After 110 episodes (and just as many nicknames) Comedy Bang! Bang! is coming to an end on IFC. The TV adaptation of Scott Aukerman’s freewheeling podcast was never a ratings smash, but it nevertheless soldiered on for five seasons, its reserves of creativity and character unstripped by a seemingly perpetual production cycle. The series’ final two episodes air Friday, December 2 at 11:00 and 11:30 p.m.; ahead of the finale, The A.V. Club spoke to Aukerman about bringing the show to a close, the unproduced episode that was conceived in case of a last-minute renewal, and how he made sure the show was as surprising as possible by making it sound as boring as possible.
The A.V. Club: So how does it feel now that the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show is coming to an end?
Scott Aukerman: It’s interesting. When we first stopped filming, I went right into the tour, and then right when the tour ended, I jumped into a crazy, fast-paced job for something that’s coming out in February. So the work hasn’t really slowed down, so I haven’t really felt the effect. I’m not puttering around the house in my bathrobe.
I’ve always really looked forward to the show airing and hearing people’s reactions to it and seeing what people think of it. I’m proud of each one of the shows, for different reasons. They’re all so different, so I’m always very excited every week: “Oh, boy, look what people get to see this week!” I was so excited for the Slow Joey spin-off episode and Al’s Family Ties episode and to see a head exploding—which is something I always wanted to do on the show. Just yesterday, I was talking to someone who worked on the show as well, and I said it’s so strange that after December 2, I’ll no longer have that sense of anticipation and excitement.
AVC: Was there anything specific that you wanted to get out of these last two episodes?
SA: There was. I had the idea for the second-to-last episode for about two years, and I knew it was something that we wanted to do before we finished. It was really difficult to put together due to scheduling, but we did it. It took a couple pleading phone calls from me to the participants to get them involved, because everyone’s schedules were so crazy. But we did it, and the people were nice enough to clear what they were doing, because they knew it was really important to me.
And then the finale: It’s so hard to figure out how to end a TV show. I read synopses of series finales, and I watched a bunch of series finales, and tried to figure out what I liked or didn’t like about them. And the thing that kind of kept coming back to me was that the ones that I thought were not so successful didn’t feel like a regular episode of the show that I liked. They were either trying to be too ambitious, or they were trying to be this mind-blowing, “Oh, my gosh, look at everything we packed in to the finale! All these stars!” So what we tried to do was we tried to do just more of a normal episode that was really funny, rather than shoot for the moon.
And part of the reason for that is we already, in episode 35, did our fake series finale episode. We did all those jokes parodying series finales, so anytime an idea would come up of—I’ll give you a bad example: “What if we did something that parodies the St. Elsewhere thing where everything is a little autistic boy’s fantasy?”—we’d say, “Oh, no, we already did the parody of a series finale early on in the run. Let’s do a real series finale, which has more to do with the themes of the show and how we’re all feeling about ending the show, and more of an emotional series finale more than anything.” So that’s what we did, and I’m really glad we did that. It feels like a funny episode of the show. It has heart.
And hand in hand with that, we kept trying to get a really big star to be on the couch for that episode, and a bunch of people were interested and just couldn’t make it work. Jon Hamm was trying to make it work—he was shooting in Atlanta at the time and couldn’t. The more we thought about it, the more I realized, you know, I really just want to be surrounded by friends and the people that made the show so successful. When we realized that we should just do a finale with Paul F. Tompkins as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Nick Kroll as Fabrice Fabrice, it just really solidified for me, “Oh, okay, we’re doing a show that’s funny and for us and for fans of the show, more than trying to impress anybody.”
AVC: It definitely leaves the impression that these people will keep making this show—even if it’s no longer airing on IFC every week.
SA: Throughout the run, we’ve alluded to other episodes of the show that haven’t been broadcast. Early on, I think we said that the show has been going on for several decades, and I’m just the new host, and then occasionally we’ll talk about an episode that the viewers didn’t get to see. That to me was an interesting idea. I was very influenced by the Pee-wee’s Playhouse finale, and what they did—with the feeling of “This isn’t an ending”—really struck a chord with me, and that was something that I wanted to try to achieve. The show exists not in any time or place, and I always tried to make it be evergreen, even though it has current stars and comedians and actors on the couch.
AVC: In some ways, that has more of an emotional punch than a definitive ending.
