The funniest moments in Comedy Bang! Bang!, both the podcast and the TV show, come from two complete different types of comedy. There are the low-key moments, where Scott and the guests at hand just have a wonderful rapport and the jokes bounce back and forth seamlessly, as they did last week with Judy Greer. On the opposite end is the craziness that has always been inherent in Comedy Bang! Bang!’s DNA that makes characters from Andy Daly and Paul F. Tompkins instant favorites. “Stephen Merchant Wears a Checkered Shirt and Rolled Up Jeans” uses both of these dynamics, combining smaller moments with insane ones.
The plot of “Stephen Merchant” is about as nuts as Comedy Bang! Bang! gets. Scott’s father Burt (Dave Thomas) turns out not to be Scott’s actual father. 28 years ago, Scott’s mom (Sally Kellerman) met Zeus (Michael McKean) in the form of a goat, one thing led to another, and, well, Zeus is Scotty’s real father. When Hera learns of another one of her husband’s illegitimate children, she decides to put Scott to three challenges, and if he can’t take them, he will die.
“Stephen Merchant” then becomes a Clash of the Titans, Ray Harryhausen homage that’s beyond ridiculous, yet works perfectly well in the Comedy Bang! Bang! world where anything can happen and ultimately makes sense because of it. Throughout the episode, Scott has to fight of skeletons, Medusa and eventually the Kraken, all while trying to impress Burt as his true father cheers him on. The way Scott takes on these beasts is obviously silly, as Scott uses Stephen Merchant’s rock collection and Kid Cudi’s drumsticks (sticks and stones) to break the bones, then gets drunk and uses his beer goggles to look straight at Medusa before taking out her gaze with a mirror.
Yet for the life-and-death stakes at hand—and the fact that this episode technically means that Scott is a god—the best moments of “Stephen Merchant” are just when Scott and Stephen are talking on the couch. For anyone who listened to the Ricky Gervais podcast or watched his HBO show Hello Ladies, it’s clear that Merchant is a brilliant comedic mind. Watching him play around with Scott makes me wish Merchant was in the spotlight more often. Immediately the two talk about how Merchant’s height can be a problem when he goes on his strange walks with his pickpocket gang of children, several of which have died thanks to his long stride.
Aukerman and Merchant’s humor find a perfect middle ground that is completely unexpected, as the two talk about a city named Fingeringhoe, which Kid Cudi knows all about. Their talks about who is Jesus’ dad and Guns & Ammunition magazine feel off the cuff and natural, which makes them work incredibly well.
Merchant is also fantastic when karate instructor Dave Grigsby (Rob Huebel) comes out with a black eye and a score to settle with a six-year-old that got in a cheap shot. Merchant passes the test of how a guest reacts to a character with flying colors, taking down Grigsby’s insistence that punching through a pizza box is just the same as punching through a piece of wood. At a certain point, Scott pretty much takes a backseat to just watch Huebel and Merchant riff off each other and it’s a dynamic that is masterfully hilarious.
“Stephen Merchant” continues the trend of this stretch of episodes having grandiose, crazy ideas, but balancing them with very fun guests that know exactly how to play in this environment. That combination, when done well, as it is in “Stephen Merchant,” is so great that it’s next to godliness.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.