Scott Aukerman on the End of Comedy Bang! Bang!, and the State of Late Night and Podcasting

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Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

More than four years ago, Scott Aukerman promised that the upcoming first season of his IFC late-night sketch show Comedy Bang! Bang! would, like Louie, be a pure articulation of a specific comedic point of view. Sure enough, over the course of five seasons and over 100 episodes, he and his writing staff achieved exactly that, creating some sort of amalgam of Mr. Show (where Aukerman once wrote), Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and his own “Between Two Ferns.”

The show might’ve started as a spoof of late night, but over time it became home to some of the sharpest pop-culture parody on TV, routinely making Vulture’s best sketches of the year lists. Considering Aukerman’s history of working with young comedians that dates back to the seminal live show he co-created, Comedy Death Ray, CBB was also one of the best showcases for up-and-coming comedy talent on TV. Now it's ending, with the first episode of the back half of the show’s final season airing Friday on IFC. In the lead-up to, Aukerman spoke with Vulture about why the show is ending, if the podcast will follow, new shows he's working on (including Take My Wife and Bajillion Dollar Properties), changes in late night, and the state of podcasting.

How did you decide to end the show after season five?
We got a very early season five pick-up , before season four even, but I couldn't figure out if I wanted to do it beyond season five — and I couldn't tell what the network’s appetite would be for the show. Then season four started airing, and while artistically it was received well, gradually the ratings started to go down. So at a certain time we gave them a drop-dead date, because I'd had the last two episodes of the series in my head and I wanted to know if we should go ahead and write those.

Then at the last minute, Kid Cudi ended up not coming back for season five and [Weird] Al decided to do the show. That made it even more complicated, because I think Al was having such a good time that he would've liked to have done a season six. But at that point, we were so far down the road with it not happening that it wasn't a disappointment when the network said we should just end the show at 110 episodes. 

What can you say about the final two episodes? Was it a challenge to wrap up a series that doesn't have a continuous plot and exists with a sort of ironic detachment?
We talked a lot about series finales, and for me the problem with a lot of them is that they get too overblown, or they try to do a very strange idea. I really wanted the finale to be a fun, funny episode. We'd already done a parody of series finales back in episode 305, so we couldn't do that. Any time anyone would come up with an idea like — I'll just give you a bad pitch — “What if I wake up and everything is in a snow globe?” I would say “No, no, no, we did that in 305,” even though we didn't do specifically that. I’d say, “We already did our parody of series finales, let's bring it back to the truth of how we feel about the show ending.” So much of our show is really about television, and I really wanted to honor that. 

How did you decide to have Reggie Watts and Adam Scott for the first of the final two, and then Nick Kroll and Paul Tompkins for the second?
We were looking for guests for the show and at one point I know Ben Affleck was interested in doing it, so was Jon Hamm, and Tatiana Maslany was thinking about flying in from Boston for it. We were going down that route of having someone really big, but as the day approaches a lot of that fell through and it just came to be the right choice to have friends around.

I was listening to your WTF interview from six years ago, when you talked about how sometimes when you would do stand-up, people just completely did not get what you’re doing. What is it like now, with not only the show and the podcast, but also having your voice out there with "Between Two Ferns" and even the Emmys when Andy Samberg hosted?
I'm really fortunate to have audiences who understand what I'm doing now, and who instantly jump onboard with stuff. We just did that multi-country world tour and it's a very strange thing to think about: We do shows for crowds of 2,000 where we just sit on stools acting like other people. That said, I don't want to necessarily change what we're doing just because there's an opportunity to put it in front of more people. You mentioned the Emmys, which is definitely one of the bigger audiences for anything I've ever done. But we didn't want to dumb it down or go, “Is everyone going to get this?” Andy Samberg and I feel similarly about this: We don't care if everyone gets it — we care if the right people get it.

I remember, probably because you guys made fun of it, when in the New York Times profile of you, Zach Galifianakis, or maybe Jason Mantzoukas, called you the den mother of comedy. 
Yeah, it was Zach, that son of a bitch.  

