I’d seen a lot of great new stand up comedians who had just moved to town, people like B.J. Novak or Anthony Jeselnik, and there weren’t a lot of places for new comedians to perform at the time, so we decided to start producing a live comedy show where you could see more established alternative comedians like Zach Galifianakis or Louis C.K. sharing the stage with some of the newer people, like Jeselnik or Novak. And so that was called Comedy Death-Ray, and we did it for ten years and recently quit because I got too busy, but everything kind of sprang out of that, because it reconnected me to comedians and got me hanging around with really funny people every week. The podcast and the TV show actually started as a radio show called Comedy Death-Ray Radio, which was on Indie 103.1, and what I thought it was going to be was, me talking to whoever was our headliner that week on the Comedy Death-Ray show, sort of to promote the show, because it was a live radio show; it wasn’t a podcast.
And a few episodes in, we started to podcast it, and I kind of developed a new style where instead of talking to whoever that week’s headliner was going to be, I started talking to comedians portraying characters, playing fake people, and I started to really like that style, but it became very different from what I originally envisioned the show was going to be. So eventually I just ended up changing the name in order to reflect what it was now, and so it became Comedy Bang! Bang!, and the TV show came out of that, because IFC really liked the podcast, and really liked this unusual format that I had started of me talking to celebrities playing themselves and then also talking to comedians playing characters, and thought that it would make for a really good, subversive sort of skewering of the talk show format.
Is the show entirely scripted or is there some improvisation in the interviews?
There’s a lot of improvisation. In fact, most of the interviews are improv. That’s stuff that maybe you can script, but that’s what I love about doing the show is that it’s a mixture of spontaneous stuff that we’re just thinking of in the moment along with scripted stuff that kind of blend seamlessly in between each other.
How did you and Reggie end up working together?
It was pretty early on. IFC offered me the show and we didn’t have a format yet. The podcast is very loose — it’s entirely improv, we never talk about what we’re going to talk about before we start it, and I don’t have a sidekick or a bandleader on the podcast. So when the network and I were talking about, what is the format? We know we like the idea of me talking to celebrities and fake people, but what is it? And talk shows have so many different parts that we wanted to address. Do we have an audience; do we not have an audience? Do I wear a suit; do I not wear a suit? What’s the set look like? And a big part of that is the bandleader and the band, because most talk shows have them, and so we just had a lot of discussion about, what do we do? Do we have music? Is it just me up there? And then the network thought of Reggie, which is an inspired choice — he adds so much to the show — and the minute they said that, I was like, “Oh yeah, definitely, we gotta get Reggie.”
And Reggie adds so much to the show. Not only is he great musically, but he’s such an amazing sketch performer, and our friendship in the show has become like a storyline, and it’s become — it almost deepens the show, in a way, to have us be friends on the show.
So you did a ten-episode first season, and now you’ve done a 20-episode second season. What did you learn from that shorter first run, and what did it take to mount a second year with twice as many shows?
Well, I think everyone learned a lot on their first season. I went into it going, “We had a great pilot, I know so many funny people, I have great writers, I’m going to have the best first season of any first season of any show,” and then ultimately, you look back at it and go, “You know what? I could’ve done that better.” So we made a lot of tweaks to this season, some of them subtle, some of them not so subtle. A big thing that I think that we addressed last year, a lot of it was our take on talk shows or shows with any host, like Mister Rogers or Jerry Springer or Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and a lot of these sketches, in the writing, we were saying, “Okay, well, Pee-Wee does this — what is our take on it?” or “Jerry Springer does a Final Thought — what’s our twist on it?” And this year, we kind of stopped doing that, and I just kind of told the writers the first day, “You know what? Anything that’s funny, we can fit into this show, so just let your imaginations run wild. If it’s a sketch, let’s do a sketch. If it’s a movie parody… it doesn’t have to be a take on the talk show format anymore.”
