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Last Comic Standing: New York, Canada, and San Antonio (season premiere)

by Jay Black, posted Jun 15th 2007 2:22PM
A spotlight and a microphone. Ahhhhh, so nice.(S05E01 / S05E02) First, let me apologize that this is being posted so late. There was a little mix-up behind the scenes here at the TV Squad Office Plaza and Community Fun Center that left both Paul Goebel and myself thinking that the other would be reviewing this episode. Our lead blogger asked "What happened to the review?" and all we could do was point at each other and make monkey noises. It's all sorted out, now, and you can expect new Last Comic Standing reviews with the same timely freshness that TV Squad reviews all its other shows.

Second, let me apologize for the blandness of this "lead". I usually try to open with something punchy that makes you want to click the "continued" link and that justifies my seven-figure TV Squad salary. The problem today is that the behind-the-scenes scheduling issues of a television blog, no matter how necessary they are to explain the lateness of a post, are never very interesting.

Some endeavors, however, become much more interesting once you get behind-the-scenes access to them. I would contend stand-up comedy is one of those things and that LCS is missing a golden opportunity to show them to the world. (Hey, did you see what I did there...?)

Paul Goebel and I have been asked to review this show because we're TV Squad's resident stand-up comedians. The hope, I think, is that we'll be able to bring a little added insight to the proceedings of LCS because we've actually done the thing this show is purporting to promote.

I can't speak for Paul and his approach to the reviews, but as for me I think it's important you know a few things up front:

1) I make my living as a stand-up comic. This is how I feed my wife and the baby that's growing (and growing and growing) inside her. I respect the job the same way a sailor respects the ocean. Because I know how hard it is to do what the people on the show are doing, I find it difficult to have anything but empathy and hope for them. That makes super-critical reviews a little hard to generate.

2) I know a lot of the people who are on this show. I've hung out with them on the road. Roy Wood Jr. and I spent two hours driving to New Orleans together in some kind Hound-of-the-Baskerville's-type fog. Ralph Harris's brother Romont is repped at the same agency I am. Joe DeVito and I once ate nachos together in Hartford, CT. I like these people and I respect them. Because of that, I don't think it's fair for me to criticize their comedy one way or the other. If I go on and on about how much I love a comic, it'll be suspect because I might know them and like them. If I talk about how hack or terrible a comic is, it'll be suspect because I might know them and hate them.

I have an opinion, yes, about what's funny and what isn't -- everyone does. I just don't think it's useful for me to spend a review basically saying: "I don't get why <insert name> got laughs! They're not funny at all!" Well, obviously if someone is getting laughs there are people that find them funny. It's not my place to say that those people are wrong.

3) Well, then, Mr. Smarty-Pants (you might be saying to yourself) how are you going to review a comedy show if you're not going to comment one way or the other about the comedy itself!? Good question. I think the answer is this: I'm going to tell you what this show is getting right or wrong about the world of stand-up comedy. I'm also going to make a few suggestions as to how this show could be better. So let's get to it:

Let me ask this question: Why do all the networks feel the only way a talent show can work is by using the American Idol format? Form a long line of wannabes, have them come in for an "audition" round, give some face time to the legits so we get to know their story, but show a fair number of crazies so that we have people to laugh at? I understand that it works for singing, but why does it have to be applied to comedy? Or inventions? Or to... whatever the hell America's Got Talent is trying to promote?

The problem with the American Idol format is that while it's possible to be a fabulously talented singer who's never been to the stage before, there is no such thing as a stand-up comedy prodigy. No one has ever spent ten years in their basement, King-of-Comedy style, only to emerge as the next Richard Pryor on some dumb reality TV show. All of the comics that you saw tonight who were good were guys and girls who have been doing it for years and years and years at the professional level (some, very successfully).

So why do they go through the farce of "finding" unknowns? That's lie number one the producers are asking you to believe. These comics might be unknown to you (at a national level), but they're not being "discovered" like an American Idol contestant.

