And so it begins again. Two years since we last left NBC's Last Comic Standing with an abrupt five-person finale, the show has returned to us, reborn with a new host (Craig Robinson), new judges (Andy Kindler, Natasha Leggero and Greg Giraldo) and a new promise to focus firmly and seriously on the business of comedy. Do they mean it this time?

For one thing, it's more than entirely possible that we already have seen this year's winner on TV before. By we, I mean the collective we and not just the you and me we, although that's also true — Oui! Oui! — because by taking comedy seriously, the producers already have made it clear that even though all of our contestants could be called up-and-coming and even aspiring, they are by no means rookies. When LCS first hit network TV in 2002 as comedy's version of American Idol meets Survivor, the bounty of a televised stand-up comedy special and development deal meant so much more for the field of participants. In 2010, so many more half-hour specials, late-night slots and cable showcases have given stand-ups a chance to grab a TV credit or two or more. So much so that as we, in real-time, already have our 10 finalists, we know that many of them are in this game for a lot more than a half-hour TV special. They're here for primetime network TV exposure on a regular weekly basis, the national theater tour that's sure to follow for the final five, and fame, fortune.

But first. We open Craig Robinson playing the keyboard and singing about the show's return, to reveal the Hollywood Improv and contestants behind him, as we saw in one of last week's teaser videos. Then we get the first montage of our judges as well as many quick looks at comedians, including a sneak peek at a naked Andy Ofiesh. Andy Ofiesh! Each of the judges gets an introduction, which is nice and also weird since they are peers or idols of the contestants. Giraldo gets a clip from his 2009 DVD special, while Leggero gets meta with a clip mocking reality TV competitions from Leno, and Kindler is even more meta as Robinson specifically credits Kindler for "The Hack's Handbook."

Our first contestant featured at the Hollywood Improv is Maronzio Vance. He says he auditioned way back in season two, and his first joke is about the woes of living in a studio apartment. Kindler gives him props for playing to the production crew, and they go at it. "We will see you tonight!" Kindler says. We will see him again, yes indeed. Our second featured contestant is Felipe Esparza, who shows us his apartment and friends in Los Angeles before we see him telling jokes. "What do you guys think? More? Less?" Giraldo says he knows how funny Esparza is, but thinks his audition set didn't showcase him fully, and he makes it to the night showcase despite getting a no from Leggero. "These guys pushed you through," she says. How far will they push him through, you may be asking?

And then there's a guy with a guitar and a red devil outfit. He wants to call himself my professional clown name, so even before the judges say no, I say NO! A KISS something or other. Other nuts. A guy who opened by saying, "No joke." Interviews with the longshots standing on the sidewalk for hours, with Robinson telling them eternal truths such as NBC giving the prize to Jay Leno.

And we're back to actual comedians, with Kirk Fox. We saw him in a teaser video, too, although here we see him surrendering during his routine. No surrender, though! He makes it through to the night showcase.

Our next featured contestant is Laurie Kilmartin, whom I think of as a NYC comedian but is listed here as a Walnut Creek, Calif., resident, showing us her new home with her son, talking about being a single mom and stand-up comedian. Now here she is onstage joking. And the judges like what they see. Hmmm. We are less than 20 minutes into the show, and already this much good news? They are trying to win us over early, it appears.

Kilmartin In the first running non-sequitur bit of the series, Giraldo sets up Kindler by giving him more time to come up with wardrobe suggestions for Kilmartin (whom, fun fact, seemed to wear the same outfit in her backstage and onstage appearances; and even funner factor, has been someone I knew about from when I first started in comedy in Seattle in the 1990s because her headshot stood out from the others along the wall of the Comedy Underground), and then we see him testing the confidences of several other comedians, starting with Renee Gauthier (in an unbilled cameo) and going through several others. "I want you to wear your hair up AND down," he tells one woman.

After ads, we're back. And we're in the home of Fortune Feimster, who is from North Carolina, but they're not holding auditions in North Carolina, or North anywhere. If you wanted to be on the series this season, then you needed to be in Los Angeles or New York City. They like her jokes and her presence, so she is a yes. Next up: Lil Rel from Chicago. He says it's his third try at LCS. Third time's the charm? Kindler likes his "old-school" sensibility, while Giraldo applauds him for wearing multiple shades of gray.

