Interview: Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, Comedy Death Ray

Filed Under Interview, Live Events, Sketch Comedy, Stand-Up Comedy

BJ Porter and Scott Aukerman, Creators of Comedy Death Ray
B.J. Porter & Scott Aukerman

For almost five years in Los Angeles, Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter have been putting on a show called Comedy Death Ray. The live show is revered in comedy circles for bringing up some of the new favorites of stand-up, many of which get their first exposure to a bigger audience on Death Ray. The show also allows some very funny people like Zach Galifianakis, Doug Benson and Todd Glass a place to experiment and play. Just this week, Comedy Central Records released a double CD set of Comedy Death Ray featuring two different shows with two distinct flavors. Besides being performers, Aukerman and Porter have written for sketch comedy shows like Mr. Show and have an upcoming pilot for Fox called The Right Now Show that just happens to be taping tonight. I talked about both projects with the pair along with the dangers of self-indulgence and the need to stay a little silly.

I’m in New York, so I’ve never actually seen a Comedy Death Ray show.

BJ: Holy… you should kill yourself. No, we taped it.

That’s what’s cool to me. It’s often that these seminal shows are lost to history. People will say you should have been there with the Ding Ho or Luna Lounge. There’s no Ding Ho CD or Luna Lounge CD.

BJ: Or Dane Cook’s bedroom when we opened his mouth, basically.

Scott: You should have been there…

The man is an entertainer.

BJ: That’s a wise start. Shitting on the people on our label.

I don’t think Dane Cook’s going to do another CD on Comedy Central Records.

Scott: I’m sure they still sell the old ones though.

True. How are you putting it together for someone like myself who has never seen a Comedy Death Ray show?

Scott: I would say we had two goals when doing this CD. The first goal is to introduce people who have never seen the show before to the best comics that are on the show. And goal number two is to introduce people that they never heard of before and give you a bit more flavor of what the show is actually like.

And those goals are very much in line with the philosophy of the show from the very beginning. It’s the very best people who are out there…

BJ: Mixed with newcomers.

That’s something I really love, because a couple of these people aren’t often in NY and don’t have their own CD. So I can take that track and say, “Here’s this guy I like” to a friend.

BJ: There’s two different disks recorded at two different shows. And they’re two very different shows. The San Francisco disk was in front of 450 people and was a real professional show where people did their best stuff. So to some people that’s going to be their favorite disk.

The second disk was taped at our all-night anniversary show. And some of those sets are taped at like 4:30 or 5 in the morning, when people are a little groggy and not doing what they would do if they knew it was being recorded. That said, that disk has an entirely different flavor. It’s more experimental. It has more of the newcomers on it. It has people doing stuff that you won’t see on Comedy Central or HBO specials.

The second disk, as somewhat of a comedy snob, is the purer disk. Like Zach Galifianakis’ “Live at the Purple Onion” DVD, not necessarily is it going perfectly, but you get that sensation of what it’s like to be at a live show.

BJ: Brian Posehn went up at 4:45 in the morning. And he gets lost at a certain point. I don’t know if we kept him getting lost on the CD. That joke isn’t as technically well delivered as I’m sure it is in his Comedy Central special. But the whole disk has this looseness and flavor to it where anything can happen that a lot of people will prefer.

I think a lot of time in comedy, you’ll get the end result of a movement. You’ll get SNL but you won’t see Second City and Lemmings before it. And this is a great way that someone can trace someone’s act – “oh, this is where that came from” and so on.

BJ: Then there are other people… I read a review of it today and the guy only liked disk 1. And he was disappointed that Patton Oswalt’s bit was something he had heard before. He only wanted the famous people. He’s like, “Disk 2 is horrible. I don’t know any of these people.”

In three years, he’ll put that same disk back in and go…

BJ: Oh wow! (laughs)

And that must be the strange thing with balancing these shows – having someone there who people know and trust will be funny so that the enthusiasm continues for the people they may not.

BJ: It’s something we do every week. Every week kind of has bigger name headliners. It’s all just our taste. There’s a lot of people like Ian Edwards or Dan Mintz who a lot of people haven’t heard of yet, but we know are really great. When we started the show five years ago it wasn’t because Patton Oswalt needs another place to play. It was because we had a lot of new friends like BJ Novak or Morgan Murphy, who didn’t have any club to play.

And they’re good enough to play those clubs. They’re just not demanding them yet.

BJ: So the CD is a great way to get yourself acquainted with some people who in three years, maybe even one year, be really big.

You talk about the show being your own personal taste. But are there people who you find funny who you don’t think fit inside of Comedy Death Ray?

Scott: (laughs) We have a philosophy of we’ll keep putting it up until people get it. We did that actually these last three weeks with Cracked Out from New York. People didn’t really understand them. We put them up three weeks ago and they just got stared at.

