Scott Aukerman featured in New York Times
The New York Times May 30, 2012
Curator of Comics Is Leaving Home
by Danny Hakim
A TYPICAL episode of the “Comedy Bang! Bang!” podcast goes like this: Zach Galifianakis quarrels with “Andrew Lloyd Webber” — played by the comedian Paul F. Tompkins — about setting a sequel to “Cats” at Katz’s, the Lower East Side deli. David Cross harangues a motivational speaker and Ultimate Frisbee advocate who suffered a career-ending injury before he even played his first game. Or Amy Poehler gets into a freestyle rap battle with a nebbishy fictional comedy legend — played by the actor Adam Pally — rhyming about “livuh cancuh.”
Through it all Scott Aukerman is the affable and unflappable master of ceremonies, culling unpredictable performances from a menagerie of comedians and actors.
“The more I do it, the less interested I am in having real conversations,” Mr. Aukerman said in a recent interview, “It’s me talking to celebrities and fake people.”
This summer Mr. Aukerman, 41, will try to translate his improvisational online variety show to television, when IFC presents its own version of “Comedy Bang! Bang!” His starry guest list — including, among others, Jon Hamm, Seth Rogen and Michael Cera — suggests that while Mr. Aukerman has had an itinerant career as a writer and occasional performer, his most important role has been as a curator of comedians.
Since 2005 he has overseen a comedy showcase at the Los Angeles branch of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the breeding ground for network sitcom stars, whose founders include Ms. Poehler. And two years ago Mr. Aukerman started a homespun podcasting network called Earwolf, which has become a forum for audacious comedic anthropology. (In a forthcoming series called “Nerd Poker,” for instance, comedians are recorded while playing Dungeons & Dragons.) For Comedy Central he also recently directed a TV version of “Between Two Ferns,” the popular and offbeat Web interview show he created with Mr. Galifianakis and B. J. Porter, a longtime friend and collaborator.
“Scott has been kind of a den mother to comics for years,” Mr. Galifianakis said in an e-mail. “People trust him. Everyone in the underground comedy world, or whatever people call it, knows him and respects him. Many of those high-profile people kind of know the scene that Scott helped create. Plus he provides free tap water for those who show up.”
For Mr. Aukerman podcasts have served as an outlet to express himself in ways that punching up dialogue on movies like “Shark Tale” can’t provide. “Most of the stuff I’ve written has never even gotten made,” he said in an interview over breakfast in New York, the morning after an appearance with an improv group at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Chelsea. “It’s par for the course. It’s a great living, but it also gets very frustrating. Doing the podcast, the whole reason to do it is just because I can do whatever I want.”
He grew up in Orange County in Southern California and attended, as he put it, “several of California’s finest junior colleges,” as well as the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. After he graduated he hit the road doing musical theater in shows like “Oklahoma!” and “A Christmas Carol.”
He hit a low point at 24, when a girlfriend dumped him in Milwaukee, and he moved back in with his parents. After he wrote some Mamet-tinged TV scripts, a friend persuaded him to try his hand at comedy, and he soon got a job writing for “Mr. Show,” the seminal ’90s sketch comedy program starring Bob Odenkirk and Mr. Cross.
Seeing the duo perform was “an incredible revelation that there were people out there doing this stuff that I always thought was too weird, that no one would ever find funny,” he said. “All I really knew was Seinfeld and observational comedians.”
Mr. Aukerman, by contrast, comes from a school of comedy that looks to strip away artifice.
“After the comedy boom of the ’80s there was a certain formula that comedians had to do and could do in order to be successful touring comedians, and those were mainly observational comedians who had a very strict structure of what made an act, and I think it was very performance oriented,” he said. “What I love about comedy is breaking down the barrier between the audience and the performer.”
But taking barrier breaking too far once got him into a little trouble. In 2009, when he was head writer for the MTV Movie Awards, he let slip that a stunt by the scantily clad comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who plunged from the air into the lap of the rapper Eminem, was a setup. He was barred from writing for the awards show the following year.
“I feel really bad about it,” he said. “None of us thought that anyone would think it was anything other than it was a fake bit.”
Perhaps he’s better off doing his own thing. His most audacious work of comedy — and cultural criticism — has been a series of four podcasts called “Analyze Phish.” In the show Harris Wittels, a writer for the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” and a devoted fan of the jam band Phish, tries to convince Mr. Aukerman to share the passion.
Explaining the setup during the second episode, Mr. Aukerman said: “I thought it was ridiculous that a grown man, an educated man — by all accounts who went to Harvard — would enjoy the band Phish, and I thought it was so weird, and so we thought of this idea to do this show where you play me Phish songs and try to get me to like it. And I’m coming in with an open heart and open mind.”
Mr. Wittels — who actually attended Emerson College — pointed out that Mr. Aukerman’s heart wasn’t that open: “Not really anymore. You really hate them more than anybody, ever.”
The series culminated with Mr. Aukerman and Mr. Wittels attending a Phish show at Madison Square Garden. But even under the influence of various mood enhancers Mr. Aukerman could not embrace the band.
“I think I owe you an apology,” Mr. Wittels says during one episode, “I feel like I did you a disservice.”
"Fantastic!" Mr. Aukerman replies. “I feel that I’m owed one.”