‘I Approached It Like A Sketch Show’: Scott Aukerman on ‘Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast (The Book)’
How can you tell Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast (The Book) is going to be a fun ride? Maybe it’s all the stuff that happens before the book officially gets started: There’s an introduction by the editor (one Scottrick Q. Aukerland), a second introduction by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a rebuttal to the introduction by Weird Al Yankovic, a preface to the forward by Tatiana Maslany, an actual forward by Bob Odenkirk, a forward to the preface by Patton Oswalt, a preface by Jack Quaid and finally some (fake) emails from psychedelic NBA legend Bill Walton. It’s one hell of a preamble.
From there, you might expect some kind of smart-ass retrospective about the influence of what Wired calls “one of the most densely populated, wiki-worthy podcasts ever made.” After all, Comedy Bang! Bang! is the “comic’s comic” of podcasts, a show that Vulture notes “wasn’t interested in making everyone laugh, just the right people.” So maybe an oral history tracing the show’s hijinks back to its 2009 independent radio days? A parade of comics praising its impact? Nah. That approach “would have been a little boring,” admits Scott Aukerman, the show’s host. “That would have just been for super fans.”
So instead, Aukerman, a veteran of comedy classics such as Mr. Show and Between Two Ferns, looked to other inspirations. After his editor expressed a desire for a book that evoked the podcast’s inspired insanity, Aukerman flashed back to his childhood, hitting up the humor sections of bookstores “just trying to figure out how to be a comedian or how to write comedy. These were the only lifelines that I had to give me any kind of instruction.” One book that stood out in Aukerman’s memory, a silly volume that he “read over and over and over as a kid,” was Late Night with David Letterman: The Book.
“I read it so much when I was in high school, trying to figure out how people would write jokes,” he remembers. “What are the different styles of jokes you could write? What are the different techniques and formulas?” The Letterman book was a treasure trove of material, “a hodgepodge of different stuff they did on the show,” Aukerman says. “It wasn’t new material, but it was all new to me.”
So Aukerman set out to create a Comedy Bang! Bang! book featuring “a bunch of different comedians doing interesting, weird things,” resulting in a product ready-made for pleasure reading or for “a serious comedy fan who is looking into how people do what they do, to study it and figure it out from there.”
Here’s more from my conversation with Aukerman about Comedy Bang! Bang! (both the podcast and the book), with minor edits for length and clarity.
How did Comedy Bang! Bang! become this home for quirky comedy characters?
When we started doing the radio show, my friend Joe Escalante was like, “Oh, he knows a lot of comedians, and he can get a lot of comedians on.” And so, I started interviewing comedians before (Marc Maron’s podcast) WTF. After the third show, the program director came to me and said, “That was really boring. I thought you were going to have comedians coming in and doing comedy.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that would probably be a better show.”
So that’s what the book is. We’re not talking about comedy. We’re just doing comedy.
I don’t think a lot of podcast hosts would be comfortable just diving in and improvising with people in the way that you have.
When the program director said, “Oh, I thought people would be doing comedy,” I was like, I’ve been producing this show (Comedy Death-Ray) with UCB for seven years. So I know everyone’s bits really well. I’ll do a talk show panel where I’m setting up their bits. You can hear Natasha Leggero doing material on early episodes with me trying to tee her up. But then came the first Andy Daly episode. He is such a great improviser, and he was doing a character that I knew really well, a character who got depressed and bought a heavy coat, and walked into the ocean to commit suicide. And just for fun, because I knew he could roll with it, I started asking him a ton of questions about where he bought the coat, how much it cost, all this stuff that was interrupting the rhythm of the bit. He rolled with it in a really funny way. I went home and I went, “Oh, this feels like the show to me. It gives me something more to do creatively.”
Paul F. Tompkins around the same time decided to start doing characters, and we fell into a really great rhythm. He can’t be thrown off either. That to me was the key, where it reminded me of things like 2,000-Year-Old Man and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner relationship. Reiner is doing questions they probably agreed on, but he’s also throwing stuff in to try to get Brooks to crack. And that to me became the style of the show.
How quickly did the show transition from radio to podcast?
A fan taped the first episode of the radio show because I didn’t even know how to tape it. So the first episode that you can hear is a fan taping off the radio. I had the radio station tape it every week after that, and they put it up as a podcast.
I knew what podcasts were because I’d been on Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny, but I didn’t really know the process. Someone brought over a ton of equipment, and it took an hour to set up in my apartment. I was like, “These seem like a lot of trouble.” But when I took a look at the numbers of the podcast, I noticed thousands of people were listening every week. Then I asked the radio station, “How many people listen to it when we’re on the radio?” They said, “Our estimates are less than 500.” I was like, “I don't care about the radio version anymore. I’m just going to start paying attention to the podcast,” which then led me to start a podcast company.