So we intentionally put them up the next week. And people loved them. And we were like, “We’re going to keep on putting people up until you get it.”

So much of comedy is feeling comfortable with the point of view coming at you. So I understand it. There’s people who I find hilarious now, but the first couple of times I saw ‘em, I was like “What is this? I don’t get it at all.”

Do you find yourself being more charitable to other comics or do you find it hard to not judge?

Scott: I find I’ve always been judgmental about comedy (laughs) and it’s hard to turn that off, really. But what constant exposure to live comedy does is it makes you give people a second chance.

BJ: Anyone can have bad sets. I saw one guy who I really love – I won’t mention his name – gave a set that was really bad. And then one month later did the exact same set on our show and it was great. (laughs)

There’s so many variables in comedy. Comedy is not this thing that’s a performance like a play. It’s really an interaction with every single person in the room. And if there’s a weirdness in the room for any people, be it something the comedians did at the top of the set or be it the mixture of the people isn’t right, something can go awry. So it’s really great to see you proven wrong about someone.

What are the best prevailing conditions to have in a room for comedy?

BJ: Doing it at the UCB, we’re finding that a room that’s not 90 degrees. (Laughs) It’s nice. We’ve had a brutal summer here in LA. But intimacy…

Scott: Intimacy is really good. But then again, the first disk on the record is not intimate in the least. It’s a really good CD.

BJ: But the people on the CD are famous. Those people were coming out to see those people. I don’t think they need that kind of intimacy with those people.

Scott: We like to keep the show small. Honestly, where we moved the show to the UCB theater, we moved it to a smaller space. Even though the show has technically gotten more popular. And that is, only because we like intimacy and the ability to experiment more. We don’t want to be like, “We can get 250 people in a week. So let’s do that. But we have to be careful about who we book…”

BJ: No one can take a chance again.

Scott: You become a victim of your own success. It’s what happens in TV when Fox has a big hit with the X-Files. And they start chasing and the rest of their shows suffer. Because the experimentation that made the X-Files a show is all of the sudden lost.

Others may dispute this, we have tried to keep that sense of experimentation and putting new people up alive. And we haven’t become a show, where we’re like, “We know the 20 comics who are good and we’re just going to keep on recycling them.”

BJ: When Scott and I started, every time we performed we wrote a whole new bit. We didn’t know this wasn’t the way things were done because we were just starting. But we needed the new material anyway. And it’s nice, every time that Matt Besser does the show he does a whole new bit. And it’s nice to offer up a place where people can be that experimental while offering some solid, proven comedy as well.

The shows need youth. All of our comics are getting too famous to do the show regularly. The people who are regulars five years ago, a lot of them have moved on and can’t do the show anymore. We can’t really get Jim Gaffigan anymore, we can’t get Nick Swardson anymore. That’s why it’s really important to keep sponsoring young people so the audience gets used to them and starts enjoying them. They’re the only way your show can keep going, otherwise it’s going to burn out in one or two years. Hopefully you’re creating your headliners of the future.

I think one reason why our show is popular too is that we have relationships with all these people. They are our actual friends. We’re not like show promoters where we’re like, (sleazy) “Hey, come on over and do a show.”

Comedy Central was really impressed by how quickly we got everyone to sign the releases for the CD. They’ve never seen anything that quick.

Scott: It didn’t take long at all because (the comics) really trust us to put out a great product.

BJ: I just said to David Cross, “Hey, we’re doing this CD and we recorded you.” And he was, “Great. Where do I sign?”

How do you keep it from being self-indulgent? They might be more true in other arts…

Scott: We ran into that a lot in the first two years. That would bug me a lot when… the show became popular and the performers would reference the show or people they knew in the audience in their acts. The show became popular as aspecialthing became popular. And Sasquatch, the guy who runs that site, started coming to every show and reviewing it. And when people start talking about the reviews from the stage. That to me is really self indulgent and we tried to put a caper on that.

You always have to view every show - for half the audience it’s going to be their first show. Or they’re going to be sampling something that they come to every two months. I don’t really like a lot referencing other shows or other things we’ve done. But we do it. When we put Cracked Out up two weeks in the row, we referenced how they ate shit the week before. (laughs)

I’ll equate it to being close to a group of friends in college. If you get really tight with those people, you get a whole series of in jokes that only they get. And then you can’t get new friends in. Nobody can penetrate your lingo.

How did Comedy Death Ray get started?

BJ: Scott and I had just worked with Jimmy Pardo doing a live show over the summer. And it was a lot of fun and we wanted to keep doing a live show. And as Scott said, we knew a lot of funny young people who needed a place to do stand-up. And we were in a place, where we were writing so much that we weren’t around live comedy so much, so we kind of missed it.

