All this week, Uproxx‘s Late Night Week will take a look at late-night past, present, and future, from talk shows to late-night comedy, and beyond. Here’s an appreciation of a fake talk show that feels entirely real.
There’s something comforting about late-night television (and I don’t mean that late-night television). It’s the last thing you see before falling asleep at night, and, if a sketch goes viral, the first clip you see plastered all over social media the next morning. But, ironically, late night is at its best when a host or guest is taken out of their comfort zone. Think Drew Barrymore flashing David Letterman on his birthday, or Jay Leno asking Hugh Grant “what the hell were you thinking?” after he was caught soliciting a prostitute, or Norm MacDonald’s so-bad-it’s-great “moth” joke. Or Norm MacDonald demoralizing poor Chairman of the Board star Courtney Thorne-Smith in front of millions. Or Norm MacDonald… anything with Norm, really.
These are the moments where we forget we’re watching a glorified commercial — does John Lithgow want to read “Kids Campfire” stories? Probably not. But he has a show to promote, and it beats sitting through an endless press junket. It’s no wonder that the best current late-night talk shows, like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Late Night with Seth Meyers (which often gets The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon‘s scraps), are the ones thatrely least on big-name talent.
It’s rare to find a late-night show that can do both, take viewers out of their comfort zone, and treat celebrities, who don’t always get to mention the projects they’re working on, as less interesting than absurdist “regular” people. There’s no fawning on Comedy Bang! Bang! — only jokes, and that’s why it’s one of TV’s best talk shows, even if it barely counts.
The IFC series, based on Scott Aukerman’s all-joking-a-salad podcast of the same name, has produced five seasons of (to use Aukerman’s favorite word) content. But after 100-plus episodes, CBB will wrap up this Friday with an episode featuring former-bandleader Reggie Watts and mainstays Adam Scott, Paul F. Tompkins, and Nick Kroll. “A lot of shows go really big for their final episodes and they try to bowl you over with guest stars,” Aukerman told Entertainment Tonight. “I decided to go really small and do more of a thematic ending. I really wanted to make it one of the funnier episodes we’ve ever done.” That’s saying something, because CBB has produced some incredibly funny episodes, from the topsy-turvy “Jake Johnson Wears a Light Blue Button-Up Shirt and Brown Shoes” to every time Jason Mantzoukas and Andy Daly have dropped by.
CBB‘s humor is specific yet silly. Take the Bookkeeper from the 2014 Halloween episode “Wayne Coyne Wears a Halloween Costume,” for instance — it’s funny if you get the Tales from the Crypt reference, but it still works if you haven’t, because it’s amusing to imagine this wordplay-loving skeleton being related to the Zookeeper (cue the photo of Kevin James). CBB is also lovingly ironic. When David Letterman retired as host of Late Show, Aukerman described him as “a guy who was being sarcastic about everything and showing you that these show-business traditions were bullsh*t, and that everything I had grown up with and been shown on television was stupid.” He continued, “I embraced my personality as a guy who was super sarcastic about everything and started acting like Letterman all the time. I would sarcastically embrace the cheesiness of things and treat everything like it was a big joke.” Aukerman cops to stealing Letterman’s style, which shows on CBB, which acknowledges pop culture traditions while also mocking them.
“Allison Janney Wears a Chambray Western Shirt and Suede Fringe Boots” is a pitch-perfect parody of the Very Special Episode, while “Jesse Tyler Ferguson Wears a Brown Checked Shirt and Stripey Socks” captures the feel corny family sitcoms. It’s the difference between Airplane! and something like Vampires Suck — David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams faithfully appropriated disaster films; Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer barely hid their disgust at Twilight, and it shows. The best parodies come from a place of love.
But, ironically, the best late-night interviews come when the host cares the least. Think Letterman, who cared more about his next question than his guest’s answer to the last one, or Craig Ferguson’s laid-back vibe. Aukerman has said that before Letterman, “talk shows basically told you you should care about what this Hollywood star has to say because they’re a Hollywood star, and whatever they say is elevated above everything else.” As a host, Aukerman doesn’t insult his celebrity guests — he does something worse: He speaks to them like they’re not gorgeous millionaires. It’s not inherently interesting to see, say, Jane Fonda play beer pong, but it is fun watching Carly Rae Jepsen explain that she “slept with the wrong judge” when asked why she placed third in Canadian Idol. CBB is a sketch show in a late-night format.
Maybe this is the wrong time to say this, after what happened between Jimmy Fallon and Donald Trump, but late-night shows shouldn’t matter. I only want them to be funny. Now, there are exceptions to the rule, like the weekly Full Frontal or Last Week Tonight, and “being funny” and “mattering” aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but I don’t want Fallon or Corden or Jimmy Kimmel to pretend to be serious after a corny monologue. They should be weird, and wonderful, and take risks, and talk to “regular people,” who probably live more interesting lives than Blake Shelton. CBB does this extremely well by inviting local oddballs like Fourvel, Fabrice Fabrice, and Harmony Moongloss to share the couch with Jack Black and Jenna Fischer.
You never know what you’re going to get on an episode-by-episode basis. One week, there’s a musical; the next, the whole show is shot in one long take. That’s not what late-night shows are “supposed” to be — they’re “supposed” to be familiar and casual; Jimmy Fallon wants to be your friend tucking you in at night. It’s no wonder CBB, which debuted as a more direct late-night spoof, gradually turned into an unpredictable parody of television in general, reliable only in its unreliableness. It’s more freeing, more inventive. “[IFC] always trying to juice up the descriptions so that people would actually be interested in watching it. I was always trying to save all the surprises,” Aukerman recently told The A.V. Club. “But that’s what I wanted to do, make the show for the fans of comedy.” Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, and the like are making content for everyone, and to their credit, they’re really good at it. “Carpool Karaoke” and “Ew!” are easy to understand, and provide a brief chuckle before hitting the hay. Or, in the case of the recurring Puppies Predict segment, a long “awwww.” On CBB, that same premise — “Look at the adorable puppies!” — ends with the canines shooting and murdering a pregnant woman.
There’s no comforting about that, which is what makes it so special.
R.I.Possible, Comedy Bang! Bang!. R.I.Possible.