Friday, July 25, 2008

New Comedy Central Shows Goof on Reality Programs, But Make for Strange Bedfellows

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

Comedy Central has dedicated its Thursday nights this summer to spoofing reality shows. But the network’s two offerings, “The Gong Show With Dave Attell” (new episodes air at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) and “Reality Bites Back” (10:30 Eastern), couldn’t be more different in their tones and intents.

The original “Gong Show” was very much a product of its time (1976-1980), from host/producer Chuck Barris’s disco tuxedos to the every-night’s-a-party attitude on the stage. Barris, with his compulsive hand-clapping and seemingly inebriated persona, presided over a parade of surreally weird and bad talent acts, who were then graded by three judges, generally minor celebrities. The judges also had the option of striking a gong, cutting the act short. The winner of the day’s competition won the oddly specific sum of $516.32.

How do you remake something that is such a product of its time? Comedy Central smartly figured that rather than try and update the concept, the best route would be to stay faithful to the original. And they’ve done a really good job in that regard. The rules are the same, the acts are dutifully odd and dopey, and the judges are party-loving, D-list celebrities, just like in the original. Even the prize for the winner is the equally insubstantial $600 (with a championship boxing-style belt thrown in for good measure).

Attell, best known for his former Comedy Central program “Insomniac With Dave Attell,” in which he essentially got drunk and hung out with people late at night, is the perfect match for the boozy, good-time-loving Barris. At one point in last week’s episode, while things kind of spun out of control, Attell took a seat and lit up a cigarette. The move captured the Barris spirit perfectly. And it’s not something you’d expect to see Ryan Seacrest do.

Interestingly, after the monster success of “American Idol” spawned a cavalcade of talent shows (I’m waiting for “So You Think You Can Tie Your Own Shoelaces,” which I’m sure is in development at one of the networks), “The Gong Show” is suddenly looking ahead of its time (even predating “Star Search,” the first successful serious television talent show). By simply keeping to the 1970s formula, the new “Gong Show” manages to parody the current plethora of talent shows on the airwaves. It’s a neat little trick.

The original “Gong Show” was risqué for it’s time, often with judge Jaye P. Morgan in the center of the naughty storm, and the new version is happy to follow in those footsteps. On last week’s show, judge Andy Dick, looking at a performer covered in green makeup, observed, “Cut to me and the Jolly Green Giant (bleep)ing in my dressing room.” Later, Dick tells an effeminate guy with an 1980s Howard Jones hairstyle who played music by rubbing water glasses that, “You can’t teach that kind of talent. A gay wizard has to (bleep) it into you.” Morgan was known for occasionally baring her breasts during tapings, but Dick went her one better, whipping out his penis as part of a joke (this being basic cable, all exposed key body parts are blacked out in post-production). And the nudity in that episode wasn’t limited to the judges. One act was essentially a burlesque Cirque du Soleil, as a scantily clad woman and a man in a bottom-revealing monkey costume performed fairly impressive feats of acrobatics and strength, before the woman stripped down to her bikini bottoms.

If all this sounds infantile, it clearly is. But so was the original. There is certainly a kind of anarchic charm to Attell’s “Gong Show” that is reminiscent of the Barris version, but there is no doubt that the appeal will only extend to a specific audience. Dick exposing his genitals alone is enough to put off a huge chunk of potential viewers, and the decidedly un-PC humor will send many more people packing. One of the acts last week featured two “midget” wrestlers, first battling each other, before taking on Dick and fellow judge J.B. Smoove (Larry’s house guest in the most recent season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). After gonging the comically suggestive heavy metal band Trash, who featured two women in tiny schoolgirl outfits sucking on giant lollipops while the musicians played, Smoove said he couldn’t concentrate on the girls sucking because the band was sucking so much. Another act last week consisted of a guy pretending to pull a rabbit out of his own abdomen, complete with fake blood and guts. If that isn’t gross enough for you, Dick then proceeded to taste some of the faux innards and share one stringy piece, “Lady and the Tramp” style, with fellow judge Dave Navarro. The winners of that show were two buff, shirtless African-American guys with 1980s cornrow Mohawks slapping their bodies along with music.

If the last paragraph has made you vow to turn off your television when “The Gong Show With Dave Attell” is on, just to make sure you don’t accidentally stumble onto Comedy Central and see this nonsense, I understand. But if you have a bit of nostalgia for the Chuck Barris edition of the program, and you can marvel at the silliness of it all without taking any of it seriously, you might enjoy this insane half hour.

It’s odd that Comedy Central has decided to follow up “The Gong Show” with “Reality Bites Back,” which will appeal to a very, very different audience. “Reality Bites Back” features 10 comics competing in a different reality show parody each week. The target of last week’s episode was “Big Brother,” and last night’s edition was a send-up of “Rock of Love.” “Reality Bites Back” veers to the quirky, requiring a kind of ability to go with the flow that stands in stark contrast to the in-your-face debauchery of “The Gong Show.”

The tone of “Reality Bites Back” comes straight from its host, Michael Ian Black, who, depending on how lucky you are, you know from either the CBS show “Ed,” the Comedy Central sketch program “Stella,” or all those grating VH1 disasters where snarky comics make fun of stuff (“Best Week Ever,” “I Love the 80s,” etc.). On screen, Black has perfected a signature character, the pompous idiot who thinks he is more important and smarter than he really is. So it’s not surprising that in playing the host of “Reality Bites Back,” Black’s character is a pompous idiot who thinks he is more important and smarter than he really is.

There is no doubt that “Reality Bites Back” is a one joke endeavor, sending up the clichés and conceits of the genre. And while the program does a good job of nailing these now-familiar moments (the manufactured, misdirection drama employed by the host before someone is kicked off; the perp walk and subsequent exit interview of the loser; etc.), the whole thing wears thin. It’s hard to parody something as ridiculous and silly as reality programs, which tread dangerously close to parody themselves. So five minutes in to “Reality Bites Back,” I had kind of seen enough.

The same can be said for Black. As a supporting character on a well-written, well-acted ensemble program like “Ed,” he is a solid addition to the mix. But having to watch his overly exposed persona throughout a show is a bit much. A little Black goes a long way.

Then again, in some circles, Black is a genuine star. “Stella” and Black’s first show, “The State,” have a dedicated cult following, and I’m sure Black’s fans will enjoy “Reality Bites Back,” since it is so infused with his approach to comedy. At the same time, I can’t picture these fans enjoying the brainless fun of “The Gong Show,” making the two shows an odd pair to share a night of television.

Odds are you will like “The Gong Show” or “Reality Bites Back,” but certainly not both.