So, a friend of a friend owned a bar. So we asked him if he wanted a comedy show and he said, “Absolutely not.” (laughs) So I went back another week with some friends on a Thursday night, a big drinking night in LA. Completely empty. I asked him again, “are you sure you don’t want us to do a comedy night?” He said no again. I went back again. Thursday night. Completely empty. And I said, “I’m going to do a live show here.” And he said, “OK.”

“You do want people to drink here, don’t you?”

BJ: We started to put the show together. And we were lucky enough that our old friend Bob Odenkirk let us advertise the show on bobanddavid.com. And by the third week, it was completely packed.

Scott: Combined with BJ having the space, at the time I’d be doing a lot of stand-up and got to know B.J. Novak, Dan Mintz and Morgan Murphy. They had literally just started doing stand-up here in LA.

I think I saw Dan Mintz first show in LA, at this tiny open-mike. And B.J. Novak was like, “Oh, this is my friend from back east.” And I saw him and I was like, “Holy shit. This guy has already got 10 minutes – a full awesome 10 minute spot that he can do at any of the shows around town and slay.” And yet nobody knows who he is and he will never be booked at any of the good shows around town. Because the bookers of those good shows aren’t out there seeing the comedy I was seeing at the time.

Well there’s a process where you have to jump through some of these silly hoops, no matter what.

Scott: You have to pay your dues. And what’s nice, after booking a lot of new people… I counted the other day. We’re in September and we’ve already booked between 30 or 40 people who’ve never done the show before. Each week we usually have one person who’s never done the show before. Last year we had close to 60 who’d never done the show before. We’re constantly booking new people, sometimes to the consternation of people who live here who do the show regularly. (laughs) There aren’t enough spots. But the great thing about shows now is since we’ve been doing (Comedy Death Ray), they have lightened up on their booking policies a bit more and are booking somebody who isn’t famous and who hasn’t been around ten years. It’s great to see people who’ve done our show – the first big show they’ve ever done – now they can play around town.

You’re like the debutante ball for comedians.

Scott: Or something more gay. (laughs)

I want to talk a bit about your upcoming Fox pilot, The Right Now Show. I read your initial reveal with Sasquatch and I love how you describe it as “Hey, let’s do something funny.” It’s seems to be a lot of time they want sketch comedy to hang on some sort of clever concept. Does clever get in the way of funny sometimes?

BJ: If I saw more clever I’d know better. (laughs) For a long time networks just wanted to buy imitations of other shows – i.e. Curb (the Enthusiasm or the Office). The word gets out that “Hey, we want to buy something like that” and every comedy producer just starts dreaming up ideas like that. And there’s a period where everyone’s buying those and it’s really bad because no one is Larry David or Ricky Gervais. And then they don’t work and networks stop wanting to buy them, but because they wanted to buy them before the producer wanted to make them, the producers are still hanging on to wanting to make them. A lot of comedy producers are like follow the leader – I’m so sick of like behind the scenes of a TV show type shows or “Hey, we’re going to improv this show.” You know what? Write a fucking script. It really works.

For a long time we couldn’t get a sketch show pitched – look, it’s really hard to pitch a sketch show. It’s really is.

Scott: There’s so many elements to it: talent, format, sensibility.

BJ: And anytime somebody buys something they’re going to be thinking of the marketing of it.

And with a sitcom you can say, “It’s this concept.”

BJ: With a sketch show, it’s “a bunch of people and they’re being funny.” In a way that you can’t really explain it.

When I was thinking about the clever conceit, I was thinking of things like TV Funhouse where they’re forced to frame the sketches with some sort of story.

BJ: And those are the worst parts of the show. Those are my least favorite parts of Wonder Showzen too, where they’re stuck in the studio.

Scott: Because they’re always going to be thinking about the marketing and what they’re going to put on the poster. And that’s the thing about our show: what are they going to do put on the poster? I don’t know. It’s always easier when you have someone like Cedric the Entertainer where you can go, “You know this guy. You love this guy. Watch his sketch show.” And then people tune in and go, “I though I knew that guy. I don’t love that guy in a sketch show.”

The great thing about the Internet is - our show is totally modular. Every piece can be popped in and out. They’re relatively short pieces. They’re not long. And we can say, “here’ s one way to market it. Take these pieces out of the show and put them on the Internet.” And we’re doing dirtier cuts and put those on the Internet. It’s a real great way to market the show. This is finally the year a show like this can happen.

Now without a high concept for a sketch comedy show, what are the guideposts – even nebulous ones – that make it a unique voice. You wrote for Mr. Show – how do you know when writing a sketch that you’re not writing Mr. Show but you’re writing The Right Now Show.

Scott: I think there’s just some fundamental decisions at the beginning that are going to make it different. Our show The Right Now Show is going to be specifically different than Mr. Show because of the talent involved.

