Brett Gelman’s Classic “iBrain” Bit Helped ‘Comedy Death-Ray/Bang Bang’ Reach New Highs of Hilarity and Raunch
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The 35th episode of Comedy Bang Bang, which gave the world the gift of Brett Gelman’s “iBrain,” helped establish the tone, personality, and boundaries of the then-young podcast, which still went under the name Comedy Death-Ray and was broadcast live on the radio. More specifically, Gelman’s controversial, divisive, and utterly gut-busting signature bit established that the podcast could be dirty when the situation called for it. And it went further than that — when necessary, Aukerman’s podcast institution can be not just dirty but absolutely fucking filthy. Downright pornographic.
Not all the time, of course. No, Scott Aukerman is a genial fellow and Comedy Bang Bang is a genial enterprise, regardless of the oddballs that take advantage of its open door policy. But Comedy Bang Bang is similarly not squeamish about unleashing upon its audience an “iBrain” or “Monster Fuck,” where a big part of the gag is how ragingly, screamingly inappropriate these brazen detours into science fiction pornography and horror pornography are for any podcast, or public performance for that matter, but specifically how wrong they are for Comedy Bang Bang in particular.
The standout 2010 episode still finds Comedy Bang Bang finding its voice and its ramshackle structure. “iBrain” obviously dominates the episode, in no small part because it seems to reduce everyone else in the studio to tears, even as they try to retain their composure and play along, but it’s only one of four discrete segments in an episode that ends well before the hour mark.
Thomas Lennon actually has the unenviable tasks of having to follow both Gelman’s reading of “iBrain” and the news of his instant lifetime banning as his second character of the episode, this one an effeminate representative of the “Christian Family Fun Coalition,” who sings a supposedly Christian song about all the naughty things you’re not supposed to do that segues not unexpectedly into a sinful ditty about all of the naughty things the singer only masquerading as a Christian wants to do to the audience and everybody else. It’s not bad at all, but following “iBrain” on Comedy Death-Ray/Bang Bang is like the Rolling Stones following James Brown at the T.A.M.I. Show: an impossible situation, one where you can only suffer by comparison.
But before Lennon has to follow one of the most hilarious and notorious bits in Comedy Bang Bang history, he first wins a lot of big, semi-guilty laughs as Little Gary, a little person pursuing a career as an announcer and a sidekick on the podcast despite a Pootie Tang-level of incomprehensibility as well as his predilection for getting everybody’s name wrong, along with everything else. Little Gary shouldn’t be anywhere near as funny as he is, but listening to him regale Aukerman with his account of working in the radio business via a short-term gig operating the radio dial in Andy Dick’s van, among other absurdist misadventures, I found myself laughing hard at lines I understood maybe half of. Sometimes a voice, inflection, and an energy will be inherently funny no matter what’s being said or conveyed. That’s the case with Little Gary.
After Little Gary returns for what we’re told will be a permanent gig as Scott’s sidekick/announcer (needless to say, it didn’t take), Patton Oswalt shows up to play straight man to Gary, discuss the then-simmering Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien wars, and to talk about the Nixonian elements of Leno’s rise to power and glory. The tone for this segment is vastly different and more cerebral than the first. I can’t imagine Little Gary recommending Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, but he is pretty quick with a Videodrome reference, so maybe the diminutive fictional character is more cultured than you might expect. Patton plays off Aukerman and Little Gary well and gets in a few choice lines, like when he says of Leno at the opening of his new show, “People gather to (Leno) as if he’s sweating a healing elixir from his pores” and describes Gary as embodying a singular combination of excited and nearly dead.
Then Gelman comes on in character as “Brett Gelman,” Pretentious Artist, to complain about his last appearance on the podcast not making the show’s top ten annual countdown. In protest, Gelman announces that he’s given up comedy altogether for short story writing and would like to favor the audience, and the in-studio gang, with one of his short stories — this one a socially conscious science fiction story with an important message about who we are and how we live.
The short story begins on a hilariously hack note, with an ancient Steve Jobs entertaining a crowd in the distant future with Apple’s newest and greatest invention: the iBrain, which doesn’t just give users access to all of the wonders of Apple’s various inter-connected products — no, the genius and horror of the iBrain is that it does more than that. The iBrain also thinks for its user. For Jobs and company, it is the final frontier, where the Singularity can be marketed and mass-produced.
The talk intrigues a couple named Adam and Eve for that perfect unearned note of biblical symbolism, but they nevertheless head out. The story takes a wonderfully unexpected turn when Eve asks of Adam, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Wanna come up and fuck?” and the precious science fiction satire is immediately and dramatically replaced by Letters to Penthouse-style pornography.
The writing is gloriously over-the-top in its filthiness. One moment, Gelman is pretentiously commenting on the way technology isolates us from ourselves. The next he’s littering his pornography with phrases like “veiny schlong,” “Eve sucked Adam’s cock ferociously,” “dirty fuck pig,” “twat-water,” and “cock clown.” The out-of-nowhere switch from precious, self-satisfied science fiction of ideas (or, even worse, precious, self-satisfied science fiction of ideas that tries to be funny) to full-on audio/literary pornography makes “iBrain” hilarious. But it’s the segment’s pitch-perfect grasp of the cliches and conventions of both bad speculative fiction and pornography that makes it one for the ages.
Before it turns riotously and shockingly pornographic, “iBrain” is a brilliant satire of bad science fiction — the kind that never stops congratulating itself and the audience for being able to grasp the clumsiest and most ham-fisted of ideas, in this case the notion that our reliance on technology in general, but particularly the products and ideology of Apple, is robbing us of our humanity and transforming us from living, feeling creatures to consumers. Or, in the case of “iBrain,” consumers who are more importantly out-of-control fuck machines. Gelman’s delivery adds immeasurably to the comedy. In the pre-fucking part, he absolutely nails the twee self-regard that characterizes so many readings of an author’s work — that sense that they’re savoring every last writerly flourish in a frenzy of masturbatory self-love.
Aukerman, Oswalt, and Lennon respond with the perfect combination of laughter, horror, and visceral revulsion. Even after all these years, “iBrain” retains the power to shock and horrify as well as amuse. It seems appropriate that Gelman’s defining moment of triumph on the show got him “banned” a la Andy Kaufman and Saturday Night Live, since Gelman is channeling Kaufman in the bit, albeit in a way that’s utterly hilarious and unforgettable and not just funny in a conceptual, abstract fashion.
Nathan Rabin is a father, the author of 5 books, a columnist and the proprietor, owner, Editor-in-Chief and sole writer for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, which can be found at nathanrabin.com.