So I think this year, the show is bigger, it goes crazier, and the ideas aren’t just confined to that kind of tight, little box. It’s a lot bigger and it’s a lot — it’s just more fun for me to do. And then as far as what it took to do 20, it was a big undertaking. It was kind of overwhelming, but I had such an amazing team of people, and the writers are so good, and by the end of the season, we were like, “Oh, we didn’t get to do this, we didn’t get to fit this in. Oh well, we’ll do it next year.” I mean, we have a ton, ton of material, so it’s really exciting. I think that the breadth of this season is really going to amaze people.
Your style of comedy is very unique, very specific, and very peculiar. There are a few obvious influences — Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Fernwood 2Night — but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the performers and the shows that formed your comic voice.
I have kind of different comic voices. The one that I use on the TV show, it’s interesting because I really feel like the writers help me out with that. Our head writer, Neil Campbell, is such a funny guy. He was the artistic director of the UCB Theater in LA, and he has a really unique voice. When I was working on Mr. Show and when I first started doing comedy, I think I was more of a darker, filthier comedian in a way, and when I did this show, I really wanted to make it bright and fun and not mean in any way. The great thing about doing all my different projects, when I do Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, we deal almost exclusively in slams and in really kind of mean humor, and I get all of that out doing that.
On Comedy Bang! Bang!, that’s one thing that I told the writers, is this show is not mean. It’s friendly, and I was talking with someone about this the other day. You don’t see a lot of friendly humor on TV, in a way. Parks and Recreation is a good example of friendly humor, you know, where people like each other and it’s not all sarcastic Carla-on-Cheers quips. And I like humor like that — Arrested Development is like that, and one of our writers, Paul Rust, was a producer on Arrested Development this year and then he came to work with us. But for Comedy Bang! Bang!, what I really like about it is the friendly nature of it and how the celebrities are all having a good time. Everyone is having a good time, and that’s not to say there’s no weird darkness in it or no PG-13 stuff — there’s a lot of blood — but I just like people having fun and people having a good time.
Do you ever worry, especially now that you’re working on a mass medium like television, about the show being too weird, too absurd, too esoteric?
No, and in fact, the network’s been really good about that. There’s been a couple of times where they’ll say, “Hey, do you think everyone is going to get this? Is this too inside?” And I’m never really concerned about that, because growing up and being a comedy fan, I think what’s interesting about this show is there are a lot of young fans, and that’s what I’ve been finding out this year. And it reminds me of when I was a young comedy fan and I was watching Saturday Night Live and SCTV syndicated reruns late at night and I didn’t understand what they were talking about, in a way, but I knew it was funny. So when SCTV would do a Sam Peckinpah riff, I, of course, being a ten-year-old, had never heard of Sam Peckinpah, but it made me go, “Oh, Sam Peckinpah, that’s something that I want to figure out what that is, because it’s so obviously funny.”
And then later, when you see the Sam Peckinpah movie, the joke is funny all over again.
Once you start to get something, you revisit the stuff, and it’s like, “Oh, okay, yeah, this is great.” So I’m never concerned about if everyone’s going to totally understand everything. You just have to be specific to your voice, and if it makes you laugh, hopefully it’ll make other people laugh.
How did Between Two Ferns come to be, and did you anticipate the kind of success it would have?
Oh, not at all. It came to be because I was working on a pilot for a network that was a sketch show, and it was a really interesting show. I wanted it to be a grab bag of a lot of different things, so we put some cartoons in there and I was talking to Zach, and I said, “I would really love for you to do something on this show, and you can do anything you want,” and he said, “Well, you know, I’ve always had this idea about doing a fake talk show,” and he had the title Between Two Ferns, and that’s all he had. It was like, public access, Between Two Ferns, and I said, “Okay, great, let’s do it.” Then Michael Cera was another guy who I was like, “Hey, do you want to do anything on this show?” and he said yes, and I said, “Okay, let’s put you guys together, and what if you guested on this talk show?”