But the heart of it was a fair point — especially at the time, because the live show was so important for the scene and you were so involved with younger comedians. What does working with young comics mean to you?
You just never know when you're going to have such a big, incredible relationship with someone. For example, I had heard of Drew Tarver for a long time but I'd never actually seen him do anything until we were in Emmys writers room. They were watching a video of him doing his lounge-singer character. I just kept hearing it — not even watching it, I was in the other room — and in my mind I went, That's funny. I didn't even know what the bit was but I could tell it was funny. Then when he auditioned for Bajillion — and I wouldn't even say it was 25 percent of how good he is on the show — I knew I wanted to take a swing and say, "Okay, well I'm going to get into bed with this person and, you know, let's fuck!" [Laughs.] Or take Rhea Butcher. Not long ago, Rhea was in Cleveland, just a fan of the podcast. The fact that we're doing a TV show together, and an it's acclaimed one, is just such a strange, unexpected leap. It's something that I never want to lose.

In the time since you started the show five years ago, late night has changed significantly. All the shows are either explicitly political or the sort of Jimmy Fallon–James Corden fun-oriented thing. I know you were a big Letterman guy. How do you feel about the shift?
You're right. There was a tradition in Late Night from Letterman to Conan, where it was very important to use that show in order to push groundbreaking comedy. That was a tradition comedy lovers like myself grew up with for 20, 25 years, until Fallon took over.

But why should that be the tradition? Just because Letterman started it in 1982? Before that, there were 30 years worth of talk shows where that wasn't the case. Carson had a great monologue, but I wouldn't call the comedy on his show groundbreaking. It was really just a fun, light entertainment show. Steve Allen was really the only one that you could look to who had a talk show that it was about comedy. I don't really look at Fallon or Corden as betrayals of what a late-night talk show should be.

There are so many other ways to get comedy now. When I was growing up, you couldn't see interesting comedy everywhere. Turning on Letterman at 12:30 at night was the only place you could do it. Well, now there's Seeso. There's Adult Swim. There's FX. There's Comedy Central. There are so many other places you can get comedy. Who cares about it being on a late-night talk show?

Podcasting is one of those areas where a lot of great comedy exists — when you started your podcast and Earwolf, podcasts were starting to be seen as a comedian's medium. How do you feel about the current state of that industry?
Podcasts are really just a form of distribution. It's radio, but on demand. It's interesting that comedians were some of the first people to really take advantage of the medium in a really incredible way. But we at Earwolf figured with the growth rates that podcasts had, it would eventually get where we would be able to get people to listen to stuff that they would normally listen to on NPR, or what have you — shows that were more serious. It's not really that surprising. 

You joke on the podcast about how Serial was the first podcast. Did it bother you at first?
Oh, I don't care. I would doubt I care about 80 percent of what I joke about on the podcast. You know, rising tides lifts all boats. When Serial came out, we saw it as a great opportunity. We were stoked: "Hey, this Christmas people are going to be wrapping up Serial and they're going to be looking for something else in their iTunes under 'podcast' to listen to. Let's make sure we try and steer them towards us."

Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast is about to hit eight years. That's a very long time for any type of show. There is some precedent with radio, but it's still uncharted territory. Can a show like yours go on indefinitely?
It can just go on as long as it's still good. It's very stressful to put together in terms of scheduling, when everyone you work with is very successful. But it's still fun to do and we're putting out great episodes all the time. Due to the weekly nature of it — we have to put out an episode every week, so we can't just sit there tweaking until it's perfect — there are going to be episodes where I think, "Urgh, that was an off week." But we get into these grooves where we'll have four weeks in a row of episodes that could be considered classics. As long as that is still happening and the show is growing and evolving, I'll keep doing it.

You Instagrammed a Mike Detective script recently. What's up!?
Oh, boy. It's something that Neil Campbell and I love and have been trying to fit into our lives. We went out and pitched it to a bunch of places a few years back, and someone is interested in making it now. Neil and I are busier than we've ever been, but we love it so much that we went ahead and wrote in every inch of our free time to get it done. It's definitely a very unique comedic point of view that I don't think anyone has ever really done. It's kind of like Airplane, but it's not. I can’t really say what form it would take.  At this point there's no announcement about whether it's even happening or not — but that could be right around the corner.

