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Inside ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’: Writer Neil Campbell on the alt-comedy hit, improv and his time at Iowa

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Illustration by Jared Jewell
Comedy writer Neil Campbell — illustration by Jared Jewell

Floodwater Comedy Festival

Downtown Iowa City — April 16-19

Neil Campbell is the head writer for IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, the surreal comedy talk show hosted by Scott Aukerman with comedic and musical accompaniment from Reggie Watts, and now Kid Cudi. In 2005, then-recent University of Iowa graduate Campbell was performing sketch comedy at L.A.’s Upright Citizen Brigade theatre (where he would later assume the position of artistic director) when Aukerman offered him and fellow sketch performer Paul Rust the chance to guest host Comedy Death Ray, the precursor live show to Comedy Bang! Bang!. Soon after, Campbell began collaborating with Aukerman on writing for various comedy projects, and in 2012, when IFC offered Aukerman a television deal, Campbell was recruited to assist with writing the pilot for Comedy Bang! Bang!.

Campbell returns to Iowa City to perform in The Big Splash comedy show for the Floodwater Comedy Festival on Saturday, April 18 at 9 p.m. at the Blue Moose Tap House. Campbell will also conduct an improv workshop on Friday, April 17 at 4 p.m. at Public Space One [UPDATED: Moved to Theatre B at the UI Theatre Building] and a sketch writing seminar on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Theatre B at the UI Theatre Building. The episode of Comedy Bang! Bang! airing on April 17 will feature Campbell as a time-traveling, nudist cyborg declaiming humanity’s imminent destruction. Joel McHale also stops by.

Little Village: You’re currently in the fourth season of Comedy Bang! Bang! How do you feel the show has evolved over time?

Neil Campbell: I think that season one had a lot more stuff that was straight-up parody of talk show conventions and now I would describe it more as a talk show that exists in a crazy world. We started using storylines to create and explore this fun, weird world, and that has become more of the voice of the show as time has gone on. It became less about parody and more about this talk show set in this kind of heightened reality.

How does the writing process work at Comedy Bang! Bang!?

We kind of encourage everyone to pitch what they are excited about and what would be fun for them to write. The show can really kind of go anywhere and be about anything. You know, we’ve had episodes where Scott and Reggie have superpowers. Another week, there is a love story with a character we’ve never seen before. One episode of the show takes place during an earthquake where everyone is trapped inside the studio. Whatever kind of story would be interesting for us to tell, or whatever sketch idea makes us laugh, we just try to do that.

So writers will bring up those kind of ideas and the room will start to all pitch on that idea together and try to come up with jokes for it. And then we try to beat out a general structure for it.

Once we’ve gotten the general outline for a storyline or a sketch together, one or two or three people will go off and write it together. That sort of depends on who was working on what, and how many people we have and all that. Probably the person who pitched the initial idea and one or two other people, it sort of depends who was working on what and how many people we have and all that. There are no hard-and-fast rules for it. Then we read it in a room and move on to rewrites. And once Scott is happy with it, we’re allowed to see our families again.

You and several of the writers at the show have backgrounds in improv and performing. Do you think doing improv helps you to be a better comedy writer?

I do think it is beneficial to do both. I think you learn a lot from actually getting up on stage and performing. There can be times when you write something you think is so clever, but then you go on stage, and you see it doesn’t totally connect. Not everyone is amazing at both writing and performing, but I think trying both helps you with both.

I was all into sketch before doing improv, and a big hurdle for me to overcome in improv was to step out into a scene without a really funny idea. I was always trying to start a scene with a sketch at the level of Mr. Show—trying to be a total mind fuck and have it be the most clever idea of all time. Improv helped me to pare it down to where it can be just two people talking, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most conceptual thing in the world. I still like writing conceptual things, but at 24, you shouldn’t have your mind made up that you are only going to write conceptual stuff and nothing else.

I think that improv has helped me with accessing ideas without overthinking them. With improv, you can sometimes build something up one piece at a time and take it to somewhere really interesting and weird that you wouldn’t have if you thought about it too much to begin with.

Is there anything particularly satisfying about being a writer for Comedy Bang! Bang!, in terms of creative freedom or otherwise?

Definitely a big thrill for me has been to meet a lot of my comedy icons. Either they have been guests on the couch, or they come in for a day or so to shoot a sketch. It is just pretty awesome that all these people come on from SNL, Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall, The State and all these other shows that helped shaped my sense of humor.

I specifically remember in season one me and Tim Kalpakis, a writer for the show, were talking about how crazy it was that we get to write these bits, and Amy Poehler and Dave Koechner were then saying the words we wrote. That was definitely a huge thrill, and it continues to be. To get to work with so many awesome people.

You’re an Iowa alum and you collaborate quite frequently with two people you met while at Iowa, Paul Rust and Michael Cassady (also appearing at the Floodwater Comedy Festival). Can you elaborate on the role Iowa played in your comedy career?

I went to Iowa and I studied film and theatre. I had never done theatre before I went Iowa, actually. I started taking more theatre classes and eventually wound up double majoring. What I really liked about the theatre department was that there was a lot of opportunity to put on my own stuff. I found myself more interested in getting to write my own plays, direct a friend’s play or act in a new play.

My sophomore year I started doing No Shame Theatre [a forum for stage performance based in Iowa City]. That’s where I met Paul Rust, who is still my best friend, and we still write and perform together out here in L.A. all the time. Because of No Shame, and because of the chance to put up my own work, I just gravitated toward doing a lot of comedy. It was just a lot of fun to do. Paul, Michael and I graduated and eventually we just decided to move to L.A. and do stuff together like we had in college.


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