We had no plan for it. The director, Ruben Fleischer, who directed Zombieland, just kind of figured out the setup that we use to this day of three cameras, one in the middle, one on the left, one on the right, and those guys were riffing this interview in one room while we were in the other room shouting out ideas and shouting out jokes and we edited it together and we were like, “Oh wow, this is really funny.” And then the audience loved it, but the show never got picked up, so, just for fun — Funny or Die was this new website at the time. We had friends working there, and we said, “Hey, can we put up this weird interview thing we have?” and they said yes, and then millions and millions of views later, we were like, “Oh. People really respond to this. This is crazy.”
So it’s just been this fun sideline project that I’ve done. We don’t do them too often, so people don’t necessarily get sick of them. I feel like we’ve been doing them for five years now, but people are still kind of newly discovering them. When we did the one with The Lonely Island recently, we did a crossover episode with one of their videos. It got put up on YouTube, and I think a whole brand new generation of people started discovering it because they’d never been on Funny or Die, so I saw a lot of the comments [that were] like, “Wow, what is this thing?” Which is so interesting, because Between Two Ferns has kind of crossed over into the zeitgeist in such a way [that] I’ve been sent videos of the Dodgers reenacting it.
You were one of the founders of the Earwolf podcasting network, which is responsible for some of my favorite shows — How Did this Get Made, By the Way, and your own. How does one go about starting a podcasting network, and how have you made this into a sustainable business model? (Or have you?)
Yeah, we have. I mean, it really was making it up as we went along. This guy, my partner, Jeff Ullrich, came to me, he had heard the show, he heard how many listeners it had, and just kind of had this idea. At first, he was talking to me about managing the show and I wasn’t really interested in that, but in the meeting, he said, “Or we can start — this is a bigger idea and you probably don’t want to do this, but we could start a podcasting network,” and I thought that that was a really interesting idea to just kind of band everyone together. And comedians don’t know how to do technical stuff for the most part, and the only reason that I had a podcast was that I was doing it at a radio station that already had their mikes, and they recorded it every week and they put it up online and I had no idea how to do any of that stuff. I found out how to do it later, but we just really made it up as we went along, and we got people involved that we really liked, and I was the guy going out and recruiting comedians and working on making the podcast really good.
Jeff has been amazing at getting advertisers to pay attention and figuring out the business of it all, so it’s really been a great partnership where we both do our jobs really well. And yeah, it has been really profitable, not only for the shows, but for us, and even for the shows that are smaller and not profitable in terms of, like, it costs us money to make them and they don’t make a lot of money. The great part about it is our bigger shows pay for the small shows, so people can come in and just express themselves for free.
Because it’s already been so many things and gone in so many different directions, where would you like to see Comedy Bang! Bang! go from here?
It’s been a live show, it’s been a podcast, it’s been a TV show, and I tour every year with it. I’ve flirted with making a comic book out of it at one point, and I may try something with that. I’d love to do a movie, honestly. I was saying this to Reggie — it’s so hard to film this show, by the way. It’s so grueling. You wouldn’t think that when you watch it, but it’s such hard work and we work really, really hard on it for months and months, 14-hour days. But in the middle of one of those, it was so hot in LA and we were in the middle of the Valley trying to film this sketch outside and Reggie, bless his heart, he’s not used to getting up that early, and I was just like, “You know what? If we do two more years of this, we could do a movie. I swear we could do a movie,” just trying to bolster his spirits. And I really think we could. I don’t know what the equation is of how popular something has to be in order to get a movie made of it. I know that we probably could make a movie with Between Two Ferns right now if we wanted to, but I would love to do a Comedy Bang! Bang! movie, something akin to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a road trip with Reggie and I where all sorts of crazy things happen. So if the show gets popular enough, maybe we could do it!
I’d go see that movie. In the meantime, Season 2 of Comedy Bang! Bang! premieres Friday night.