Scott Aukerman might be the most well-connected man in Hollywood. Consider the list of names the podcast host and comedy writer has worked with over the years: Amy Poehler; Barack Obama; Bono; Jon Hamm; Kid Cudi; Pee-wee Herman; St. Vincent; and Zoe Saldana are all there.
But to listeners of his beloved Comedy Bang Bang podcast, it’s not surprising that he has attracted scores of celebrity guests to participate in the talk show-meets-longform improv game, where Aukerman and two or three guests from the comedy and entertainment worlds appear either as themselves or absurd fictional characters. In each episode, for anywhere between an hour and three hours on average, Aukerman guides and indulges unpredictable bits as the group collaborates to build surprisingly deep character arcs.
Comedy Bang Bang’s appeal lies in its all-star mix of comedy guest stars working at the top of their game, combined with its willingness to let loose and experiment with jokes perhaps a little too out there for their more professional work. It’s a rare glimpse into the drafting stage of great comedy, which is sometimes funnier than the finished work itself.
As a result, Comedy Bang Bang has established itself as a playground, even incubator, for an impressive roster of all kinds of entertainers. (It even became a TV show on IFC for a spell, running for five seasons and 110 episodes between 2012 and 2016.) Aukerman has helmed the podcast once a week without a fail for its entire 10-year existence — and since long before podcasting became the cultural force it is today.
In that time, the podcast has also evolved from a perfect encapsulation of the live alt-comedy show to something of a comedy institution, where actors and bands not known for their humor flex a never-before-seen muscle, right alongside some of the most accomplished improv comedians in the business.
Combined with spinoffs and related shows — including the remarkably dense, remarkably funny U Talkin’ U2 to Me? with Aukerman and Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation; Big Little Lies); Threedom with Aukerman and his comedian pals Paul F. Tompkins and Lauren Lapkus; and Between Two Ferns, the sporadically released celebrity interview series on Funny or Die that Aukerman writes with host Zach Galifianakis — Aukerman is now at the center of a specific comedy universe that’s populated by the need-to-knows of funny people working today.
I spoke to Aukerman just ahead of Comedy Bang Bang’s latest milestone: its 10-year anniversary (May 1) and 600th episode (which comes out May 6). We talked about how Aukerman ensures that a show with a decade’s worth of recurring characters and accompanying backstory remains inviting to newcomers, how he’s kept the show fun (and running) for this long, and why being consistent is often better than being good.
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
When you’re looking at how you got here — 10 years, 600 episodes — what do you attribute that kind of success to? How do you ensure the longevity of a show like this that has been going on for so long?
Well, I think two things come to mind just off the top of my head. No. 1, I think, is: I did it. What I mean by that is, I did the show weekly for 10 years, and that’s an achievement. But I could have easily not done the show weekly for 10 years. I could have easily said, “Eh, I’ll put it out whenever I want,” and just stopped after a year, or put it out sporadically, or something like that. But for me it was really important, the discipline of saying, “No, this show comes out every week.” It was very important to me.
And, in a sense, it really solidifies the relationship between you and your audience. But it also gives you a comfort zone to say, “Hey, you know what? If you didn’t like this week, there will be another one next week.” So it makes it a little easier on us to say the quality doesn’t always have to be good. It’s like a nice little parachute for us to have a bad episode. But I really think that consistency. ... When I talk to podcasters and they [ask], what’s the advice you can give about how to get your podcast noticed, I think consistency is the number one thing that I talk to people about. Both in release dates, but also relative quality.
You don’t have to put out a bad episode, a terrible episode, if you don’t want to. You can re-record it. And you should always make sure that your audience has something to kind of rely on. I come out on Mondays, and people know that on Monday morning, they’re gonna be able to listen to the show on their way to work, or at work. And that’s really important to a lot of people. So consistency is the number one thing that I would attribute it to.
The release of the show, and the show itself, starts to feel like a reliable thing that’s always just there.
Yeah. It’s like Sunday dinner with your family, or going to church, or something. It’s like one of those traditions that has been with people.
I’ve talked to people who have been there ever since the first episode, or even the first month. It’s something they rely on, and that’s a really, sort of, sacred trust between me and those listeners. That I’m not gonna just be like, all right, this week, not coming out. Not feeling like doing an episode. Sorry, see you later.
Although, I feel like at this point, maybe we would forgive you if you wanted to take a week off.
Are you trying to get me to take weeks off?
I see. I see how it is, Allegra.
I’m sorry. So — there are people who have listened to 300-plus episodes, but that’s still not necessarily the majority of listeners. And then there are people who have listened since the very first episode, and those who, as you said, are completely new to the show. How do you manage the fact that after 10 years, Comedy Bang Bang is still an ongoing show, and there are so many established jokes? There’s this canon going on at this point, and the episodes aren’t super short. [Most episode run well over an hour; the recently released, two-part 10th anniversary special is 10 hours long.] How do you keep the show accessible to new listeners?
It’s something I think about. When you’re doing 600 episodes, I think that’s a lot of things for people to sift through. I know people don’t believe me, but when we put every episode older than six months behind the paywall, [Earwolf, Aukerman’s podcast production company, offers a premium service called Howl that exclusively hosts ad-free versions of archived episodes.] truly my main motivation for doing that is to make it not as overwhelming for the newcomer to the show.
