(Scott Aukerman, Ben Folds) (Screenshot: IFC)

“We don’t have a lot of money for bleeps,” Scott scolds a foul-mouthed guest in tonight’s episode. But in these last few episodes of the series, it feels like Comedy Bang! Bang! is going all out on small production and design elements. Mimicry of talk shows and infotainment has always been CB!B!’s signature, but “Ben Folds Wears A Black Button Down And Jeans” demonstrates the show’s longstanding knack for capturing the mood of any genre in a few notes of music, an overblown Foley sound, or a quick visual effect.

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Excess in silliness is CB!B!’s style, but lately there’s a feeling that Aukerman and company are making sure to—as the talking heads on Sporty 4:40 might phrase it—leave it all on the field. It feels like they’re spending their last bits of budget and jamming in their favorite leftover concepts and one-liners. If that sometimes leads to a disjointed episode, it also means these last installments are packed full of the peculiar tonal shifts and anti-comedy bits fans responded to in the first place. Maybe the writers, cast, and crew subscribe to Scott’s heretofore unseen brother Sammy’s (Ryan Gaul) strategy for winning the lottery: “Basically, if you buy one ticket, the odds are stacked against you, but if you buy $10,000 worth, you’re bound to win.” If you toss out every joke and effect, you’re bound to land some of them, even if the jackpot is a little scattered.

(“Jackpot!”)

Scott’s brother and his mother (Lynne Marie Stewart returning as Barbara Aukerman) don’t need to win the lottery. They’ve already hit the jackpot with Scott. And that jackpot isn’t scattered. Scott hands over money in $10,000 increments for every off-hand request: for Sammy’s lottery tickets, for Mom’s new dress, for shoes to match… and for not turning in Cracker Aukerman (Alison Rich), Scott‘s recently escaped convict sister, to the police. Pretty soon, Mom and Sammy are sitting comfortably in a corner of the studio, showing off their goodies and their pile of Monopoly-style money, but still asking for more.

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Alison Rich fits into the go-big aesthetic of “Ben Folds Wears A Black Button Down And Jeans” like a grape fits into a producer’s mouth, like Cracker fits in the arms of PA Mitch (Mike Mitchell), like those gold lamé singing shorts will fit Mike’s—uh, will fit Mike (Mike Hanford). She goes big with everything, starting with her entrance. Aw, heck, starting before her entrance. The costume department puts her in attention-grabbing gold lamé and an orange fur shrug, with long strings of baubles bouncing around her neck. Her wide-eyed, wide-mouthed expression and over-enunciation take some cues from Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, but Cracker Whitey Aukerman is a unique character, not a derivative one.

Cracker goes big in her demands, too, and she hits the jackpot, wheedling Scott into making her an executive producer. (“But don’t expect any creative input. You’re a Dave Kneebone and nothing more.”) She may not know what a producer does, but she knows how they should be treated. “You! Feed me grapes by hand. And you! Carry me to them damn grapes.” Soon she’s got the crew tending to her every need (and Mitch carrying her to her every need), and Scott feels too guilty to put a stop to it.

But Mom doesn’t. Scott’s mother is named Barbara in previous episodes, but here she’s only identified as “Mom,” which contrasts with her cool, cutthroat approach to her relationship with Scott. Lynne Marie Stewart gets to show range in this episode, from the sickly sweet compliments she deploys to charm Scott into laying out cash and the simpering modeling of her new dress to the tough-as-nails negotiation when she’s got her successful son cornered. As she deliberately lights a cigarette and says coldly, “Sorry, honey. I need that dress,” she evokes a long history of noir femmes fatales and soap-opera villains alike, but she reminds me particularly of Piper Laurie’s Catherine Martell, who gets what she wants with few words.

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(Lynne Marie Stewart) (Screenshot: IFC)

MUSICAL BREAK:

Who is the coolest guy we know?

Ben Folds!

What is he doing on our show?

Ben Folds!

Yeah, what is he doing on your show? In his guest spot on You’re The Worst, Ben Folds’ stilted delivery and slightly off-kilter grin fit right in by not fitting in. There, he adds a welcome pinch of absurdity as he wanders through the background of a show where emotions are simultaneously heightened to comic proportions and harrowingly real. I can’t say his energy is as winning in the already absurd world of Comedy Bang! Bang!, but he’s sure game to try, and he goes big, too.