BJ: The format too. It’s a very different show because of the elements that we’re putting in. There’s so many different styles of comedy, but Mr. Show was unique to Bob and David – two of the most brilliant performers and writers there are. Their show was based on them. Our show is a bit more broad. We have a cast of 7, we have guests. We can be slightly more topical.

Some of the subject matter is a little less weighty. When we were writing for Mr. Show, we were talking about how is this going to stand up to the test of time. Every little piece had to be this brilliant comedy jewel. And with this show we’re trying to be a little sillier. We can do a piece like one we wrote the other day called “Ghost Busters Busters” (laughs). Where would never do that in a million years on Mr. Show, but somehow on this show it’s silly and stupid and a little more disposable, so we can do something like that.

So it’s where you want to loosen up the reins in some places and tighten them others.

BJ: We’re having so much writing some of the sillier stuff that never would have been on Mr. Show. And that’s not a knock on Mr. Show at all, because it’s my favorite comedy show of all time. Even before I worked on it. It’s just really refreshing to write something so stupid and say, “We gotta do that.”

Scott:   It’s something we discovered in the Death Ray shows too. When you get too precious and going for it… comedy has to be silly in a way. That’s another point back to only booking famous people. When expectations are so high, like “this is going to be an amazing show.” Usually they’re not. Those shows are your worst shows. The shows where you’re loose and having fun. Like the anniversary shows that go twelve hours. Technically they may not be the greatest shows in the world, but there’s just a vibe to them where “Hey, we’re all having fun.” And that’s what we’re trying to achieve with the TV show.

Now with those all night shows… when I’ve been to comedy festivals and seen four to five shows in a day, I get a sense of comedy fatigue where nothing’s funny. Doesn’t that set in a little with an all night show?

BJ: Scott and I have found this a lot where if it’s going to be a long show, if people just know what they’re in for, it keeps them from getting restless. But constantly you’re offering them their favorite people, so they’re happy to have that.

Scott: Sometimes our weekly show – it’s supposed to last an hour and a half, an hour forty five minutes – when it starts creeping into the two-hour range, which sometimes it does, because are having fun. People start getting really restless. And people come out of that going “God, that was too long.”

That’s funny. Because I’ve had the sensation. Where I’ve had fun but I’m mentally ready to leave. There is some point where your brain does shut off.

BJ: It’s a weird trick. In San Francisco, that show we recorded for disk one is 75 minutes on the disk but it’s drawn from a two hours and fifteen minutes. All it took was me coming out at the top and saying, “Hey everyone, this show is going to be a little bit longer than a show you’d normally see. But you don’t want these people doing just eight minutes spots right? These are your favorite people, you want them to stretch out a little.” And everyone went, “Yea!” So everyone was cool with how long it went.

Like there’s a certain point in comedy movies where you go, “OK that should be the end there.”

BJ: I went into Grindhouse knowing it was two films back to back and my girlfriend didn’t. After the first movie she looked at me and went, “There’s a whole other movie.” She didn’t know it was three hours. It was killing her. Mentally she wanted to leave. She had her plans in her head.

The first thing I do when I’m interested in a film now is I look at the running time.

When you were doing the CD was there anybody who it pained you to not include?

BJ: Yeah, Andy Kindler. Andy’s set – somehow he slayed that night. But something weird about it that wasn’t translating for the CD. I don’t know what it was. But we listened to it and it wasn’t the greatest audio recording – I mean, the quality of it was good. But we didn’t want to put it on the record because it doesn’t represent what Andy does.

But it was hard. It was really solid and something you enjoyed yourself.

BJ: Yeah, I loved it. And we love Andy. He’s one of our regulars. So for a little while we tried cutting a section out of it – he did twenty minutes or so. And we tried to do an eight-minute section. And it wasn’t working. And we ended up cutting him off the disk. Which is really too bad.

Hopefully you guys will get to do another disk.

BJ: Yeah, well we’re recording up in Vancouver and Andy’s going to be there. So we’re hoping to get a good set out of him there. And Odenkirk too is another person we cut - he went off on some strange rant. It’s what happens in the show sometimes. He started talking specifically about a Hollywood producer he’d met a couple of days earlier.

Scott: It was a funny story.

BJ:  It was a really funny story. But he did it sort of off mike. And it just something wasn’t working for the thing. It was, “Oh well, one of our bigger names we can’t put on.” But again, he’ll be up in Vancouver too.

Scott: There’s so many people we didn’t get to record. We’re not saying that these are the greatest Comedy Death Ray moments ever.  Because those are lost to the mists of time. And we intentionally didn’t want to do a “this is everything we got.” But we wanted to do something for people of all ages, but specifically thinking back to the comedy fan I was when I was 12 years old, that is something they’re going to listen to over and over and over because there’s no fat on it. It’s just totally killer all the way through.

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