Thursday, May 29, 2008

“Last Comic Standing” Ushers in a Summer of Reality TV

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

“Last Comic Standing” is better than “American Idol.”

Okay, I knew that would get your attention. I know the ratings for “Last Comic Standing” (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC) don’t even rise to the level of nipping at the heels of “Idol,” and I also get that “Last Comic Standing” sometimes feels like it was thrown together by a basic cable network.

But as I watched the premiere of the sixth season (yes, sixth season ... I am as shocked as you are) of “Comic” last Thursday, I couldn’t help thinking that despite the fact that the show is far from perfect, and even though it hasn’t captured a place in American pop culture like “Idol” has, it is, to me anyway, a more enjoyable viewing experience.

Let’s start with the performers. As a guy who loves comedy and has no interest in teen-friendly pop music, clearly, I start with a bias in favor of "Comic." But beyond my personal tastes, I think the comedians are way more interesting to watch than the singers. The audition episodes of both shows mix the good and the awful, but the rejects on "Comic" are more interesting. Singing is more objective than being funny. It is (or should be) clear to the lousy crooners who take their shots at "Idol" auditions that they're bad. Which means they're either looking for publicity or so deluded, I feel a little guilty laughing at them. And besides, how many different ways are there to sing badly? It all starts to run together.

The walking disasters on "Comic" are way more interesting to me. Comedy is personal. More than 10 million viewers each week tune in to "Two and a Half Men," voluntarily, I assume. But to me, watching my computer crash would be funnier than that train wreck of a show (and I'm a writer, so that's really saying something ...). So I think it's way more plausible that the parade of people who go onstage at the "Comic" auditions and bomb honestly think they're funny. And that's way more interesting than a guy's voice cracking as he tries to sing "I Will Always Love You." Not to mention the sheer variety of ways that comedians can suck, from the raving lunatic who had one of the judges fearing for her safety to the guy who dressed in an alien outfit and tossed off one-liners in a deep baritone and the nut job in a chicken outfit who relied on even worse one-liners playing off bird noises.

I also find the good performers to be more entertaining on "Comic" than on "Idol." Good singers are a dime a dozen. It's a rare case when "Idol" finds someone with true star quality. It feels like for every Kelly Clarkson, there is a flood of Justin Guarinis, Ruben Studdards, Diana DeGarmos, Jordin Sparkses and Bo Bices (all winners or runners-up). Maybe we expect less from comedians, but sitting through an episode of "Comic," you're bound to laugh several times at truly funny bits. Don't get me wrong. It's not like the "Comic" winners are dominating prime-time television or anything, more likely using their new-found title to book themselves into comedy clubs across the nation. It's not that the Dat Phans and John Heffrons (past winners) of the world have done better than the "Idol" champs and runners-up, but, while on the stage, their best moments deliver in a way the singers on "Idol" rarely do.

Take the two twins in the "Comic" premiere who constantly talk over each other, for example. They tested the boundary between annoying and funny, but their act was pretty out there. What was the most innovative thing an "Idol" contestant has done? Blake Lewis beat boxing? Enough said.

Even more than the performers, the judges on "Comic" are infinitely more entertaining than their "Idol" counterparts. Year after year, “Idol” sends Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell out on audition after audition, and to performance show after performance show, so much so that there is virtually nothing left for any of them to say that would surprise, move or entertain us. Abdul’s lack of basic coherence has officially moved from funny to sad; if Jackson was any more prone to repeating bland statements from an increasingly limited pool of comments, he could be George W. Bush’s press secretary; and Cowell’s British bad boy act has grown tired and cartoonish.

“Comic,” on the other hand, features different celebrity judges in each audition city. And they're a lot more interesting, too. The debut edition of the show had Richard Belzer (“Law and Order: SVU”) and Steve Schirripa (“The Sopranos”) making the yea-or-nay determinations in New York, while Kathy Najimy and comedy legend Fred Willard handled the judges' table in Tempe, Arizona. Belzer and Schirripa, emitting pure New York attitude, had an easy rapport with each other, mixing spot-on judgments about the comics with smart, funny comments meant to entertain. Willard just brings so much joy to the stage. He clearly was having fun watching the performers (good and bad, mostly bad), and yet he wasn’t a pushover, even if he claimed to be (mainly because he likes impressionists, but the one they let move on was great and ended up being one of the three semifinalists). I find Najimy’s persona to be too big and too fake for my tastes, but at least she made coherent observations on the competitors.

In other words, it was like a Bizarro World version of the "Idol" judging sessions.

Future "Comic" judges are equally interesting, like George Wendt and John Ratzenberger of “Cheers,” Neil Flynn of “Scrubs,” Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nunez of "The Office," Dave Foley ("Kids in the Hall") and Richard Kind ("Mad About You"). I'd rather spend an hour with anyone on that list than Abdul, Jackson or Callow.

The real edge for "Comic" comes in the host. Bill Bellamy is a solid, professional comedian with a playful, engaging personality and decent material. Ryan Seacrest is, well, Ryan Seacrest. First-round knockout to "Comic." And that's even taking into account the "Comic" roving reporter/co-host, English presenter Fearne Cotton, who is so loud and grating, if someone tried to put together a second generation Spice Girls, she would surely be booted out of it for being even too annoying for that shrill-fest. The fact that she is easy on the eyes is the only plausible explanation for her presence on this (or any) show.

As much as I truly believe that "Comic" provides a superior viewer experience to "Idol," I also fully acknowledge that the programs are watched against a completely different set of expectations. "Idol," regardless of what I think, is fodder for water-cooler discussions. Seemingly everyone you meet watches the show and, even more than that, has strong opinions on who they like and dislike. The bar is raised so high, it is not only virtually impossible for the program to reach it, but it makes experimenting a risky proposition. How do you mess with the number one show? If you are a network executive, you do so at your own peril.

"Comic," on the other hand, flies so low under the radar, I have no doubt that most people reading this article will say to themselves, "That show is still on the air?" Going in with low expectations, you don't need that many funny comedians to make it a worthwhile endeavor. And nobody is going to ask you the next morning what you thought of the previous night's show, unless you actually work at a comedy club.

So there you have it, incontrovertible proof that "Last Comic Standing" is better than "American Idol." Well, incontrovertible to me, anyway. Is "Comic" a great show? No. But compared to the average summer reality series (last week also brought us the premieres of "Living Lohan," about Lindsay's manager mother and her aspiring singer/tabloid casualty daughter Ali, and "Denise Richards: It's Complicated," about the actress who is anything but), "Comic" starts to look like a pretty good option.