How ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’ Perfected the Podcasting Long Game

This week, the long-running podcastComedy Bang! Bang! marked its 500th installment with an episode that’s about as loose, loopy, and star-packed as it gets. Regular guest Paul F. Tompkins shows up—playing one of the approximately 768 characters he’s performed over the past several years—as do ace improvisers Lauren Lapkus, Mary Holland, Jon Gabrus, and original Heynong-Man-about-town Jason Mantzoukas. At one point, Nick Kroll (Oh, Hello) voices a rapping goat. The whole thing lasts about 100 minutes, held together by host Scott Aukerman’s bit-building skills, and coasting along on the group’s senseless giddy bonhomie.

If it’s been a while since you listened to Bang! Bang!—or if you’ve never listened at all—an episode as crowded and cuckoo as Monday’s might leave you happily confounded. That’s because in the eight years since Bang! Bang! made its debut, it’s become one of the most densely populated, wiki-worthy podcasts ever made—full of recurring characters, yearslong in-jokes, and dumb-fun catchphrases that serve as a sort of Auggie-doggie-whistle to fellow comedy fans.

The more you listen to Bang! Bang!, the more its goofball universe expands, and there are entire databases dedicated to charting the series’ Springfield-sized cast: The Time Keeper, Gino the Intern, Werner Herzog, Ho-Ho (ho-ho!), Dagmar the Small. You don’t have to familiarize yourself with all of these characters, or check in on every episode, in order for Bang! Bang! to pay off; the show is funny enough to function solely as a start-of-the-workweek distraction. (If you are a newbie, the annual best-of episodes are a good place to start). But for those who’ve been listening for years now, Bang! Bang! offers the sort of ongoing, investment-rewarding narrative that seemed all but impossible when the podcasting form began to take off in the mid-’00s.

Yet the legacy of Bang! Bang! extends far past the the comedy back-catalog it’s created. The show launched in 2009 as Comedy Death-Ray Radio, based on a long-running improvised stage show hosted by Aukerman, and aired on a Los Angeles radio station before becoming a podcast. At that time, the medium was still in its awkward-adolescent stage: A few stand-out titles had broken through and found an audience, like The Ricky Gervais Show or Uhh Yeah Dude, but for the most part, you had to do some legwork to find the good shows, and podcasts themselves were seen as a sort of charming-enough indulgence—a place to try to some ideas, or to dump some b-b-b-b-bonus content, but hard to take seriously as an actual sustainable artform.

Bang! Bang! helped change that perception, partly because it never really stopped going: With a few exceptions, a new episode has popped up on my phone every week, often just in time to become the soundtrack for whatever car trip or half-hearted workout I have to undertake that day. For decades, television was perceived as our most intimate cultural medium, because it required viewers to invite characters into their homes on a weekly basis. But the portability and elastic time-constraints of a show like Bang! Bang! means I’ve been able to live (and travel with) the series’ weirdo denizens for almost a decade now as their lives become more hilariously, messily intertwined, and their backstories take on ever more detail. (I realize this sentence makes sense to only .03 percent of the world’s population, but when beloved character Gino the Intern recently revealed he was bisexual, it was a plot twist as unexpected as anything on Twin Peaks.) Bang! Bang! is our great ongoing comedic soap opera—imagine Monty Python’s Flying Circus, if it never stopped flying—and for many of its devotees, it’s forever changed their perception of what a podcast could become.

And Bang! Bang! proved that a podcast could live in numerous forms. Considering the series’ live-show history, it’s a given that it would eventually go on the road, with Aukerman and his guests making several live appearances over the years, including a 2016 tour that extended into the UK. And long before Hollywood turned to podcasts for ideas, there was IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang series, which lasted five seasons. Perhaps its most important expansion, though, is Earwolf Studios, the podcast company co-founded by Aukerman and Jeff Ullrich, which has hosted Bang! Bang! for years and launched such series as How Did This Get Made? and Hollywood Handbook. Many of these shows employ the same ethos Aukerman has championed throughout the run of Bang! Bang!: Deep-cut callbacks; relatably in-over-the-heads hosts; and an aura of seemingly freewheeling silliness that, in reality, takes a lot of work to pull off.

Those are some surprisingly highfalutin’ accomplishments for a show that, at any given moment, can devolve into a bunch of ding-a-lings singing the Star Wars cantina-band theme. But Bang! Bang! has reached the kind of milestone few pop-cultural endeavors achieve nowadays, and as it heads toward the next 500 episodes (hopefully?), it remains one of the most influential (and deeply pleasurable) comedy enterprises going. And that, my friends, is a Hollywood fact.

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