You were a podcast pioneer.
It was very exciting when suddenly I realized, “Oh my gosh, podcasting is the most important technology to be introduced for comedy since maybe the long-playing album or even maybe cable.” I knew that back in 2010, but trying to convince anyone else was hard. There were people who were like, “Why would I do something like that?” And I would say, “Look, you’re doing a weekly or a monthly show at a UCB theater for 100 people, right? This is thousands across the world.” And they’d go, “Ehhh” because they weren’t getting the immediacy of a crowd laughing at them. Now, of course, every single comedian is legally obligated to have a podcast. But I just knew it was going to be huge back in the day.
(As Aukerman’s Earwolf podcast network was starting), I remember saying, “Man, if we could just get one big comedian to sign on to do a podcast, it would change the game!” We were like, “Would Bill Cosby do a podcast?” This is how long ago it was! And we went down the road of trying to get Bill Cosby. No interest at all. You couldn’t even get an agent to talk to you about it. Now there are agents who are devoted to podcasts.
With so many comedians hosting podcasts, how has that changed the world of Comedy Bang! Bang!? You have an established audience, but you’re swimming in a much more crowded pool.
It’s tough to say because my show is a big ask for a celebrity guest. Most comedy podcasts are a comedian interviewing a celebrity. And that is really easy for a celebrity to do — to talk about themselves for an hour. Mine is: You’re going to come in. The host isn’t going to take what you’re doing all that seriously. Then you’re going to have to talk to two or three fake people for another hour, and it’s going to take an hour and a half at least. It’s a tough ask for a celebrity.
I remember the first time you had Jon Hamm on, and it was a revelation: This guy is a comedy dork. He loves being in this environment. For the right celebrity, it’s a great opportunity.
There’s a certain thing when a celebrity comes on and is not enjoying it. The audience can feel it and starts to dislike them. But conversely, Allison Williams was on our first episode this year and was a super fan, making references to earlier episodes, knowing specific characters. An audience hears someone playing along in a really great way and immediately you’re on their team and have an affinity for them. It’s such a good opportunity for a celebrity to come in and win a whole new audience.
It’s like when we would do the Between Two Ferns interviews. You suddenly go, “Oh, well, if they sat through that, they’re probably pretty cool.”
I was blown away by the amount of coordination it must have taken to line up all of these contributors. Comedians featured in the book include Bobby Moynihan, Ben Schwartz, Mary Holland, Andy Daly, Lauren Lapkis Jessica McKenna, Ego Nwodim and more.
The process of making this book is unlike any other book that I think the publisher has ever done. It was very confusing for them. It was semi-confusing for us. The editor and I really had a vision of what it was going to be and I approached it like a sketch show. On a sketch show, you have a half hour and you put up a bunch of cards on a board of random things, and then the very last thing you do is start putting them in order. So you have a ton of cards for the entire season, and then you go, “I think this could fit here, this could fit there,” and suddenly you have a half hour, right?
That was how we did the book. I went out to a bunch of people who were involved in the show and said, “Write me pieces, as many as you can.” And this is not how you write a book, because suddenly the publisher was asking where’s the first draft? And we're going “There’s no first draft. There is a final draft. That’s all there is. I’ll give you pieces if you want to see them as we go along, but there’s no front-to-back first draft.”
It was a really weird way to put together a book. And everyone who’s looked at the physical copy has been like, “Oh, holy shit, this is packed full of stuff!”
The book really works like a fun sketch show. The comics seem like they’re having fun, doing character improv on the page.
Taran Killam, Paul Brittain, and Ryan Gaul play the Calvins Triplets, and they wrote the most insanely detailed brochure for their horse-fighting ranch. I looked at it and could not believe the amount of detail. They went above and beyond the call of duty on that because when you get a request like that, it could be easy. Like, “Okay, I’m going to spend an hour on this.”
I edited the book obviously, but I’m responsible for probably only 5 percent of it. The process was me reaching out to people and pitching them ideas, essentially, “What if your character wrote this kind of thing?” I would say it was 50/50 — some people would go, “That’s the perfect idea!” And sometimes they’d go, “I have a different idea.” It was collaborative in that way.
One of the last things we did was the Hollywood Facts board game. I was in Riverside, waiting for my baby to be born. My wife and I were in a Target when I got this e-mail from Neil Campbell. I had already written a bunch of Facts, and I was like, “I could really use some help on this. Can you write a bunch of it?” And I’m sitting in a Target, literally crying with laughter reading.
I really appreciated all of the original material, unlike some other books by stand-up comics.
Comedians in general, all they usually do is transcribe their act. A cash grab. This was a multi-year effort from a lot of different people who really cared.
Comedy Bang! Bang! The Podcast (The Book) is out on April 25th and available for pre-order now.