Sometimes Comedy Bang! Bang! is uncomplicatedly its familiar silly self. Sometimes it goes darker or eerier. And sometimes, like tonight, it stakes out its territory by illustrating what it’s not.

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Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t the reserved, intellectualized comedy embodied by Scott’s writers, a covey of “Ivy-League jerks” who pitch sketches like “The Pythagorean Gangnam Style,” “Real Housewives of Ingmar Bergman,” and “YouTube Commenter Who Uses An Oxford Comma Incorrectly.” (In Bossypants, Tina Fey describes this perennial writers’ room type as “hyper-intelligent Harvard boys,” noting “if you had nothing but Harvard guys the whole show would be made up of commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock-market crash.”)

Comedy Bang! Bang! isn’t the bawdy, dated punchline comedy of old-school comic Harvey Wrinkleman (Bob Einstein), the surviving half of Wrinkleman & Irons, who regales the studio with hacky dirty jokes and memories of sexually harassing Hollywood legends. It isn’t the charming-dirtbag comedy of Workaholics, as an out-of-studio segment guest-starring Blake Anderson reminds us. Comedy Bang! Bang! flirts with all those forms of comedy, and many more, but it defines itself in part by its distance from them.

Scott and his Ivy-league jerks [IFC]

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When Scott Aukerman advises his flock of egghead writers to stop coming up with sketches like “Plato’s Caveman” and start coming up with sketches like “Caveman’s Play-Doh,” the line is met by literal cricket chirps, and this slick, suit-wearing backstage version of Scott withdraws it as a bad example. But that goofy reversal is a good example of CB!B!’s measured distance from preening highbrow witticisms, and of its slapstick and silliness. It’s a show that mixes adult intelligence with childlike enthusiasm, and its core characters have big hearts—too big to fully embrace the horrors, large and small, that are acted out around them in tonight’s episode, and also too big to ostracize their perpetrators completely, or so it seems at first.

The moral quandaries of “Karen Gillan Wears A Black And White Striped Pullover And Coral Skirt” escalate quickly. First, there’s the stale sordidness of Wrinkleman’s shaggy-dog jokes and personal transgressions. Scott soaks up the seamy tales with admiration, reminding his colleagues that Wrinkleman is “a legend,” while Reggie just shakes his head.

Scott and Reggie’s exploits can get a little blue, but there’s always a tinge of innocence keeping them from all-out lechery. Heck, Scott and Reggie don’t even realize neither of them could have fathered little Screggie because neither of them had sex with his mother, Samantha (Andrea Savage), when they dated years ago. As Mailman Manny intuits, they’re so unworldly, they don’t fully understand what sex is. (I’m always in favor of more Jerry Minor, but I fear Reggie’s impending departure makes an empty promise of Mailman Manny’s offer to teach them about the birds and the bees.)

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Then Scott is disturbed by Karen Gillan’s spirited rendition of “Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Off A Bus,” despite her reassurances that “It’s nice! It’s saying you can’t throw an old person off a moving bus!” (For those wondering, yes, it’s a real children’s song.) “Why would you even think that in the first place?” Scott asks, appalled, and he has a point.

And then there’s George Groiny-Melendez (John Gemberling). Scott greets the local entrepreneur with friendly, if vague, questions about his moving business, and the episode is willing to sit with the uneasiness as Groiny-Melendez expands—genially, confidently—on the precise nature of that business. Confusion, dismay, and dawning horror break over Scott and Karen Gillan’s faces as he confides, “The hardest part for me is just having to listen to that muffled weeping coming out of the boxes.”

The premise is absurd as well as horrific, but the pause Scott and Karen Gillan take between understanding Groiny-Melendez’s business and speaking up is unsettlingly realistic, and so is the speed with which the conversation devolves from Scott’s righteous indignation to Groiny-Melendez defending himself (“They’re out there fracking stuff, you know!”) to a tone argument. When Scott abandons his outrage to take Groiny-Melendez to task for snapping at Gillan, her silent expression of shock gives way to pique and hurt feelings, and suddenly they’re all talking over each other and demanding apologies. It’s a mess, and it’s weirdly, hilariously plausible.

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There’s a fundamental decency, even innocence, to the world of Comedy Bang! Bang!, but—at least tonight—it’s tempered by a strain of pragmatism that leads to dark places. It’s a world in which human trafficking occurs (specifically, forced sex work, as implied by George Groiny-Melendez’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Modelling Audition”), and also a world in which that horror is openly repudiated, in which Scott steels himself to say to his guest, “I had no idea you did this, and quite frankly, I’m a little aghast” and “This is just monstrous” and “That’s not a defense for doing something!”

But it’s also a world in which an admitted human trafficker—a proud trafficker, one who appears on talk shows with a repertoire of trafficking-specific jokes, old chestnuts that every trafficker knows—can sincerely call himself “a softie” seconds before he abducts Scott as “a human packing peanut” intended to lift the spirits of his fellow trafficking victims. And it’s a world in which Scott’s friends and colleagues stand by watching as he’s drugged and lured into a packing crate. Karen Gillan even coaxes him on to his fate.

It’s a world in which Scott is so taken with Harvey Wrinkleman’s shopworn lewdness that he can fire his whole writing staff, publicly and without warning, only to fire Harvey seconds later when he realizes the old man’s dated style already has the studio yawning. For all his moralizing and sensitivity, Scott is happy to dismiss his hero as “a repulsive bag of bones,” only to be similarly disregarded in his own old age.

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Comedy Bang! Bang! the television series is different from Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast, not just in length or structure, but in tone. The podcast routinely leads its improvisors into ghastly, grisly, or squalid territory. Superficially, the TV show feels like a sweetened, brightened version of that comedy, but that candy coating cloaks a sharp acidity that keeps its comic world in balance. It’s sweet… but it’s sour, too.

Stray observations:

  • Scott’s on-screen credit: Groot Rocketman.
  • I would watch the hell out of the reality series Real Housewives of Ingmar Bergman.
  • Sorry, John Shea of Buffalo Grove, Illinois. It just wasn’t your night.
  • “That would make a wonderful ‘Shouts & Murmurs.’” Jesse Thorn, you slay me.
  • Teaming up with the Guardians Of The Galaxy for Guardians Of The Galaxy 2: the guardian owls of Ga’hoole, The Zohan, Fat Bastard, Rugrats’ Tommy Pickles, The Blind Side’s Michael Oher, Edward Norton’s skinhead character from American History X, 1990s-era Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks, Lego Bilbo Baggins, and Reggie Watts.
  • “You just drank, uh, sleeping poison. I don’t know what it’s called, they got fancy names for it.”
  • When Reggie and Scott go in search of their possible son, is that split-screen sequence with jaunty theme song alluding to a specific show or movie? It doesn’t match up with the opening sequence of My Two Dads or Three Men And A Baby. Karen Gillan’s long-pondered answer to fans everywhere notwithstanding, if you caught the reference, I hope you’ll share it in the comments.

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