It doesn’t take a comic genius to recognize that in the pantheon of great American comedians, one will probably not find Dat Phan, Ralphie May, or Ant, each of who has won or been a finalist on Last Comic Standing.
In fact, in my mercifully brief career as standup comedian, I witnessed many injustices—clubs that didn’t pay, audiences that threw things, the ongoing career of Gallagher—none of which seemed to embody the general cruelty of the business more than Last Comic Standing.
It started with the first season in 2003. The winner of the country’s first network-broadcast national comedy competition was Phan. Now Phan seems like a nice guy, and he won because the audience voted for him. But when what is supposed to be one of the top acts in the country is a variant of the isn’t-this-Asian-accent-crazy routine, it sends a message. And that message is: If you’re a comedian who values originality and good writing, put down your pen and buy a puppet, because Last Comic Standing is giving trophies to hacks.
Click Below to Watch Dat Phan in 2003
Season Two had other problems. That year, Dan Naturman, a club favorite in New York City and a frequent guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, was given high enough marks to advance, but, according to Drew Carey, who was one of the judges, was tossed off the show because the producers didn’t like him. His replacement? Ant.
Click below to watch Dan Naturman in 2008, after being asked to return
Add to this rumors of preferential auditions to clients of agents connected to producers, and advancement choices based on who’d make the best cast member (the disclaimer still says contestants advance “in consultation with producers and NBC”), and you can see why Last Comic Standing became to comedians a reality show masquerading as a competition.
So is this season any different? It’s hard to know exactly what the producers are up to behind the scenes, but against all expectations, the show is the best it’s ever been, something even a working comedian can enjoy. Here’s why:
The Judges Seem to Care About Talent
The judging team of Greg Giraldo, Andy Kindler, and Natasha Leggero is the strongest yet. Giraldo is an especially inspired choice: He’s been killing in the clubs and on Comedy Central’s roasts for years, but never really found a niche on network television. His persona has been reined in a bit—I’m not sure anyone has seen him smile this much—but credit to him and Kindler for taking professional performers to task when their act is weak. Check out the audition of Guy Torry, a 15-year acting and comedy veteran:
The Freak Show Element Is Tolerably Low
The first three episodes have featured the obligatory parade of losers-as-fodder-for-the-hosts, but that hasn’t taken over the show. Watching one man perform as a robot was actually worth the quip from Giraldo (“Is that a character you’re doing?”). Andy Kindler had a good take on the role of props in comedy history, something anyone who’s envied Carrot Top’s success may want to watch.
The Real Auditions Are Funny
Let’s not forget that the comedians are supposed to be funny on this show. So far, so good on this front, even in the awkward audition sequences. The first episode’s Los Angeles auditions were filled with experienced pros— David Feldman, Cathy Ladman, Laurie Kilmartin—but the best moment may have come from Kirk Fox. Fox is hardly the neophyte he tries to come across as, but this is still good television.
Comedians Who Deserve to Advance Are Actually Advancing
Whoever’s making the final decisions about who moves forward isn’t perfect—did Jim David, who appeared in the second episode, really not deserve a shot at the next round?—but it’s hard to argue with the choices so far. (Among the winners from episode three: Kyle Grooms, Carmen Lynch, and Brian McKim.) A diverse cast is probably one of the producers’ goals, but that actually works to the benefit of Last Comic Standing. There aren’t many clubs where you can see, in one show, a talented group as varied in terms of ethnicity, age, and gender. Some highlights:
By now audiences are savvy enough to realize that no reality show is absent some degree of manipulation. It is possible that Last Comic Standing’s champion will again be someone with a flair for doing funny voices. But let’s not bash till it’s warranted. I have my favorites to win it all, but this year, I’m rooting for the show.
Gregory Gilderman is senior producer at The Daily Beast and a former writer for Philadelphia magazine.