This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Media Theory class, taught by Barry Salmon, in Fall 2013 at The New School.

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If the “medium is the message,” then what happens if the medium is the medium itself, or the anti-medium? The past few years have seen the rise of the “anti-talk show” in the alternative comedy scene, as typified by the podcast-turned-IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!, local New York public-access cult sensation The Chris Gethard Show, the Funny or Die webseries Between Two Ferns, and Adult Swim’s The Eric André Show. These shows all consider the artifice and tropes of comedy talk shows and then ignore, analyze, trash, invert, and/or subvert them. Marshall McLuhan’s classic text is presented as a common sense formulation of how to consider any medium: “the personal and social consequences” are a result of the new “extension of ourselves” (129). So how then do we apply this commonsensical approach to a genre that is purposely nonsensical? McLuhan would surely be pleased by this trend of a genre that is strongly conscious of how the medium is the message, but an analysis of how these shows deconstruct their particular medium and genre is sure to melt your brain.

The term “anti-talk show” is one that I am borrowing from Jason Zinoman’s New York Times from 2012, “The Rise of the Anti-Talk Show.” I share similar opinions with Zinoman on this topic, but I did not come across his essay until about a year after its publication, and I had independently identified this trend on my own. My time spent on entertainment websites makes it clear that plenty of comedy nerds have also noticed it. The anti-talk show movement has not broken into the mainstream (and it in fact may be antithetical to the mainstream), but there is a passionate subset of comedians who love talk shows but are concerned about them in the same way that McLuhan (who clearly loved media) was concerned abut all media during his lifetime. They may not be media theorists by employment, but they are in spirit, and they each have their own particular purposes for utilizing that genre-conscious spirit.

To understand the nature of the anti-talk show, it is useful to consider McLuhan’s explanation of the emergence of cubism. He notes that cinema appeared to society “as a world of triumphant illusions and dreams that money could buy” and “that it was at this moment of the movie that cubism occurred” (132). The point is that cubism arose in response to an audience that was constantly interpreting movies the same general way without really being aware of that interpretation. Cubism, with its flattening and two-dimensionalizing, forces a specific interpretation and forces the audience to be aware of that interpretation. This appears to now be the moment of the talk show during which the cubist talk show is occurring. Cubism, in McLuhan’s parlance, seized on “instant total [sensory] awareness” and in doing so “announced that the medium is the message” (133). It laid bare the shapes and forms of its particular media. The anti-talk show is now doing the same with the elements of a talk show – exposing the naked nature of the host, the guests, the interviews, the furniture, and the band. It is only those who realize that the medium is the message that think to ask “what a melody [is] about” (133). Similarly, it is only those who realize that the talk show genre is the message who think to ask what questions and answers are about, or what a couch is about, or what a bandleader is about.

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Comedy Bang! Bang!, hosted by Scott Aukerman, began as a podcast (initially entitled Comedy Death-Ray Radio), having grown out of the Comedy Death-Ray stage show hosted by Aukerman at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood. The podcast – a mixture of interviews and character-based improv – now runs concurrently with Comedy Bang! Bang! the show, which began airing on IFC in 2012. Aukerman’s style, perhaps the archest among all comedians working today, is himself an immediate hint that CB!B! is not your typical talk show. It is a style that is unlikely to work for the masses, and I must admit that it even took me some getting used to, even though Comedy Bang! Bang! is my favorite show currently on the air. Part of this is because it is unusual to see a mediated work so conscious of McLuhan’s maxim. But in this case, it is also because Aukerman can be a little off-putting at first. It does not become clear until becoming attuned to his style how sincere he is. It is straightforward in a way that most other shows do not even think about. This is illustrated by the descriptive episode titles, which may be the biggest acknowledgement that the medium is the message. Each title is a sentence indicating the clothing of that episode’s guest – “Zach Galifianakis Wears A Blue Jacket & Red Socks,” “Amy Poehler Wears a Black Jacket & Grey Pants,” etc. The characteristics of the talk show genre shape and control its content, even characteristics that are not usually considered, like the guest’s wardrobe.