There are certain people out there, and — I am a collector myself. I’ll hear an album by a band, and I’ll say, “Well, now I need to have, not only every album they ever put out, but every B-side.” Or if, suddenly, you’re reading Batman #786 and you love it and go, “Oh, my God, I wanna read Batman #1 through #785,” and you’ll go down and track all those down — there are those types of people, but I think there are also just the people, the newcomers, every single week, who are like, “Okay, what is Comedy Bang Bang?”
And I’ve done that myself. I remember the first time I tried to get into Superego [a long-running improvised sketch comedy podcast] 10 years ago, and I was just searching for an entry point. Entry points are very, very important in music, [and] in podcasts. I was not a Bruce Springsteen fan, really, until I heard David Bowie’s version of “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City,” and that was my entry point, where I was like, “Oh, I like this song.” And I went and listened to Bruce Springsteen’s version of it, and I was like, “I like his version of it too.” And then I expanded outward.
I think every piece of art needs an entry point for people to go, “Hey, listen to this, listen to this one, this’ll get you hooked on it.” And so, for me to have that many episodes out there, 600 just floating out there in the wild, it looks very daunting, you know? That’s why we do the “best of” every year, and we don’t put those behind a paywall because I want those to kind of look like they’re the entry points, in a way. But every episode is someone’s first episode, so if I were better at it, I would better explain the premise of the show at the top of every episode. But I often get sidetracked and forget to do it.
The simplicity of the show, also, is an entry point where, at its core, it really is just a chat show with me talking to guests and comedians are playing fake people. And once you know that, any episode is not that difficult to get into, and you can drop in, you can miss episodes, you can only listen to the ones that you like. You can listen to the “best ofs.” ... Or you can listen to every single week and be upset that I’m not doing more, you know? There’s no wrong kind of listener to me.
And I think part of the appeal is the guests, who lend to the world-building of the show at large. I listen a lot to episodes where I say, “Oh, this person is with this person, that’s gonna be a good combo.” Or, “Oh, I like this comedian.” And at this point longtime listeners know certain characters well enough, or recognize that some character names are much “bigger” than others — for example, comic James Adomian’s take on Jesse Ventura; SNL’s Bobby Moynihan as the orphan Fourvel; and Jessica St. Clair as “intern” Marissa Wompler are all beloved by fans.
Do you still see the show as a place for people of varying levels of fame to still come together and attract an audience, or do you find that it makes more sense for you, now that you’re in this deep, to have the Paul F. Tompkins or the Andy Dalys be the majority of the guests — the most well-known comics?
I think it’s definitely way more important to me to have the newcomers on. As much as I love doing it with Jason Mantzoukas or Paul F. Tompkins, and I will continue to do those episodes, and those episodes I know are certain people’s favorites and the ones where they go, “Oh, okay, I’ll check back in on Comedy Bang! Bang!” For me, the way to keep the show going is to have new people on and to create new canon and new relationships between myself and performers. And I don’t think Comedy Bang! Bang! could’ve gone for 10 years if, say, one day I hadn’t taken [someone’s advice to have] Lauren Lapkus on the show. And that was maybe five or six years in. I could’ve very easily said, “Nah, I have the people I do it with.”
I was actually looking back at the early years of the show — I was kinda looking at the guest lineups, and the early years of the show is just me and a lot of dudes, too. It was a very dude-heavy show, and not to get too serious about this, but I remember any time I would have a woman guest on the show, there would be a certain contingent of the fans who would say, “Their voices are too annoying, please never have them on again.” And in a macro-sense, that happens with any new guest. You know that any new guest is gonna be someone’s least favorite, [but] someone else is gonna say, “Oh my God, that injected great, fresh new blood into the show.” And I’m with the latter. I think you have to have the new people on in order to keep going and keep myself still interested.
There’s nothing I love more than finding a new performer who clicks in that way where I just have such a good time with them, like Ego Nwodim or some of the Big Grande guys. It’s just really important to me to have the new people on, and I think if people aren’t checking out those episodes, I think they’re, unfortunately, missing out on some of the best episodes of the year.
I definitely like the ones where it’s a good combo of an established comedian, like Paul F. Tompkins, and then the other two guests will be new. I definitely have been seeing lately, when looking at the lineups, that there is still a very diverse group of new names I’ve never heard of. And I always find that really interesting, especially because there is such a cult fanbase for the show at this point, who may find that whenever someone different is on, it sort of disrupts the vibe. But I think Comedy Bang Bang is definitely stronger for having different people all the time.
Yeah, I mean, I really think that if I had stuck with just, say, “I’m only gonna put out an episode if Paul F. Tompkins is on it, or if Andy Daly’s on it, or if Nick Kroll’s on it or Jason Mantzoukas,” or what have you, I think the show would have burnt out, and I would’ve released the episodes way more sporadically. If I was of the mindset, “I’m only gonna put out an episode if it’s great,” I would maybe put out 20 a year.
