Comedy Bang! Bang! is an entity that's difficult to describe, especially for the uninitiated. It's a podcast hosted by Scott Aukerman, a former writer for "Mr. Show with Bob and David" and the director of the great "Between Two Ferns" web series, that features some of the top comedians in the game along with a cast of colorful impressions and characters by more comedians. Faux interviews and long-form improv ensue, and games are played like "Would You Rather" or the occasional rap battle.
It's also TV show on IFC that took the podcast and converted it to a 30-minute deconstruction of late night talk shows with Aukerman as host, comedian Reggie Watts as the one-man band leader, and a slew of guests including stars and the odd characters that appear on the podcast. The show is filled with odd interviews and edited bits, and although the format doesn't allow for the long-form improv that takes place on the podcast, there is definitely improv taking place.
Now, it's a live tour. Aukerman has been taking his show across America since July 15th, making stops in San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and last night New York. I was there for the second of two sold-out shows at the Highline Ballroom and witnessed Aukerman and several funny comedians doing incredibly funny things late into Tuesday night.
I started listening to "Comedy Bang! Bang!" the podcast over a year ago, and I became a fan instantly. The improvisational nature drew me in, and the talented roster of guests and hosting stylings of Aukerman really make this a one-of-its-kind show. The TV show took that to a new level, bringing to life the characters and taking the absurdity and boundaries to different heights that television can provide.
But this show/podcast isn't for everybody. The alternative nature of the comedy and the characters won't click for everyone, and in that regards the show can be somewhat polarizing. But everyone in attendance last night was a diehard fan (including standup Eugene Mirman, who was watching near the backstage section), and that made for an incredibly receptive and appreciative crowd that packed into the amenable Highline Ballroom. The venue comfortably fit the sold-out audience in tables in front of the stage and upstairs on the second level.
The night started with prepared material from the comedians who were joining Aukerman for the evening. Kurt Braunohler, host of IFC's "Bunk" (which airs after "Comedy Bang Bang") opened the evening with a highly spirited set of absurdly enjoyable standup. He was more reserved energy-wise than his host persona, which made more sense from a performance standpoint. He talked about making edits to animal pages on Wikipedia and read off several of the new "facts" about squirrels. For instance, your Dad relocated over 200 squirrels last year, whether you knew it or not. A single everything bagel caused the great squirrel/pigeon war.
He also told the crowd about how he buys greeting cards, makes edits, and puts them back in the store. His additions really were spot on, like writing that he didn't speak Spanish on the inside of a Spanish card. In addition, his set included a comical and unfortunate tale of buying a dildo and falling in the street with it. It was a great way to open the show.
Following Braunohler came the man of the night, Scott Aukerman. He quickly explained why he was wearing a boot on his foot (sprained foot/broken heel on second show of the tour), then went into almost a public service announcement type of address. He coached the audience about laughing, crying, and being confused at any of the material presented tonight. Then he led the audience through a sample joke and cued our responses: "Hey guys, it's great to be here. I'm kind of bummed out because my girlfriend is sick. (Cue crying). Yeah she was really under the weather, so I had to take her to the veterinarian's office. (Cue confusion, although some went right for laughter. Aukerman chided and corrected the audience, saying, 'First there's the turn, then the Prestige.') Well, my girlfriend is a cat!" (Cue bestiality-related laughter).
Then Aukerman got the crowd involved, inviting an audience member on stage to take a "Fire Captain" test. He ran through a bunch of questions, but still wasn't totally satisfied by the answers, even when he correctly answered that he wasn't Mrs. O'Leary's cow (the fictional animal that legend states started the Great Chicago Fire). They then began to role play, and this turned into the Inception of role plays. Each role play went deeper and deeper into another crazy scenario, and the volunteer was a game participant, even donning a wig, lipstick, and letting Aukerman undress him to properly portray a cow in a farm scenario. Unfortunately for Nick, the volunteer, the cow he played turned out to be Mrs. O'Leary's cow, disqualifying him from becoming fire captain. It was an ending I saw coming, but it didn't lessen the impact of the punchline.
Next came James Adomian, a comedian who provides the voices for several of the characters on "Comedy Bang! Bang!" and had been on the entire tour. I had never seen his standup, but I had read a great profile on Adomian and other gay comedians from Black Book Magazine that spotlighted their approaches to humor. I didn't know about Adomian's sexuality before I read the piece, and seeing him live gave me a huge appreciation for his work. He subtly intimated his leanings during a joke about getting arrested during the Occupy Movement (due to a totally unrelated public urination offense) and ended up getting a guys number in jail. After that, he sounded off on several topics surrounding homosexuality and masculinity, including an epic takedown of the current state of beer commercials, a hilarious portrayal of his days as a center on the football team, several different New York City accents spanning several decades, and Sam Elliot endorsing soy beans harvested by the hardworking co-op farmers of Oregon. It was an uproarious set that was accessible and hilarious.