Sidekicking Scott on every episode is one-man bandleader Reggie Watts. Reggie, whose live performances are a wild combination of music and comedy, is a singular talent. The word “idiosyncratic” was invented for people like him. CB!B! succeeds as a television embodiment of “the medium is the message” in large part due to Reggie being a human embodiment of “the medium is the message.” His live performances quite literally ask “what a melody is about,” consisting as they do of an improvised set of gibberish and word salad – but melodic, rhythmic, enthralling gibberish and word salad. This signature style has been put to good use throughout the show’s run, particularly in a segment from the first season’s second episode, “What’s the Song Title?” Reggie plays a few notes on his keyboard, and guests Amy Poehler and Don Dimello (played by comedian Andrew Daly) have to guess the name of the song. It turns out these snippets are beats that Reggie has just come up with on the spot and that he is just bad at coming up with titles. This is a signature characteristic of an anti-talk show: the moments that are most like the electric light. That is to say, McLuhan notes, “electric light is pure information … a medium without a message, as it were” (129).

Aukerman has talked about the conception of Comedy Bang! Bang! by stating that he and everyone else behind the show “wanted to do [their] take on any kind of show that had a host in it” (Adams). CB!B! really has fulfilled this vision, essentially becoming a cubist formulation of any talk show, or indeed, any other show that has a host in it. The set décor and presence of talking inanimate objects is obviously influenced by The Pee-wee Herman Show, but there are also non-sequitur references to hosted shows like an ending that mimics the “goodnights” portion of Saturday Night Live in an episode that had no other references to SNL. All of these hosted show homages are meant to call attention to these segments in and of themselves, which is especially clear in Scott’s advice segments. One example sees him proffering words of wisdom to a fictional tabloid-baiting female starlet. He hits all the beats of a concerned fan, but every name is made up (except for Pete Sampras, interestingly enough): the people, the places, the movies, even the drugs. Such a routine conveys that the medium of advice from a concerned fan is itself a message, even when it contains names like “Alvis Dannerbrooks” and “T.J. Ouchyman.”

The major pitfall of Comedy Bang! Bang! when it comes to enlightening its audience about media theory is its artifice. As TV critic Gordon “The Hatchet” Thatchet (played by David Wain) reviews the show in the middle of one episode, “this is the sort of hipper than thou, I’m trying so hard to be a postmodern, hipster host, that you forgot to be funny.” The thing is, though, even though CB!B! is artificial, it is also sincere in its artificiality. Television is artificial, and talks show especially so, in ways that are not often acknowledged. Acknowledging every last artifice is CB!B!’s m.o. I adore this show, but spending a lot time with it can be like living in a fantasy world, because it peels back the artifice only to reveal that there is even more artifice.

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A more obviously sincere anti-talk show is the New York public access series The Chris Gethard Show, which also has its roots as an Upright Citizens Brigade stage show (the New York version of UCB in this case). That sincerity is in part due to the fact that certain anti-talk shows merely affect a public access aesthetic, while TCGS is the real deal. (Full disclosure: My brother, Rob Malone, is one of the audience directors of TCGS and occasionally appears on camera as “The World’s Greatest Dancer.” So I am a bit biased with my love of this show, but I do also love the parts of it that do not involve my brother.) TCGS, which also streams live on the Internet and maintains a complete archive of past shows on YouTube, is unique (at least I assume this is unique) among public access shows in having inspired a devoted, international fan community. Chris Gethard and the rest of the cast have built up a close relationship with this community, in part by taking the lesson of “the medium is the message” to heart in a decidedly practical manner. One of the most exemplary stories in TCGS lore is the origin of Random Jean. In the second episode, which had a very bare stage preparation even by the show’s standards, Jean, a viewer who had just randomly stumbled across the show, called in to ask, “what’s the point of this show?” Chris chose to answer this question by inviting her to the studio. Jean just happened to be an easy cab ride away from the studio, and 20 minutes later she was in front of the camera, in a chair right next to the host. Thus was birthed the “Random,” someone who has had no prior experience with any of the cast and crew members and appears on the show’s panel for 15 weeks.

Chris has pointedly sought to remove the artifice of typical talk show trappings. On its website, the show has billed itself as “the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City.” Chris has shared his struggles with depression on the air, and callers have been comfortable enough to share similar details about their mental health, relationships, and struggles with school. He has had meltdowns on air when he has been in the middle of stressful weeks, and it is never entirely clear if these are completely legitimate breakdowns or if he is playing them up for the show.

