Talking to Scott Aukerman About the ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’ TV Show and His Career That Prepared Him For It
When talking with Scott Aukerman, he referred to himself as “America’s least likely television star.” It was a joke but one rooted in a certain truth. In a different time, Scott is not someone who would’ve gotten to star in his on television show – who would’ve had his face plastered on billboards in Times Square. He would’ve been another respected working comedy writer that only the most obsessive nerds would know by name. But thankfully Scott was able to work in Hollywood in a time that allowed him to slowly develop a brand and a comedic voice that is distinctly his own.
From working on Mr. Show to booking the Comedy Death Ray (now Comedy Bang! Bang!) stand-up show that has grown in its ten years to become one of the centerpieces of LA’s comedy community to hosting a podcast that is still one of the most laugh out loud funniest and unique shows of the medium, Scott has established a sensibility that, though it might be outside the norm and not for everyone, has found its loyal fan base. Comedy Bang! Bang!, which premieres on IFC on Friday at 10pm, offers a pure, well-articulated manifestation of that sensibility. In the premiere, sketches take sharp turns into unexpected directions – bits are constantly underplayed to an extent that the laughs come from the non-jokes and pauses – there are unaddressed and deadpan flights of fancy; however, it all works and all fits together because it’s all very true to Scott’s point-of-view. Ultimately, it is exactly the show Scott always wanted to make but never imagined a network would let him do.
I got a chance to speak with Scott about his career, how he developed his comedic perspective, and the exciting process of creating Comedy Bang! Bang!.
Since we spoke over a year ago, a lot of things have happened for you. Overall, how are you feeling about everything, about Comedy Bang Bang! coming out?
I feel super excited. It really was a childhood… I guess I wasn’t a child when I was fifteen. What would you consider to be a child?
What was it for you? Like if there’s grass on the field…
Yeah, if you didn’t have pubes, you probably were still a child. I’m Jewish, so for me it hinges on the Bar Mitzvah.
You’re an adult after that. Is it okay to have sex with Jewish kids after they turn 13? [Laughs]
Of course, just as long as they’ve been Bat or Bar Mitzvahed. [Laughs]
It really was a teenage dream, as Katy Perry said, for me to have my own talk show. Something that I never thought would come true because they’re not exactly giving away talk shows. You’ve read the War For Late Night books, it’s more like they’re taking them away. So, I never really thought that it would happen. It’s a really exciting time for me to be able to make this show. Not only was I able to make it but also I’m so proud of it and it’s exactly what I wanted it to be.
That is very, very exciting. So let’s start at the beginning: when did you start thinking about comedy professionally and how did you get the Mr. Show gig?
Comedy was something that I never really thought I could do, mainly because I thought my sense of humor was too annoying or specific. I didn’t think that it had very broad appeal. So I would always sort of make what manager Dave Rath calls, “House Comedy” jokes, meaning stuff that’s funny around the house, but that you probably couldn’t do on stage. I just never really thought I could do comedy. Then a couple of things happened right around the same week for me back in 1995, which was I saw an NBC special about Andy Kaufman and B.J. Porter and I went to see Bob Odenkirk and David Cross do their live show, which was the show that got them Mr. Show. That confluence of events happing at the same time made me realize, “Oh the stuff that I think is funny, that everyone I work with finds really annoying, other people find that funny too.” And there was a group of people out there doing it. It’s what became known as alternative comedy. When I saw that happening it made me realize, “Hey I could do that too” and there’s a mutual friend of Bob and David’s who I knew…. I guess that’s what a mutual friend means, right?
Yeah, that’s how those things work.
But this mutual friend asked B.J. and I to do The Comedy Store on a night where all these great people were doing it, like Bob and David, Janeane Garofalo, Paul F. Tompkins, people like that. So, just seeing those two things, The Andy Kaufman Special and the Bob and David show, made me have the confidence that I could do it. I remember rehearsing our bit for B.J.’s girlfriend at the time and she just shook her head afterwards and said, “Well, that’s not gonna go over well.” [Laughs] And for some weird reason we felt like it was going to go over well, and it did.
Do you remember what that bit was?
It was a bit where…. We pretended to be an improv group from the Valley, called The Fun Bunch, who had an improv theater and our improv just devolved into just strange, animalistic, anal sex basically. Yeah, it was a kind of bizarre and filthy yet based on the Martin & Lewis energy that we loved so much.
