‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t about one dumb gimmick every week. It’s about a different dumb gimmick every week.”
You’ve got to give Comedy Bang! Bang! credit. Not only has Scott Aukerman’s alt comedy brainchild made the successful transition from podcast to television show, the series hasn’t slowed down in the least, producing huge seasons, arguably becoming the anchor of IFC’s comedy lineup, all while still continuing to produce the podcast version of the property on a weekly basis.
The concept of a “fake” talk show can understandably come across as a little thin. These are scripted interviews designed to be funny and ridiculous, unlike how a real interview’s intention is to be genuine and enlightening. Scott Aukerman and his team have established through the seasons that they’re addicted to silliness of the Marx-iest nature, and the series has progressively resorted to stunt or spectacle episodes as a way to inject something more into the simple talk show formula. Let’s not forget that this is a show that’s done a time traveling episode (and nailed it). Comedy Bang! Bang! is more than aware of this security blanket of theirs. In the episode, it’s even stated, “Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t about one dumb gimmick every week. It’s about a different dumb gimmick every week.” While this can definitely be hit or miss, the gimmick this time comes in the form of the episode being one continuous, unbroken shot. It’s a kind of dazzling experiment, and it results in the show turning out one of the strongest episodes they’ve produced.
Comedy Bang! Bang! and by extension Aukerman, certainly aren’t opposed to wearing their smarm on their sleeve, but everything about this episode – even the bigger, broad moments – work in a beautiful way. To begin with, the whole single take premise is adopted as a result of the Comedy Bang! Bang! editors going on strike (the impetus for this idea was inspired by Sean L. McCarthy, and he’s appropriately thanked during the end credits), and so a quick-thinking Scott suggests they just do the whole thing with one camera and don’t create a need for edits in the first place. After all, they pretty much do the entire show in a perfect, single take every week anyway, Scott humblebrags. As the scenery begins to fall apart though, it’s of course clear that this is going to be far from the case. In fact, the episode even carries a pretty strong The Muppet Show vibe to it, as Scott and his players frantically try to keep this train on track and make sure the show goes off without a hitch.
The results here are a very different looking, (ostensibly) looser episode of the show. Every exchange between Scott and Kid Cudi requires the camera to whip back and forth between the two of them. The editors even exacerbate this idea by bringing up needless conversation points simply to have the camera move in their direction. There are numerous opportunities throughout the installment where an edit or some other sort of camera would be beneficial, and their absence is felt in the best possible way. There’s never not a moment where the construct here (or lack thereof) is felt. Aukerman told me that “Our average time to shoot an episode is two days. And most of our more challenging episodes are shot in three. This was certainly the quickest we could do it – we shot everything but the closing basketball montage in one day, in real time…I was adamant – I didn’t want any kind of cheating, like you always see with these long-takes. No hidden edit points. I think the crew was super nervous about that, and would have felt more comfortable if we had put some in.”
In a general sense, a lot of episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang! would perhaps qualify as a bottle episode. Talk shows usually are contained to a single room, and there’s usually not a feeling of claustrophobia present (you would hope). In fact, actual talk shows through the years have tried to mix up and reinvigorate their format. Conan did an episode of Late Night all in claymation, and other similar stylistic flourishes have been taken by our many late night personalities. So this makes particular sense in a scripted talk show of all things. Comedy Bang! Bang! has been quick to lean into cutaways and reality show parodies that break us out of our respective bottle, so when “Tom Lennon…” is unable to turn to these familiar crutches, a difference actually is felt. Instead, the camera itself turns into its own mini-sketch generator.
The technical feat of the episode alone is impressive, but the installment also ensures that each act has some sort of magic trick going on to keep you enthralled, “As performers, we also knew we wanted to push ourselves. So, with each act, we wanted to do something really challenging, just to impress everyone that we were doing it live,” Aukerman details. “So the first act, we have us just doing a long, ten-minute interview take with tons of lines and bits and camera movement. In the second act, we have Tom and myself reciting a play blindfolded in unison (and we’re moving the stage set up in and out really quickly). In the third, Paul F. wanted to do a rap from memory.” For example, the way the camera has to follow and improvise with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (Paul F. Tompkins) as he performs his Jesus Christ Superstar rap forces it to turn into an avant-garde music video that has a far more interesting look to it than how the same bit would be filmed in a typical episode.
The show has a gleeful time with the situation it’s found itself in. Cudi is continually panned over to, looking incredulous, or needing to enforce commercial break edits by himself, and we’re almost put in his shoes, watching skeptically along with him. Elsewhere there are other inspired bits that focus on our lone camera, such as Scott sneezing on it at one point, the near detour of a colonoscopy cam, and just the fact that these editors on strike are actually characters that the show’s extended universe have warmed us up to for awhile now. While the bulk of bottle episodes deal on some level with the idea of being trapped, “Tom Lennon…” still achieves that, but in a wholly different way of being stuck within the limitations of the medium; they’re trapped by their inability to edit out of this bottle, and there’s something poetic about that.
All of this comes down to Scott needing to sink a three-point basket at the end of the episode in order to get his precious editors back to work, and in this climax the episode manages to pay homage to another longstanding tradition of the “continuous shot” trope; there’s usually some big complicated stunt that has the potential of “ruining” the entire production and causing it to be reset. In the episode’s final moments Scott and company move outside to fulfill their destiny, and a wild celebration ensues. It’s a surprisingly beautiful ending, but when it came down to it an almost unheard amount of prep and effort were put into this spectacle. “In the fourth [act], I really wanted to hit the basketball shot. And a three-pointer, no less. With no basketball ability. The writers originally wrote two options – one if I made it, and one if I didn’t. And I made them throw out the second option. Because why are we doing it, if I don’t make it? So, starting in January, I would shoot three-pointers every day on the lot for a few minutes. I never got good at it, but sometimes I would get in a rhythm where I could hit a few in a row.”
Sure enough, the yips soon caught up with Aukerman, “First take – very funny, but when I get to the basket, the ball hit the rim but didn’t go down… But on take six, everything went just right, and the ball went straight down the hoop… But then we checked the shot – you could see the basketball go totally out of frame on the top part of its arc to the basket.” Determined to have an air-tight execution here, this still wasn’t enough for Aukerman, “I felt like people would assume we cheated if we saw it go out of frame. So we tweaked the camera choreography, and set up for it again…On the thirteenth take, I made it again. And we got the basketball in frame the entire shot, so no one would accuse us of cheating. So after it aired, I went online, and everyone is assuming we put the ball in in post. So I’m not sure why we bothered!”
In spite of Aukerman’s critical attitude towards the minutiae of the episode, none of this is readily clear unless you were a part of the process behind it, but it’s still incredible to hear of the sheer effort taken to make this appear to be as legitimate as possible. The adrenaline that Aukerman talks about them running off of is infectious just from watching.
Comedy Bang! Bang! has seen some ups and downs through its many episodes, but there’s no denying that they’ve had a resurgence this season (even after losing Reggie). Sometimes relying on a classic staple of television, like a bottle episode, and having your way with it can be exactly how to reinvigorate your show. If this is the sort of episode that they’re currently attempting, I can’t wait to see what other creative itches the team will get and how they’ll continue to go for broke.