Way back in 2009, Scott Aukerman—a respected comedy writer best known at the time for his stint on the legendary Mr. Show, and for the weekly comedy show (then titled Comedy Death-Ray) that he ran out of L.A.’s UCB Theatre—landed what probably didn’t seem like a career-defining gig at the time: a one-month “trial period” for a radio show on Indie 103, in which he interviewed his various comedian friends, played novelty songs, and—almost as an afterthought—released the episodes afterwards in the then still relatively new podcast format.
Ten years later, Comedy Bang! Bang! is possibly the closest thing there is to a true “institution” in the massively fractured landscape of comedy podcasting, establishing some of the genre’s most beloved figures, introducing new voices to an international audiences, and filling listeners’ brains with a truly bizarre collection of demented characters, Staind references, and increasingly terrible “Closing Up The Plug Bag” themes. On May 1, Aukerman will celebrate the show’s 10-year anniversary (and its 600th episode, to boot). To mark the occasion, we talked to him about his favorite classic CBB characters, how he finds the constant influx of new talent that keeps the show fresh a decade into its run, and how “ten years” stopped feeling like an automatic ending point, and more like the middle of something much larger.
The A.V. Club: What is your gut reaction to the phrase “Scott Aukerman has been the host of Comedy Bang! Bang! for the last 10 years?”
Scott Aukerman: I used to have a thing where I felt like 10 years was too long to do anything. I had a show at the UCB Theatre for 10 years, and at around 10 years, I was like, “Time to wrap it up!” But it’s interesting, because I almost feel like we’re just getting started in a way. It’s something where I don’t feel fatigued or feel like we’ve run out of things to do on the show or to talk about, so I almost kind of feel like, well, maybe I’m halfway there. So that’s what I think about when I hear “10 years.” It’s like hump day for me. It’s Wednesday, and I’m just trying to make it to Saturday or Sunday.
AVC: What’s different about—
SA: I’m speaking metaphorically, by the way. Today, actually when we’re talking, is Thursday. I didn’t want to confuse you.
AVC: Okay, I was very confused, so I appreciate the disclaimer.
SA: Good. I hope you have a calendar right next to your desk.
AVC: What’s different about Comedy Bang! Bang! that you don’t feel that fatigue with this?
SA: I was saying this the other day to a colleague, but while I’m doing it, no matter what’s going on in my day—frustration with work, or personal problems, or whatever it is—for that hour and a half, I put that aside and I just have fun with people. After the last episode that Jason Mantzoukas and I did together, he said, “I know when I come in here that I’m just going to be smiling the entire time. And my cheeks are going to hurt from laughing.” I guess I feel like, why would I put an end to that feeling? It’s still there. I’m not grinding it out. It’s not hack work to me. It’s not like something I’m coming in just like, “Well, time to do this again.” While I’m doing it, it truly is like a transcendent thing where I feel like all the troubles in my life go away, and I’m just sitting there laughing and having a great time.
AVC: The show has a heavy improv vibe, while you came up through more traditional theater and sketch. Did you do a lot of improv when you were younger?
SA: I did a certain amount of it in high school, at speech competitions. I remember you would all, while you were waiting for the scores to be tabulated, all the people in speech would gather together and do improv, which would invariably be freeze tag. And in freeze tag, the only goal is to contort your body into a sexual position so someone can yell “Freeze!” And then you’re sitting there getting, you know, fucked in the ass or something, and everyone laughs.
That’s what I thought improv was. I would go to The Groundlings occasionally—Second City wasn’t out here, but I believe there was a Second City TV show that I saw. So I saw a lot of short-form improv, and that’s kind of what my view of what improv was for a long time. I wasn’t incredibly interested in it. I was mainly doing sketch. And a lot of my sketch, I realized later, was, when I first started out, very improv. We would just have beats that we would do. And we would have some lines—while we were rehearsing, we’d come up with, “Oh, okay, I have to say that.” But it wasn’t scripted. And then I started to get more into scripted sketch, which is where I feel like my performance started to get a little more mannered, and not as in the moment. So that’s what I really love about Comedy Bang! Bang!—it brought me back into that feel of really being in the moment and letting whatever happens happen. When I’m out there on tour, that’s the other really great thing. Some people say to me, “How can you go on a national and international tour with nothing planned for what you’re going to do that night?” And I just trust that I’m with the right people, and everything will be really funny. That’s what I really, really love about it: The feeling of not really knowing what’s going to happen and then, through either luck or force or will, having something entertaining come out of the end of it.
AVC: At this point, 10 years in, do you ever worry during a show, “Is this bit working?”