I don't understand the preliminary round at all. Comedy is never funny when it's done in front of just three people (as any comic who's done a late show in the city in front of three drunks can tell you). Did you do much laughing during those scenes? Neither did I. Comedy only really works in front of an audience. My suspicion, other than it's the way American Idol does it, is that they did it this way to make the people who were bombing look like they were really bombing. While I believe that bombing is a part of stand-up and that it needs to be seen on the show, artificially goosing the chances that someone will bomb by putting them in such a horribly awkward position is stupid and disingenuous.

On top of that, I don't think that Ant, Alonzo Bodden, and Kathleen Madigan had any real say as to who moved forward anyway. They kept writing things on their little notebooks; do you really believe that they were making any kind of real, productive notes? I think they were writing down how much they were getting paid per episode to say "no" semi-cleverly, and then let the producers pick who got moved along.

That being said, I quite enjoyed the comedy-club rounds. It was a TV audience, for sure (meaning that they were much more inclined to laugh than a regular audience -- having done a TV shoot I can tell you the chances of getting an applause break when the cameras are rolling are much greater than when you're just at a regular club on a regular Tuesday) but to me that's what stand-up is about. An audience, a mic, and a comic. I would have liked to see more of that. I would have like to see the preliminary round eliminated altogether and just let us see the producer's picks at the comedy club. Though I don't think that comedy contests necessarily work (how do you quantify something like a sense of humor), it's certainly a lot easier judging how these comics are doing in front of a real audience than a fake panel of judges.

What I said in the lead is something that I'll be expanding on, I'm sure, as I review the show over the summer. I might be a wee bit biased, but if you're going to be showing anything other than just stand up comedy, I think they should try to capture what it's like hanging in the back of the room with all the comics. We comment on the audience, the comic on stage, the industry in general, and we tend to do it pretty funnily. So why does LCS insist on ignoring all of that for a series of stupid "games" that don't even make any sense in the world of stand-up comedy? Put one of the contestants on stage, then stick a camera in the green room to see what the other comics are saying. If the comic on stage is killing, you'll get miles out of the nerves of all the comics who have to follow him. If the comic is eating it, you'll get to see schadenfreude smiles immediately wiped away for fear of receiving bad karma from the comedy gods. It would be interesting, it would be funny, and, above all, it would be real. A novel concept, I know, for a reality show...

Okay, I need to wrap this review up. Let's do some quick notes:

-- Editing. Did anyone else find it distracting? I was convinced they were mixing and matching laughs. I'm not sure why they would feel the need to do this (other than the fact that maybe the editor needs to justify his union salary). There were quite a few times they cut to the panel laughing where the timing of the reaction felt "wrong".

-- The host. Why do all LCS hosts turn into zombies when they get the job? When Jay Mohr is ranked as the most dynamic personality in this history of the position, you know you have a problem.

-- A note to all talent-show reality producers: stop asking people what winning the show "will mean to them." Other than Joe DeVito's answer last night (to be able to have the power to crush people's dreams), every answer is ultimately the same. The single parents always try to drag some sympathy out of us ("my baby can have insulin now!") and the rest of them all have some variation of ("it'll be the validation of my life's goals and a dream come true!") It's getting to be as hacky and ridiculous as a TV reporter asking an Appalachian family how they feel now that their trailer has been burned to a crisp. We know the answer, so stop asking the question.

-- One last thing. I realized, looking back over this review, that this might be the most serious thing I've ever written for TV Squad. I think that speaks volumes for how stand-up comics view what we do. I don't have time to make jokes when I talk about stand-up (and I actually edited down a much longer review. This thing could have easily turned into a 5000 word monstrosity talking about the various nuances of stand-up comedy). I think this is what the show is missing. Comics are very serious about making people laugh because it's so freakin' hard to do. When a joke works, it's so magical and special that we analyze to death exactly what made the joke work so that we might be able to repeat the process. If LCS could capture just a little bit of what it's like when a new joke works or when an old reliable fails, it might turn into my favorite show on television.

