The week of July 5, 2015

How Scott Aukerman built an empire of absurdist comedy

By Aaron Sankin

When President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with actor Zach Galifianakis on the popular webseries Between Two Ferns, the result was six minutes of pointed barbs in an atmosphere almost too awkward to watch. Almost.

“What’s it like being the last black president?” asked Galifianakis.

“Seriously? What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?” responded the most powerful man in the free world.

Obama had just done a lighthearted video for BuzzFeed, but this seemed different. It was aggressively weird and a more than a little perplexing—but funny as hell.

It’s something Scott Aukerman thought wouldn’t happen. As executive producer of Between Two Ferns, he expected the president of the United States—or, really, his handlers—to balk at trading insults on a Web-based talk show. But that’s the kind of opportunity that the hard-working Aukerman makes for himself.

A former writer for the seminal sketch comedy series Mr. Show, he’s devoted the past decade to outlandish online comedy. On the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast, Aukerman interviews celebrities and comedians playing a ridiculous menagerie of characters—from identical-twin horses who promote equine boxing matches to legendary composer Dame Sir Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show consistently rates among the funniest on the Internet. It’s spawned a hit IFC television show and a podcasting network of 40 different shows. In short, Aukerman keeps busy.

The Kernel caught up with him to talk about why he hates Entourage, imitating David Letterman on public access TV, and how he turned one of world’s most popular rappers into his talk show sidekick.

I’m sure you get this question all the time, but how do you juggle work and family?

[Laughs] I guess I’m technically lucky in the sense that my only family is my wife; we don’t have kids yet. I’m glad someone is finally asking a man that question. Would you ask a woman that? Yes, quite often. So I’m glad you’re flipping the script, turning the tables and other metaphors and analogies. I appreciate that.

No, but seriously. Between the TV show, the podcast, the podcast network, and producing other shows like Between Two Ferns, is it a lot to balance?

I love my work; that’s the reason I take on so much of it. A new opportunity will come up, like a new Between Two Ferns episode where I’ll have to travel to New York on my only day off and then edit it in my only spare time. I’d feel really bad if I turned it down and then regretted it later.

“I wanted to be a comedy delivery system.”

The current Comedy Bang! Bang! season we’re in is 40 episodes. It started in May of 2014, and we’re going to wrap at the end of August of this year. It was a lot. I’m doing one or two podcasts a week and I’m producing other TV shows. By the end our shooting of the current season, I was having fantasies about walking out of the studio in the middle of the show. [Laughs] It was getting hard to have to be somewhere every day. Twelve to 15 hours a day, six days a week. On my days off, I was often having to do podcasts. It just gets very intense.

People who want to make it in show business sometimes don’t realize how hard you have to work. They look at a show like Entourage and they see the guys hanging out, driving around, going to Beverly Hills, meeting girls, and having parties. That’s not really what it’s like. You have to work so incredibly hard when you’re doing TV and film. The good part about it all is that I can look at these shows we’ve created and be really proud of it. You constantly have to think about that while you’re in the middle of it because the actual work is so grueling.

From the podcast to the TV show to Between Two Ferns, there’s a throughline in your career of deconstructing the talk show format. What is it about talk shows that you find so interesting?

I started watching Late Night With David Letterman when I was in high school. That really informed my personality. It hit me like a lightning bolt as to how fresh and original it was.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson wasn’t really my thing. It was sort of like what Letterman came to be for young people right now. In his later years, Carson wasn’t as unique or original as he was early on. The show wasn’t really all that fresh to me, but that was the baseline for what a talk show was. When Letterman came out, it was like, “Oh my god. Here’s a guy who is doing it in such an incredible way.” I would watch it religiously, every single night. I would tape it and rewatch the tapes. My personality became a lot like Letterman’s, where he just was sarcastic about everything and didn’t take anything seriously.

I don’t think Comedy Bang! Bang! is necessarily deconstructing talk shows as much as doing a talk show the way I want to do it. I used to think about what I would want to do as a career and a talk show was really the one thing I always wanted to do. These incredible shows that were sort of deconstructing a talk show themselves while actually doing it.

Eventually I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to do the talk show part of it, interviewing celebrities, as much as I wanted to be a comedy delivery system. That’s what they were doing really well, delivering really irreverent, surreal comedy to people while trafficking in this hokey, showbiz talk show format. That’s what I think I’m doing with Comedy Bang! Bang!, doing my sense of humor in the talk show format.

“They look at a show like Entourage and they see the guys hanging out, driving around, going to Beverly Hills, meeting girls, and having parties. That’s not really what it’s like.”

When I was in high school, I had a public-access television show. I have a love for the process of going into a public-access television studio and all they have is one set with black Duvetyne and maybe one sparkly curtain. I’ve seen so many bad, stilted, awful talk shows [on public access] with people who shouldn’t be on camera—I have a love for that.

What was your show like?

It was called Centurion Highlights, after the mascot of my high school. My friend Craig hosted it. It started out very straight, like when you get a school assignment to go do a TV show about your high school. It gave me the chance to do a remote piece about how our town got its name. I did a very Letterman-inspired faux-documentary about it where I was very, very sarcastic and doing jokes. My friend Craig got too busy to do the show, and I started hosting it. Then it just turned into a Letterman rip-off.