Talking about Mike Detective, but obviously it comes up in all your comedy, what is your ultimate feeling about using wordplay or puns in general?
It just depends on the point of view of the project that you're doing. There were a couple of jokes for the Emmys that we slipped through only because Andy enjoys them. There was joke we made about Arnold Schwarzenegger being on To Catch a Predator because he loves to catch predators. That's his bread and butter, but it was greeted with a groan. You've got to pick and choose your battles. Mike Detective is of all about that. It's about really fucking going for broke and whatever pops in our head, that's what we'll do. Sometimes it's a reference, sometimes it's wordplay, and sometimes it's just like, "Fuck it, let's cut to six months from now" or "Let's make all the wrong decisions."

I've been watching a lot of Kevin James movies for work and have been thinking about the difference between his dumb or silly jokes — and I mean that in a good way — and smart or ironic dumb jokes. Do you feel like a fart joke is fart joke, or is there more to the difference?
I went to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop with my dad and we sat there laughing and having a great time at the movies. You probably wouldn't say it's a sophisticated movie, but at the same time, how sophisticated are some of the old classic things that we love, like Three Stooges? When you're talking about smart comedy, what you're usually talking about is playing upon audiences' expectations of "Hey we've seen this before a million times and we know generally how it's gonna go and now here's a smart twist on it." It's something that we always try to do at Mr. Show, and I know it's what the Lonely Island guys do. When we're creating stuff now, we usually will say, "Okay, what's our twist on it?" which means, for us "How do we make it more sophisticated?" There's definitely a place for that but at the same time there's nothing like a big, dumb, crowd-pleasing joke.

Do you think alternative comedy still exists?
My formula for an alternative comedy show was it's not in a comedy club, the comic should be doing something slightly sophisticated, even if it's dumb, and most importantly, it's not about performance, it's about interaction with the audience. By that definition, there are alternative comedy shows out there, like Put Your Hands Together. The Meltdown popped up because when Comedy Death Ray went away, and a show will pop up now that it's ending. 

There will probably always be an alternative comedy scene, but it's very interesting when the alternative comedy becomes the mainstream. Zach or Aziz or even anyone who's on any kind of NBC sitcom — they're all people that we know, they're all alternative comedians supposedly, but now it's the mainstream. That happens with every generation. I remember in 2002, when we were starting Comedy Death Ray, it was Anthony Jeselnik and BJ Novak and Morgan Murphy and Dan Mintz and now they all have super successful projects going on. Every ten years, some really talented people come in and usually they will strike it big because they're really talented.

When I interviewed you back before the show started, I asked if it was weird to see yourself on billboards. You said in your mind you're like, "Finally, the billboards are here," like you were expecting to be on billboards your whole life.
Yeah, that's true. And nowadays I'm like, "Where are my billboards?" Just because the show's going away doesn't mean there can't be billboards. 

Do you feel now that the show's ending that you don't necessarily have as much of a desire to be out there? Is there a desire to be back behind the scenes?
It's something I'm wrestling with now. The show's over, the tour's over, and I'm trying to plot out what I'm doing next. There are a lot of things I enjoy doing about entertainment and one of them is acting. One of bigger shames of the show going away is that I felt like by the end of it I was actually pretty good in it. I don't really know what is coming up in that respect, because there's also producing and there's directing and there's writing, and I really enjoy doing those things too. At this point, I'm taking things because they sound fun. There's a project that we're working on right now that just seemed really like the perfect antidote to doing five years of Bang! Bang! — just a really fun project that we're doing just to goof around. That'll be out in February and we're doing it over the next couple of months.

Can you give any hints whatsoever what this project is? 
The network hasn't announced it, and the person I'm doing it with and I like stuff dropping as a surprise. That's why we don't tell anyone when a "Between Two Ferns" episode is coming out. The network might make a big announcement or it may just show up on a billboard and you'll go, "What the fuck is that?" I don't want to spoil that feeling too much for people, if that's the way it ends up happening. 

Okay, we can say just keep on looking at billboards and maybe one day there will be something.
Yeah, if you're driving around, don't look at the road. Look at the billboards.

This interview has been edited and condensed.