Simply put, the ethos of The Chris Gethard Show is an upfront relationship with its audience. This is not just a matter of the show’s special emotional intimacy as described above – it also has to do with the show’s structure, form, and content. If the medium is the message, then TCGS owes it to its audience to let them know all there is to know about its medium, and explore its medium as much as possible. Here the show takes away another lesson from McLuhan, specifically, “If it works, it’s obsolete” (132). When TCGS started on public access, there was a self-imposed ban on fictional characters. Eventually, it was determined that the show had reached the point in its run when everyone being themselves on camera had been working well enough, so it was time for fictional characters. Perhaps to combat the encroachment of artifice, it was ensured that the audience would be included in the creation of its fictional characters. In its two “Crowd-Sourced Character Contest” episodes, fans submitted names of new potential characters and then voted on their favorites after the episodes aired.

The most poignant TCGS display of “If it works, it’s obsolete” can be found in Episode #117, “A Big Announcement,” in which Chris explains, “we just really always want this thing to evolve, or we know that it needs to go away,” in the process of announcing that the show had been picked up for a pilot deal at Comedy Central.

The Chris Gethard Show strips down the conventions of talk show for the sake of evolution. If it can force the whole genre to evolve, then great, but either way, it is going to ensure personal evolution. McLuhan’s essay shows how the “medium is the message” principle works by examining the evolution of current media and introduction of new media. TCGS forces the issue. It is often chaotic, though not as nonsensical as other anti-talk shows. Examining this show in light of McLuhan is useful, though it seems a little silly; it is so friendly and inviting that you tend to accept its media literacy without worrying about it.

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Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis (co-created by Scott Aukerman) is an Internet series on the comedy website Funny or Die. It demonstrates its medium awareness partly in its title: Zach interviews a celebrity, and he and his guest are indeed sitting in between two fern plants. Zach asks his guests a series of bizarre, antagonistic questions, mixed with a string of biting comments. Traditional show business conviviality (or kissassery, if you’re feeling cynical) this is not. Most of the guests are either friends or co-stars of Zach, and even those who aren’t are (mostly) the sort of people who are likely to get the joke. Though the guests are more or less likely to know what they are in for, this is combatted by their ignorance of the specific questions prior to the shooting. Thus, the point can still be made that celebrity interviews do not necessarily have to be the sunny affairs that they tend to be. That positivity is not a prerequisite of the genre, or the medium.

In interviews, Zach has frequently stated his internal struggle with performance. Despite a career as a comedian, he finds the entire premise of a live comedy show to be rather strange. When you think about it, as Zach does, it is weird that a crowd of people should show up in a location and expect one person to spend an hour or so entertaining them. This is a rather medium-conscious philosophy, and Zach forces his audience to see his point of view with Between Two Ferns. And if his guests have never felt the same way that he does, he does his best to make sure that they do, asking them discomfiting questions like (to Natalie Portman), “You shaved your head for V for Vendetta. Did you also shave your v for vagina?” or just generally being dismissive, such as by categorizing Jon Hamm’s Golden Globe win under “who gives a shit.”

Zach further insults guests while simultaneously breaking down the artifice of the editing tricks of traditional talk shows. He employs pre-recorded sound effects, but they are played when he hits a button on camera, so there is not meant to be any doubt about the lack of an actual live audience. In the middle the Michael Cera episode, the button plays a booing crowd. It is also used as a Dadaist non sequitur, such as when it plays gobbling turkeys in the Jon Hamm episode. Once again, “if it works, it’s obsolete” is utilized: it worked as an insult the first time, so now it is used for surrealism.

Between Two Ferns also goes about answering the question of what a melody is about by considering what the guest captions are about. In the first episode, this technique starts simple: Michael Cera is labeled as “Actor” – just as I have it written, i.e., with “Actor” in quotation marks. This strategy is taken much further in the Oscar Buzz special, in which Naomi Watts (of The Impossible) is identified as “The Impossible Naomi Watts,” Christoph Waltz is “Christ of Waltz,” Anne Hathway (of Les Misérables) is “Anne Halfway” of “French Movie,” Jessica Chastain is “Jessica Cheststain,” and Sally Field’s credited movie is “Linkin Park.” There is a message that is conveyed by identifying captions, and by the fact that the captions are even there in the first place. Between Two Ferns may go for a cheap aesthetic, but it is not cheap in considering the message of all of its elements.

