Sunday, September 15, 2013

Has Comedy Bang! Bang! taken The Leap?

Shows -- especially comedies -- usually take a while to truly get good.  It's difficult to come out of the gate free of kinks, so the first few episodes are a feeling-out process, tinkering with the established formula until the perfect variables are set in place.  Even a show that's already good can have an uptick, where it finds another gear and ascends to the level of greatness.  This is where the concept of The Leap comes in.  Whether it comes 6 episodes in or after an entire season, when a show finally realizes its full potential, it can be an electrifying thing to watch.  A strong case can be made for Comedy Bang! Bang!, which just concluded the first half of what has been a magnificent second season, taking The Leap.

I've been a huge fan of Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast since high school, so I was hotly anticipating the premiere of the show last year.  The first season was good, and certainly made me laugh quite a bit, yet I couldn't help but compare it to the podcast.  Aside from a few flourishes, the show didn't stray too far away from the format of its progenitor, starting off with a standard interview with somebody in the comedy world, then a visit from a character, and a game to close things out.  Unfortunately, the podcast's odd rhythm is perfectly suited for an hour-plus runtime, and many of the flaws in the first season came from trying to condense that momentum into a 22-minute episode.  Shifts from improvised dialogue to scripted bits were jarring, and many of the popular characters from the podcast had hours of backstory reduced to 4 minutes of screentime.  Most of all, the first season felt insubstantial, the kind of thing you'd thoroughly enjoy in the moment, but not think about after it was done.

Many of those edges have been smoothed out in the second season, and the show has improved in every way because of it.  Few shows reduce me to a giggling mess in the way that this season has, and it has quickly risen to the ranks of my favorite currently running comedies.  There's a better blend between script and improv, allowing for the interview segments to feel more natural.  Guests who are luminaries in the comedy world like Andy Samberg, Aziz Ansari, and Andy Richter mostly bring the laughs by playing skewed versions of themselves, but people like Anna Kendrick and Zoe Saldana have also appeared, and were unexpectedly just as great.  Characters from the podcast are still forced to condense their stories into small chunks, but it's a little more cohesive this time around.  Take last week's episode, "Bill Hader Wears a Grey Button Down Shirt & Sneakers," which featured podcast favorite, Fourvel, the murderous orphan played by Bobby Moynihan.  His segment is essentially a retread of familiar material for any listener of the podcast, but they inject life into the bit by taking the adult-sized Moynihan and shrinking him down to the proportions of a child.  It's just the kind of bizarre, hilarious thing that can only be achieved through a visual medium.

What's been the most impressive thing about this season though is how it has completely blown the doors off of the talk show format.  Like the first season, the show still parodies talk show staples like man-on-the-street and makeover segments, but this year they've been incorporating more long-form ideas that build over the course of an episode.  I've heard accusations of Comedy Bang! Bang! being anti-comedy, but in no way can those criticisms be true when there's so much comedy packed into a given episode.  The show just throws everything out there, stacking bit after bit on top of each other, and fully committing to every single one of them.  The best example of this is the season's 6th episode, "Gillian Jacobs Wears a Red Dress With Sail Boats" (yes, even the episode titles are a running joke), which plays with time, foreshadowing how the episode will end.  Over the course of the show, we get more pieces of how the story will conclude, and how all of the various characters factor into the big event that's being alluded to.  All the while, the normal show is still going on, slowly converging with the flash forwards.  It's bold, dizzying stuff, and the way that the actual conclusion upends the foreshadowing is absolutely perfect.  Even when overarching bits don't quite work, like the Tim Meadows narration in "David Cross Wears a Red Polo & Brown Shoes With Red Laces," it's all just so impressive on a conceptual level that it's hard not to cut the episode some slack.

In alot of ways I'm reminded of Nathan For You, another show from this year that felt like nothing else I've ever seen on television.  There have been other shows that have played with the talk show format, but none as gleefully as Comedy Bang! Bang! does.  Its rhythm takes a while to get used to, but once you're synced up with it, it's a loopy and hilarious experience.  This past week's episode was the midseason finale, but the show will be back on October 18th, and I can't wait to see what it does next.

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