When a visit to the History Of Television exhibit has Scott Aukerman pining for a more prominent place in talk-show history, it’s just a matter of time (you get it) before something magical makes it so. And so it is! The museum guard (Fred Willard) who overhears him isn’t a guard at all. He’s Merlin! And the immersive educational exhibit he directs them to isn’t an exhibit at all.
To teach them a valuable lesson, Merlin spirits Scott and “Weird Al” Yankovic back to the court of Camelot “in roughly the late fifth or early sixth century.” There, they introduce themselves as jesters and put on the very first talk show for none other than King Arthur (Dave Foley) and Lady Guinevere (Candace Brown).
Scott takes this fabulous adventure in stride, and no wonder. Time travel is well-established in the Comedy Bang! Bang! universe. Very well-established. Extremely well-established. Not to say tediously well-established. Just very, very well-established, even within the confines of the TV show. But really, so, so well-established.
Scott doesn’t worry about how they’ll get back to their own time period, because that’s always sorted itself out before. (After? Time travel tenses are hard.) But he also doesn’t stop to wonder why King Arthur’s court is suddenly short of jesters. Or whether his Hollywood glad-handing (and his “shitting anywhere”) is presumptuous in a king’s court. Or whether there’s a downside to their lavish rewards of gold and wenches. Or why the royal court is bedecked with beheaded jesters.
Scott promises “Artie baby” a show the likes of which no one has ever seen, and his first guest—and the very first talk-show guest in history—is the star of hit play Castles And Recreation, Lady Aubrey Of The Plaza. She’s also the ancestor of a performer familiar to modern audiences, and her resemblance to our own Aubrey Plaza (no stranger to time travel herself) is uncanny.
Churlish though it is to say it, I found Lady Aubrey’s languid coquetry and campy laughter a little stilted. But her venom toward her wench (Marcy Jarreau) and the nameless wench’s devotion—bearing Lady Aubrey in her arms to the stage, piggybacking her off again, and doting on her between slaps—give the archness some relief, as does Lady Aubrey’s habit of casting off coyness and pitching herself toward her desires. Scott’s distress upon realizing the wench is enslaved is a good riff, and Jarreau tops it when she replies to his assurance that slavery will one day be abolished with a muffled “That only makes it worse.”
“We have good alchemy, don’t we?” Scott asks Lady Aubrey, but the chemistry sparks higher when Sir Lancelot (Nate Corddry) arrives, with his boasts of fighting dragons and eating salted meat every day and so, so many lancings. He’s a real big shot of the Round Table. He doesn’t even carry his own fecal bucket these days!
Corddry walks a narrow line as the legendary knight, showing how he might be both beloved and, well, kind of a dick. Handy tip, Lancelot: Ladies, be they capital-L Ladies, mere commoners, or queens, rarely want to hear your bawdy gloating about where else you’ve laid your lance. And even if the king doesn’t understand your insinuations about the queen, maybe don’t call him and his courtiers “a bunch of dummies” while they’re avidly watching you.
Scott and Al are thrilled to find themselves in the storied court, but the storied court isn’t so impressed. They’ve seen plenty of strange visitors: Bill and Ted, Hank Morgan, a kid on an adventure suspiciously like Hank Morgan’s, Jamal Walker, a talking dog or two, at least one crew of the Starship Enterprise, a couple of Magic School Buses, and they’ve heard tell of “those four teenaged mutated ninja-jitsu turtles,” whose exploits in Japan are spoken of all the way to King Arthur’s court.
Unfortunately, “Aubrey Plaza Wears A Velvet Off-the-shoulder Gown With Flowers In Her Hair” left me only mildly impressed, too. Some of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s conceptual episodes are home runs, some aren’t, and it’s not always easy to put a finger on what smothers their spark. In this case, it feels like reverse alchemy. With this cast and this level of detail, how is there even an ounce of lead among this Comedy Bang! Bang! gold?
Dave Foley relishes every mouthful as King Arthur, and it’s fun to see a performer so many envision as part of a young ensemble play an august presence. He squeezes laughs from it everywhere he can using just the power of inflection. But he doesn’t get to show his considerable range—of expression, of voice, of comic posture. He sits there, regally commanding the room, occasionally raking in forced laughs from his subjects, and vacillating from entertained to bored as the plot demands.
His Guinevere has even less to work with, though Candace Brown’s “uh… probably for no reason!” is the best, worst explanation for her husband’s question of why Lancelot’s lover would emphasize this in her pillow talk: “Now, this is a royal boning!” Fred Willard gets to twinkle with wisdom in the opening and chuckle in the closing, but again it’s a very static scene, emotionally and physically, special-effects entrance notwithstanding.
Only after the episode establishes the stakes does “Aubrey Plaza Wears A Velvet Off-the-shoulder Gown With Flowers In Her Hair” start cooking. Scott’s so focused on rewriting talk-show history, he doesn’t realize he and Al will be history if they lose the king’s favor. That tension provides a jolt of energy for the last five minutes of the episode, but it comes too late and dissipates too quickly to save the whole. Scott throws Lancelot under the chariot to distract Arthur from his own failed japes, and that drama too evaporates fast.
It’s a shame, because the episode is lovingly executed. There’s a clear arc from Scott’s wish for a place in TV history to his realization that such prominence means being subject to uncomfortable—even fatal—scrutiny. It’s punctuated with funny readings, like Al and Scott chanting “please not death, please not death” to King Arthur’s portentous “I sentence to you…” And it ends with the kind of dark tangent the podcast revels in, but that only occasionally makes it to the TV show: During their 1500-year wait to return to their own time, Scott and Al make a pitstop to murder Franz Günther, in his crib, despite Merlin’s warnings that someone else will take the place of history’s most evil figure.
Comedy Bang! Bang!’s graphics and art departments don’t jest around, even for a background gag: On the placard for The History Of Television Exhibit, making the V in television from the TV’s rabbit ears is a nice touch. The Gilliam-style animation sequence is outstanding, as impressive in its way as last week’s Hitchcockian credits. The design and props departments went medieval on this episode, constructing a set that clearly conveys the Middle Ages while still trumpeting “talk show!”
“Aubrey Plaza Wears A Velvet Off-the-shoulder Gown With Flowers In Her Hair” looks like a labor of love, and it’s a pleasant way to pass the time (all 1500 years of it), but a little too flat for greatness. Merlin might not be the only magician on this episode: When Scott shrugs and says, “Oh, we time-traveled. This’ll fill up 30 minutes,” he’s foretelling the future with eerie prescience.
- Scott’s on-screen credit: Auker, Man Of Scots, ably assisted by his bandleader, The Vicar of Yanks, Good Sir Alfred, with his fife and his lute.
- “Weird Al,” believing they’re in an impressively detailed immersive educational exhibit: “You want to get out of here?” Scott: “Yeah, of course I do.”
- “Have you ever wished to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles? Well, now you can! With teensy dragon eggs!”