SA: I didn’t want to shy away from that. Endings of television shows are sometimes such depressing things. It’s like you’re not going to hang out with these people anymore, and that’s bad enough, but then to give everyone an end like, “Hey, also the characters on the show have to stop what they’re enjoying as well. Like all the Friends are never going to hang out with each other anymore.” Who wants that universe? I think shows that have more of a narrative and are about what’s going to happen next, those need to wrap up as a complete story. But it’s weird when a goofy comedy show needs to end, and we knew it was going to be the end, and sometimes it’s just better if a comedy show ends and goes away and they never had a series finale. But we knew we were going to have one, so I really just wanted to give everyone the experience of “the thing that you like about the show is going to continue and keep going.”
AVC: Was the decision to end the show made internally, or was it handed down from IFC?
SA: It was kind of in between those. I’ve done the last 80 episodes of the show in one huge chunk. I think we started the third season the Monday after we got home from the previous tour, in October 2013. And when each season ended, usually we’d stop filming on Friday and start writing the next season on Monday. So the only break that I got was at the beginning of season five when we did the Emmys, and that didn’t really feel like a break.
[IFC] picked up season five really early on, I think before season four started to air, so we knew we were doing season four and five and running right into each other. There wasn’t a deal to come back, and I knew, because the ratings of season four started to decline, that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we would come back. So I asked the network, “If you want the show to come back, I need to know by a certain time.” Because after a certain point, there comes a sort of dead drop when we can’t do the series finale and the last two episodes the way I wanted to do them. We can’t put that in production anymore, or we wouldn’t be able to substitute another couple of episodes. We actually did have a plan in case we were going to come back: We had written an extra episode, which we never got around to filming, because the network ended up saying, “Hey, we’ve had a good run, but we think this is the end.” And at that point, I was pretty okay with it.
Really, the biggest disappointment was Al Yankovic had just gotten to the show and had done such a great job and really had infused the show with a new drive. I felt like his business wasn’t finished yet, and he really wanted to come back for a sixth season. And so I was trying to kind of try to put together a sixth season, and I had told the network, “Hey, Al really has a lot of passion for it, and I think we could do it,” but it just didn’t end up coming to pass. So it really was one of those things where I just didn’t know whether I wanted to do it, but at the last second thought, you know, I think I could, and Neil Campbell and I had a meeting when it was getting close to decision time, saying, “Do we think we could do another 20 episodes? Do we have enough ideas?” And I think you see the finale has to do with that thematically. Every season we tried to put in as many crazy ideas as we could and tried to do as many interesting themed episodes as we could. The upside-down episode or the musical episode or the all-shot-in-one-take episode. So we had a meeting where we said, “Do you think we could do another 20?” Because sometimes in the writing room you would get to a point where you’d go, “We’ve already done that, we’ve already done that, we’ve already done that.” We batted around a few ideas, and we started talking about what could happen, and one thing that always jogs the creative process is we looked up recaps of early episodes of M*A*S*H, and that always makes you go, “Well, what if we did this version of what M*A*S*H did?” And we were kind of like, “You know what? I think we could.” So we felt really good about it, and it just didn’t end up happening.
I probably felt some sense of relief, because when you’re on this continuous production cycle and you’re doing a show for a network where they expect you to come back every May or every June, you just don’t get time to sort of recharge. I look at a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, and say, yeah, they have the right idea. [Larry David is] just coming back whenever he has more ideas. But I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line, even in a year or two, we said, “You know what? Let’s do more.” And we just did more. I don’t necessarily think this is the end of the show.
AVC: Can you say what the concept for the extra episode is, or do you want to keep that in your back pocket just in case you do come back?
SA: I’ll tell you what it sort of was about. It was about something that I’ve been hearing ever since I did Mr. Show, which is “Man, your show is so crazy, you guys must smoke a lot of weed.” And so it was all about how the network brass decided to start doing drug testing, which makes us very worried that we aren’t going to be able to do the show anymore, because of course you can only write comedy when you’re smoking weed.
AVC: The ratings kind of became a running gag in the last few seasons. How cognizant were you of the show’s Nielsen performance, and how much did it influence IFC’s decision-making?
SA: You know, the show was always profitable. That’s one thing that you can’t really dispute. Even though the ratings were bad, the show was always profitable for them. They make a lot of money selling it to Netflix and from the advertisements. That’s why they made the show. So when people look at the ratings and they’re bad, I think people can get an idea of “Why would they even make the show?” And to a certain extent, original programming for any network is a loss leader to try to get you to keep the channel on your cable package. I never felt bad, like we were taking advantage of the network, or even really felt like they were doing us a favor by keeping us on the air. I just felt like, “Well, we’re profitable, and we’re doing a good job, and I wish the ratings were higher, because I wish more people were seeing it.”
