Halloween’s coming, and it’s time to welcome Comedy Bang! Bang! back like an old friend. Just like Scott’s welcoming Gillian Jacobs! Or maybe we’re welcoming Comedy Bang! Bang!’s back-to-back return more like we’d welcome that neighbor the whole HOA is looking askance at. You know the one: He’s got panache, but he’s also got a broken, befouled birdbath on his eyesore of a lawn. Or maybe we’re just welcoming it back with chaffing fondness, like you reserve for the dorky, good-hearted neighbor who goes all-in on Halloween, like Comedy Bang! Bang! always does.
Yes, between the return to the airwaves and the Halloween holiday, it’s another banner day for Scott and for Comedy Bang! Bang! [See banner.] And Scott’s celebrating with a savvy money-making scheme.
The residents of nearby Silverhaired Springs Retirement Community live in terror of Halloween, “the one night of the year if they go outside and see something scary, they’ll definitely have a heart attack and die!,” so Scott’s rented out the studio as a safe haven, free of scares. Even the set gets to dress up for Halloween… as the safest, most wholesome, dullest spot Scott can imagine. Sir Couchley is costumed in a tidy plastic cover. Everything’s festooned with quilts, doilies, and antimacassars. The pumpkins arranged around the set are decidedly unjack-o’-lanterned. Every nook’s crammed with comfy chairs and tables and outfitted with playing cards, tea cups, and bowls of butterscotch candies.
It’s as safe as houses… or is it? “Gillian Jacobs Wears A Gray Checkered Suit And A Red Bow Tie” unleashes ghosts and demons and floating pumpkins as riotously as it unleashes its spirited guests.
Comedy Bang! Bang! goes all-in on Halloween, and Gillian Jacobs goes all-in on Comedy Bang! Bang! In this episode, she’s a joyful agent of chaos, just as she is on the podcast. Entering in her Pee-wee Herman suit, she immediately breaks into the “Tequila” dance, and from there, she’s blur of enthusiasm. Even grabbing screenshots of Jacobs is challenging because her hands, feet, and face are always in motion. “All right, let’s keep this train moving,” she chants at Scott as the conversation pauses, “what else’ve you got for me, buddy boy?”
Next to James Adomian’s Maximillian Blanc, a guest could easily be upstaged or overwhelmed, but not Jacobs. Even the indomitable Adomian seems a trifle unprepared for Jacobs’ ardor. Threatening to call down “powers from you know not where they’re from,” Maximillian cringes back as she screams out delightedly, “CALL THEM DOWN!” Jacobs’ performance embodies the improviser’s rule of “yes, and…” and amplifies it to “YES, and!” It’s excessive, and it’s excellent.
If ever there was an argument for excess, it’s a James Adomian impersonation. As Maximillian, every bit of his overblown voice, costume, and affect combine to create an impression of Vincent Price. But it’s not Price as the cultured, urbane man he actually was. This is the curious figure Vincent Price represents in our cultural memory: foppish, macabre, and adamantly assured of his unassailable refinement.
Scott’s brought his eccentric neighbor onto the show not to showcase his place in Hollywood history, but to confront him with their HOA’s complaints. His mansion, its landscape strewn with sludgy birdbaths and waxen corpses, is an eyesore. “Some would call it dilapidated,” Maximillian says, unconcerned, “but I have exquisitely calibrated the level of dilapidation to my taste.”
Everything in Adomian’s performance is exquisitely calibrated excess. Maximillian’s home is not a mansion, but a manse. From the endless complaints against him, he’s “of course” compiled not a book, but a tome. He blows thick layers of dust from its pages a half-dozen times, and he slams down the book (I’m sorry, the tome) not once or twice, but over and over until it’s falling to pieces in his hands. He answers criticisms not with apologies or arguments, but with a curse. (He pronounces cursed as curséd. Of course.)
Jacobs gives Adomian the space he needs to fill up the screen with his self-conscious staginess, but her physicality keeps her from getting sidelined. As Maximillian blows dust from his tome, Jacobs slides nearly off the couch (and nearly off-screen), coughs dust away from her face, waves away clouds of it. Every time he sends out another gust of dust, she finds a new way to react, to keep the scene fresh.
