On May 11th, I had the fortune to see the traveling carnival of mirth and merriment that is the Comedy Bang Bang live tour when it hit the Tabernacle in my new hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. The atmosphere there was electric, as everyone from hipsters in their late twenties with grad school glasses to hipsters in their thirties with grad school glasses prepared to experience live what they’d consumed through their iPods so many times before.
The vibe felt more like a rock concert than a comedy show, although The Tabernacle, as its name attests, used to be a house of worship before it turned itself over to the more earthy but still sacred realm of music and comedy, which at their peak can be nothing short of a transcendent, almost religious experience.
Actually, the show felt like a very specific kind of rock concert. Specifically, it felt like a goddamned Phish show. And as someone who has been to something in the area of 36 Phish shows (if you can remember vividly exactly how many Phish shows you’ve been to, then you clearly have not been to enough), it felt a lot like a hippie jam band show.
I attended the vast majority of those shows while I was writing my 2013 memoir/travelogue/music book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me (a book I wrote at the same time, coincidentally, or not, that I was co-writing new Comedy Bang Bang sidekick/one-man band “Weird Al” Yankovic’s coffee table book, Weird Al: The Book, with Yankovic himself), which was about the surprising commonalities between the largely disliked jam band contingent and the overwhelmingly, almost universally reviled followers of Insane Clown Posse, Juggalos.
But I was just as struck by the similarities between Phish super-fandom and comedy podcast obsessiveness, particularly as it relates to Comedy Bang Bang. I wonder if part of the reason I surprised myself by becoming a big Phish fan was already such an obsessive fan of podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang.
It sure didn’t hurt that Comedy Bang Bang regularly featured a comedian as known for his passionate, unironic love of Phish as his comedy: Harris Wittels. Wittels wasn’t just a Phish super-fan. He was a goddamned evangelist on the group’s behalf to the comedy world, most notably in Analyze Phish, the Earwolf podcast where Wittels bravely attempted the impossible and tried to get Scott Aukerman into Phish.
Analyze Phish is a podcast about friendship and memory and culture as much as it is about music. It stands as the ultimate intersection of jam band and comedy podcast culture. In at least entertaining the notion, no matter how far-fetched, that he might become infected with his friend’s soul-consuming adoration of Phish, Aukerman was being open and curious in a very jam band kind of way. And in responding to Wittels’ earnest enthusiasm with affectionate mockery, Aukerman was being true to himself as a comedian and a performer.
Wittels made being a Phish fan cool by not only acknowledging, but embracing its fundamental dorkiness, its weirdly ingratiating uncoolness. Wittels made Phish superfandom seem like the most fascinating of eccentricities. I would be lying if I said that one of my goals in writing You Don’t Know Me wasn’t to impress Harris, to get his seal of approval, to create something that he would consider worthy of Phish. So one of the highlights of the whole Phish experience was getting Harris as the only blurb on You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, a book that currently has a lower rating on Amazon than Mein Kampf, although I would argue is both a better and less culturally destructive book.
As part of the promotional push for You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, I got to appear on an episode of Analyze Phish with the dude from Islands and it felt more than a little like when I got to be backstage when Phish performed several songs during one of their festivals. Though I was on Analyze Phish as a guest, and backstage at Phish as a journalist and author, I really just felt blissed out to the point of insanity to be so close to something that had brought me such joy.
In both instances, I was really just there as a fan. In comedy podcasts and jam bands alike, fans are just a step below the performers. Fandom is revered unabashedly and unapologetically, and fans have an advantage over their idols in that they don’t ever have to worry about the pressure or work of performing, and can just concentrate on having fun.
At the same time, part of the infectious pleasure of both Phish and Comedy Bang Bang lies in the palpable pleasure the performers take in their work, from the infectious joy they bring to their comedy. Though I doubt PFT would embrace the comparison, I derive as much joy from Tompkins’ cracking himself and Aukerman up as I do from the orgasmic faces Trey Anastasio makes when deep into the midst of a truly epic guitar solo.
