After years behind the scenes in comedy, Scott Aukerman is about to transition from comedy tastemaker to television personality as the host of "Comedy Bang! Bang!" on IFC.
In the late '90s, Aukerman joined the writing staff for the seminal sketch show "Mr. Show with Bob & David," and in 2002, he co-founded the stand-up showcase "Comedy Death-Ray" with then-writing partner and fellow "Mr. Show" alum B.J. Porter. To this day, the show at Upright Citizen Brigade, which was later renamed "Comedy Bang! Bang!", remains one of the most beloved and top-notch comedy shows in Los Angeles.
In 2009, the showcase spawned a radio show, which was originally envisioned to be an interview show of that week's performers, but quickly transformed into an hour-plus improvised comedy podcast with celebrity guests, kinetic characters (portrayed by some of the day's best comedic minds) and musical acts, all anchored by Aukerman as straight man.
And that begat the TV version of "Comedy Bang! Bang!", an adaptation of the podcast featuring Aukerman as host and Reggie Watts as his bandleader and sidekick. IFC has already released a full episode of the show online, featuring former podcast guest Amy Poehler. The show premieres on IFC this Friday at 10 p.m.
After seeing Aukerman perform roughly a billion shows at SXSW, we caught up with him again prior to the debut of his show. He told us about his experiences working with IFC, why he might end his UCB show soon and his super secret feature film screenplay.
Scott Aukerman: Are we pretending that we've never met before? It's very nice to meet you.
HuffPost Comedy: If only I knew what it felt like to be in your physical presence, this would go a lot better. But we're going to make the best of it.
SA: We'll never know. I have new bodyguards ever since I got a TV show. I didn't know, but it's a lot like becoming President. They tell you every single secret, like who shot JFK. When you have a TV show, they not only tell you who shot JFK, but they assign you bodyguards.
HPC: How did IFC get involved with "Comedy Bang! Bang!"?
SA: I had a friend at IFC who is an executive there, with whom I'd worked on one sketch show for Showtime back in 2002. And he listened to the podcast, and I think he got everyone at IFC to listen to the podcast, and really believed in it, and me as a personality. And I think about a year and a half into the podcast, he reached out to me to do this series of interstitials for IFC, which were basically an audition to see how horribly ugly I was on camera. And they looked at me and said, "Pretty ugly, but we can work with it."
HPC: And that was the beginning of your relationship?
SA: Yeah, exactly. So I did those for about six months, and artistically, I think they were a big success. I worked with the same director who did a lot of our "Between Two Ferns" shorts. I was pretty comfortable doing them. I didn't have a huge learning curve of me being uncomfortable on camera. And what really attracted IFC was the talent I was able to attract to them. I was able to call up Jon Hamm or Mike Cera or Bob Odenkirk, and they came by and did me a favor. The ease with which I did them, combined with the level of talent I was able to attract made lightbulb go off. In their apartment. And then they said, "I gotta get to the computer to write this down!"
HPC: I think I heard you say that 70 percent of the show is improvised. IFC must trust you quite a bit to allow that.
SA: I don't know that 70 percent of it is improved. Maybe 40 or maybe as much as 50 percent. But look, the interstitials were 100 percent improvised. The "Between Two Ferns" videos are pretty popular, and those are all improvised. I think what really helped me out was the pilot I turned in. It was pretty great, and it was the template I turned in for all the shows. They were very, very happy with it, with a few minor tweaks. That's one of the benefits of working with a smaller network like IFC. You're awarded more trust, but trust that I really earned.
HPC: At what point did Reggie Watts get involved, beyond just performing the theme song?
SA: When we were conceptualizing the show, we questioned what we would do with that bandleader role. Reggie was my first thought because he does the theme song on the podcast, and knowing what a brilliant improvisational comedian he is, and knowing how much of the show would be improvised, the idea just became more and more attractive. We didn’t know if he'd do it or not, and I'm really glad he agreed to do it.
HPC: Did you know you wanted to bring back all the same characters from the podcast?
