In the tradition of @Midnight, Seeso’s new comedy series Debate Wars is an exercise in packaging stand-up routines in a new way. Unlike the rapid-fire game-show format of @Midnight, however, Debate Wars pits two two-person teams of comedians against each other in a long-form argument arena. (In that respect, it shares some comic DNA with former Comedy Central show Lewis Black’s Root Of All Evil.) That the debates are centered on deliberately innocuous stand-up fodder like “dogs versus cats” and “cake versus pie” tests the comics’ abilities to similarly craft fresh material out of hackneyed concepts, something that, in the show’s initial six-episode season, they do with reliably entertaining success.
The premise is helped immeasurably by the choice of Michael Ian Black (also an executive producer) as moderator of the bunting-and-podiums-festooned “Debatium.” Black, master of deliberately smarmy self-regard, presides over the debates with his signature mock seriousness, solemnly promising that the show will settle these age-old debates once and for all. The format sees two comics face off with four-minute opening statements (their teammates taking a rebuttal each), and an “interrogation round,” where Black asks for clarification of various absurd points raised. There’s also a “final word” capper where each comic must sum up their entire position in a single word before the audience votes. So far, so Debate 101.
Naturally, each episodes’ comics are going to determine how enjoyable the debates get, and Debate Wars scores some fine guest debaters: series writers Aparna Nancherla and Brian McCann; established performers like Judah Friedlander, Gilbert Gottfried, Guy Branum, Dave Hill, and Eugene Mirman; and up-and-comers like Jo Firestone, Jena Friedman, and former The Nightly Show correspondent Jordan Carlos. In his moderator’s capacity, Black sternly lectures debaters on content and time limits, employing not just a series of warning bells but, variously: air horns; popped balloons; a clarinet he has no idea how to play; or even “Scotch tape Kevin Bacon,” a floppy-haired guy with his nose taped up to Bacon-like proportion, dancing to legally-distinct-from-Footloose music. (Mocking Debate Wars’ online home, Black also deploys a polka music button, explaining, “It’s the only music we can afford to license because this is Seeso.”)
The debaters themselves approach their tasks with a variety of styles. Some, like Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick, defend their “staycation” (versus vacation) argument with their respective discursive shticks. (Challenged by Black to actually address her topic, Garofalo concedes, “I’m not good at getting to a point with clarity or succinctly, but I’d be great at a filibuster.”) McCann and Hill come prepared with a Dr. Seuss routine and a song, respectively, while Mirman and Friedlander bring along visual aids. (Mirman, for Team Vacation, presents travel posters such as “Montreal: Like Europe, but not really. But a little.”) Meanwhile Gottfried’s case for old people (as opposed to babies) involves him simply delivering well-worn old-people jokes in his inimitable style until the audience has been battered into laughing submission and his opponents can only wave their arms in mock exasperation.
But the comics who take full advantage of the opportunity imbue their assigned positions with something approaching genuine passion. Two-episode debaters Nancherla and Firestone power their various arguments with their oddball comic intensity, while Branum (pie) and Friedman (cake) take their pastry positions to such comically heated heights that their rivalry legitimizes the Debate Wars concept right out of the gate. Branum may or may not actually believe that pie’s virtues are in line with the principles of equality, inclusivity, and LGBT rights, but damned if his impassioned and hilarious summation (including references to Joan Didion and Titus Andronicus) doesn’t make the case that they do.
Debate Wars can feel a little canned at times. Apart from the audience laughter that greets the disposable in-studio analysis bits from comics Brandon Scott Jones and Morgan Grace Jarrett (who are presented as dedicated Michael Ian Black stalkers as well as pundits), the pre-written speeches sometimes fall flat. And, inevitably, some comics are better at their task than others. But there’s a nimble wit to the proceedings as well—rebutters can be seen taking notes during their opponents’ arguments, and addressing just-expressed points in their own responses. (Debate Wars is docked nonexistent points for not inviting fellow Seeso denizen Paul F. Tompkins to settle the cake-versus-pie question as well.)
And Black is just right as moderator, bouncing ably between “arch” and “genuinely amused” throughout. In his martinet’s role, he dings boisterous English comic Gina Yashere, deadpanning: “British accent. Unfair advantage,” and reacts to Friedman’s cake puns by sternly popping balloons until she knocks it off. At other times—as with Gottfried’s defiant adherence to his shtick—Black simply can’t hide how tickled he is by the whole enterprise. Riding herd over his Debate Wars charges, Black’s silly sententiousness keeps this six-episode comedy referendum fairly balanced.