Then Bob saw you guys perform and offered you the writing job from there?
Yeah. He wasn’t there the first time we did it but he was there at our second performance. He sort of grabbed B.J.’s elbow – I think I had my pants down and was outside crying – and said that he thought we were really funny and that he’d like to work with us and that maybe we could write on his HBO show. Because that show was one of the reasons that we wanted to do comedy in the first place, it was a huge thrill. It took a couple years for him to make good on it but still it inspired us to keep going.
What would you say you learned working on Mr. Show that you continue to use now with Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show?
Well, the whole writing process I definitely use to this day. It basically taught me how to write sketch. The way they were patient with ideas is something that when I run any kind of room, I try to emulate. The way Mr. Show was run was a reaction to Bob’s experience on Saturday Night Live, where basically you would come in with an idea, you’d write the sketch, and if it didn’t get into the show that week you’re discouraged from bringing it up again. Bob just thought that was insane. If an idea was funny, why wouldn’t you try to figure it out, why throw it away like that. So that kind of patience extended to even if you had the stupidest idea in the world, we would take an hour trying to dissect it and trying to figure out what was funny about it. We would go through sometimes fifteen drafts of a sketch before getting it right. Bob and David knew if there was something funny in the sketch and had the patience to try and work on it, rather than just give up, and that’s something that influences my writing to this day. Like if somebody writes something and you don’t like it, you shouldn’t just be like, “Oh no, that sucks, let’s not do it”, because not only is that wasting a good idea, it also kind of hardens the heart of the writer you’re working with. Instead you go, “Well, I’m not so sure about the execution but what about it is funny?” Then we go on for the next hour: “Well, what if we did this with it? What if we did this with it?” Eventually, you’ll kind of find that one execution of it that works perfectly with your show and nothing feels better.
I think it’s really great for the writers too because it makes them not feel like they’re working in an environment where they’re trying to hit the target every time or they’re fired. It’s very collaborative. I learned how to collaborate on Mr. Show. I was really a new writer at the time, so I was afraid going into Mr. Show. I was afraid that I would be seen through as a sham because all that I had ever done up until then was write by myself in my little room. I learned how to talk to people and I learned how to collaborate and I learned how to make an idea better by having five to ten people in the room, all working towards the same goal.
What were you doing at the time between Mr. Show and when the podcast started?
B.J. and I had written a film script right before Mr. Show had started and it got a lot of attention in the industry, got us a manager, and almost got made a couple of times. That and being on Mr. Show led to a lot of offers to write films scripts and a few TV scripts too. From the time that we finished Mr. Show, and I’m sort of including the Mr. Show movie, it was a lot of writing work and not a lot of performing work. The very first TV show that we tried to write starred B.J. and it never got made. Then we sort of just settled into a rhythm of just being writers and I thought my career would remain being behind the scenes.
What made you start the Comedy Death Ray stand-up night?
In 2002, I had been trying to get back into doing stand-up. I had been going around, doing a lot of open mics and doing a lot of shows. I was noticing that there were a lot of great new comedians and they hadn’t been booked on a lot of shows around town. I’m talking about B.J. Novak, and Dan Mintz, and Morgan Murphy. They were all young voices that nobody had seen in LA because really the only show around at the time was the Largo comedy show, which had a pretty strict booking policy about whom they would or would not book. Meanwhile, B.J. was talking to the proprietor of the M Bar, who was looking for shows to be put up there. B.J. quickly put together a comedy show and because I had experience knowing who was really good, we just started doing it together. It was a reaction to us wanting to perform a little more and to knowing all these super talented people who couldn’t get booked anywhere else around town.
It’s been going on about ten years now…
Ten years this summer.
What do you think is so special about it? How has it been able to endure?
The one reason I think it was able to endure was our philosophy with it was different from other comedy shows around LA at the time. We wanted to make sure that we fostered new comedians and that our shows were a mixture of established people and new people. You’d see a show where it would be somebody really established, like a Bob Odenkirk, but you’d also have somebody who had just started doing comedy six months ago on it as well. It was based on the philosophy of, “So what if this person’s only been doing it for six months, we think they have something. They may not be the most polished person in the world, but there’s something there.” I think it was able to endure because we really grew and we weren’t just offering the same stodgy people all the time in a rotation and making our audience older with the show. We had a kind of really young feeling about the show.
