Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why Comedy Bang Bang The TV Show Is Destined To Fail

I'm been huge fan of the Comedy Bang Bang (formerly known as Comedy Death Ray Radio) podcast for years. If you haven't listened before, it's a hour or so long weekly comedy show that is 99% improvised. The host, Scott Auckerman, has a wide range of guests - many if not all of them celebrities and other big talents from the comedy scene. Every episode starts off like a seemingly standard interview show before going off the rails when someone "enters" the room as a character, or the guests all get involved in some kind of ridiculous game/argument/rap battle.

CBB is one of the few podcasts I make it a point to listen to every week. Even Radiolab and This American Life - two shows that are objectively more "valuable" listening experiences - often take a back seat to this show on my iPod. It's just so goddamn funny. So imagine how excited I was when I heard there was a Comedy Bang Bang television series debuting sometime in the few next weeks. They put an episode online for everyone to watch - which I immediately did. I don't know how long it'll be up, but here it is for now, while it's available:

After watching the episode (which I was sadly disappointed with), and listening to this week's podcast (which was really quite good), I came away with the early impression that the television show is going to be fighting an uphill battle to be anywhere near as good as the program it spawned from. And here are the three big reasons why:

1) Adding Visuals Takes Away The Magic

Part of the charm of the CBB podcast is that while Aukerman and his guests are all each sitting in an ordinary room, facing each other with headphones on, the magic of radio/podcasting allows anything they say to be true. This leads to some incredibly fantastical moments and guests (including a baby, a Chupacabra, and an alcoholic tree), as well as one of the show's funniest conceits, which is that the studio has an open door policy and a guest/ridiculous character can enter at any time - something that (naturally) happens every week.

This also allows just about anything anyone says to be true. Auckerman often "gifts" his guests with random traits, clothing or props they clearly don't actually have. Paul F. Tompkins, a brilliant comedian and regular guest on the show, looks nothing like any of the people he often plays on the podcast, which includes Andrew Lloyd Weber, Buddy Valestro (The Cake Boss), and Ice-T. To Tompkins' credit, he does pull of a believable flamboyant, caped Andrew Lloyd Weber in a clip I saw from the TV series, but I doubt he'll be bold enough to play the overweight Valestro, and especially Ice-T, since to this day black-face tends to be discouraged even among the comedy elite.

Though we have all the ability to suspend our disbelief on a television show, without visuals to deny the reality we are being presented, as an audience we just accept whatever new details are added as the show goes along. This brings me to my next point which is that:

2) The TV Show Is (Seemingly) Scripted, Not Improvised

Anyone who's seen an improv show before knows the joy as well as the danger of not having a script. As Aukerman has admitted, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast is mostly improvised, and as such is always just one random bit away from derailing into utter chaos. Though risky (and yes, some shows are big fat stinkers), the guests on the show are some of the most talented people in the industry, and more often than not they are quite brilliant and find themselves making some amazing, hilarious discoveries together.

The very nature of the CBB TV show means that it is, by necessity, mostly scripted with at best some interview portions improvised. Obviously scripted comedy can be brilliant. The problem is that Comedy Bang Bang is neither a sketch show, a sitcom, or a standard late night talk show. It has elements of all of these things, but in trying to be true to the original show, it feels more like a pale imitation of that more than anything else. And to viewers unfamiliar with the podcast, I fear it will just seem like a really random talk show that never gets around to interviewing its combination of famous and bizarre guests.

Additionally, part of what works in the podcast with Aukerman's interviews (or strange, aimless conversations, as they often are) is that anything is fair game, and the real comedic gold is often found through casual conversation that starts off fairly mundane, something that would probably never be scripted in the first place. With the TV show, even if they allowed Aukerman and his guests to riff, and just edited out the least interesting parts of the interview, it still wouldn't have the same rewarding feeling of watching/listening to the creation of this brand of comedy, warts and all. Which leaves me with my last point, which is:

3) Time Constraints Leave Zero Room For Bits To Breathe

Aukerman has the freedom to take breaks for ads whenever he wants to on the podcast, but his hands are tied when it comes to his television series, where the commercials wait for no bit, no matter how funny. With 22 minutes or so to work with, instead of his podcast's usual hour and however-much-time-his guests-have, every joke on the shows needs to hit immediately, and doesn't stick around for very long.