I recently did show a UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] show Jen Kirkman was hosting. The premise was to bring in something embarrassing you did when you were a kid, so I brought in that. She said to me afterward that the premise of the show was something you’re embarrassed by, not something you’re still doing. [Laughs] I’m still doing that same show, just with celebrities instead of my high school cafeteria.

Tell me about the Between Two Ferns episode with Barack Obama. Were you worried about the president not playing along?

The way we usually do the Between Two Ferns is we don’t tell the interviewees what we’re going to talk about. There’s a lot of improv. When the opportunity came up to interview the president, we were really hoping it was going to be like that.

Honestly, I thought the thing was going to go away. I thought if the president’s team saw the jokes we were going to ask, they would ask us to dumb them down or soften them. When you see politicians on a talk show, the jokes are usually a little safe for my taste. With Between Two Ferns, we had a reputation of doing pretty hard, cutting jokes. When it became apparent there was no way we were going to be able to get in front of the president and improv this whole thing, Zach and I were resigned to the fact it was going to disappear. They were going to read the jokes we wanted to do and say no.

The real surprise was the president’s team really were protective of us and how we wanted to do it. At one point they asked us to soften one of the jokes, and then came back to us and said, “You know what? Every day I’m being asked to soften language in speeches I write for the president, and I don’t want to be that guy to you, so you guys do what you want to do.”

If you watch the piece, the jokes are pretty hard. I’m really proud we were able to do an actual Between Two Ferns video and not do a super-safe softball piece. We had pitched these jokes we had never expected the president would allow us to say, and Zach started getting nervous. When he actually had to say them, the president was encouraging Zach, like, “don’t be nervous, say these jokes.” Then the president started to play around and ad lib some stuff. It was pretty incredible we were able to get away with everything we got away with.

I was like, “Don’t they know they have more power over this than they think they do?” I think because we were Hollywood outsiders, they didn’t realize they could ask us to cut stuff. I’m just really proud that it came out the way that we wanted it to come out.

Since the video was, in a sense, an ad for Obamacare, did you get any pushback politically? Were there any conservatives angrily tweeting at you?

The day it came out, the conservative media sort of treated it the right way—at least early in the day. People on Fox News actually said it was kind of funny or, at the very least, just reported that it happened. But then it started to get so much traction with millions and millions of people watching it. Suddenly, the conservative media felt like they had to damage control and started blasting it with the message of “is it really worth the president’s time doing viral videos?”

“Any time the media makes a big story about whether or not people should be watching or listening to something it only makes that thing more popular. It never works; I don’t know why people still do it.”

But that only made it more popular. Any time the media makes a big story about whether or not people should be watching or listening to something it only makes that thing more popular. It never works; I don’t know why people still do it. The only way to make something disappear is ignore it and hope it goes away.

Rapper Kid Cudi is replacing bandleader Reggie Watts on the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show starting in an episode running next week. How did you end up picking Cudi? Does his presence change the vibe of the show?

When we first found out Reggie was leaving [to be the bandleader for The Late Late Show With James Corden], what I was looking for was something different. I didn’t know what it was. When you’re a show in your fourth season, people kind of take you for granted a little bit. You look at shows that are still brilliant but not a lot of people are talking about them. I don’t want to name them because I have friends on them, but when a show is on its fourth, fifth, or sixth season, the show can be good but it won’t be on your mind, really. As much as it was a bummer that Reggie was leaving, I viewed it as an opportunity to reboot the show and make the it fresh again.

I wasn’t looking for something that’s exactly like Reggie because there is nothing like Reggie. People were pitching me comedy musicians, even comedy musicians who use loops. We had a lot of auditions and mainly I was looking at musicians, not comedians. I didn’t want it to be like Reggie.

Because we film all our episodes out of order, we had Kid Cudi on the show about a week after we filmed Reggie’s goodbye episode, so Cudi knew Reggie was leaving. I was talking about acting with him and how he really wanted to do more of it. I got this thing in my head about maybe he would do this show. He was so funny and had so much energy and charisma, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Even though he’s this huge musician with millions of Twitter followers and sold so many records, I didn’t think he would do it, but I might as well take a meeting to say I’d like him to do it if he wanted to.

It just was serendipitous because he wanted to start doing comedy. As he says, a lot of hip-hop people don’t get offered stuff like that. Hip-hop guys love comedy, but they don’t get offered to do much of this kind of stuff. He was really flattered. He’s got a big appreciation for comedy and knew that if he worked on the show he’d get to meet all these amazing comedians. He jumped at the chance.

Cudi is not like Reggie at all. He’s energetic and Reggie’s comic persona is really laconic and dry. Cudi is kind of the opposite of that. He’s hyper, and it’s almost like he has ADD a little bit. He shouts a lot and is really energetic. They have different styles of music. We’ve shown a bunch of episodes of the show [with Cudi in them] to people, they all say it’s kind of exactly the same show. It just has a different energy.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai