Bless the ones with the death wishes, the ones that don’t bother to try to make the familiar and well-established beats as funny or funnier than their predecessors or contemporaries because they are too busy traversing hidden paths to jokes. Chris Onstad’s Achewood was/is the online comic that comes to mind with that mentality and sensibility of comedy writing - only attainable through years of effort and a natural and willingly obtuse way of thinking - and Achewood is the online comic that comes to mind when we talk about the greats of that medium. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The State, and Mr. Show are sketch comedies that will last for as long as websites like this one live because of their offbeat approaches to unraveling the narrative of a sketch. It’s a much, much bigger fall when the jokes fall flat while performing silly walks, investing in exactly two hundred and forty dollars worth of pudding, or leaving a rap battle with Duckie compared to when you’re misfiring on a standard sitcom; if you’re not funny, then you’re “strange,” dissonant, charitably labeled a “cult classic” on your best days of eternal unemployment from show business, and off the air forever and reminded of that fact for the rest of your life, cursed to wish to just be completely forgotten than to be told of what could have been.
Daredevil Scott Aukerman was a writer and performer on the aforementioned Mr. Show with Bob and David, and a fan and avid student of David Letterman’s failed but occasionally brilliant morning show and subsequent, much more popular Late Night. Those coalesced with Aukerman’s popular, funny Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast1 to make the Comedy Bang! Bang! television show, a sketch show disguised as a talk show seemingly designed by Pee Wee Herman. Its second season premiered on Friday, and continues its first season trend of taking bits to some of the crazier ends of the universe (or the couch that occasionally talks.)
Aukerman plays a character named “Scott Aukerman”2 who doesn’t have Letterman’s bitterness or sarcasm, but carries a sometimes staggering amount of naivety to the supernatural logic of his show’s world. He’s too likable to be labeled “ironic,” but the occasional smugness and self-centeredness Aukerman exhibits means he isn’t quite likable enough to make the jokes written at his expense mean. (In fact, one of the funniest - if not *the* funniest sketch of season one - was the reveal that there were scenes in an action cop movie devoted to savagely insulting his physical appearance and penis size.) Every episode will either feature Aukerman getting unjustifiably angry at a guest at a random moment during a scripted interview, or the guest expressing massive discomfort with a raised voice themselves. Throws to commercial and returns from a break are sometimes used to funnily mock the traditional talk show false sincerity shtick, e.g. an audible threat uttered with no context that is never explained, or host and guest plugging their ears and grimacing at one-man houseband Reggie Watts’s song. There are a handful of conversational non-sequiturs and bits that will originate randomly beginning off-camera, and running gags that, particularly in season two - if the three episodes viewed are any indication - are evenly developed over three acts. As obvious as this sounds, the non-sequiturs are funny when the lines are funny, and not simply because they came from nowhere. The running gags have grown in ambition without losing any of the comedy, beginning with the first season finale, “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Wears A Hawaiian Shirt,” when the program was shown multiple times to be entirely green screened. The season two premiere is bookended by trips to the Sullivan Mental Institution; Christopher Meloni and Kulap Vilaysack’s travels to a place unexpected will be a subplot throughout this Friday’s installment.
The main guest - typically an indie comedy world-approved movie star - gets five or so minutes of one-on-one time with the host during the first act, where he or she plays along with the off-kilter line of questioning. The second act is devoted to a character that either originated from the podcast or someone you would expect to find on it. Because they are given much shorter segments on the TV show than on the podcast, the Danny Mahoneys and Huell Howsers of the CBB world lose some of their charm - there’s no time to develop the character and discover all of the odd, funny complexities. When seemingly improvised banter takes place and gets to breathe a bit, all is well. In the premiere, Jordan Peele’s psychic character, who gets jealous of everyone else’s after-show plans, was worth the airtime for his acidic final line, but you could tell where he was going with it. Nick Kroll’s El Chupacabra on this Friday’s episode, on the other hand, ends up having to come up with a ridiculous explanation for how he thought an NFL team was actually a group of one child star, which as you can imagine is far more memorable. Characters work better when they can take a convoluted path in the few minutes they have instead of the one big joke, provided the actors involved continue to be top-notch improvisers.
Comedy Bang! Bang! was last year’s best new comedy, but now that we know what to expect, it’s time to expand on the playbook. Season two seems to be a year with more of a focus on running jokes than ever, and with Reggie being nicer to Scott – spending less time not-so-subtlety writing and performing songs that insult Aukerman to his face and more time traveling to a Tron-like universe3 to nab a single tweet that insults the two of them. It’s now more of a “Scott and Reggie vs. the wackadoo world they inhabit” dynamic in play, ready to do battle against the evil forces of ladder bullies and bicycle eaters for a broadcast network-sized 20-episode season. There is a legitimate danger of the show repeating itself now that viewers are accustomed to CBB’s language. Hell, it kind of already happened. In the season premiere, when the idiom “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was taken to be literal by Andy Samberg and a glaring doctor, it was reminiscent of the season one finale’s movie trailer for the film An Apple a Day starring Paul Scheer. Of course, if there is a third play on the saying about sugary fruit, than it’s a clever and strange recurring bit over multiple episodes. The fact that that scenario is a possibility is what makes this show so potentially great.
Comedy Bang! Bang! airs Fridays at 10 Eastern on IFC. Special thanks to Scott Aukerman for providing the headline.
1 Originally titled Comedy Death-Ray. The podcast stemmed from the Los Angeles stage show. You probably knew this already.
2 If you ignore the chyrons that claim that his name is Second Seasonman, Stop Tacoman or Shock Jockerman, a gag from Hot Saucerman’s podcast.
3 Possibly the biggest sign of the show’s confidence: booking Lance Reddick and never letting him speak in his normal, awesome voice.