I would also feel terrible for people whose episodes I didn’t put out. The interesting thing about when you’re working in volume, like I have with the podcast and also the television show [which aired on IFC for five seasons] where I did 110 [episodes total] and 40 [episodes] in one season, is just you gotta put it out. You’re gonna invite a whole bunch of people, and you’re gonna have a whole bunch of ideas, and some of ‘em are gonna stick, and some of ‘em are not gonna stick, but that, to me, is a better point of view to do something.
It’s way more manageable for me, as a person, where I can really figure that out rather than working endlessly and tirelessly on excellence. I feel like I’m making a case for me where the headline of this article is that I don’t think the show is good. But it really is about consistency for me, and I try to make the quality as consistent as possible.
Well, I won’t make that the headline, don’t worry.
Thank you so much.
I say that now, but we’ll see. I mentioned before that one of the consistent elements is that the show can be very long. There are episodes that are two hours long. That length does allow people to play around as long as they need to, as especially with improv, it can take a while to build up to a payoff. But in some cases we’re seeing comedy talk shows, especially in late-night TV, shrink — think about how Conan went down to half an hour. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show always run 30 minutes, and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon really is leaning hard into bite-size segments on YouTube. But Comedy Bang! Bang! has stayed very consistently within its format, I mean, outside of the television show.
But even that wasn’t necessarily optimized for the YouTube audience that has evolved since the show began. Why hasn’t that been something that you’ve tried to experiment with more, trying to go shorter?
TV’s a little bit different. And having done this show on TV and broadcasting form, there’s something about watching someone, that an idea gets communicated way more quickly than in an audio format. So we would find that, you gotta get to an idea really quickly on TV, and you’ve gotta get out of it relatively quickly as well. So, when we were doing an improv interview with a character, and we were editing them down, we wouldn’t edit them down necessarily for time all the time as much as just, “Yeah, we get it.” Like, “We’re watching you, get to your idea.”
So, I actually think ... I was watching Conan’s new half-hour show and I was saying, “God, what the problem with this is” — not that his show is a problem or he has a problem. But the issue for me on TV is he, instead, should be ending that show whenever he wants to end it. Meaning the episode should end at 40 minutes sometimes, or 42. Because I watch that show and it’s too long, as an hour, for him, but it’s too short as a half-hour. But, unfortunately, in TV we only have half-hours and we have hours.
So, he’s gotta edit that conversation with a guest down so that it fits within that half-hour format. It’s like, “No, no, no, just do it like a podcast,” where one episode comes out, and it’s like, “Oh, we did 50 minutes today ‘cause it was so interesting.” But you don’t have that latitude in television because of the advertising, and that’s what’s so great about a podcast. I can do a show that’s an hour and five minutes one day, and I could do a two-hour show one day. Wherever the conversation leads, that’s where it goes.
And if I were having to keep to a strict time schedule, I think some of the wonderful discoveries that have happened on Comedy Bang Bang wouldn’t have happened, because I would’ve cut things off before they got too crazy. Because I’m always looking at the clock. That’s what I love about podcasting, it’s just whatever it is.
And if some people look at that and go, “Oh, the only time I have to listen to podcasts is the 20 minutes I have going to work and then 20 minutes back. So, if your show isn’t 20 minutes, I will not listen to it.” That’s cool, but I don’t really feel like doing a 20-minute show. I’ll leave that to the people at Earwolf [Aukerman’s podcast production company], if they wanna put out 20-minute, bite-size chunks or something like that, maybe there’s something that they could do with that to try to attract the people that have shorter attention spans. But at this point, I’m not really interested in that.
And look how long that answer to the question was. That was almost two hours right there.
Brevity is not always the soul of wit. I wanna go back to what you were talking about with regard to the paywall.
What you were saying about how the “best ofs” aren’t behind it, because you want those to be entry points, but then a lot of the other, older episodes are. How does that segmentation of the show, where you put stuff behind a paywall, how essential is that to keeping the show going? Obviously there’s the financial factor, but do you worry about, “Okay, now there is this literal wall up that is preventing people from just jumping in”?
Honestly, I do not pay attention to how many people listen to older episodes or how much revenue that generates. I actually don’t think it’s a lot of revenue. Who even knows? But I think the show really is meant to be listened to when it comes out. I think there’s just something ephemeral about podcasting that is ... If you didn’t listen in six months, what are you even doing? Look, if you didn’t listen in six months, I’m gonna come out with another six months’ worth of episodes in the next six months, so just listen to those.
Again, there are the super fans that are like, “No, I wanna listen to my favorite episodes over and over again.” And to them I say, “That’s what paywalls were meant for, is for super fans and nice programming.” So I don’t know, I kinda think that there’s really no barrier to people getting into the show, unless their friends are saying, “There’s one particular episode that’s from 2013 and that is gonna be the perfect episode for you to listen to in order to understand what Comedy Bang Bang is.” I personally feel like we put out episodes like that all the time, so just listen to ones from the last six months, you’ll be fine.
You probably don’t wanna listen to the 10th anniversary special as your first episode of Comedy Bang Bang, because that’s gonna be way too impenetrable, I think. But listen to a different one.