It's taken half a season of growth, but IFC's Comedy Bang! Bang! has become essential viewing for fans of the craft of comedy. Maybe not as essential as, say, Louie, which Patton Oswalt notes is the truest representation of a working comedian's lifestyle ever caught on film. But CBB is perhaps TV's most interesting comedy in terms of displaying jokes in process, in a paradoxical comedic space where even the most serendipitous improvised moments are carefully presented.
Much of that credit goes to host and creator Scott Aukerman, who has a unique perspective informed by his time as a writer and sometime cast member on the seminal Mr. Show, and his years spent developing CBB from a weekly stage show, to a local Los Angeles radio program (Comedy Death Ray Radio), to a popular podcast, and now to television. Throughout that time, Aukerman has cultivated meaningful relationships with seemingly everyone in the comedy community, to the extent that he has recently been noted as a "curator of comedians."
The audio version of Comedy Bang! Bang!, which has now run over 150 episodes, is among the finest in an increasingly crowded comedy podcast market. Designed very loosely as a talk show parody, Aukerman acts as host while a well-known comedian plays him/herself. Later Aukerman and his guest are joined by another comedian performing in character (many of which are inane celebrity impersonations or breakout oddballs like Seth Morris's inimitable "sufferer of ailments" Bob Ducca), and the faux talk show structure flies completely off the rails. Key to the show's success are the uncanny improvisational skills of Aukerman and his associates. The show can follow various flights of fancy throughout the hourlong (or often longer) runtime. This lack of formal constraints allows the show a lot of room to breathe, and the comics who appear have plenty of time to salvage broken jokes.
The lazier pace of the radio/podcast format has its benefits (and the CBB podcast uses them to great effect), but in translating the show to a half-hour block of television, Aukerman ran into a new set of challenges, which he no doubt anticipated. CBB, the TV version, brings with it a great deal of star power; John Hamm, Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, and Paul Rudd have all been recent guests, supplemented by folks like Gillian Jacobs, Will Forte, Casey Wilson, and Andy Richter in smaller character roles. In spite of the big names, Aukerman himself was not incredibly well known outside of comedy circles, and CBB had to negotiate the issue of compressing the show's loose aesthetic, as well as creating a visual language that matched the podcast's humor.
In its early going, CBB's hyper-specific comedic tone (it has always seemed very much by-comics-for-comics) threatened to turn off viewers drawn in by the big names. And longtime podcast listeners might have been dismayed by the TV version's preponderance of sketch-oriented content, much of which (like the pilot episode's Candid Camera spoof "Tsk Tsk/Attaboy!") was aimed at insignificant or easy targets without the kinds of absurdist twists that Aukerman can typically offer. Count me among the latter camp, who wanted the show to deliver the kind of loose and unexpected character comedy that is the podcast's hallmark.
Still, it's been clear from the beginning that there is a certain X factor to Comedy Bang! Bang! that sets it apart from anything else currently on television. As most sketch, variety, and talk shows have become rigid and stale over time, CBB offers a fresh format, and even a brief peek at the show reveals how much fun the performers have with it. In the third episode (titled, as per custom, "John Hamm Wears a Light Blue Shirt and Silver Watch"), Hamm gets to free associate with Aukerman and bandleader Reggie Watts about a goofy encounter he had while walking his dog. It's a silly riff on talk show banter, and as Hamm expertly plays it to an absurd conclusion, it's clear he's relishing the opportunity to exercise a different skill set. As the show's run has gone on, Aukerman has made more efficient use of the considerable toolkit he's cultivated. The improvised guest segments are more clearly integrated into the sketch material, and the efforts to make the CBB set into a bizarre interactive play space (a la Pee-wee's Playhouse), which were at first jarring, have now become a highlight as the CBB universe becomes more defined.
All of this is why the show adds up to essential viewing for comedy fans: seeing some of the world's best improvisational performers create comedy largely on their own terms, in an environment, even within the confines of prime-time television, where it seems as if anything can happen. One gets the sense that Aukerman has found a middle passage between the kinds of goofy riffs that go on between comedians on their own time, and the television arena, where even parodying a set of conventions often comes with its own conventions. Even for the nerdiest of comedy nerds, CBB is not going to strike gold in every segment, and it's unlikely to be considered by many as the funniest series on television. But it's novel and interesting, and as much as is possible on television it lets us watch how jokes are being crafted, and what kinds of things make funny people laugh. More than any other show, Comedy Bang! Bang! presents the temperament of contemporary comedy. Few comedies are as funny; even fewer are as instructive.