Where he really hits the jackpot (can someone explain the rules of Jackpot to me? Oh, only off the air?) is in the bit about his new venture, Ben Folds And Puts Away. It’s a one-liner concept extended to a two-minute gag—Ben doesn’t wash your dirty laundry, he just comes to your home, folds your clean laundry, and puts it away—padded out with extraneous business. Folds miming the phone call, driving, parking, and knocking is Bang! Bang! at its dumbest, and it just tickled me, even if the conceit doesn’t have much of an ending. There’s no, ahem, jackpot to this joke. Jackpot! (No? That’s not how you play Jackpot? Dang it!)

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Speaking of no-payoff jokes, when Scott stalks off the set in outrage, Comedy Bang! Bang! has a chance to try something daring and different. I got excited as “Weird Al” slid into his chair, thinking we were about to see (another) brief changing of the guards. Instead, at the end of the commercial break, Scott is right back in his seat. They create a dramatically and comedically rich moment of tension, then throw it away. That’s the opposite of a jackpot.

Fine, I’ll stop talking about jackpots and start talking about “Jackpot!” When world traveler Martin Moreland (Tim Baltz, an ensemble member of Bajillion Dollar Properties along with Ryan Gaul) offers a fist-bump and a grin to Ben Folds after every burn, it’s a low-stakes way to bring Folds into the action. That’s a smart move, letting a seasoned improvisor give a guest not known for his comedic chops a straightforward cue without pressure to contribute original lines. Sometimes, the disconnect between the actual celebrity guest and the second, fictional guest can be jarring. This simple mechanism helps unite them in a simple, repetitive action that hits a strong note. You might say they hit the…

No. I’m not saying it.

Sporty 4:40 is back, and if it’s not as strong as its masterful debut… well, what could be? Unlike another episode that used it as a framing story, this installment of Sporty 4:40 is a diversion from rather than an addition to the overall show. But “Weird Al” is great as Lou Canzoneri, the beat-up pug who has no luck in the ring until his luck runs out with the ladies, and the faux documentary nails every detail of tone and performance.

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How often do you exclaim delightedly to your TV, “Hey, it’s Wayne Federman!” I do it pretty often, which explains how I ended up in this line of work. I expected Federman’s appearance to be the highlight of the bit about Ben Folds finally receiving his last outstanding college credit (toward his major in percussion), but CB!B! is always full of surprises. This is where all that bleeping budget went: into a series of effects first ghostly, then ghastly. Folds’ former professor begins to disappear, then goes up in flames—the flames of hell!—leaving behind only his skeleton. His ghost’s skeleton? Look, paranormal biology is above my pay grade.

It’s when the flames started licking at Professor Blanyard’s ghostly figure that I realized Comedy Bang! Bang! is putting all its chips on the table. And it’s when I really, truly started to understand that this show—this dumb, smart, snarky, sweet show—is coming to an end. It looks like they’re spending every cent in the effects budget and burning through every joke they kept in their back pockets. They’re giving us a goofy last gasp of gags, reveling in the vast range and virtuosity of genre mimicry that is Comedy Bang! Bang! Burn it down, folks. Put all your irons in the fire. You just might hit the…

No. I’m not going to say it.

Stray observations

  • Scott’s on-screen credits: Lawnmower Man and Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace feel like the kind of double-barreled joke the writers have had in the chamber for a long time, right?
  • Alison Rich shows why a fur shrug is called a shrug. Jerking it up onto her shoulders with a no-hands twitch, she adds oomph to an already bombastic entrance.
  • Carl Tart, who plays Cracker’s arresting officer, also appears on Bajillion Dollar Properties. In general, we’ve seen a lot of crossover this season, not surprisingly since it’s the widow Kulap’s show.
  • By the time you’re reading this, my question will be answered, but I’m a little curious if the broadcast version will have more bleeps in it, scanty bleep budget be [bleep]ed. In the preview version provided to me, every one of Tim Baltz’s “little [bleep]ers” is bleeped, but not one of Scott’s or Ben Folds’ “shit” or “shitty”s are.

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