This leads to a very serious problem, which is that the show now has very litte time to let a joke build or go on as long as it needs to. The above television episode has one real running gag, about a member of the CBB TV crew that has died (Aukerman starts the episode eulogizing a man - something I personally wasn't even sure was a bit first, which is an awkward way to start a comedy show). Throughout the episode we see the man involved in numerous dangerous activities but surviving them, only to be brutally killed at the end by the rising of the show's credits. Whether or not the bit was funny or worth the time they invested in it (it took up easily 2-3 minutes of the episode) is less the point than is the fact that it was the only running gag in the episode, save for Amy Poehler lying about wearing a wig. Conversely, Andy Daly, playing the creepy producer of the Rockettes, was given very little time to show the truly depraved nature of his character, as he has before on the podcast.

My favorite moments of the CBB podcast often come when a bit has returned for the umpteenth time, or has gone on so long that it had ceased to be funny but then has come back around to being hilarious again. Auckerman has a running gag going every week on his podcast where he insists Google is a sponsor on the show (they are not), and every time a guest mentions looking for something online, he heartily recommends the audience "google it" whenever they're looking for something. The bit itself is not particularly inspired, but it's actually made funny by the guests playing along with the ridiculousness of being encouraged to google something as if it's a new/brilliant idea. They will often making their own dated search engine reference, or in this past week's case, saying they'll "start going to whenever they wanna Bing something." There's no reason this silly gag couldn't exist on the television show, but in any given episode this (or any) bit can take up 20 seconds or 20 minutes, depending on how much fun Aukerman and his guests are having with it, and that's something that seems impossible to do within the constraints of the show.


The Comedy Bang Bang podcast is a show without rules or constraints, which as a veteran improviser, I can confidently say is where you can discover some of the funniest shit on the planet. Conversely, the Comedy Bang Bang television series has been burdened with the realities of a scripted television program. While the show tries admirably to capture the spirit of the podcast, unfortunately it feels like it's fighting a losing battle. In the show's defense, I've only seen the one and half episodes of the show that are currently viewable online, and for all I know the show finds its legs, and breaks away from its current format in episode three and becomes utterly brilliant. I'll admit I was being a bit hyperbolic in the title of this post. I think don't think the series is necessarily destined for failure, but I do believe it will fail, creatively at least, if it sticks with its current format as is, which is a mere shadow of the original podcast.

Certainly all hope is not lost. I think Scott Auckerman and his sidekick/musician Reggie Watts are incredibly talented, and they clearly they have the capacity to be quite hilarious. And there are signs the creators realize they need to break away from the radio interview format they have and take advantage of the new medium they're using. The movie preview featured in above episode featuring Reggie Watts as adult who's never been born still living inside his mother's womb is a good example of something they couldn't do on the podcast. So I'm cautiously optimistic for the series' future. Here's hoping they figure out a way to mix things up going forward.



Tyler said...

you must concede, however, that reggie watts is much funnier if you can see him.

Tyler said...

oh, and yes, it's a wig.

Ross Bonaime said...

I don't really agree with the points made in this article. First, Comedy Bang! Bang! has instead of trying to recreate the podcast, has decided to take the new medium and evolve it in a different way. Scott Aukerman did this previously, moving the stage version of Comedy Death Ray into the podcast. The show isn't trying to be better than the podcast, that's a death wish, it's trying to do use the same brand of humor through TV rather than through podcast form.

Also, the show is highly improvised. The show allows the guests and Aukerman to try what they want and play around with the format, then the show is edited into a cohesive episode. From the first five episodes, the show has done this astonishingly well.

What also should be noted is that many of the characters that are heard and not seen on the podcast have been part of many of these comedian's stage shows, such as Ice-T, Andrew Lloyd Webber and El Chupacabra.

All in all, Comedy Bang! Bang! has done incredibly well for itself and has handled the transition very well. After Portlandia, it's IFC's most popular show. I think in all aspects, it has been a success so far.