SA: There were discussions about which characters would work, and what ones wouldn't. Even right down to the wire, we were trying to figure out, for instance, what character Jon Daly would play. The challenges for me, in terms of translating the podcast to a more visual medium, is how much are you going to try to play to the people who were already fans of it, and how much are you going to try to make new fans? I made a decision pretty early on that I wasn't just going to try to film the podcast. I wouldn't be interested in watching that show, with apologies to anyone who does that type of show, I'm just not really interested in doing the type of show in watching a conversation between people while a studio audience looks on and claps. I wanted to do a different type of show. That's is why I went to Tim & Eric's company, Abso Lutely, and asked them to produce it. I had something really specific in mind that I wanted to do with it, and thank God it came out okay.
HPC: You mentioned that you had to decide what character Jon Daly would play. Will actors not be playing more than one character, like they do on the podcast?
SA: There are a couple who play a couple different characters. Paul F. Tompkins played two different characters and Andy Daly played two different characters, but one thing I'm really proud of is that in these ten shows, we never repeated a character, guest or comedy bit. We just have ten 22-minute episodes, and I wanted to fill them and pack them with as many ideas as we could. I think people will really respond to that.
HPC: Do you think there's any downside to that?
SA: I think there's far less of a merchandising opportunity. I know IFC originally was going to see if we could repeat stuff, because things like, when the couch starts to talk -- he has a name, Sir Couchley -- we wanted to do them because they're variations on stuff we've seen on different shows. For instance, that's our take on what "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" would do. But we had a rule on the show: If you could see it on a different show, we didn't want to do it. So if we had the couch start to talk and you could see that on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," we would try to intentionally try to fuck it up somehow. Which usually means that something terrible happens to the characters.
HPC: If you hadn't been spending the last couple years running your own show, do you think you would fight for creative decisions the same way?
SA: Every time you work with a different creative entity or network, you get a sense of what kind of battles you're going to win and what kind of battles you're not going to win. And these are places paying for the art you're creating. So you're right, the last few years I've been in charge of my own podcast where I don't have a boss, and I've been in charge of "Between Two Ferns" where I only have one boss: God. I mean, Zach Galifianakis. I'm pretty used to doing my own thing, so I went into this saying, "This is my last opportunity to have my own TV show starring me." That's what I told everyone going in. The crew and the writers, and everyone. They all knew that I was going to really stand up for what I believed in.
HPC: How does IFC feel about the relationship between the podcast that you're still doing every week and the TV show that's ostensibly an IFC property?
SA: They see it as a benefit. They're really smart that way. There are some companies, and I recently had an experience with one, who our podcast company Earwolf approached and said, "Hey, do you want to do an official podcast for your television show?" And the people who own those properties get very protective of them and say, "No, why would we do that?" IFC is super smart about it.
HPC: Has it been tough to keep the podcast schedule up while you were in production?
SA: During production it was really, really hard. My schedule was basically Monday through Friday, I would be working 13 hours a day on the show, and then Saturday morning I would go in and do the podcast, and then the rest of Saturday and Sunday I would work on my feature film script that I did for Imagine.
HPC: What's that? Tell me more about that.
SA: I can't really talk too much about it, but it's a huge-budget adventure movie that hopefully is going to get made. Unfortunately, I was supposed to finish it before I started the show, and I didn't and had to continue working on it through production of the show. So it got really, really busy for me, but I made a pact with myself that I wasn't going to stop doing the podcast because all of the great stuff that has been happening has come out of that, so I think it would be really disingenuous of me to say, "Now that I'm doing a TV show, I'm going to stop doing the thing that gave me enough popularity where people trusted me to have a TV show."
HPC: And you were booking the live "Bang! Bang!" show at the same time, right?
SA: Yeah. [laughs] Still doing that.
HPC: And now the 10th anniversary is coming up, is that correct? Do you know what you're going to do for that yet?
SA: I have no idea. I was trying to get through the next few weeks, but I definitely want to do something special, and then maybe stop.
HPC: Stop booking it, or stop the show entirely?
SA: Every single year I've tried to convince myself that I should stop doing it because it's so much work, and every single Tuesday for the past 10 years, I haven't been able to do anything on Tuesdays. But I get to see great comedy every week. It helped me enormously with this TV show. I'm around all the funny people, and I didn't just disappear like a lot of writers do when they get a steady paycheck coming in. I'm still there doing it.