Thursday night is once again, and for the next many weeks, “Comedy Bang! Bang!” night on IFC, with sweater-wearing host Scott Aukerman and bushy-haired “bandleader” Reggie Watts your guides to a world in which most anything can happen. Last week, to coincide with the (20-episode!) third-season premiere of this strange and deceptively ambitious talk-show-shaped meta-sketch-comedy, in which each character (some representing themselves, some not) seems to exist in a private parallel universe, I interviewed Aukerman, whose long-running namesake podcast was the series’ inspiration. Not only a comedian but an organizer of comedians and a creator of occasions, having staged shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and various rented spaces before that, Aukerman -- also the co-creator of the Zach Galifianakis-hosted “Between Two Ferns” -- had much more of interest to say than print allowed. Here is some of it.
You’ve had the rare experience of directing the president of the United States, when he appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to promote the Affordable Care Act.
Scott Aukerman: It was interesting because I was wondering if I would be allowed to. I actually went to the White House person in charge and said, “Am I allowed to even talk to the president? Am I allowed to approach him?” And they were like, “Yeah, of course you are. But why would you?” I was like, “To direct the video.” They were like, “What would you want to direct?” I said, “Well, if we need to do it again.” They were like, “Why would he need to do it again?”
If he wasn’t funny the first time.
Yeah, I didn’t want to say that. I was just kind of like, “If there’s a mistake where he got a piece of the information wrong,” and that made sense to them. It was bizarre trying to give notes to the president, and I was told that he wouldn’t really want to redo anything, but he was very game for it.
Did he know the show?
We thought he did. We were told conflicting things coming in. One that he was about to watch it for the first time; No. 2, that he knew it; No. 3, that he had no idea what it was. And then he walked into the room and he shouted “Two Ferns!” and put us at ease, like, “Oh wow, he knows what he’s in for.” Then I read an interview with him where he said that he had no idea what it was and said to his daughters that night, “I just did something, I think it’s called ‘Two Ferns.’” And we found out that he didn’t really know what it was. But I know that the people at the White House briefed him very well and told him the attitude to play and what the vibe of it was. He was very well prepared to do that and threw in a lot of his own stuff.
He was way easier than some of the Hollywood actors we’ve worked with. To the White House’s credit, they wanted it to be like a normal episode; they didn’t want it to be this kind of canned advertisement. They were actually very protective of that. We put it together and Zach and I were like, “We love this, but they’re going to ask us to cut out all the jokes.” They called it a masterpiece, actually. We were like, “OK! Great!”
You grew up in Orange County. What effect did that have on your comedy or career path?
Growing up in Orange County, it feels like L.A. and Hollywood are a million miles away; there’s no clear pathway to being in show business when you’re down there. I went to the Orange County High School of the Arts because that was the only place to do any kind of creative acting or anything like that; but it was very focused on sending people to Broadway.
And you weren’t interested in that?
Well, I was. I grew up in musical theater and singing; I went to an acting conservatory where I focused on musical theater, and I did it around the country for about a year. But the whole time I really wanted to break into filmmaking -- I didn’t think I could break into comedy necessarily, because that seemed just ridiculous, I didn’t know how to break into that at all.
You weren’t a teenage stand-up?
I tried it one time when I was 18, and I grew up loving it, but it also seemed like this faraway dream. I think when you grow up wanting to be in the arts you take any lifeline people will throw you; and because I was relatively good at singing, people would accept me into their school or give me a scholarship to their college. And so you go down that pathway because it’s the only one you really know. But when I was 25 I basically gave up on musical theater and moved into North Hollywood, because I was like, “North Hollywood? That’s Hollywood, right?” And luckily a friend asked me if I wanted to perform in her friend’s comedy show, and I just kind of fell into it.
You were writing jokes?
I had been writing plays and trying to write screenplays without a lot of success. I had thought comedy was like Jerry Seinfeld, observational humor, and luckily I saw a couple of things the same week that my friend asked me to do her friend’s show. There was an Andy Kaufman special on NBC, and it blew my mind. And then I saw David Cross and Bob Odenkirk perform -- it was one of the live shows they did in town to get “Mr. Show” -- and I was like, “Oh, the stuff I do around the house just to annoy friends actually is a part of comedy and these people are doing it.” I really found a kinship with the alternative comedy scene.
When I started doing comedy in 1995, the Upright Citizens Brigade wasn’t here yet, and the scene to me was people like Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Bob and David, Patton Oswalt, Greg Barron, Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub -- she hosted the show the very first time I did stand-up. We all hung out together every single night and performed somewhere every single night, but we didn’t have a theater to do that; we didn’t have a central location. Any time I wanted to do a sketch show I had to go rent Theater/Theater on Cahuenga and Hollywood; I had to rent the Acme and pay $200 a night to give tickets away to anyone who wanted to come. I also had to buy beer to give away so that they would come.
What’s great about the UCB is that it’s a destination. When it first started we could throw any kind of experimental thing up there -- now it’s so popular that you have to fight to get a show. What’s cool is how young the audience is -- when I was doing the show there, there’d be 15-year-olds in the front row every night -- which proves you’re doing something viable. Comedy in general is super-important to young people, because they’re still trying to define what they think about the world. It’s almost like rock music in that way. The fact that our show has the lowest median age on IFC is very important to me. It’s cool that when I go out on tour and meet the fans afterward that there are so many young people; it’s really inspiring.
Do they know you through the podcast or the show?
The podcast mainly and sometimes the TV show. The podcast is really an amazing way to communicate with people -- it’s the best thing that’s happened to comedy since …. comedy albums, I think, maybe since comedy specials on HBO. Because finally comedians can truly be niche, and have a niche audience and have that translate to something really important. Back in the day if you were a comedian you’d travel to a club hoping that people had heard of you, that they would be on your same wavelength. Nowadays because of my podcast I can go on tour, sell out theaters from 500 to 1,300 -- all people who know exactly who I am and what to expect, and they’re just there to have a good time. And it’s like that for every comedian now; you can reach a niche audience who will show up to support you, merely because you’re putting out this thing that’s free that really speaks to them.
Comedy has never got the same kind attention that drama has; I used to think it was not as important. A lot of comedians have parents, who are like, “Why are you getting into this? Why are you bothering?” But I think it’s very important. I had a brother who passed away, and the day he died our family was there and very shocked and didn’t really know how to process it; we went back to our house, where we’d all been staying, and there’s really not a lot sometimes to do when you’re trying to process your feelings. And we turned on the TV and there was an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” that I remember my friend Dave Higgins was on, and he was being really funny. And I remember my dad laughing at it. And to me that is kind of the purpose of art and comedy in a way, to relieve the tension and kind of take your mind off how ... life is.
When people find something funny it’s because they latch on to a point of view that speaks to them for some reason; they don’t even know how to express it sometimes. Why do some people like “The Big Bang Theory” and some people not? It’s just that they were born with different brains, had different experiences. One thing I’m proud of is that I never see any reaction on Twitter of, like, “That show’s OK.” People love [“Comedy Bang! Bang!”] or they hate it, which tells me that we are going for it. If people don’t like it, I’m totally on board with that. But if it were just, like, “Yeah, it’s fine,” then I would feel like I wasn’t doing the job.