Obviously we still try to do that, I’m still looking for new comedians, I’m still out there looking to book new faces that inspire me because that’s what you have to do when you’re doing a show. There have been other shows that have popped up since that probably are even younger and have even newer people in it, because that’s just the way comedy goes. [Laughs] But what I really like is that people still want to do the show, people aspire to do the show, comedians are proud to do the show, and not only is it just a kind of chip or something they can put on their resume, they have a really good time when they do the show. The audiences are still fucking great.
I think there’s definitely something to that. I remember one night a comedian told a joke that completely bombed and he said, “You know, usually I would say, ‘oh you guys are a bunch of idiots that joke was funny’ but I know you’re the best crowd in the country, so I guess that joke just fucking sucks.”
So the Comedy Death Ray, now Comedy Bang! Bang!, podcast. I would argue that you’ve evolved to take a much more active role in creating the comedy, opposed to being just the facilitator or straight man. Do you think the podcast has helped you grow as a performer?
The podcast has definitely made me less afraid. My comedy background when B.J. and I started doing stuff was very, very written. We would do faux-Shakespearian sonnets sometimes, we would do musical numbers, so the stuff was very written. I really envy the experience that a lot of people who move to LA and take UCB classes have because they’re trained from an early age to be fearless in what they do on stage. I look at someone like Paul Rust or Neil Campbell, who every single week they do totally improvised sketches, and I get really envious. But doing the podcast has made me more of an in-the-moment performer. When we first started filming the TV show, the part that I was most nervous about was the interview parts of it, because those are the least scripted parts of the show. The show is a mixture of improv and written sketch, so the interviews could go off in any direction. I was nervous about it but now actually having watched the show, they actually came out the best. And I think the podcast has a lot to do with that because I’m there every single week, I’m doing it, I’m putting in the time. You can’t help but to grow as a performer when you’re doing it all the time.
Especially, considering that the people that you’re doing it with are the best of the best. I can’t imagine just watching them and seeing where their brains go.
I’ve always benefited from being around the funniest people in the universe and being able to just be around them. You know I’m still learning. I was listening to a recent episode [Episode 156] and I was getting so mad at myself because at a certain point I’m trying to get my point out and I’m stepping on Nick Kroll’s joke. I went, “Fuck! My point wasn’t as good as his point. His point was really funny and mine sucked. Why couldn’t I shut up?!” But you live and you learn.
And you’ve got different performers each week so it’s not like you have a perfect idea of where each person is going.
You could bring up Paul F. Tompkins. There’s a reason that he’s on every three weeks or so. It’s because we know each other’s rhythms really well and what comes out of it is great. Also, he’s not a guy where I’m like, “Paul please do my show! I need you!” He’s a guy where I’m like, “Hey Paul, I think I might do a show in four hours” and he’ll be like, “Great, I’ll be there!” He’s a very giving person in that way.
I try to just be as good as I can be at it and to get better each week. I understand if I’m not some people’s taste but I just do what I do. I think that those three years of preparation really served me well in the TV show. I think the TV show’s interviews are fantastic.
Did it prepare you for being in the spotlight, to having giant billboards of your face put up around the country? Did it help you come to terms with this being your show, instead of you being the guy behind the guy?
The weird thing is, in my mind, I’m like, “Finally the billboards are here!” Those billboards I expected to have when I was fifteen years old and wanted to be in show business. Why did it take a quarter of a century to arrive for me? It’s fantastic. It was a surprise to me, but a wonderful surprise, that I’ve come to become America’s least likely television star. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Perfect. That will be the pull quote from this. So how did the relationship with IFC progress? You did the interstitials. Was it just ideas going back and forth from there?
A big part of it is the fact that one of their executives, Dan Pasternack, is an old friend of mine. I don’t mean to say that like he’s my high school buddy who gave me a show, I mean to say that we developed a show together ten years ago for Showtime called The Offensive Show. We’ve worked together for ten years and had a friendship. He ran Super Deluxe for a while, the Adult Swim website that had short videos, and I did a bunch of stuff for it. We’ve always checked in with each other and worked with each other. He’s always been really supportive of me as a performer because he’s seen me do stuff at the Comedy Death Ray live shows and had also seen me do stuff on The Offensive Show that was really funny. He was always like, “You need to perform more! You need to perform more!” So, when I started doing the podcast, he had the great idea to do these interstitials. The thing about those is that they were good for IFC to see that I could be on camera, that I wasn’t a monster [Laughs]. When I interviewed either Seth Rogan or Danny McBride for those interstitials, they’re PR person said, “Wow it’s really nice for them to talk to someone who isn’t nervous.” I really credit the podcast for that because I’m just so used to talking to people.
