The Triumph of ‘Comedy Bang Bang’ and the Rise of Comedy Geek Culture
I happened to be watching The Ben Stiller Show for a column I write about 1990s comedy when I read the tweet from Scott Aukerman that after 110 episodes, the television version of Comedy Bang Bang was ending. I was bummed, of course, because I love the show. But I was also struck that Comedy Bang Bang racked up nearly ten times as many episodes as The Ben Stiller Show, a quintessential too-good-for-TV one season wonder.
That isn’t necessarily because Comedy Bang Bang is a more commercial show than The Ben Stiller Show. From the viewpoint of 2016, it’s tough to figure out why the show flopped so badly. Hell, a funny, hip, critically acclaimed half-hour sketch comedy show featuring a young, ridiculously talented and good looking cast, headlined by a man who would eventually become a massive movie star whose movies gross billions (and co-created by Judd Apatow, whose movies also have grossed billions) and that features parodies of huge stars like Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Cruise should be a ratings smash. The Ben Stiller Show bombed anyway but left such a really, really, ridiculously good-looking corpse that it’s still mourned nearly a quarter-century after its unnatural end.
Comedy Bang Bang, in comparison, spent 110 episodes assiduously avoiding anything that might attract a mass audience, with the exception of hiring national treasure (and, full disclosure, my former boss/co-author) “Weird Al” Yankovic as its third and final band leader/sidekick. A bit where Scott Aukerman croons a goofball ditty about the role green screens play in special effects is the rule rather than the exception. Comedy Bang Bang devoted an entire episode to jokes rooted in long takes and editing.
So why did the seemingly commercial The Ben Stiller Show famously flop while Comedy Bang Bang made it past that all-important 100-episode mark? I would argue that the comedy hasn’t necessarily changed but the audiences got smarter and more comedy savvy, thanks in no small part to the podcasting boom, which has made comedy more transparent and self-reflective than ever before. Comedy Bang Bang benefitted from coming out during the heyday of the comedy geek, a subsection of the American public that many not wield the awesome power that comic book and superhero and Star Wars geeks do, but are powerful enough to help keep Comedy Bang Bang on the air for five often epic seasons.
Comedy Bang Bang thrived in a comedy landscape where WTF delved deep into the psychodrama of comedy but also its mechanics and traditions, and an era where fans who want to know more about their favorite comedies can listen to creators deliver inside-baseball information on audio commentaries, or read interviews with them in Mike Sacks’ essential explorations of the craft of comedy, And Here’s The Kicker and Poking A Dead Frog.
Aukerman’s trippy labor of love had an audience that wasn’t just smart and adventurous but also historical-minded enough to be able to trace the show’s roots back to The Ben Stiller Show, and then Mr. Show (where Aukerman was a writer and occasional performer) on through to the Tim & Eric anti-comedy revolution. Comedy Bang Bang was a comedy for people who didn’t just like to laugh, but loved the entirety of comedy. And when the often brilliant sketch comedy show The Birthday Boys was canceled, its energy (and writing staff) were absorbed into Comedy Bang Bang like a fetus absorbing another fetus in the womb.
When I worked at The Onion, the comedy writers used to talk about the “one percent rule.” It argued that a joke or a story, or an idea, or a reference, might only connect with one percent of its potential audience. But the one percent it does connect with will be so excited to understand and appreciate something so weird and random and obscure that you potentially have a fan for life. Well, Comedy Bang Bang was unusually committed to the one-percent rule. It wasn’t interested in making everyone laugh, just the right people.
Comedy Bang Bang is seemingly just as devoted to exploring and deconstructing the mechanics of comedy as it is in laughter, and we can all agree that making people laugh is the lowest and most distasteful form of comedy. It is filled with what my wife calls “that weird anti-comedy you like,” and assumes that its audience will get a broad range of cultural references and trusty TV tropes, like the indignant boss who pops into the show from time to time to yell at its stars and issue threats.
Aukerman’s show layers reference upon reference upon references. During the 100th episode, for example, the host suffers a temporary bout of amnesia and when a fake crew member attempts to jog his memory, he sternly informs her that this is not a clip show before segueing into fake memories involving a Four Seasons-style vocal harmony group hampered by only being able to sing songs in the public domain. In the trippy, stream-of-consciousness world of Comedy Bang Bang, this inevitably leads to a hilarious and dead-on parody of the way biopics simplify their subjects and reduce and minimize the complexities of life with the help of peppy montages and show-business cliches.
It’s an incredibly dense set of allusions in a tiny amount of time but it speaks to the respect the show has for its audience. It feels like Aukerman is primarily making a show for himself and doesn’t particularly care if a mass audience finds it funny. It’s also worth noting that the hundredth episode of this fake talk show show more or less completely eschews the tradition of talk shows, namely the guest interview. You could say that the episode deviates from the conventional format of Comedy Bang Bang but that would imply that it had a conventional format, and not a rough core it was constantly playing with, subverting, or otherwise ignoring.
Comedy Bang Bang is a fake talk show with a sketch show nestled inside, Russian Doll style, a show with a sense of sense of reality so flexible it allows for just about anything. It inhabits a fantasy world where animals and inanimate objects talk, where people break into song on a regular basis and anything can happen — and usually does! It’s astonishing that Aukerman was able to tape 110 episodes of a show so ambitious, strange, and time and labor intensive. It’s borderline super-human that Aukerman was able to do so while simultaneously hosting one of the funniest and most essential podcasts around and touring on a regular basis with the Comedy Bang Bang All-Stars.
In its early seasons, Comedy Bang Bang was fueled by the funky chemistry between the extremely white Scott Aukerman and the effortlessly hip Reggie Watts. Watts was at once at the core of the show and a weirdly ethereal figure who always seemed to be both present and not present, at once engaging with Aukerman and humbly playing the sidekick role while also seemingly floating up into the ether.
Watts isn’t just one of the coolest and most original people alive; he’s an utter original. He and “Weird Al” Yankovic, who took over at the end, are like unicorns: there’s only one of them in the world (Yes, I live in a world with a single unicorn in it). Kid Cudi had a thankless job replacing someone as irreplaceable as Watts and while he’s talented and good-looking and game, he just did not fit the show as well as Watts or Yankovic. Watts and Aukerman were a brilliant team because they are so different. Aukerman and Yankovic, meanwhile, are a brilliant team because they are so similar and complementary. Their voices and cadences are even similar and Comedy Bang Bang bears a distinct resemblance to Yankovic’s short-lived but beloved Saturday morning show The Weird Al Show, which, like Comedy Bang Bang, owes an enormous debt to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and shares its weird “stoner comedy for children” vibe.
When I look back on Comedy Bang Bang’s run I am astonished and impressed by how much they were able to get away with. At its best, the show had an incredible comic density. The average show was overflowing with ideas and gags and running jokes and weirdness and everything else the show could fit into twenty-two minutes of commercial television.
Yes, Comedy Bang Bang got away with an awful lot. And it got away with an awful lot for 110 episodes. Hell, part of its getting away with an awful lot involves making it to 110 episodes. So while I’ll miss the show going forward, the podcast isn’t going anywhere and those 110 episodes are a hell of an archive to revisit, not to mention the audio commentaries and other assorted ephemera and silliness. And at this point, Aukerman and Yankovic are each entitled to a very long nap, and some rest and relaxation.
Endings are invariably sad, but Comedy Bang Bang enjoyed a long, healthy life and can go to that great big TV graveyard in the sky confident that in its lengthy, often brilliant run, it accomplished seemingly everything it set out to do.
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.