Some of them are celebrities portraying themselves and some are celebrities who use their awesome improv skills to create charismatic and colorful characters. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins is a perfect example. He plays the vigilante crime fighter J.W. Stillwater.
Aukerman is also the co-creator and director of the web series, “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.” You might remember the Barack Obama episode which you will find below.
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This article contains content that may not be suitable for all audiences. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Cover art by Johnny Sampson. Cover Design by Jon Kutt, The High Road Design
Scott Aukerman: I grew up reading books like this, like David Letterman’s book that he put out in the ’80s and “The Onion” books. And I have always loved comedy books. And so when a publisher reached out to me to say, “I think there’s something that we could do with Comedy Bang! Bang!,” initially I was a little reticent because I thought maybe someone was looking to do an episode guide or a behind the scenes look at the podcast or something.
But the more we talked about it, the more we realized that it could be like those books that I read as a comedy fan growing up, where it takes the spirit of the podcast and brings it to life, and that’s what the book does. I think it takes all of the characters who are part of the podcast, who have been part of it for either the past 15 years or the past one year, and has them creating pieces for the book and making the whole sort of point of view of the podcast, just visually and in text form, come to life for people.
Doug Gordon: I loved how the book opened with that introduction by you, the editor, followed by another introduction by Lin-Manuel Miranda, followed by “Weird Al” Yankovic’s rebuttal to the introduction. Your book reminded me of “Monty Python’s Big Red Book” and “The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok.” Were those influences because those books have the same kind of anarchic feel that your book does?
SA: Definitely. I had a script to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” It wasn’t just a script; it had them marking it up and doing all the playing around with the format of the book. That’s stuff that I really liked growing up. There’s a Simpsons book, “Bart Simpsons’s Guide to Life.” Sam, our editor, was a big fan of it. She sent it to me. It plays around with the format of a book. We’ve actually put a lot of work into it and are playing around with the form.”
DG: You’ve said that a successful “Comedy Bang! Bang!” character is someone who has an immediately recognizable weird aspect to their character. But then the deeper you go and the more you talk to them, the more strange their backstory gets to be.
SA: There’s a term for that they use in improv, which is the game of the character, which means the one weird thing. A lot of times, a good character will come in and have the one weird thing about themselves. And then the more we talk, we find out another weird thing and another weird thing. And that’s what I love about doing the show. It’s all improv.
I’ve been doing the show now for 15 years, and Paul Tompkins, who’s an incredible improv comedian, has been doing it that long as well. And we’re still finding out new things about his characters even now. We were doing a tour stop in Canada about a year and a half ago, and suddenly on stage, we figured out something that we had never figured out before about the character. And that’s what I love about doing it, is we’re not just going through the motions. We are figuring out new things every single time we do it.
DG: You’re also behind the viral hit “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis. What’s the origin story behind that?
SA: I was doing a sketch show for a network and it was fun. They kind of wrote a blank check and said, just deliver us a show. And so we tried a whole bunch of different things out.
I talked to Zach, who I had known for quite a few years at that point, and I knew he didn’t want to be part of the cast. But I said, “Hey, do you just want to make a short with me? And we’ll see what comes out?” And he said to me, “I’ve always wanted to do a fake public access television show and call it ‘Between Two Ferns.’”
I laughed really hard because I had a public access television show when I was a teenager, and so did Zach. And we both knew that when you were making those, they couldn’t afford sets. All they could afford were these plants, and it was always like two ferns and then two chairs.
I had been talking to Michael Cera, who was our first guest, about doing something for the show, too. And I said, “OK, let’s put these two things together. We’ll have you interview Michael Cera,” and we just improvised it.
It had Zach asking Cera questions off the cuff. And meanwhile, I was shouting out jokes from the other room. And Ruben Fleischer, who directed “Zombieland, was adding some suggestions as we went along.
Then our editor, Daniel Strange, put it together, and it was just so awkward and weird, and it really felt fresh because it felt like no one was asking celebrities these types of questions. Everything in celebrity interviews is so guarded. You do so many pre-interviews when you’re on a talk show and you have publicists sitting in the room telling the interviewer, “You can’t ask that.” And he was really breaking that down and saying, “Hey, nothing’s off limits. We’re going to insult these celebrities that we’ve put on a pedestal for so long.” And that’s how it started. And it just became something that we only thought we were going to do one episode. And then more and more celebrities asked if they could do it.
DG: And you spent four years trying to get President Barack Obama on and you were able to do that. How did that episode go?
SA: It went really well. Obviously, it was a lot of pressure because so much planning went into it. And then on the day — he’s the President of the United States, the sitting president — you kind of assume that something is going to happen in the world that needs his attention a little more than this dumb show.
So we were sitting in the White House, and Zach and I were looking at each other going, ‘This is not going to happen. This is not going to happen. He’s going to cancel.’ And then suddenly, he just walks in and he’s like, “Two Ferns.” And we were like, “Oh, OK, here we go.”
- Doug Gordon Host