Until then, it's just another lame reality show.

(If this review isn't long enough for you and you're still hungering for even more LCS coverage, you can check out Shecky Magazine's take here. Shecky is a great site maintained by stand-up comics to discuss all things stand-up related.)

What is your dream format for LCS?
Just like Jay said: stand-up with a camera in the green room.23 (32.4%)
Forget that, just give me an hour of stand-up.29 (40.8%)
I'd like to see more stuff in the house. Let's see them interact!16 (22.5%)
I think it's perfect the way it is.3 (4.2%)

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Michael

I agree with pretty much everything you said about the format of this show Jay. I listen to a TON of comics on both XM and Sirius and I've been exposed to some truly great comics over the last couple of years as a result. LCS could be a great vehicle to get exposure to the masses for comics that simply don't have the funding to go out and tour the way they would have to otherwise. Your point about all of the comics being veterans is spot on but I don't think that the general public realizes that fact. It really does take a long time to develop one's chops enough to rise to a decent level so why not take advantage of that? I really loved your suggestions about both seeing more club/audience time during the show and forget about all the lame-o challenges. The only segments of the show that have much value now are the behind the scenes backstage (and later in the house) and the live on stage performances. The rest is just pretty crappy filler and it shows.

This show really has a lot of potential to be great AND different than all the other reality competitions but they don't begin to scratch the surface of any of it. Look at what happened last season where the network crapped out of even airing the finale. It certainly wasn't the comedians' faults that happened! They really need to revamp this show before its too late but I can't see that happening and that's too bad. It just goes to show how limited the networks are creatively that they can't (or won't) make adjustments mid stream that would benefit them long term. To top it off, the changes they DO make only serve to ruin it even further.

BTW, I agree that this show needs to be on cable. While I'm not endorsing "blue" comic material, sometimes the funniest comics have either material or language that simply isn't suitable for prime time, network television. Can you imagine Richard Pryor trying to clean up his routine enough to get thru a bit without swearing or telling an off color joke? It's got to be tough for these guys too, that's all I'm saying.

http://www.myspace.com/scoobarama

June 16 2007 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ike

Nice review Jay, as a somewhat hardcore fan of stand-up it is refreshing to see a similar point of view. This show started out pretty good the first 2 seasons but then of course they ruined it for the 3rd and now it has become so middle of the road.
I cannot stand how last year they seemed to make sure there were an even amount of men to women. When in reality there are more men than women in this profession. That is not being sexist, that is being honest.
Also, they seem to be more willing to put through the bubbly personality comic over the cringe or blue comics.

I think this show would only be good if it were on a cable channel. A reality show about stand-up should be about all of the ups and downs that comics go through and all like you said all of the backstage talk which is often times funnier than what happens on stage.

June 16 2007 at 12:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Excelsior

They need to do this format in order to weed through the high number of entrants in reasonable amount of time.

Some of the comics were outstanding and there were definately more good sets than there were spots. This will be definately an interesting season.

Its anyones game right now.

June 15 2007 at 9:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Katie

I wish the producers would cut the "pre-club" interviews, because I can't help but become attached to so many of the comics who I know are bound to be cut from a group of 15 down to 3, right after the club show. Why do they make this such a rigorous cut? Do they have a small quota they have to fill from each city? Even American Idol will have varying amounts of people that are pooled from city to city

June 15 2007 at 7:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BartmanDK

I had never seen the show and thought i would give it a chance, and having these reviews with the inside scoop will be great!

June 15 2007 at 6:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KMF

Thanks for the insight. I wondered what comedians thought about the show.

June 15 2007 at 4:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JJ Hawkins

I missed the last hour because my TiVo is an idiot, but it was probably for the best. You're right about the prelims. They're pretty painful to watch particularly when those two random NBC producers did the judging.

At least Alonzo and Kathleen were entertaining.

Liked the long review.

JJ

June 15 2007 at 4:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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