Inside the resurrection of Last Comic Standing, talking to executive producers (present) Page Hurwitz and (past) Barry Katz
A lot can happen in four years.
Just look up at that photo, from the last time we gathered to celebrate and commiserate over the stand-up comedy competition known as Last Comic Standing on NBC.
Felipe Esparza, laying amid his cash-prize winnings on the floor in the foreground as the grand-prize winner of LCS season seven. Esparza is in three different movie projects this year, but alas, we haven't heard much from him in the meantime, since he and the other Last Comic finalists performed on a North American stand-up theater tour. Behind Esparza, from left to right: His other finalists (in the shadows) the late Mike DeStefano; Roy Wood, Jr; Tommy Johnagin; Myq Kaplan; Kurt Metzger (who won an individual prize for joke of the year); special guest Kathy Griffin; host Craig Robinson; former LCS winner Iliza Shlesinger; judges Andy Kindler, Natasha Leggero and (RIP) Greg Giraldo; and special guest Tom Papa.
NBC's Last Comic Standing site remains active, albeit in limbo since 2010.
Over the past two summers, without Last Comic, we've seen stand-up comedians Taylor Williamson and Tom Cotter reach millions of new fans through repeated primetime exposure, finishing runner-up in back-to-back years on NBC's all-encompassing talent competition, America's Got Talent. And the Peacock Network certainly would look to see more shows with the ratings of AGT or even the old LCS on its schedules.
So now, some of the gang is getting Last Comic back together in 2014, thanks to executive producer Page Hurwitz (who served as producer on the past incarnation of the primetime comedy competition) and stand-up comedian Wanda Sykes. Hurwitz and Sykes just debuted their latest Herlarious stand-up showcase special on OWN, and also on Thursday announced a deal for a comedy project with NickMom.
We may very well hear more about Last Comic Standing this weekend, when NBC takes its turn before the TV Critics Association's annual winter meetings. Until then...
The Comic's Comic over the holidays spoke not only to Hurwitz, but also with Barry Katz, who shepherded Last Comic through the early years, and because of his role as a talent manager, bore most of the brunt of criticism from comedians publicly and privately over the years for any of the show's failings, perceived and/or real.
First off, do you know what kind of competition it will be? Last Comic began with the comedians living together and filmed in a house, then offshore on a boat, had a myriad of offstage challenges, and eventually ditched it all for just straight competitions.
"I don’t think it's going to be a house. But everything thing now is so preliminary," Hurwitz told The Comic's Comic.
That includes the host. Craig Robinson hosted last time and received a series order from NBC for Mr. Robinson earlier this month, so...maybe. Hurwitz said they loved having him as host. “We want it to be laugh-out-loud funny...I know they will not be living on a cruise ship. That I can say for certain.”
Hurwitz, Sykes and her staff were still taking care of post-producing and promoting Herlarious over the holidays before focusing on Last Comic.
"In broad strokes, what Wanda and I would like to do, we both feel really resolved that we want this to be a really terrific platform for comedians and stand-up comedy. We want the experience for all the comedians to be positive. We want to fell like it’s a positive experience, an encouraging experience. We want comics to walk away from it happy they did it."
So would Wanda host it then? "It does not include having Wanda host it. That’s not to say she won't do something else. Everything is very preliminary. Having worked with Wanda on a couple of different projects, she's very hands-on. She's not a vanity title. Of course, stand-up is her passion."
"That means host, judges, possibly even mentors. Certainly comics who watch the show. I think definitely we want to raise the bar. We want to make this the show that every comic wants to do. And that means not just as a competitor, but also as a judge, as a guest, as a mentor."
We've also seen varying levels of experience out of the stand-up talent who auditions, from people on the street (who answer open calls but never make it to the finals) to up-and-comers and "road dogs" to headliners who have been on TV before. What's your thought on the kinds of performers you're looking for in 2014?
"We want to have a great mix of people in terms of experience, in terms of style, material. We want to have a range of voices, so that can mean a seasoned veteran who just hasn’t had that break yet. It could mean an up-and-comer. It could mean somone who has been overlooked and hasn’t been tapped yet. Are they flat-out funny and can bring something to the stage?"
"I don’t think we care if someone is 70 years old or 17. Actually they cant be 17. Let’s say 18. Is this person doing something fresh and original. Is this someone who makes America laugh?"
Are you hoping to discover someone fresh and young out of the gate, then?
"No. There's no emphasis on finding 20-year-olds. It's looking for the best comic."
So does that mean more open calls or no more open calls?