I’m always impressed with how thoroughly Comedy Bang! Bang!’s writers and production teams capture and skew elements of so many genres. There’s not a false beat in The Haunted Gun. The faceless villain, the growly narration, the lurid red-flooded freeze-frame, the scare chords all establish the ’80s-style horror movie as clearly as the period costumes (Scott’s athletic socks are pure Wet Hot American Summer) or the Evil Dead-style cabin in the woods the victims retreat to.
But this trailer is more than a send-up of slasher flicks. The precision of the production anchors the concept so that the ever-broader riffing, as the intended victims spout rhetoric about the blamelessness of firearms and the sanctity of the Second Amendment even as they flee their attacker’s (paradoxically anticlimactic but ever-escalating) assaults. The voiceover calls it “an exercise in terror unlike anything you’ve ever seen before,” but that sentiment’s chillingly undermined by the tagline: “Coming soon to a theater near you… or an elementary school, or a church, or a college campus, or a dance club.” (How tickled/terrified were Comedy Bang! Bang! writers when former Congressman Joe Walsh reintroduced muskets into the national conversation just in time for The Haunted Gun?) This might be the most blatant political stance CB!B!’s ever taken, and the show pulls it off with deadly deadpan accuracy.
Also deadpan and deadly accurate is Marc Evan Jackson as Father Peters. Back in 1975, he rid this very studio, then the home of Baretta, of an entity—variously described as a spirit and a demon—haunting it. (Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to contain the spirit before it possessed both Baretta star Robert Blake and his guest, O.J. Simpson. Yikes. This episode has a knack for sliding grim jokes into its campy Halloween fun.)
It’s a stroke of genius to have Father Peters, now retired from his position in the Catholic church’s ghost division, return to the studio as one of the seniors from Silverhaired Springs. Jackson, always reliable, turns in a particularly effective performance here. He commands the stage as effortlessly and inexorably as he commands the spirit he exorcises, but when he’s not center-stage, he melts into the background, only revealing himself when the plot demands it.
There’s so much to like about this episode, from its enthusiastic deployment of ghostly special effects to its performances to its narrative coherence, that it’s hard to figure out why, despite the banner, the boos, and the bangs, this Halloween isn’t quite a banner day for viwers. This episode, directed by CB!B! fave Stoney Sharp, is shy of perfection by a hauntingly narrow margin. In part, it’s the failure, amid all this precision, to distinguish between ghosts and demons that leaves the framing device a little flabby. In part, it’s the way the otherwise artfully crafted visit from a Poltergeist-inspired medium (Betsy Sodaro) lifts right out of the overarching story. In part, it’s the sidelining of “Weird Al” Yankovic; despite repeated gestures and glances from those onstage including him in their banter, he has little part in the events as they unfold.
But all that’s a quibble. “Gillian Jacobs Wears A Gray Checkered Suit And A Red Bow Tie,” isn’t perfect, but it’s an excellent example of the show very nearly at its best. Comedy Bang! Bang! is back, and it’s everything it ever was: precise and broad, smart and silly, lighthearted and ghoulish. Putting all that and more in 22 minutes of television is a heck of a trick and a hell of a treat.
- Scott’s on-screen credit: Says Alrighty Then.
- Scott couldn’t quite fit into his Sexy Borat costume, so he went with his back-up, Ace Venture, Pet Detective.
- Adomian, reading from the many, many complaints against him: “‘We find that Mr. Maximillian Blanc’—that is I, star of the screen. That’s not in here, I just wanted to remind people.”
- “Let all who live near within sight of my manse at 86115 North O’Ryan Dri—maybe I shouldn’t have given the exact address?” “You didn’t say the v in drive, I think you’re fine.”
- Maximillian’s curse upon his neighbors: “Let each of their Tuesdays feel like Wednesdays. Let you whenever you so leave your house, to constantly believe that you’ve left something there that will never be found. And most of all, may your residual checks be delivered unto an address where you no longer live!”
- To celebrate this last stretch of Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC, LaToya Ferguson and I are back, giving you back-to-back reviews! That’s no trick! It’s just a treat, for both of us. Thanks so much for reading, everyone.