SA: That definitely happens. With any show, you have a certain amount of weapons in your arsenal: So if I feel this tactic isn’t working, let’s change it to this tactic. And if that’s a dead end, let’s change it to this tactic. So there are definitely shows—I think maybe the casual listener doesn’t realize it’s happening, but maybe a superfan would—where you go, “Oh, I can tell this isn’t working. It’s interesting to see how they’re going to try to get out of that.” Honestly, there have been very few shows where I was like, “That was a stinker, front to back.” If there ever was one, it would probably be due to me just not knowing what to do with it. But I think these days, if I can sense something isn’t exactly clicking or gelling, I’m usually able to take a left turn and try to take it into a different place, or at least reset enough where I’m like, “Okay, let’s slow it down and really get to the heart of whatever we’re talking about.”
AVC: A lot of times it seems like those are the moments when the character “Scott Aukerman” suddenly becomes even weirder than the guest.
SA: [Laughs.] Yeah. Sometimes. I can see that. Sometimes, if I start to go off on a rant about something, maybe that’s because we’re not in the pocket yet. I hate to even say something like—I almost hate to reveal anything about my process, because then I think certain superfans of the show start to view those as rules of, like, “Oh, he started to go off on a rant, so he must have thought this was not working”—things like that. I was saying the other day to someone, “If I ever ask a guest, ‘How did you get interested in this?’” I’m basically trying to reset the conversation a little bit, because it’s getting too weird. Like, how did you first get interested in the field of what your interest is? But I hate to even say something like that, because I may throw that out at any time, and I don’t want people to think the show is going off the rails because of that. But I don’t know. If you’ve listened to the show enough times, you can kind of get a sense of when I’m trying to take it in a different direction.
And there are other times, by the way, when I think the guest is adept enough or skilled enough that they wouldn’t mind me trying to upset their bit, you know? That happened the very first time that Andy Daly was on the show. Where the show really gelled for me was when he came in with a bit that I knew really well because he’d done it at the UCB Theatre several times. But I started peppering him with questions that were not about his bit. Sort of the anti-what-you’re-supposed-to-do-on-a-talk-show, which is, the host is supposed to feed the guest questions that help their bit. And I was actively trying to impede his bit. And just because I knew he’s such an incredible improviser, that he would enjoy that. And that sort of has become the style of the show—if I feel a bit is getting too predictable or something, or even if I just think the other improviser will enjoy it, I’ll start peppering them with weird questions to try to alter whatever it is. And there are some improvisers who are wonderful at that, like Will Hines for instance, will come in with something kind of planned, and then one strange question will lead to something which alters his entire personality, and he just says yes to it and loves it, and that becomes kind of the premise of the bit at that point. And that’s what I like about the show—transforming an original idea into something new is so interesting to me.
AVC: That feels like the dynamic with Thomas Middleditch, too.
SA: I wouldn’t say that Thomas comes in with the most thought-out bits in the world. I mean, I’ve never really asked him about his process. But, from what I can tell, at least the first few times he did the show—maybe it was even a surprise to him that he was coming in as a character. And so he just thought of what he was doing in the moment. I think Joey Tortellini was one of his characters—that was purely, purely improv. But nowadays, most people who are on the show, they have a vague glimmer of an idea, knowing that wherever they start with will turn into something weirder by the end.
AVC: Is there such a thing as “too weird for Comedy Bang Bang?”
SA: Yeah. I talk to guests about that sometimes. Like, I think as much as Shaun Diston as Rudi North says he’s coming in hot, I think you can come in too hot on the show. I think you can come in starting at a level that is unrelatable to an audience. I think—not that it’s formulaic—but even on the TV show, we would try to say, like, “Okay, come in with an idea of a bit with one weird quality. Like one odd quality that’s just slightly odd. And then let’s escalate it.” So if someone comes in and basically immediately says that they’re not even a person, they’re a higher state of consciousness, and they’re just radio waves. You know? [Laughs.] What am I, as an interviewer supposed to say to that? Comedy Bang! Bang! is essentially a chat show where every week people are fooled into thinking this person is real. Not that that’s the goal of the show. Essentially, you’re supposed to ease people into it a little bit and have people say, “Oh, this is someone with an odd point of view.” And then it’s kind of crazy. I think people can come in too crazy some of the time.
AVC: One of the things that’s kept the show fresh for a lot of people is that you’re very conscious about bringing in new talent, especially in recent years. Where do you encounter new comics?
SA: A lot of it comes to me by recommendation, honestly. Probably in the middle of the 10 years, I was still out there going to see shows—I still will see shows, and actually in the last year or so I went out there and saw a bunch of new people on shows. But a lot of times it’s by recommendation, and a lot of times it’s by hearing them on another show. If someone comes to me and says, “Oh, this person would be amazing on it,” I’ll usually, sight unseen, just ask them to do the show. There was someone on the show recently, Alyssa Limperis, who did her mom character that I’d seen her do on videos that I saw on Twitter.
