“My name is Broke Ankleman,” Scott Aukerman said as he came to the lip of an unadorned stage.
Roughly 95% of his body was vintage Aukerman: sensible sweater, Oxford shirt, well-ironed khakis, comfortable sneakers, and lightly tousled hair with just a hint of product. But at the bottom of his left leg was a massive black boot, one he bore due to an injury suffered early on in his “Comedy Bang! Bang! LIVE!” tour, weeks before it came to Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom last night.
His recounting of the incident was also vintage Aukerman. “I was literally just walking on stage — Walking! Walking on stage! — and I sprained my ankle and broke my heel,” he said.
The crowd laughed. But why? What can we glean from this show, which lacked his TV co-host, Reggie Watts, and thus was Aukerman-centric? How can we define the Aukerman mystique that has made him a comedy impresario?
Partly, it’s his nasal, high-baritone condescension. He didn’t yell, “Walking! Walking on stage!” — rather, he curled his lips in a light sneer at himself, tossing the words off in very mild disgust.
Or, for example, consider a great line near the beginning an extended improv in which he brought an overweight audience volunteer onstage. Scott asked him to be the venue’s volunteer fire marshal for the evening, and began to ask him a series of questions to test his qualifications (which led to a series of hypothetical role-play scenarios that kept compounding on one another and concluded with the man being spun around while shirtless, bewigged, and covered in lipstick). One of those qualification questions required him to pick one of the following options to describe his “relationship with fire”: “‘Like it,’ ‘love it,’ ’gotta have it,’ ‘must be vigilant about it.’”
That “gotta have it” came with a cocked head and the faux-cool tone of a Skittles commercial voice-over. It was a light toss, but one that tapped into portions of popular culture all-too-rarely explored for mockery.
That aspect of Aukerman’s comedic tastes pervaded the show, even when he wasn’t the one speaking. For example, Tim Heidecker took the stage after Scott for a standup/sketch bit, one he’s done in modified form a few times in the past: he came out in a low-rent leather jacket and faded jeans, hair slicked back, a green button-down tucked in over his girthy belly, and proceeded to intentionally bomb himself into oblivion.
“Is this for real called the re– the re– the Reatpacking District?” he asked the crowd, tongue stumbling. And later: “This Mars rover. Has you hear– haves you heard of it?” Sure, Heidecker’s been mining the “human speech is hopelessly inarticulate” territory for years, but there’s gold in them thar hills, gold that few people can shine like he can.
Or take another example of the evening’s attack on everyday intonations and inanities, one that came during the second half of the show, which was a taping for the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast: James Adomian’s utterly show-stealing turn as former Minnesota governor and wrestling legend Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
Adomian/Ventura took the stage for an “interview” in a black duster, unlaced boots, dark jeans, a cheap bald cap, a fake potbelly, and a t-shirt that asked, simply, “9/11: Got Doubts?” A lesser comedian and a lesser comedy podcast might have simply ribbed Ventura for his voice and preposterous years as a politician. But this was a crowd who could appreciate the true madness of The Body: his current career as a self-assured conspiracy theorist.
“Look to your left: that’s a socialist,” he ordered the crowd in Ventura’s horrifyingly unique basso profundo growl-rasp. “Look to your right: that’s a fascist. Now look at yourself. You’re co-opted. You’re all mind-slaves because you looked the way I told you to.”
He sauntered the stage, feet pounding to the floor as though controlled by magnetic attraction. He leaned to the crowd like a SummerSlam champion or a Navy SEAL. He spoke with unbreaking confidence and even cadence about “operatives” and the constant watch from CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. “FY Information — information is too important ever to abbreviate,” he said at the beginning of a statement, drawing the biggest laughs of the night, despite the phrase not being a punchline of any kind.
Isn’t that the point of Comedy Bang! Bang! in both its TV show and podcast formats? The punchlines are rarely there, and when they are, you’re supposed to laugh at the idiocy of the possibility of finding the punchlines (or any punchline, really) funny. The show’s celebrity characters, always portrayed by expert funny-people, are never predictable objects of American lampooning: they’re always from the stranger corners of pop-culture ephemera, and they always go in directions that stray from satire and enter conceptual nether-zones.
(I don’t want to throw the other podcast guests entirely under the bus: Bobby Moynihan’s turn as foul-mouthed orphan boy Fourvel and Kurt Braunohler’s unadorned-but-delightful appearance were both delights in their own right.)
And all the while, there’s Aukerman: not exactly a straight-man (he’s not nearly earnest enough for that), not exactly a character (he remains so straightforward that he never strays too far from being a blank-slate audience surrogate, albeit one capable of dark and surreal acts), slightly smug, and always willing to egg on a guest with the eager, awe-filled eyes of a boy who can’t believe that his crush is talking to him.
And yet, on his own, he’s never one of the great standups. Nor is he famed for being a sketch- or improv-team performer. The Aukerman mystique lies in his tastes: he knows what tidbits in American culture are funny, he knows how to find people who can act on those tidbits, and he knows when to step back and let the Comedy Bang! Bang! behemoth that he’s created roar without his voice.
Images by Jen Vafidis.