The other great thing is that they’re all fans of the podcast. Once I came on their radar, they all started listening to the podcast and I would get e-mails from them every week about episodes that they really liked and characters that they really loved. When they first offered the show to me, it really was the easiest job I’ve ever gotten. It just was an offer: “Hey will you do this.” There was no come in and pitch this, it really was, “Hey, here’s a television show.” “Thank You!” Ya know? They had favorite moments from the podcast that they wanted included or they had favorite guests that they wanted to make sure were on the show. It’s fantastic working for people who are fans of what you’re doing.
Wow. That is really great. What was the idea for the show that you agreed upon? There are some similarities and major differences to the podcast.
I didn’t want to do a show where they point a camera at me and I just do what I already do on the podcast. I wanted to use TV as a visual medium and make a really visual, visual show because talk shows can be boring. And when I found out what the budget was – I mean the budget was small, let’s not kid ourselves, but it’s not like doing Watch What Happens on Bravo – I realized I had a little bit to work with. And when I found out we were only doing ten episodes I decided to be a little bit more ambitious. At first, I thought it was going to be like the interstitials but just a half hour long, but when they pitched it to me they actually were very great about pushing me towards making it more of a sketch show and making it more of the sketch show I’ve always wanted to do.
What I had to do was look at the podcast and reduce it down to its most bare elements, which was me talking to celebrities and talking to fake people and all of us interacting. I took that and tried to figure out what it was as a TV show. You’re going to see is a version of the podcast but it isn’t just the podcast. I think that people who love the podcast are also gonna love this but I also think that people who’ve never heard of the podcast aren’t gonna be sitting there going, “Now what is this? This is a podcast I’m watching?” It is a TV show. People are going to recognize it as a TV show and it’s not going to be confusing to anyone.
Were there certain TV shows that influenced the visual style?
First off, I think my work in Between Two Ferns really influenced how we were going to put this show together. I came to it with a real confidence about how this show was going to be both filmed and edited, which I think helped us and gave us a real leg up. But in terms of visual style, Pee Wee’s Playhouse is a big influence on me and we sort of constructed it to have the sort of fun and whimsy of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Also, visually we took our cues from old Dick Cavett shows a lot.
Every decision that we made about the show ends up being a huge decision. Every single thing, like: “Hey do you have a desk or not?” “What do you wear?” “Where are the guests in relation to you?” “What side of your face is everyone looking at?” These are all major decisions. Luckily, the pilot came out so well, and so fully formed, that IFC didn’t ask us really to change anything about it. They had one note, which was they wanted to see more of me at the top of the show [Laughs], which is a great note to have. I think in the pilot I sort of threw to Reggie and Adam Scott immediately and they said, “Oh, we’d like to get to know you a little bit more.” We kind of lucked into a format and a visual style that really, really worked. And when I say, “lucked out,” I mean we really thought about it and made a lot of decisions. It all kind of came together and we made that template and made nine more of them.
You mentioned that the TV show features some guests are in character, like the podcast does. I think people familiar with the podcast were wondering how this would translate. Like how you were going to show Paul F. Tompkins as Andrew Lloyd Webber. In the TV show, you end up just putting a cape on him and that’s it. What was the process like to visualize the characters, especially with how elaborate or not elaborate the costumes would be?
You asked me what Mr. Show’s influence on me was. I mean that is another philosophy of comedy that I got from them. They talk about in their book, Mr. Show: What Happened, about Bob’s experience on The Ben Stiller Show and how frustrated he would get with people who put on a lot of make up to do a character. On Mr. Show they would sometimes use gaffers tape as moustaches and the walls would shake and it was obviously a set. They said, once you have that low of a bar, people are able to laugh easier, rather than laughing at, “Oh wow, they were able to ape a visual style!” It’s just harder to make people laugh when you have so many layers of visual stuff going on. So we tried to keep it as simple as possible. It’s like Dan Aykroyd as Gerald Ford, he wouldn’t even shave his moustache off. Look at Paul F. Tompkins as Andrew Lloyd Webber and he looks exactly like Paul F. Tompkins but he has a cape. In terms of how much they wanted to go for it, I left it up to each guest to do what they wanted to do. And in fact I pulled some people back. I think James Adomian, his tendency is he wants to go the extra mile and look exactly like the other person and I think I was a little more like, “Nahh, I think we’re just gonna put grey in your hair and give you a Hawaiian shirt.” I don’t mind wigs looking like wigs.