But it’s really important to me to get the new people on, because I don’t think the show would be going 10 years if we had just had the same people on every week that we had on in the first year, even. Because all of those people have gotten incredibly popular and don’t have time to do the show anymore. I noticed that, in doing the weekly show at UCB, a lot of L.A. standup showcases at the time would have their accepted group of comedians that sort of had a pass. And they would do them once a month, and so you would see the same show pretty much every single week if you were going there weekly, because the rotation was relatively small. And the audience would age along with the show, so if people started seeing the show when they were 30, at the end of 10 years, everyone in the audience would be 40, you know? And I was like, “Well, I want to keep getting young people in here to watch it,” so I would constantly have young people doing the show. And that was really important to me—keep putting in new blood, because that’s the way to make the show feel fresh. I think the show feels super fresh right now with new people—it’s a great combination of people that are old favorites and people no one has ever heard before.
AVC: I actually have a list of regular performers here, and I kind of just want to get quick, gut-check reactions from you of who your favorite character from each of them is.
AVC: Let’s start with the big one: Paul F. Tompkins.
SA: I think my favorite with him will probably always be Andrew Lloyd Webber. I know that Paul has wanted to transition for a while into doing characters that are not real people, because he has more license to do anything with them and make them as weird as he wants them to be, but there’s just something about Paul doing that high-status voice and working from the top of his intelligence that I just really, really enjoy. Every little detail of Andrew Lloyd Webber is so fascinating to me, that I think that’ll always be my favorite.
AVC: He walks a fine line between kind of liking the Scott Aukerman character, and kind of hating him.
SA: [Laughs.] Well, most of Paul’s characters hate my character, which can be exhausting to me. But Andrew Lloyd Webber at least tolerates me.
AVC: Okay, how about Ego Nwodim?
SA: Entrée PeeE Neur is super, super funny to me. I love the fact that she keeps forgetting her own game, that she’s inventing things that already exist, and then she keeps mentioning the things that already exist by their names. It makes me laugh 100% of the time.
AVC: Andy Daly.
SA: Wow. Probably Dalton [Wilcox, poet laureate of the West], I think. Dalton, I could talk to endlessly. As much as I love “Bring on the girls,” Don DiMello, he’s so seedy and in the gutter that too much of it just feels like you’re—you shouldn’t be doing that. But I love talking to Dalton. I could talk to him endlessly.
AVC: Lauren Lapkus.
SA: Lapkus, for me, the favorite goes back and forth between Traci Reardon and Todd. Traci Reardon is maybe her most fleshed-out character, the one that she feels like she knows—not to speak for her—but I feel this way, that I could talk to Traci Reardon forever, and she knows the interior life of that character so well. But I also really love talking to Todd, because Todd is so dirty, and I love Lauren Lapkus being dirty. So it’s kind of a tie between those.
AVC: James Adomian.
SA: I have such a soft spot in my heart for Huell Howser. He was one of maybe the first characters that I ever saw James do and he’s such a likable—just like in real life—such a likable person with such a wonderful, positive outlook, and James just nails that, and had such adoration for him. I’m not going to say the most unfortunate thing about Huell Howser passing away is that we couldn’t have him on the show anymore, because he was a wonderful guy and has a family. But it truly was a bummer that we had to retire that from the show.
AVC: Carl Tart.
SA: So many to choose from. I think maybe MC Sugar Butt?
SA: It’s so…did you just do a Carl Tart huh?
AVC: Not on purpose.
SA: [Laughs.] That’s what he does anytime he’s trying to stall. He goes, Huh? and I’ll have to repeat the question. Probably Sugar Butt, the rapper from the ’80s who went into a coma and just recently woke up, so he has the same style. It’s really funny to me to watch Carl try to contort himself into finding rhymes because he’s not a natural at it.
AVC: The episode where he plays Larry Blackmon, the guy from Cameo, is another one that sticks in the memory.
SA: It was really funny because someone dropped out of that show—if I recall the details. Was it just me and him the entire episode?
AVC: You have a guest later on, but it’s just you and him for a long time. He’s the lead guest.
SA: Yeah, I think the—as we call it, the regular person guest, dropped out as we were starting the show. And so that’s one of those times where it was like, “Okay, let’s do an all-character episode.” And so I had to start—it’s just such a weird thing to start with. This guy who barely talks. But, yeah, that was super funny and truly an episode where we were just kind of put into a situation we didn’t expect and then I really enjoyed the result.
AVC: Okay, last question, let’s go for a big legacy thing.
SA: Aw, shit.
AVC: You’ve been doing this for 10 years. If you could go back and give yourself advice 10 years ago, what would it be? What would you say to Scott Aukerman in 2009?
SA: I think the same things that I try to tell myself going in now: Listen more. But that’s always my number one thing: Listen! Listen to what the other person is saying. But—god, I would almost hate to upset the time-space continuum, in a way. I feel just so lucky with the way it’s come out that I would hate to do anything that would upset the buttercream effect, which would almost make it not happen the way it happened. The fact that we’re still going 10 years, and it’s still such an incredible joy for me to do, and that people like it still, is so wonderful that… who knows if I would give myself any advice that would make myself seem smarter than I was back then? But yeah. I think listen more. And always tip the valet.