For a show that moves at such a quick pace through totally harebrained storylines, the process behind IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! is surprisingly slow and deliberate. Behind the scenes of one of today’s weirdest sketch comedy programs — which returns for season 5 on Friday night (June 3) at 11 p.m. ET — you’re liable to find star and creator Scott Aukerman and his brand-new band-less bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic delivering a line (or something as seemingly simple as a smile, shrug or shout) into the camera upwards of a dozen times with only the slightest variations of affect and tone.
As Billboard discovered during an April set visit, the show is shot piecemeal, often one line at a time, and the vast majority of an average 12- to 16-hour day winds up on the cutting-room floor — from the bizarre narrative segments to the only somewhat more straightforward interviews. It’s all fairly odd to watch, as often-ridiculous lines are delivered to another character off-camera who’s not even present on set. For this day’s episode, the actors playing Aukerman’s family — brother (played by comedian Nick Swardson), father (Dave Thomas of Second City Television) and mother (Lynne Marie Stewart of Pee-wee’s Playhouse) — were all scheduled to shoot on different days, with their seemingly real back-and-forth interactions to be cut together later in editing.
“Most people are pretty surprised when they see it that we’re not actually talking to the people we’re looking at,” Aukerman tells Billboard, sitting with Yankovic during a lunch break in his office. “It’s incredibly hard to do. I think it’s harder than any other TV show to produce. We have great talent on the show, but they all have limited availabilities. Just even booking 20 people who want to sit down on the couch, listen to this, and be put through what we put them through is hard enough. But then to get all of the other actors involved. It’s just really a difficult show to do. It’s this crazy puzzle that we have to put together that takes up so much time.”
As Yankovic joins Comedy Bang! Bang! in its fifth season, the four-time Grammy winner says he found a “safety net” in the show’s production methods and the hyper-redundancy of repeating every individual shot until it’s deemed satisfactory by the director or actors themselves.
“I don’t have to be afraid of looking stupid — unless it’s stupid in a good way — because even though there’s a lot of improv to the show, at the end-product, it doesn’t feel loose,” he says. “They’re cutting out stuff that we actually like because we have to get it down to 21 minutes.”
He fills a seat originally held by Reggie Watts, who left the show halfway through its 40-episode fourth season to become the bandleader for The Late Late Show With James Corden, with Kid Cudi stepping in temporarily to fill in that gap. Having previously appeared on Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast (which has run for the past seven years) and every season of the show, Aukerman says the comedic musician was his first choice for the job, listing the requirements for the position: a high level of musicianship with the ability to deliver scripted lines as well as improvise, estimating that more than a quarter of the show is made up on the spot.
“After already having replaced a bandleader, I was in the situation again where I had to replace a bandleader again, and Al was sort of like a Hail Mary pass of, ‘Please! This would be the solution to every problem!’ It’s pretty amazing that it’s come to pass,” Aukerman says, before taking a bite of salmon and vegetables. “There aren’t a lot of people who can do all three of those things, which is why the role was so hard to figure out. … It’s very hard to find a musician who — leaving out the improv — can even do lines.”
From the looks of it, Yankovic has risen to the occasion, sitting behind his new elevated stage-left desk, surrounded by bedroom-style audio equipment and playing along comfortably to the show’s various shenanigans. For the fifth season, he wrote each of all 20 episode’s six original musical cues and created personalized intro songs for every one of the show’s guests — something neither Watts nor Cudi did.
For instance, later welcoming that day’s guest Ben Folds onstage: “Who is the coolest guy we know?/ Ben Folds!/ What is he doing on this show?/ Ben Folds!” he sang over a synthesized jingle.
Yankovic says his role on the show will be a similar to his real-life identity, with modest changes, such as his character is not married in order to allow for romantic liaisons and plot lines. Amid sidekick duties to Aukerman that will range from just hanging out in the more “normal” episodes — like this one featuring Folds, where the narrative includes Aukerman’s family trying to extort him for money — to more ambitious undertakings, like a time-traveling episode into King Arthur’s Court, a 100th-episode special that is a flashback to meeting every character on the show, and an entire spin-off episode for one of the show’s more minor characters. And for at least one episode, Yankovic will discover his evil twin brother “Weird Sal” works in the studio next door as a soap opera star before he knocks Yankovic out and takes his place on the Comedy Bang! Bang! set.
Naturally, Comedy Bang! Bang!‘s often-awkward guest segments would be created with a similarly unconventional approach, which consumed the rest of Aukerman’s, Yankovic’s and the crew’s day. Whereas a traditional talk show will prep guests in advance, shoot a short segment and send them on their way, with Comedy Bang! Bang! it’s not uncommon for this process to take upwards of six hours. Ahead of Folds hitting the set, Aukerman explained how they cull TV’s strangest interviews: Sitting with guests, he will open with questions that “are just ridiculous,” encouraging the guests to play along and get into improvised bits. From there, they’ll turn to pre-written sketches and eventually weave the parts together “so it all seems like one piece, that it’s all happening narratively and consecutively.”
“This is the cool thing about doing the show: We don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Aukerman. “We truly don’t know what we’re going to talk about with Ben. I’ve never met him before, so I’m excited.”
Later on set, it was unclear what parts of Folds’ interview would be usable at all. Aukerman and Folds went back and forth, with Yankovic jumping in occasionally, really just trying out different jokes on each other — some seemed to hit, but most would be scrapped for good reason.
“Now Ben, as a pianist, do you and your tax lady always have a nice laugh because you say ‘pianist’ and she thinks you say ‘penis’?” asked Aukerman at one point.
“Yeah… actually, I think it says ‘musician,'” replied Folds pretty straightly.
Eventually, Folds seemed to relax to the process a little more and try out some jokes of his own in response to Aukerman’s put-on stupidity.
“As a musician, are you ever looking at sheet music and think to yourself, ‘This sheet music is more like shit music,’ and crumple it up and throw it out?” Aukerman asked.
Folds replied, saying his toilet paper is actually staff paper and after he wipes he uses that to write his songs.
Throughout it all, Yankovic mostly delivered exaggerated responses like nods and shrugs that look completely unnatural in person, like he’s reminding himself “you’re supposed to be acting,” but will feel more natural through the show’s lens of ridiculousness as they’re intercut into the final product.
“I learned early on I wasn’t just passive listening because I know that there’s a camera on me the entire time,” Yankovic says in Aukerman’s office. “Even if I go for an hour without having a line, there’s always a camera on me. I feel like I’m just overreacting all the time because I never know when they’re going to cut to me for my, ‘Huh?'”
And, with a look of disgust — thinking about feces-covered sheet music — he delivers.