Marc Ryan from Baton Rouge, La., says that his domestic squabbles winds up on Facebook, and says he finds it difficult to perform in front of two people he idolizes. Nancy is not one of them. And Leggero is not a fan of him, either. Bye-bye. As we continue with the No pile, Giraldo acknowledges that it's difficult in a comedy competition to deal with people who think they're funny but not. Which leads into a montage of bad comedians and hack premises. We come back to Kevin Small, who makes jokes about dicks and drinks but really about his dad, but really really it's his silly stupid kicks and tags that Giraldo wonders if he knows he is doing, and it turns out he is serious about his stupid shtick. How will he do in front of an audience? We must wait for commercials.

In the meantime: Cathy Ladman! Rob Delaney! Shane Mauss! David Feldman! Jacob Sirof! Quick shots from professional comedians, because the show wants us to know they know people in the business, and we'll see more from them later.

Uh-oh, time killing time, since host Robinson is pretending to audition.

More ads, and we're back with Guy Torry. Guy Torry! With his version of Cribs, with everything empty. This is where his TV shoulda been, his books woulda gone. Torry goes after the judges by congratulating them on having a job, then joking about other jobs. The judges aren't laughing, though. Torry says he'll bring it at the night show, and Kindler says he knows that, but that's not enough. Torry says he wants to get on TV so he can get on TV. It's working? But what happens when a woman shows up with a dog, and neither one of their lips are moving, and one or the other is named Edith Piaf? I don't know. There's another woman offstage speaking. What is happening?!?!? Bring back my comedy show!

Here is Taylor Williamson from San Diego, and he has a drawl that you will either love or not love so much, but he does have lessons from his time living in NYC. And he will be back at night to entertain you some more.

We're not even halfway through the first episode, and they're already at the night show(s), so the worst of Los Angeles is already behind us? Too good to be true, people. I shall try to contain my optimism. Robinson says it's the first L.A. showcase, and knowing there were two such things in NYC, there most likely also were two on the other coast, too. Esparza gets first crack at the live Improv audience. He's got a laid-back vibe and plays into it. Feimster makes a Precious joke about herself, and calls herself a late bloomer. Delaney jokes about seeing a woman jogging — is he doing as well in the joke department as she was in the boobs department? Cut to the next guy. It's Lil Rel, still with lots of gray. This Chicago guy seems like he learned a lot from Bernie Mac, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Now about Kevin Small, the live audience is not laughing but the judges are. Oh my. Small doesn't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Now that he's watching this on the TV, hopefully someone has sat Small down to explain it to him. Kilmartin jokes about her baby and her boyfriend, and those are two different things. Sirof jokes about how everyone hates the Jews.

Will Kirk Fox endure in the night showcase? He wants you to know how heavy a human leg is, and he endures. The crowd loves him. Same for Taylor Williamson. David Feldman makes Sarah Palin jokes. "Sarah Palin jokes. I'm not afraid!" Amy Claire got a blip of airtime earlier in the show, and now we know her name, and whether she went with Kindler's advice to wear her hair up and down. Vance jokes about getting 99-cent cereal. Ladman wonders how Hitler is getting so many TV specials, and who Eva Braun was dating before she met Hitler. An old-school stand-up telling older school jokes. Torry dressed up for the audience, and how his woman has a strange sense of what's classy. Mauss tells us backstage that he feels a need to impress, and when he's done onstage, they cut to the judges nodding in agreement supposedly about how good Mauss is. Robinson tells us it's time to deliberate, and we have almost an hour still left in this hour! How will they prolong the suspense???

Time for the comedians to stand and await their fates. Esparza gets a red ticket envelope to the semis. Surprised? Feldman, too, along with Vance, Mauss, Torry, Fox, Sirof, Williamson, Lil Rel, Feimster, and Kilmartin. This is always the part of the show when you see the other people standing up there and wonder, who were they, unless you see someone you recognize, and then you wonder, why didn't they get any real face-time on the show, and will that stop them from using the series as a TV credit? Probably not. Also in the facts of fun category, file this one: Fox and Mauss shared honors at the final HBO Aspen festival three years ago, and here they are now, sharing honors again. But for how long? But. For. How. Long.

Oh, and they are splitting L.A. up into what they're calling a whole other "day" even though this all happened at the same time. Or did it? If this is how they want to mess with the time-space continuum, then I suppose nobody is going to get hurt, except for the comedians and wannabes whose feelings most certainly got hurt, and perhaps we can agree to disagree that this is an acceptable loss of collateral damage.

