Welcome to Podlaffs, a periodic sample of the best comedy podcasts (and perhaps other online audio). This feature is to help new listeners find quality episodes in a dauntingly rich comedy landscape. Did you hear something particularly funny this week? Hit me up on Twitter @michaeleoneil with a link!
Comedy Bang! Bang! and Scott Aukerman are pillars of the Earwolf podcast network and the improv podcast format. Six years on (evolving through a name change, a YouTube channel and an IFC spin-off) CB!B! has an impressive internal mythology. But while running storylines and recurring guests reward superfans, new and casual listeners can also enjoy “Kid Detectives” as a completely self-contained and free-ranging hour that even has guests you might recognize from TV!
Guest Lauren Lapkus broke out to a wide audience through her role on Orange Is The New Black, and her star continues to rise with a role on the imminent Jurassic World and the upcoming TBS sitcom Clipped. Lapkus is also a regular in the Earwolf universe, on her own With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus show and as a recurring character on CB!B! But you don’t need to know about any of that to enjoy this! Because here she makes a rare appearance as herself (for most of the time).
Lauren is joined by Thomas Middleditch, who plays the brilliant but self-doubt-riddled protagonist of HBO’s Silicon Valley and is another Earwolf regular. Both are elite character players, who have that Phil Hartman-like ability to create outsized yet specific personas, drawing from everyday life and our pop culture collective consciousness.
That leaves Aukerman, the show’s avuncular host who apes the tonality of a typical chat show master of ceremonies while mispronouncing names and asking awkward questions in a warmly silly, teasing way. The first segment of the show plays out as a (relatively) straightforward showbiz interview, and Aukerman strikes a tricky balance of at least nominally promoting the actors’ work while also having a lot of fun with digressions and cheesy one-liners.
It’s the promise of every chat show: cool and funny people having a good time for your listening pleasure while also just happening to mention their upcoming monetized offerings from the culture industries. But everything is so much more relaxed here and so the plugging-to-tomfoolery ratio is inverted, compared to most shows. Also, there’s a fair amount of profanity. So listen with headphones if you are at work or with children! Unless that doesn’t matter to you.
But the bulk of the episode is dedicated to a “different” set of guests, a pair of sibling detectives improvised by Lapkus and Middleditch who seem to be straight out of turn-of-the-century youth novels, a high-concept Disney Channel show or possibly a 70’s Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Over the course of the interview their hilariously bizarre (and dark) background and activities come to light.
The interview format flips: before, Lapkus and Middleditch spoke as real people dealing with an anarchic, scatterbrained host. Now, Aukerman plays the straight man to the the patently insane interviewees. Lapkus and Middleditch nail the blend of saccharine emotions and precocious sarcasm common in portrayals of kids in media in a way that makes one realize how insane it is that we put these words in fictional children’s mouths.
The brilliance of the audio-improv format is making use of the “theater of the mind” that American radio abandoned when audio drama went out of vogue, while also sidestepping one of improv’s deadliest traps: “talking heads syndrome” (two actors standing on stage talking to each other with no physical activity). In an audio chat show format, our skilled performers can focus on screwball comedy wordplay and the listeners can fill in the rest.
I have found that CB!B!’s format can be hit-or-miss, depending on the guests. With a team as skilled as Middleditch and Lapkus it’s a slam dunk. Make a priority of episodes with Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Holland, Matt Walsh, or any of your favorite stars and comedians. Also, Jame Adomian’s Slavov Zizek impression is FANTASTIC.
A wide-open format and willingness to dive into the truly weird makes Comedy Bang! Bang! a perfect canvass for master comedy artists.