Scott Aukerman was a little bleary-eyed when he sat down to discuss the upcoming live tour of his Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast. We were in Los Feliz, on the set of Take My Wife, an upcoming series for Seeso (NBCUniversal’s new streaming comedy service) starring stand-up comedian Cameron Esposito and executive produced by Aukerman. The day before, there was a 17-hour marathon shooting of the TV version of Comedy Bang! Bang!, which culminated after midnight with the blowing up of a mannequin’s head. The previous Sunday had been his first day off since Valentine’s Day — and it'll be his last day off until Memorial Day.
“I have to intentionally sort of slow stuff down, I think, or else I’m going to go crazy,” Aukerman admits. “I noticed today my hair is grayer than it was yesterday.”
The present finds Aukerman, 45, going faster than ever. He still puts out an hour-plus episode of the podcast once a week (sometimes twice); he’s in production on the fifth season of the CB!B! TV show (as writer, creator, host and exec producer); he's overseeing the second season of another original Seeso series, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$; he remains involved as creative consultant at Earwolf, the sprawling podcast network he helped start, and its new offshoot subscription service, Howl; and he’s about to take the CB!B! podcast on the road for a 28-show North American tour packed into three weeks.
“Should I retire? I should retire, right?” he sighs. “I don’t know. Not yet?”
Definitely not yet, if you ask the legion of fans Aukerman has accumulated as the ringleader of one of the funniest circuses of character-based improv around. The CB!B! podcast, now in its seventh year, recently passed the 400-episode mark — but it doesn’t show the slightest lag in energy. That’s evidenced by the 1,500-seat theaters the tour has sold out in multiple cities, and by the 200,000 people (on average) who download the podcast each week. “It definitely gets more and more popular every year,” Aukerman says.
This past year the podcast attracted special guests such as Tears for Fears, Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany and actor-director Fred Savage, in addition to the vast stable of comedians who regularly appear, including Jason Mantzoukas, John Mulaney, Ben Schwartz and roughly a bajillion others. Its reach has expanded beyond the young white male demographic to include a fairly diverse audience. Aukerman has tried to grow his female listenership in particular by showcasing fan favorites such as Esposito, Lauren Lapkus and Jessica St. Clair.
Comedy Bang! Bang! was one of the first comedy podcasts in what is now a digital ocean full of them. Born as the traditional radio show Comedy Death-Ray Radio, which itself was born of a UCB stage show of the same name, the podcast offers a weekly wallop of conversational improv featuring a menagerie of razor-sharp comedians, both established and emerging.
“It’s like listening to a comedy album where the people didn’t try as hard,” Aukerman says, self-deprecatingly. “We have people working at the top of their profession and the top of their skill level, but there’s the non-edited nature of it that makes it feel more like a genuine hangout with a bunch of friends — the funniest friends you have.”
For listeners, it’s partly the combination of regularity and intimacy that cultivates such passionate loyalty. “You become their friend that they check in with every week or so,” Aukerman says. “People listen to me and my guests more than they talk to their families, sometimes, which is really sad when you think about it. And they’re usually trapped in something — in their car or on the bus or the subway, or they’re trapped in their job — and it’s the one thing that’s getting them through the day.”
For comedians, the podcast offers a casual, limitless playground to create highly detailed characters with elaborate backstories. Over seven years, complex mythologies have been spun for dozens of memorable personalities by regular guests like Paul F. Tompkins and Lapkus, both of whom will be joining Aukerman on the tour.
“It was the first opportunity I really had to explore characters on a deeper level and live in them for longer than an improv scene,” Lapkus says. “When I did my Netflix special [The Characters], the majority of my characters came from doing Comedy Bang! Bang! or my podcast [With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus] — which is just like an offshoot of Comedy Bang! Bang! as it is.”
It’s hard to quantify just how much influence CB!B! has in the current comedy ecosystem, in which its deep pool of performers are cultivating niche followings through traditional entertainment outlets as well as a barrage of newer platforms like podcasts and streaming services. On television alone, series such as Review, Kroll Show and Nathan for You all have deep ties to CB!B!. Lapkus is a prime example of a comedian, mostly unknown outside the stage improv world when she first appeared on the podcast, whose career has blown up in the years since in everything from her Netflix special to roles in Orange Is the New Black and Jurassic World.
Aukerman is quick to downplay his role in the success of his many successful guests. “I feel it’s, at worst, a parasitic relationship, if not symbiotic,” he says. “Nick Kroll is going to make his own opportunities without me. Lauren Lapkus is going to be huge without us.”
Perhaps that's true, but Lapkus can enumerate the many ways CB!B! has benefited her, from giving her the ability to create hours of permanent content as characters who would be ephemeral onstage, to the unique connection with fans that the podcast engenders. “When I meet fans who know me from that, I feel like they get me more than someone who knows me from my acting work,” she says. “It does feel like more of a real relationship, even for the performer.”
Aukerman acknowledges that the show does offer something special for comedians. “When they’re on my show, I get out of their way,” he says. “It’s so hard in Hollywood to get an opportunity to just do whatever you want to do. So it is a really good opportunity to just create something. And there are 200,000 people listening — it doesn’t feel like you’re just doing it for nothing. That’s probably why people are on it so much, is we’ve cultivated a great audience that appreciates what they do.”
That audience is coming out in droves for the tour, which kicks off in L.A. on April 30 at the Theatre at Ace Hotel (it's already sold out). Each night will be a completely different show, with Tompkins and Lapkus dipping into their near bottomless bag of characters. (“I think it’s going to take all of my brainpower to get through it,” Lapkus admits, “but I’m excited to try.”)
Aukerman says his reason for taking the show on the road (for the third time) is “alllll cash” — but then he gets serious: “Honestly, the biggest thing about it for me is people coming out and getting to see you. To me, the podcast feels so small and just, ‘Oh, we go in a room and goof around.’ But people are really excited to see it happening in front of them. That’s really the reason to do it for me.”