So here we are on the second day, and as Robinson says there are only a handful of tickets left, he stops to ask if it's this person in line, only he didn't expect that person to hug him and start talking and whatnot.

Day two's first featured contestant is Rachel Feinstein, who is a New Yorker, but auditioning in Hollywood. Um, OK. If you start to get an idea into your head that the contestants who get followed by cameras will not only get the added time from those cameras, but also more time in the series, then that's not a bad expectation on your part as a viewer. Giraldo says Feinstein has "a very bright future ahead of her." What do you say, America? Next up is Michael J. Herbert from Vegas, but Giraldo and Leggero want to know how punk rock he is with his mohawk hairdo, and since he's not punk rock at all, it's a no-go from the judges. Sorry, Michael. Montage…aliens, jugglers, fake mustaches, balloons, toplessness, a guy in bear stilt suit. Kindler notes that people think they can look funny and not have to write actual material. "I gravitate toward people who are themselves onstage," he says. How about Paula Bel? Ron Babcock and James Adomian get quick yes votes as Giraldo talks about how many funny people he has seen in Los Angeles, while
Tiffany Haddish gets more than a quick second for her tantalizing iguana bit. Robinson wants Haddish to play his wife in something, and whether it was improvised or scripted, their flirty interaction was funny.

I cannot help but feel doubly sorry for the people we see standing and/or sitting out in the rain for hours waiting for a fleeting glance at glory, but most likely not.

Chip Pope from Texas, meanwhile, loves the B-52s and claims they can make a song out of anything, even postage stamps. Kindler says he knows that Pope is funny, and so does Leggero. Another quick montage, featuring Cristela AlonzoChris Fairbanks, Christina Pazsitzky. Wait. Is this a montage of CrisChrisses? It is. It was! Can anyone follow that? Skippy Greene from Atlantic City, if that's his real name or hometown, which it probably isn't, probably cannot, even though he makes the judges laugh. On the other hand, there's Jonathan Thymius. They like him, hope he has more jokes. He probably has more jokes. I mean. C'mon. Look at him. He has more jokes.

We're ready for the second night showcase, and Jimmy Dore is backstage, which means we didn't see his audition but he is ready for this opportunity, should it be granted unto him. But first up for the audience to see and laugh with is Mr. Pope. He goes over well, while Paula Bel isn't happy about television for women, as in Lifetime. Yes, there's Mr. Dore, talking
about gay marriage and why even gay men won't vote for it. Pazsitzky says backstage she wants to make her parents proud, so if I tell you that Pazsitzky just started working as a writer at Chelsea Lately, is that a spoiler alert? Haddish, up next, jokes about being a newlywed and wanting new breasts, but all her husband got her were $14.95 slip-ins, which she pulled out. Adomian describes for us the character who voices the Mucinex ads, and he cracks himself up midway through the routine. We see audience members smiling, laughing and clapping. Those are all good things we are told subconsciously, while consciously, Robinson tells us to run to the bathroom. How does he know what we ate for dinner! BRB!

Feinstein, billed as from D.C., is our first comic back from the break, joking about trying to have sex and talk dirty to her new boyfriend. Fairbanks jokes about his smoking and coffee habits, and how can he find the serenity? I haven't written enough about Chris Fairbanks, and that'll change soon enough. Thymius is wearing a shiny jacket. Alonzo says she has been on the show before, but not this far, so how about this time? She jokes about lying on her resume, and going all the way with it. Commit! And make sure your sister commits! Who is Jason Nash, and when did he get to Hollywood from Boston? I don't know, but here he is at the showcase. You may know Nash as one of the Guys With Feelings from their podcast. But then again, doesn't everyone have a podcast by now? It sure seems like it. We're one commercial break away from learning the rest of our Hollywood-based semifinalists!

Moving on to the semis from this second group…Feinstein, Pope, Adomian, Nash, Bel, Alonzo, and Thymius. Thymius says he is stunned. I'm stunned that Fairbanks didn't move on, even knowing what I know, because I would have liked to have seen him move on to the semis, at least. Oh well. Also, I know you won't be following Delaney into the semis, but he is consistently one of the funniest people on Twitter, so you should follow @RobDelaney there.

Next week is New York City, and we see glimpses of Claudia Cogan, Roy Wood Jr., Tommy Johnagin, a clearly happy Jamie Lee, Jared Logan and the naked Andy Ofiesh in our mutual futures. Look forward to it!