Comedy Bang! Bang! presents itself as a talk show, inclusive of a genial host (Scott Aukerman), a bandleader/comedic foil (Reggie Watts), a panel of celebrities and miscellaneous guests, and comedy sketches. But it’s not only not a real talk show, it’s a whimsical inversion of the very idea of what a talk show is supposed to be. In its first two seasons, the series established a distinct rhythm and tone that weren’t so much difficult to “get” as they were really like no other comedy on TV. There are no suits and ties, no topical monologues, no studio orchestra, and, most apparent, no studio audience. Aukerman’s bright, chirpy demeanor cancels out all of the gray sneer and cynicism of familiar late-night personalities. Interstitial music consists of Watts’s improvised beats, loops, and vocal lines, which tinge the show’s atmosphere with the slightest wryness while also making the humor resonate on a physical, gut level. The writing conveys a staunch appreciation for utterly ridiculous turns of phrase, non sequiturs, and puns. And occasionally, one of the set’s taxidermy animals or the panel couch itself will come to life and have something to say. Any one of these elements might work as an occasionally odd feature of Conan or The Late Show with David Letterman; on Comedy Bang! Bang!, they form the basic architecture. If Pee-wee Herman ever had a talk show, it would probably look and sound a lot like this.
The real vigor of the series comes from the way it plays a range of comedic forms and idioms against its talk-show format, and it helps that the celebrity guests are always in on the jokes. But even more dynamic is the way Comedy Bang! Bang! often recasts celebrity persona in amusing and absurd ways. In the episode “Patton Oswalt Wears a Blazer and Dress Shoes,” the chitchat between Oswalt and Aukerman serves as a base reality for some well-honed improvisation as well as the prompting for a bit that lampoons Oswalt’s association with the movie Ratatouille. That Aukerman abruptly produces a plate of pasta prepared by a rat and forces Oswalt to eat some of it is hilarious in itself, but the bit also manages to needle Oswalt’s celebrity with the right amount of truth and good humor.
Another early episode, “Nick Offerman Wears a Green Flannel Shirt and Brown Boots,” hits a similar note when, in the middle of his interview, Aukerman becomes transfixed by Offerman’s luxuriant distinguishing mustache. “My eyes are up here,” Offerman scolds Aukerman before smacking the host’s hand as he reaches out to stroke it. When other comedians appear in character, the wackiness of the couch-panel segments is only compounded by even wackier personalities, often leading to some of the show’s funniest moments. The banter between Aukerman and these guests, such as reluctant “turtle expert” Susan Armhold (Vanessa Bayer) and “professional downstairs neighbor” Effie Villalopoulos (Kate McKinnon), rides a narrow line between scripted jokes and improvisation, pulling the viewer ever deeper into the talk-show conceit, so that the occasional breaking of character provokes even bigger laughs.
The show’s ability to continually reset itself charges each episode with a buzz of anticipation. Freed from the requirements of character development and conventional narrative arcs, Comedy Bang! Bang! revels in comical exaggeration and preposterousness. Not surprisingly, this is its biggest asset and occasional weakness. The better gags and sketches build a premise or a joke from multiple angles and then transpose it into the “reality” of the talk show, as with a sketch in which Watts sues Aukerman for opening his mail and then has him sentenced to death. The piece is rendered with a suitably cartoonish illogic, yet it deftly plays with the viewer’s point of view, jumping from the talk-show set to a courtroom, an execution scene, and back.
Even when a sketch seems to strain against its premise, such as one in which guests bring household items to a junkyard to be either chucked on a pile of garbage or pitched at a baseball catcher over a home plate, the lull is so fleeting that it doesn’t disrupt the show’s broader rhythm. Perhaps most engaging, though, is the cheery, earnest tone that permeates the series, a refreshing sense that laughter rooted in snark or irony can be a drag, and that sometimes a silly play on words can be enough to move you with its humor. In this way, Comedy Bang! Bang! is as much a mindset as it is a TV show.