When we came to the network, it was a very interesting time where Portlandia had just come on the air and had been very, very successful. I think people had Portlandia-sized expectations for [Comedy Bang! Bang!], especially after the first episode was sampled by quite a large number of people. I remember getting the ratings after the first episode, and the network was over the moon about it, saying, “Well, next week it’ll probably dip a little bit, but by the end of the season, it will be up to these levels,” and they pointed at Portlandia where that was, and I was thinking, “Okay, okay, that sounds good. Wow, it’s great to have a Portlandia-sized hit.” And then the second episode tanked so hard. Like, no one watched it. It was a resounding, “Hey, a bunch of people tried your show, and they all hate it!” And then it grew a little bit and it leveled off, and the ratings were never all that good.
But the one thing that I think really helped it was publications liked yours had a passion for it and talked about it a lot. I would hear a lot about, “Wow, The A.V. Club likes the show so much they’re doing recaps, and that’s really great for us.” That’s where publications like yours can really help out a struggling show. What [the network] cares about is the buzz and people talking about it. So I think that the hardcore fans as well as the fans in the press—people like you and Paste, all these great places that talk about the show a lot—really helped keep it on the air. I wish that more people had watched it, but maybe they will in the future. I don’t know, who knows? But I’m really happy with the show, and I’m really glad that the people that watched it did watch it.
AVC: By that same token, did you feel that you got to make this last batch of episodes specifically for the people who loved the show? The episode guest-hosted by Jason Mantzoukas felt like a love letter to fans of the podcast and the TV show.
SA: I tried to do that a little more in the first season, and then I found that fans just complained about it. If it’s not exactly what it was on the podcast, people complained.
The one with Jason Mantzoukas, I know people are going to complain about, “Well, you don’t die in it”—because on the podcast, we always say Jason’s going to take over the show if I ever die. And on the TV show, well, how am I supposed to die on the TV show? I always viewed [the podcast and the TV show] as two separate things. And I always tried to do cool things. For me, it was more of a love letter to Jason Mantzoukas.
I view the entire run of the show as a love letter to the fans. We tried to be a show that was never going to compromise, never going to try to do something that would broaden our audience. Which sounds insane. But we were always going to be the comedy fans’ comedy show, and we were always going to try to surprise you and never do the same thing twice. That came about a lot because of what we did on Mr. Show, never trying to repeat characters. Three Times One Minus One came back a lot, and Ronnie Dobbs, to maybe diminishing returns.
We always tried to be the show that was going to surprise you and make you go, “I have no idea what I’m in for.” The network would send me the episode descriptions that would go into your television guides, so that I could alter them, because I never wanted them to give away anything. I always made them as generic sounding as possible. The description would always give away a couple of the jokes or they would give away the premise of what you were going to see, and I just always wanted people to be surprised by it, so I would wipe out all the jokes and make them sound as boring as possible. And this is not something I should be wasting my time doing, by the way. Much to the detriment of the show. They were always trying to juice up the descriptions so that people would actually be interested in watching it. I was always trying to save all the surprises. But that’s what I wanted to do, make the show for the fans of comedy. There’s so little that’s surprising these days anymore, I really just wanted to, almost like J.J. Abrams, keep it out of [the viewers’] hands until they could watch it as a whole.
AVC: If you had to compare the end of the show to any other life milestone, like a graduation or something, what would it be?
SA: You don’t get a lot of these in show business. It’s really difficult to make things, and a lot of times you don’t know you’re at the end of something. With Mr. Show, I was only a writer for the last year and we knew we were going into the movie, and we thought, “Okay, like Monty Python, we’re going to make five movies.” And we didn’t know it was the end. So it ended up being a bummer and such a terrible ending for Mr. Show. We never got to feel like, “Wow, we did it! We did something.”
So it really was a unique experience to me to have a television show that I really cared about so much, and to know that it was the end, and know that that was the ending of it. We had a wrap party, and we thanked everybody. You don’t get that a lot, especially in comedy. Between Two Ferns, we could disappear tomorrow, and we would never have that wrap party. Zach and I would never thank each other for all the years of service. But a show like this, the last day of shooting, we all took a cast and crew photo, and everybody that worked on the show came up and took pictures with me on the couch, and our security guard, who always rode around on his Segway, came in and started dancing with Lynne Marie Stewart—which I have a video of and is insane. You don’t get a lot of that. Things go away and projects crumble and disappear, or you make your movie and it comes out and no one watches it. So it really was special.