Comedy Bang! Bang! is no stranger to taking classic sitcom conventions and warping them to fit within the internal “logic” of the show’s world. There’s the ultimate example in “Jesse Tyler Ferguson Wears A Brown Checked Shirt And Stripey Socks,” where Scott is torn between his stereotypical multi-camera sitcom life and his alternative comedy, as well as “Thomas Middleditch Wears An Enigmatic Sweatshirt And Sweatpants With Pockets,” where Scott gets his Hannah Montana on. But as apt as those episodes are when it comes to nailing the quirks and tropes (and let’s be honest, sometimes absolute nonsense) of these sitcoms, Comedy Bang! Bang! has yet to truly hit the jackpot in terms of said sitcom conventions: the “Very Special Episode.”
That is, until now. “Allison Janney Wears A Chambray Western Shirt And Suede Fringe Boots” swings for the fences with its riff on the most infamous episode of Family Ties (and one of the most memorable “Very Special Episodes” ever), “‘A’, My Name Is Alex.” And unsurprisingly, it nails it out of the park. both as a faithful yet specifically bizarre take on the episode as well as a reminder of how weird Comedy Bang! Bang! is and always will be.
It also says quite a bit that Comedy Bang! Bang! can tackle an extremely familiar episode of a very popular classic sitcom and still end up making it a completely niche, inaccessible episode of television to outside observers. One could argue that’s simply another reason to call Comedy Bang! Bang! a “hipster comedy show,” but at the same time, it’s a “hipster comedy show” that respects its audience enough to realize they’ll know what it’s doing, even when it’s veering off the established path of the source material.
And boy does this episode veer off the established path.
The episode certainly nails its re-imagining of “Weird Al” in the Alex P. Keaton role, as he mourns the death of his “childhood chum, Emily” (Jess McKenna) in the same initial way, manic and pretty damn inappropriate in his behavior. It doesn’t exactly keep the reason for his friend’s death as simple as Family Ties does though, as Alex’s friend Greg’s (who we’ve never heard of before) car accident is nothing compared to Emily’s hot air balloon ride… that went too high and exploded… “and as she fell to Earth, a helicopter blade chopped her up and then the body parts landed in quicksand.” He hugs ghost Emily just like Alex hugged ghost Dave (though he doesn’t try to save it with a dance), and the first half of the episode ends the same way as the first part of “‘A,’ My Name Is Alex,” cries about why he’s still like that Pearl Jam song—“Alive.”
Once it gets to the stage play second half of the episode, it remains a technically perfect homage to the Family Ties episode, complete with a knock on Grant College. But then it also manages to maintain Comedy Bang! Bang!’s off-kilter sense of humor with Al being the one to blame for all of the deaths he recounts to his therapist (despite people telling him it’s not his fault) and somehow managing to be an even more selfish and ego-driven character than Alex P. Keaton himself. The episode’s need to go through the material of two episodes in the span of “the very next half-hour” allows for Al to get over his problems (of which there are many) even quicker than normal and in the funniest, nonsensical way possible.
And then it gets weirder, as the episode tips its hand in this second half that something bizarre is going to happen with the casting of Ray Wise as the doctor. Because that voice certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in everything being alright, and the episode makes sure that the audience is rewarded for realizing that by making everything as far from alright as humanly (and even non-humanly) possible.
Allison Janney: “I’m crazy about you knuckleheads.”
Because this episode plays so much with the format of the episode—in keeping with the format of the Family Ties episode—celebrity guest Allison Janney isn’t given anything to do in the second half of this episode. But for the time she is there, it’s clear that she’s quite taken with Comedy Bang! Bang!’s particular brand of oddball comedy. She’s also clearly caught off-guard by some of it, as her crack ups during multiple bits (including Scott’s early line about being on “suicide watch”) indicate, but she’s still willing to go along with the weirdo beats, sometimes even attempting to one-up them. Her laughter in response to Scott Aukerman’s straight man delivery here is a very real response in a show that’s rarely about realism, and while it’s perhaps a sign of slight awkwardness or unfamiliarity with the show’s humor, it’s the type that works far better than constantly addressing just how awkward it is. It’s an enjoyment of the surrealness of the situation, and Janney is enough of a professional to keep up with the humor and give just as good as she gets. It also helps that the bits she’s given are pretty tailor-made to her and her dry delivery—though there are moments like her and Scott dancing to her introduction and her cries when Scott kills her “son”—whether it’s talking about her dashed dreams of being a seat-filler or the perfectly lame segment “This Was Your Existence.”
Basically, Janney is “looking good—acting-wise” in this episode; it’s also good to know she’s anti-rounding short people up into camps.
Typically, the dropping of the celebrity guest from the main plot would knock the episode down a peg or two, but here, it simply works in the sense of it being a true homage to the Family Ties episode and how part two of that absolutely changes format. But “Allison Janney Wears A Chambray Western Shirt And Suede Fringe Boots” doesn’t just change format in the second half of the episode—it becomes and succeeds at being as much of a brand new episode as it possibly can while attempting to adhere to the two-parter transition within the confines of just the one episode. It fills both halves up while hitting all the requisite beats, which isn’t easy to do.
The episode then becomes a Frankenstein riff (“Minds! Minds!”) and a little Alien gets thrown into the mix (“Step away from him you c-word. Cadaver.”), and that’s that. Comedy Bang! Bang! takes the term “Very Special Episode,” and it doesn’t just go with the standard definition: It throws in everything it possibly can to make it special. And for Al to get what he’s wanted all along:
“Weird Al”: “And to think, all of this happened because I wanted my Emmy.”
“Weird Al”: “Yeah, that was my nickname for Emily. Emmy. All my crying, emoting, and thrashing about, that was because I was angling for my Emmy. Trying to show everyone how deserving I was. And who knows, maybe someday soon: I’ll get it.”
- Scott’s Onscreen Credit: Lord Saruman. Nerd alert, guys.
- I suppose it goes without saying, but Mike Hanford is always absolutely delightful. His “that’s all folks!” re: the death of Emily is an early highlight in an episode full of highlights.
- Al is right: Comedy Book! Book! is a great name for a Comedy Bang! Bang! staff book club. Or just any book club in general.
- Emily: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Were you watching Three Men And A Baby again?”
- It may just be a coincidence that an actress from the show Mom is on the Family Ties episode (you know, familial-based TV titles), but I’d argue it’s less of a coincidence that Allison Janney is the celebrity guest in this “‘A,’ My Name Is Alex” episode with “Weird Al” as the Alex. A’s all around!
- Al zones out when Scott starts asking Allison Janney about mattresses, which has to be disappointing to Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast listeners. Now how will we know if Janney received her mattress in a box the size of a mini-fridge? Does she hate those weekly trips to the mattress store?! We’ll never know.
- Doctor Frankenstein: “Why does this always happen?! I’m the worst doc since Supersize Me!”