"I don’t think were going to have open-call auditions."
Then what, then?
"I don’t think we’re going to have people lined up in the streets. I think the show has evolved beyond that.
"We'll have a site up soon where people can submit. We want to make sure we have a chance to see as many people as possible. So that means we’re not just going through...we typically get submissions from agents and managers, but also comedy club managers, bookers, but we’re also talking to comedians, headliners we know and love, asking them who’s great. We’re looking at a wide range of people."
What impact did the success of Williamson, Cotter and the other stand-ups on AGT have on resurrecting LCS? Both Williamson and Cotter had appeared on Last Comic -- Williamson was a semi-finalist on season seven; Cotter on season two.
“I think that bodes well for us. Really it means people miss Last Comic Standing. I'm especially happy for Taylor. I thnk that signals it’s the right time to come abck. The show always did well…I think there's a real commitment from Paul Telegedy at NBC. ”
And now for a little history and post-mortem on the old LCS.
Barry Katz still manages Jay Mohr (original host of Last Comic) and other comedians (including Bill Bellamy), and himself hosts a great podcast called Industry Standard. But Katz confirmed to The Comic's Comic that in season seven, the Last Comic ship has sailed away. "Peter (Engel), Jay and I aren't a part of this latest one," Katz said. "I've known it's been coming back for a long time. How do I feel? Well, I mean, I think it if it can help any comedians at all and shed light on comedy in a good way, I'll be thrilled. If it sheds light on comedians in a bad way…
"The fatal flaw in the show. And there's probably a lot of 'em, certain critics would say. In the first year, it was a big hit show. We got nominated for an Emmy (2004, Outstanding Reality-competition Program). But the bad news, what was happening, the strongest comedians, or the strongest comedian didn't win. The person who won was the underdog. The person people felt bad for. We didn't understand when we started, we, or I'll just attribute it to me. What I didn't understand was, what I thought it would be, it would be like the NFL playoffs, or World Series or playoffs, a similar thing, where at the end, the best team would win. What I realized was, I was comparing my analogy to sports and my analogy was wrong. The Giants beat the New England Patriots who were 18-0 -- at the time they played (in the Super Bowl), New England was the better team but the Giants won. My logic was flawed."
"The guy who was not necessarily the best player was going to win. It was pretty clear to every stand-up comedian in the business, as well as the comedians. Ralphie May came out in that final, he got three standing ovations in five minutes. Dat Phan came out and did not get three standing ovations, but Dat won. That set the tone for a lot of people who didn't really feel comfortable about the show, comfortable about competing."
At the same time, comedy competitions have and continue to flourish across the country.
"The San Francisco Comedy Competition is one of the greatest events in comedy and has been for 35 years, Robin Williams competing, so many people who have been great stars -- the intention was to do something that would help stand-up comedy again…infuse some revenue into our sport, and I think it accomplished that goal."
There was no comedy boom in 2003, after all. No MySpace to help launch Dane Cook or anyone else yet. No Twitter. No YouTube. Not much in the way of stand-up comedy on TV, either.
That was then. Now?
"In terms of this new show, I don't have any feeling about it at all. Any time you start something and it goes seven years, you'd love to be a part of it in some way to go on. The bottom line is, I think it's better in a way that we're stepping back from it. It'll be interesting to see what they do, how they do things differently, hopefully they'll do something that's great for comedy."
When Katz looks back on Last Comic, he remembers that the highest ratings and plaudits came in the beginning -- "the one season we were nominated for an Emmy was the most basic, the lowest-budgeted show."
"If I were a part of the revival, I'd want it to be a situation where Peter, Jay and I were able to bring it back to the way it was, before the network and people who no longer are there started changing it. The people who were great supporters of the show, Jeff Gaspin, Kevin Reilly, they believed in us. They got out of the way. But other people didn't. It was very political."
And he knows what it's like to feel politics of comedy.
"I'm one of the more polarizing people ever. I feel like I've represented comedians who people think are geniuses and many comedians who people think aren't. The bottom line is I love comedy. I think it's fair to have all kinds of comedy. Just like people like to listen to Sinatra or listen to Rage Against The Machine..it's an acquired taste. I love showcasing different kinds of comedy. Carrot Top. People spend their whole lives shitting on Carrot Top. But he's one of the few guys creating original props and doing highly original stuff. But it's props. For whatever reason, stand-up comedians who tell jokes they think that's the kind of comedy they don't want to respect. That's cool. Or people who love Louis C.K. but not Chappelle."
Wait. Who are those people?