Thursday brings the third-season return, on IFC, of Scott Aukerman's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" An often surreal and free-associating sketch show in the guise of a talk show, it is also a talk show within a sketch show — the one shading into the other in such a way that, where the two intersect, it is sometimes hard to tell what's written and what's made up on the spot, and what is real and what is not.
It is not without antecedents. Indeed, the talk show being a pillar of broadcasting lo these many decades, it would be strange if it weren't. It has precedents, if not actual roots, in the work of Bob & Ray; "The Steve Allen Show" with its mix of real and invented interviews; "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," with its long pauses and jump-cut rhythms; and numerous "Saturday Night Live" skits.
But it goes quite to its own place. Aukerman's sidekick and improvising one-man bandleader, Reggie Watts — his character is loose and hairy where Aukerman's is upright and composed — describes it as "two weirdos from an alternate dimension where logic isn't necessarily a major part of it, and we get into all sorts of crazy universal quantum adventures based on the guise of it being a fake talk show." That sums it up pretty well.
"It's very much like a 'Mr. Rogers' thing," Aukerman said recently over tuna sandwiches in a Hollywood coffee shop. "I'm very much playing the square, straight side of me, because I have Reggie to play off, being the weird one. Over the course of the TV show I've amplified the more irritating aspects of my personality; when we first started I was thinking it was going to be a little more dry and sarcastic than it ended up being, and I think we found a rhythm of hyperactivity and annoyingness." These days, he says, it's "a little more like a live-action cartoon, or a kids' show for adults."
In his somewhat disturbing cheeriness, the onscreen Aukerman offers a cracked reflection of the man who plays him, a born organizer who would stage a haunted house for his Halloween shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, and all-night shows where people would come in their pajamas. "For some reason," he said, "I've always been the guy to gather people together to make it happen."
The podcast version of "Comedy Bang! Bang!," sometimes represented without the exclamation marks, which Aukerman started (as "Comedy Death Ray") in 2009, became the foundation of a network, Earwolf, that also features programs from Jeff Garlin, Kevin Pollak, UCB founder Matt Besser, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, and the Aukerman-Adam Scott-hosted "U Talkin' U2 to Me?"
Aukerman grew up in Orange County, "semi-close to the beach," where to distinguish himself from the surf crowd "I would intentionally pronounce words very properly because I didn't want to have that kind of lazy speech."
A fan of David Letterman and "East Coast humor," he had a Letterman-inspired public access show as a teenager; the experience later fed into "Between Two Ferns," the Funny or Die-based public-access-style faux talk show that Aukerman created with its passive-aggressive host, Zach Galifianakis, and which reached its pop-cultural apotheosis in March when President Obama, out to inform the young about the Affordable Care Act, was its guest.
Aukerman's TV career began as a writer and performer on David Cross and Bob Odenkirk's mid-'90s HBO series, "Mr. Show with Bob and David," "doing offensive in-your-face topics, mixed with silliness, but with a lot of cursing. Now I've wound up with a very bright, very optimistic show that uses friendly comedy — we try to have a show based on the fact that everyone likes each other, while still not being toothless, still having a seedy underbelly of awkwardness or … violence." He laughs. "Every once in a while I'll turn in a show and the network will say, 'Uh, we don't like this joke,' and I'll say, 'Well it's something that you would see on 'Maron' or 'Portlandia,' and they'll say, 'Well, your show is different, because your show is so fun.' "
Like the podcast, whose guest list overlaps that of the TV show, "Comedy Bang! Bang!" showcases a generation of comics and comic actors whose watchword seems to be "Show Up and Play." In its two previous seasons, Aukerman's couch has been occupied by Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, Rashida Jones, Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Jason Schwartzman, Clark Gregg, Zoe Saldana, David Cross, Aziz Ansari and, of course, Galifianakis, with Bobby Moynihan, Kristen Schaal, Matt Walsh, Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon and Paul F. Tompkins interviewed as characters or playing in sketches. Upcoming this year are Fred Armisen, Alison Brie, Tony Hawk, Nick Offerman, Craig Robinson, Jenna Fischer and Josh Groban.
"With Bob and David with 'Mr. Show,' they were very concerned with creating a climate of 'Hey, we're all doing something really cool here,' " Aukerman recalls. "It was so amazing to be a part of that as a guy who had been doing standup for literally two nights when Bob came up and said, 'Hey, you should work on my show.'
"Which is what I try to do. I love that I'm able to put whoever I want on my show; there are people who have just been in town for a year and it's, like, 'Come be a part of it, even if you only have one or two lines.' It's almost like legitimizing them. I know when I was young, Odenkirk would say, 'Hey, can I introduce you in your sketch show?' and it gave me the strength to keep going for another three months. So I really enjoy that I get to put on these great people — and give them a day rate, which is probably very meaningful to them as well."
Looking forward to the fourth season, which will double the third's 20-episode run, Aukerman says, "I think it'll be good. It's just good to be on the air 40 weeks in 2015."
'Comedy Bang! Bang!'
When: 10:30 p.m. Thursday