The last standup of the night came from Tim Heidecker, the "newbie" on the tour. He nearly destroyed the mic stand playing his novice comedian character and walked off stage until Aukerman got his mic to work. He nervously delivered several hilarious jokes like, "I just started listening to Keith, uh, Urban. Don't you think a more appropriate name would be, Keith, Rural?" He tried to pander to the NYC crowd with an impression of Al Pacini, donning a pair of women's sunglasses he borrowed from an audience member. He almost knocked the stand into the crowd on numerous occasions and read jokes off tiny note cards, and the schtick never really grew tiresome. The audience soaked up every minute of it.
After the prepared material, the real show began. Aukerman along with Heidecker, Adomian (playing Huell Howser, the audience's choice) and potantially a surprise guest, taped a live, totally improvised podcast different from the early show. Aukerman this was your standard podcast, except this time there is laughter in the background and the new possibilities of a venue to explore.
Aukerman began by bringing out Heidecker, known for his shows ("Tim and Eric," "Tom Goes To The Mayor," etc.) with comedy partner Eric Wareheim, and the two discussed many things. Heidecker talked about growing up in NYC (going to school at "NY High" and playing for the Tigers, his uncle Sy's bagel shop, etc.). Heidecker offered a prize to two lucky audience members. They would win a trip to see John Popper of Blues Traveler (who had since gained quite a bit of weight) perform none of his Blues Traveler songs in Florida courtesy of The General Auto Insurance, but then quickly went into the dangers of using The General for auto insurance.
Watching the pair go back and forth, off-the-cuff like that, really stunned me. They were coming up with just genius stuff out of thin air and without pause. It was really impressive to take in the improvisation live.
Next was the special guest, SNL's Bobby Moynihan playing Fagin Platt, son of actor Oliver Platt. The "Small Napoleon" actor talked to Aukerman and Heidecker about his upcoming project Dolphin Tales, the sequel to Dolphin Tale where plays the man that chops off the dolphin's tale. He talked about his family and their legacy, and spoke about his collaborations with screenwriting partner Charles Barkley. Platt then ran offstage to get Barkley, and Sir Charles sat down to talk. Barkley talked about his movie trilogy about a dog who appeared on Jeopardy but lost because it couldn't work the buzzer (with credit music from Smash Mouth, the new stuff) and also about how he pulls pranks on set that might be confused with murder.
Finally, Adomian returned to the stage as Huell Howser, the host of the PBS show "California Gold." Howser has unbridled enthusiasm but lacks any knowledge of matters not relating to California. He aggressively addressed the crowd as if he was hosting his own show, and constantly put his microphone in the face of anyone he talked to (even though they already had microphones). He ventured into the crowd, had to deal with a second Huell Howser impersonator (who he dealt with in a classy and humorous manner), praised Barkley as a false idol because of his giant size, and basically took over the show. I think the bombastic nature of his delivery and the frequency that his lines landed with the audience just rendered the other guests speechless, and Adomian made sure they knew they weren't talking.
Once the show ended, Aukerman, Adomian, and Heidecker mingled with fans in the venue and at the merchandise table. Adomian treated some fans to his Paul Giamatti impression and Aukerman took awkward photos with his fans, who greeted him with some of his numerous nicknames like the Choctaw. I spoke to Adomian briefly about the tour, and told me that it was great and exhausting at the same time. He's gotten to play every one of his characters, which he loved, and also got to showcase his standup over the course of the tour. He really appreciated that opportunity to show people that other dimension of himself as a performer, because he wasn't sure how many knew he was a standup.
That was probably the coolest part of the live show for me. If they had just done the live podcast, that would have been fine, but the only added value is getting to see the performers do it in person. People could have just stayed home and listened to old episodes if they wanted to. But adding the standup element allows the fans to see the performers outside of the personas they play. I'm sure many in the crowd were introduced to Adomian and Braunohler as standup comedians.
Combine that with a great podcast in the traditional sense, filled with callbacks to the show and other things devoted fans would notice plus video clips of their shows, and that makes for an enriching live experience. Comedy Bang! Bang! Live was its own entity. It had enough elements of the podcast and TV show to satisfy everyone, but the added nuances really made it stand out for me. Getting to watch the performers step out of their shells with prepared material and then get back into character and completely improvise a show gave me a much greater appreciation for just how talented and versatile all these comedians are, and I don't think I'm the only one who came away impressed.