Scott Aukerman is a writer and producer who’s been doing a mix of sketch and improv work for the last 15-plus years, working alongside Bob Odenkirk and David Cross on Mr. Show, and more recently giving shape to the madness that is Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis.
But it’s his series Comedy Bang! Bang! – which returned this week for a third season on IFC – where many of you might recognize his face, where he chats with celebrities in an mock interview format peppered with absurd, sometimes surreal sketches. “It’s not your typical talk show,” Aukerman told me by phone earlier this week. “It’s not someone you don’t care about talking about something you don’t care about. It’s just fun and an opportunity to hang out with people and riff.”
Aukerman and I spoke about the return of his show for a third season on IFC, allowing celebrities to pretend, getting Pee Wee Herman’s blessing, and how he felt about not getting the Letterman gig.
That last point doesn’t have that much of a sting to it. I asked jokingly how he felt about losing the job to Steven Colbert (he has nothing but kind words for the incoming replacement), and Aukerman hit me with a disarmingly sincere answer: Letterman was a point of inspiration for 16-year-old Scott, providing the influence for an early public access show.
He offered a surprising bit of honesty here: “I guess it was always sort of my dream when we turned the podcast into a show on IFC that we’d do the show. And down the line somewhere and David Letterman would retire and the TV show would be so popular that I would be sort of in contention for it.” He joked that maybe Fallon would get fed up with his late night gig, offering Aukerman a network slot one day.
So why not go with a straight sketch or talk show format? “Ever since I worked on Mr. Show back in the 90’s as a writer and performer, I’ve tried to get sketch shows off the ground.” he mentions a couple of projects around 2002 for Fox with some of his Mr. Show collaborators, but they never really went anywhere. To Aukerman, those projects – and any number of other failed sketch shows – lacked the one thing that the long-lived Saturday Night Live struck on from the very beginning:
“They have a celebrity host which takes care of the point of view.” Describing the SNL format as “genius,” Aukerman said that viewers want to tune in each week to see what Lindsay Lohan or James Franco or any number of actors, athletes or musicians have to say. “If it was just a sketch show with a bunch of players, I don’t know if I’d tune in myself.” (Something like Key and Peele or Inside Amy Schumer work because those hosts provide the context and point of view for their respective series).
With Comedy Bang! Bang!, the fake talk show format takes care of the point of view question, according to Aukerman. The format allows the show to weave in a half-hour narrative that can take a detour into a sketch before coming back to Aukerman and co-host Reggie Watts. “You know where you are and you’re not set adrift in a bunch of random sketches that don’t tie together.”
In terms of format, Aukerman offered Pee Wee’s Playhouse as one of the main points of inspiration, pushing the show into what he describes as “live-action cartoon” territory, with the series morphing into “a kids’ show or adults.” “We had [Pee Wee Herman] on the show last year, and he sort of blessed us with his presence.”
He rushes through some of his favorites he’s had on the show over the years who have inspired him as a writer and comedian: Second City TV star Dave Thomas plays his father on the show, while three of the Kids in the Hall (so far) have been on the show.
“You know, it’s really a thrill for me to work with these performers that I grew up watching and made me fall in love with comedy.”
And if you see a young, unfamiliar face getting one scene or just one line on the show, Aukerman recommends watching out for them. “Anyone who one line on my show is a really gifted comedian that I’m trying to shine the spotlight on.”
Aukerman says that Comedy Bang! Bang! guests aren’t there for the typical Hollywood press cycle, making his job so much easier. “They don’t have to come up with canned stories [or] figure out how to plug their projects.” The celebrities who sit on his couch seem to appreciate it as well: “They always tell me it’s a relief from the pressure of trying to think of a story of funny thing that happened with them this year.”
It’s definitely a different feel from his long-running Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast, which is freewheeling and odd. I asked Aukerman about the challenge of moving between the carefully-crafted sketch environment of his talk show to engaging his friends for 90 minutes on his podcast.
He told me that the podcast, in a way, serves as a regular point of inspiration for the TV show, which is likewise improvised, but edited down and honed around the skits. With the podcast, he explains, “There’s a lot more opportunity to be real with it. You can hear us thinking of what to say and riffing. It’s all very spontaneous and in the moment.”
With the podcast, Aukerman said he’s not trying to be Marc Maron – he’s not trying to “figure out what makes [his guests] tick” or even do a straight-up entertainment interview. “It’s more about ‘Are you enjoying the experience of listening to this person talk,'” he laughed.
Season three episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang! air Thursday at 10:30 ET on IFC.