Chemistry is of the utmost importance in podcasting and jam bands alike. In both instances, there is the sense that a particular group of human beings performing together onstage is magical, and produces an electricity and an energy that can’t be faked or matched by any other combination.
When I was following Phish and going more than a little half-insane in the process, I was deeply invested in Phish’s four members: Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell. They were my guys. I was perpetually rooting for them. If anything, the people who performed at Comedy Bang Bang that night – Scott Aukerman, Lauren Lapkus, Neil Campbell and Paul F. Tompkins – were even more my guys (or, in Lapkus’ case, gal). My creepy emotional bond with Comedy Bang Bang was forged through years and years and years of having Scott Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins’ sonorous voices and wonderfully warped comic sensibility ricocheting through my mind for hours every week.
We need to have that faith because theoretically, Comedy Bang Bang and Phish are doing something tricky, difficult and dangerous, something where the potential for failure is enormous. Every time they step onstage Phish delivers an improvised performance different from any they’ve given before and every time the people behind Comedy Bang Bang get onstage they are creating something that had never existed until that moment, an evening of improvised comedy performed without a net. Yet in both instances it only seems like the potential for failure is huge. In actuality, I would not buy a ticket for Phish or Comedy Bang Bang unless I had absolute faith in the jam band and/or beloved comedy podcast’s ability to put on a hell of a show that will be different than any they’ve put on before, but also, at the same time, similar. I have more faith in Paul F. Tompkins than I do in God, and the flag, and the bible, and certainly our current political leaders.
Phish and Comedy Bang Bang both traffic in a homey combination of the comfortingly familiar and the appealingly exotic, in forever finding brilliant new variations on a series of familiar themes. That night, for example, Tompkins played the Contraptionaire, a new Southern character who echoed similarly Southern-fried characters he’d played before.
A deeply wasted dude at the end of our row seemed to process the show as if it were a rock concert. He never stopped yelling throughout the show, and though I couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying, I assume it was along the lines of “Woo hoo! PFT! I enjoy your silly yet deliciously urbane style of comedy! Woo hoo! Do that fucking riff you do! Skynrd! Freebird! Play Tweezer!” This brings up another similarity between jam bands and comedy podcasts: both are generally more pleasurable if you’re at least a little bit stoned, or at least drunk.
With the possible exception of Chris Hardwick, Scott Aukerman has more going on than just about anyone in comedy. The television and podcast versions of Comedy Bang Bang must take up an enormous amount of time. Aukerman also helps run a wildly popular and successful podcasting network and tapes another hit podcast in U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, writes “Between Two Ferns” for Zack Galifanakis and executive produces both podcasts and other TV shows like Bajillion Dollar Properties.
Yet Aukerman still finds time to take his show on the road because as Phish phans can attest, there is no substitute for the live bond between a cult act and its fans. Whether we’re talking Phish or Comedy Bang Bang, fans’ connection to their heroes’ work is at once visceral, the result of Aukerman and his pals sweating it out, night after night, in city after city, trying to make drunk people laugh, and weirdly virtual, the product of downloading technology onto their personal MP3 player and then listening to it by themselves.
These two sides feed into each other. Phish makes their live shows available the next day partially because there is money to be made that way, and we should not forget that music and comedy are also commercial endeavors, but also to give fans the ultimate souvenir of the night’s performance. When I re-listen to a Phish show, or a Comedy Bang Bang live performance that I’ve attended, part of the appeal lies in re-experiencing something that meant something special to me. With both jam bands and comedy podcasts, the audience is so important, so central to the experience, that they almost qualify as an invisible player onstage.
Finally, seeing Comedy Bang Bang live was redolent of the jam band experience (and when you see a great Phish concert, that’s what it is, a goddamned experience, not just an event) in that it tended to go on just a little too long and feel a little self-indulgent, to risk being too much of a good thing.
By the end of several hours of mostly very solid comedy (particularly opening act Neil Campbell, whose hilarious standup stole the show), my wife was more than ready to leave and I was ready to call it a night. Like a good Phish show, the night’s entertainment had left me enjoyably drained, yet already looking forward to the next time this particular rodeo would be back in town.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.