The podcast revolution continues.
Somehow, it’s been 13 years since one of the leading voices in the medium, Scott Aukerman, discovered his secret formula to freshening up the format of interviewing famous funny people. “The podcast started as an interview podcast between myself and comedians — this was before things like WTF with Marc Maron came out,” the host says. “Then pretty early in the run of the show I started having comedians on as fake guests. That became the focus of the show pretty much.”
Thus Comedy Bang! Bang! blasted its way up the iTunes Comedy charts and blazed an immortal trail many would follow, debuting countless hilarious “if you know, you know” characters along the way, including dangerous orphan Fourvil (Bobby Moynihan), tuna-loving elders Gil Faizon and George St Geegland (Nick Kroll and John Mulaney), and the ever desperate Nephew Todd (Lauren Lapkus).
“It’s a talk show much like a late night talk show like Colbert or Conan O’Brien,” Aukerman explains, rationally, “but where I’m interviewing comedians playing fake people who are insane. It’s an improvised conversational show where I have guests on who are crazy and take the show in wild directions and that will lead us down avenues that are very strange, hopefully leading to a satisfying conclusion.”
But this darling of the “alt comedy” scene of Los Angeles is breaking free of its home in your earbuds and going old school with a mini stage tour led by host Scott Aukerman. Aukerman will also be joined onstage by an all-time guest Comedy Bang-Banger Paul F. Tomkins, a stand-up and voice actor who memorably brought a range of characters to life over the years, from Santa Clause to Andrew Lloyd Webber to the one-and-only Cake Boss.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how this bizarre little enterprise came to be. “When I started doing a podcast 13 years ago, no one even knew what a podcast was,” the internet impresario recalls. “I barely knew what it was. I barely knew where I was at, or who was speaking to me at any given time. I didn’t know if this was going to be something I did for a couple of years and abandoned, but instead it has become one of if not the most defining aspects of my career.”
Beyond the success of the podcast itself, which has produced almost 800 episodes in the past decade-plus, Aukerman has also co-founded Earwolf, one of the foremost podcast networks on the planet, which offers home to shows helmed by some of comedy’s biggest names.
Now he faces his greatest challenge yet, a one night only live show at Houston’s Cullen Theater on Sunday, August 7. How ever will the auditory driven show adapt to an auditorium? “It’s just different,” Aukerman says, calmly. “When you’re doing a podcast, it’s sort of theater of the mind and people are just listening. Anything can happen in it because people are just hearing us describe things. When you do it on stage, it’s a little bit different. We’re playing to the audience a little bit more. But we’re also getting more immediate feedback from the audience about what they are find funny, which you don’t get when you are doing a podcast. You’re just sort of flailing away and have no idea how this will be received. But when you are in front of an audience, its just this electricity that comes from people laughing at particular choices you are making and gets you to go down avenues you know the audience is enjoying. It’s just this kind of energy you don’t really get when you are just doing it as a podcast.”
“The main difference is not really in strangeness, it’s more in physicality,” he continues, as he aims to draw in both fans of the podcast and Comedy Bang Bang newbies alike. “I’ll give you an example with a podcast we recorded this week — all the guests on the show turned on one of the other guests and started beating him up, and so as a podcast, we’re basically banging the microphones around and he’s screaming while pretending we’re beating him up. When it’s on stage, we’re actually going to beat the shit out of someone!”
Scott, a master of the deadpan, holds to see if we’re still listening. Then backtracks, with a soft laugh. “No, but we’re do intentionally try to make things more physical so people aren’t just sitting there watching people sitting there. And a lot of podcasts are conversations between people, especially news podcasts. But we’re an improv podcasts, so we’ll be acting out a lot of what we would just usually sit there and do orally.”
Landing Paul F. Tompkins as a co-pilot for “99 percent” of the dates on this live tour is a coup for Aukerman, who acknowledges his deep history with the comic-turned-voice actors who went big with his work on Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. “I started doing comedy back in 1995 in the alternative comedy scene which was basically this tiny group of people who would perform in different places in Los Angeles from night to night. That was people like Bob Odenkirk and David Cross and Janeane Garafolo and Sarah Silverman. That’s where I met Paul.”
“Paul was doing stand-up at the time, and he had moved out here from Philadelphia, and he really became my favorite stand-up comedian. I just really loved his point of view, and the language he used... which was English, thank goodness for me as I am not bilingual. We developed a friendship, and he was a writer on Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ HBO sketch show Mr. Show, and occasionally I would act on it and I would see him there. Then he left the writing staff and I became a writer on it.”