Obviously there will be Andrew Lloyd Webber. Can you fill us in on any other of the fan-favorite characters that are going to appear throughout the season?
Well, I do know that in the very first episode you will see Danny Mahoney, the party starter, Andy Daly’s character. He will be popping up. Andy will also make another appearance as Don Dimelo. Paul F. Tompkins comes back and does another one of his famous characters. And we have Nick Kroll coming on and doing one of his. I will say that my ex-stepfather-in-law makes an appearance. Although, in the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV universe he is not my ex-stepfather-in-law.
Oh, so there’s multiple timelines or multiple universes?
Yes, it’s a lot like the Ultimate Universe vs. the Marvel 616 Universe.
What was the idea of having Reggie Watts do the music and be the sidekick?
One of the biggest decisions I had to make based on talk show tropes was: what do you do for music? David Letterman has Paul Shaffer and Jimmy Fallon has The Roots, or The Rutts as my grandmother would call them. The first thought that popped in my head was Reggie because he does the theme song for the podcast and I’ve always been such a big fan of his. Thankfully, he agreed to do it. I think what surprised me, and all the people working on the show, was just how similar our sensibilities were. There’s something about him and I when we start to riff that’s really special and you’ll see it on the show. We almost have a kinship of our senses of humor that I wouldn’t have expected. He’s a huge part of the show. He’s not just doing the music, he’s acting in sketches. There’s a reason that the billboards are of him and me. Mainly, it’s because he looks funny and I don’t [Laughs], so it tells you it’s a comedy show, but also I may be the host of the show but he is definitely more than just a sidekick.
The show is so your sensibility and it’s so confidently so. How comfortable were you pushing the boundaries or taking risks, knowing that at the end of the day the show rests on your shoulders?
I think there’s maybe two sides to that question. How confident was I to do what I wanted to do? I mean, I was for some reason incredibly confident to just go out there and swing for the fences and just do what I wanted to do with the show. It really is the most “me” out of anything I’ve ever done. That’s not to say I did everything, there’s a huge team and obviously I had great writers as well. But the flipside to your question is: I’m going to be the person that everyone looks to if they don’t like whatever’s happening on the show. You can’t say, “Oh, the writer’s really let Scott down on that one!” or, “That wasn’t filmed properly!” It’s always going to be me that people say, “that’s not funny” or “that’s really funny.” So there’s a big responsibility for me where really I have to be the arbiter of taste. The show and the last decisions have to go to me and the team has been really great about that, and to be honest, IFC has been really great about that. If I feel strongly about anything and they give a note that says, “No, this doesn’t work” and I say, “No absolutely, it has to be like this” they have backed me 100% of the time. I came into it saying I want to do the show that I’ve always wanted to do and IFC supported it. That’s not to say we didn’t change a few things along the way, but it really is one of the most pure artistic visions that you’ll see on TV. I would compare it almost to Louie. I’m not comparing it to Louie in terms of if you like Louie, you’ll like my show, I’m just saying that the experiences I’ve had in TV have not been as great as the experience I’ve had with IFC. I’ve had the least amount of people get in my way. They love the show, so it has been a lot like Louie in the sense that we’re doing what we want to do.
That is great. So last question, when we spoke a year ago you said you wanted to end it by saying “RIP Nate Dogg,” so how would you like to end this interview?
Well, long live 2Pac, first off. He’s back. I hope that Nate Dogg gets to come back as a hologram as well. You know, someday we’ll all be in heaven and we’ll all be able to say hi to Nate Dogg so it’s not that big of a loss.
And then we’ll all come back as holograms and do it all over again.
Who’s to say that we’re not already holograms? Have you ever thought about that, Jesse?
We’re just holograms in God’s Coachella.
What if God was one of us?
Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, hologram, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. He is not a hologram.