A columnist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune weighed in today on the reality behind "reality" TV show Last Comic Standing, which begins its sixth season on May 22. That’s right. The sixth season. A little late for a journalist to get around to figuring out what’s really going on with the show. Especially since we already knew from the very beginning that NBC casts this as a TV show, and not as a search for the funniest stand-up comedian. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The funniest comedians don’t need Last Comic Standing, because they already have enough exposure and certainly don’t want to have to compete against each other (though that still would make for a very intriguing show), so this is more aptly thought of as the Search For The Next Comedian We Can Turn Into A Household Name, Or At Least Make Some Money From Them. Producers always have the first and last say on who made the cut each season. And all of those thousands of wannabes who stood in lines for hours each winter would see that the only times their linemates made the TV show were to be made fun of — for all of the comedians with agents and managers bypassed the open call lines for timed auditions. This is and always has been the case.
We can start at the very beginning, in summer 2003, with host Jay Mohr and that first season’s runner-up, Ralphie May. Anyone who had seen Mohr in a comedy club the previous year or on TV had also likely seen May, because the "contestant" toured with Mohr as his opening act and worked with him on his short-lived Mohr Sports on ESPN in 2002. Mohr’s other opening act, K.P. Anderson, and his traveling friend, Walter Gause, also served as writers and producers on both Mohr Sports and the initial Mohr-hosted seasons of LCS. Which may put Dat Phan’s surprise win into a different context for you. Or not.
Either way, Barry Katz has managed Mohr and several of the LCS contestants over the years, all while running the show. So there’s that to keep in mind.
In the second season, when comedians and the industry realized that the show was enough of a hit to actually mean something for their careers, many more turned out to compete. And the small print that tells "astute viewers" of the power of the producers actually made it into the televised footage when celebrity judges Drew Carey and Brett Butler complained when their picks (including Dan Naturman) didn’t make it into the LCS finalist house.
The third season, albeit bungled in the end by behind-the-scenes politics at NBC that sidetracked the finale, simultaneously revealed a great perk of prime-time TV, as the comedians began touring clubs across the country during the season in groups of three or more, and producers realized they could package tours for LCS comics. This practice continued in the fall and winter after season four, and then season five saw the final five LCS comedians get a national club and theater tour.
So we all should know the drill by now. Any professional comedian knows to weigh the potential cons (getting yelled at by a celebrity judge or edited to look like a villain) against the much bigger potential benefits (getting promoted from a club feature or showcase comedian to a national headliner, along with the elevated profile and merchandise sales and TV/film opportunities that come to anyone with prolonged exposure on prime-time network television) of trying out for Last Comic Standing. And that’s why, each season, if you look closely during each city’s callback audition performance shows, you’ll be surprised at the veteran headlining talent that appears among the faces waiting for their names to be called from the stage.
But from the beginning to now, it’s never simply been about finding the funniest comedian around. It’s been about making a TV show that people want to watch and talk about the next morning (and now blog about). And that’s just the reality of it.