Fast forward to 2009, and Aukerman is about adapting his popular stage-bound show Comedy Death Ray into something for the web. “So we been friends for a while and have traveled in the same circles, and when I started doing the podcast, I sort of off-handedly asked him if he wanted to do this podcast, and you could either be yourself or do a character on it. And he really hadn’t done much character work before that. He said to himself that would be fun, let me try that. And immediately from his first appearance became one of the best at doing that in the world. It’s been a great friendship that’s lasted 27 years at this point.”
Part of the charm is trying to peak the real life friendship between Scott and his in-character guests. Scott acknowledges the strangeness of building relationships primarily with fake version of people he’s known for years. “A lot of the people that I see, the comedians, I see them for maybe ten minutes before the show starts and maybe five minutes afterwards as you’re walking to your car. You don’t have like the deepest conversations. So you’re really like hanging out with people when they’re in character. It is nice to have gotten to know a number of these people personally over the years. When you point it out like that though, I am friends with a bunch of fake people! But when I do the podcast or the live show with Paul, I know we can just kind of dick around for 45 minutes just having a conversation. It’s that great back and forth between two people where we’re comfortable with each other. He’s surprising me and I hopefully am surprising him. I know I am in safe hands when he’s on the show and we’re not going to be out there struggling to bring the funny.”
The most common question the podcaster gets is an obvious one: how much does he plan before recording? For the improv purists among us, his answer is refreshing. “I do the live ones pretty much as I do the podcast, which is I just ask the performers before the show what their name is and what their occupation is. Sometimes a comedian will try to tell me what they are about to do because they feel they need to explain it. I almost always intentionally say I don’t want to know that much. I prefer to find out in the moment and be surprised just like the audience is. For the most part, its just wild unpredictably.”
Among the many guests that have graced the microphone with Aukerman, few made the impact of a man named Harris Wittels. One of Houston’s funniest people, Harris might be best known for his recurring role on Parks and Recreation, and for hosting the a show-within-the-show called “Foam Corner” where Wittels got groans for his late night musings. Sadly, Wittels died unexpectedly in 2015 at the age of 30.
“Harris moved out to LA at a very young age, and I got to know him from his work at the UCB theater in a sketch and improv group. One of the things that I’m happy about is that I was able to give him a kind of a platform where other people could see his work and recognize his genius from not only fans, but other comedians. So when we started doing the podcast, I had already known him for a bunch of years already and to be able to bring him on the show and give him a place where he could do his weird little jokes was really cool. Even the day after he passed away, a lot of people wanted to feel close to him – so they were listening to his voice on my show. And a lot of them comment that it was great to have these recording of him. You know, when someone passes away a lot of times you don’t have more than a few pictures or maybe you took a video once. And we have all these great recordings of Harris that we can go back to feel like he’s still with us.”
Harris’ abrupt passing led to a number of his classic bits on the podcast going viral, and bringing in new listeners to the weird world Aukerman and his group had poured their hearts into. It also raised an interesting question – what do you when the improvised off-the-top-of-your-head material you record in a moment remains even after you are gone?
“I usually forget about the show the minute we’re done with it,” the host admits. “When I do the 'Best Of' episodes at the end of the year, I go back and list to the top episodes because I’m the one pulling the best clips for it. I’ll often be very surprised about episodes I don’t remember recording. A lot of times fans will reach out or see me in person and say something that strikes me as a very strange sentence to say. I’ll wonder why they are saying this to me and realize it is an inside joke from an episode I did six years ago and don’t remember anymore. Essentially, some of this art form of podcasting is meant to be ephemeral, but we’ve developed a library that means a lot to people that people quote. It’s become part of their language. What I originally thought was going to be like a lot of talk shows, a breezy way to spend an hour, has become important to people in their lives.”
This silly revelation leads the gentle voiced 52-year-old to come to terms with a semi-serious fear. “I am very concern myself passing on before I decide to end the show,” he reveals. “I’d love to end the show and have a big ‘That’s the final episode – thanks for listening’ and then live another 20 years. But I am actually concerned that I will put out a kind of subpar episode one week and that will be the last one ever!
“I have been thinking about banking the last episode that people can put out. That was a thing with Harris - he passed away a couple days after I had recorded an episode with him that was supposed to come out for days after he passed away. And I was talking to mutual friends about this, thinking it was too painful and that I didn’t want to put out this episode. Maybe I’ll wait a year and put it out after things have died down. But I was told: ‘no, no, no – he would want this to be put out immediately’. This is a way for people to celebrate him. I have thought about doing my own post death episode to come out as a surprise.”
While it’s hard to imagine a single finale episode that could encapsulate the free-wheeling fun that’s been created under the podcast’s auspicious – it’s nice to know that Scott Aukerman is willing keep us entertained, even from the great beyond.
Performance is scheduled for Sunday, August 7 at 7 p.m. at Cullen Theater, Wortham Center at 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org $45-$115.