Like a well-behaved Internet video, Between Two Ferns’ interviews tend to be no longer than five minutes, if they are even that long. It is a little painful to watch something that awkward for much longer than that, even if it is ultimately fake. Also, it is unclear if it really serves as a mold-breaking anti-talk show, or if it is just a pleasant diversion. It makes its point about how the talk show genre need not necessarily be a friendly one, but Zach’s guests are all (or mostly) in on the joke, presumably. If one thinks too much about how the medium of Between Two Ferns is the message, it can be dispiriting. Honestly, that is probably what Zach Galifianakis is going for.

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The Eric André Show may just be the pinnacle of an anti-talk show. Eric André wants to tear apart all the trappings of the talk show. Literally. Each episode begins with him running full-speed onto his set, screaming at the top of his lungs. He proceeds to destroy as much of the set as possible. He jumps into his banner, takes a baseball bat to a column, and takes a chainsaw to his desk, all while his band keeps playing, unfazed. He also usually assaults a member of the band … while the rest of the band keeps playing, unfazed. He staggers around naked. He self-flagellates. Ultimately, out of breath, he plops onto his chair, the one part of the set that is miraculously intact. Then out calmly walks his sidekick, Hannibal Burress, the perfect mellow complement to his insanity.

As Zinoman notes, if The Eric André Show “isn’t the darkest comedy on television, it’s surely the most poorly lighted.” Its public-access style dimness is certainly a shared trait with other anti-talk shows, but it is also notably figuratively dark. Actually it is not so much dark as it is unhinged. I like to describe it as pure anarchy caught on film, accompanied by a perpetual maniacal smile.

André’s interview style combines the inappropriate content of Zach Galifianakis with the earnestness of Chris Gethard. Discussing children with Melanie Brown (aka “Scary Spice”), he mentions that he has not “sprayed his DNA in anybody.” He clarifies that he just finishes on a girl’s stomach, but that he does not mean that “in a nasty way.” Brown is understandably put off, but he somehow manages to maintain an innocent tone of voice. Even though it is a show, and thus more or less fake, he sounds completely sincere, and it is disturbing to think that he actually might be. Altogether, the interviews have as much of an “anything can happen vibe” as can be imagined. In one interview, plates of copious food are randomly presented; in another, impressionists of Eric, Hannibal, and the guest (James Van Der Beek) walk on stage and talk in unison with their originals.

It is the sketches in which the destruction of the medium is most clearly present. Each episode is filled with man-on-the-street stunts in which Eric appears deranged, sick, or otherwise unwell in a public space. One example sees him walking around Manhattan with a huge gash on his forehead while wearing a parachute; another sees him dressed as a centaur, dropping cakes onto people on a subway train. These segments almost invariably result in Eric vomiting. They also typically end with an awkwardly edited freeze frame, in which the face of a random civilian is often replaced by something that calls back to something earlier in the episode, in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with that sketch.

McLuhan notes, “literate man is quite inclined to see others as somewhat pathetic” (135). This is a rather likely description of how people are likely to view Eric André. His show has received some critical love, but it is in no way a mainstream hit,. Anyway, Eric preempts this perception by purposely making himself appear pathetic. And he is more than just somewhat pathetic – he barrels forward into as pathetic as possible.

In taking apart the talk show genre, Eric André demonstrates that the content of the medium is all a bunch of noise that more or less doesn’t mean anything anyway. Or it might mean something, but we are not really equipped for truly understanding it. McLuhan, after all, in unpacking how any medium is made up of the content of other media, finds himself in a nearly endless regression. It ultimately may lead back to the pure information of the electric light, but what does it really mean to understand the electric light? The destruction of The Eric André Show suggests that this unbridled nonsense is the fullest understanding of the medium being the message. It may be existentially terrifying, but if you can get on its wavelength, it is also a lot of fun.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Erik. “Scott Aukerman’s Ultimate 24-hour Comedy Marathon · The A.V. Club.” The A.V. Club. The Onion, 12 July 2013. 14 Dec. 2013.

Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. Funny or Die.

The Chris Gethard Show. Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Comedy Bang! Bang! IFC.

The Eric André Show. Adult Swim.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message.”

Zinoman, Jason. “The Rise of the Anti-Talk Show.” The New York Times. 7 June 2012. 14 Dec. 2013.

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