Back in November, we told you that NBC is bringing back Last Comic Standing and that Wanda Sykes will serve as executive producer. The news sparked much debate about whether or not this was good news or not. The stand-up comedy competition show, seen as the American Idol of stand-up, faced controversy during its 7-season run from 2003-2010. Although they accepted open call auditions from literally anyone who wanted to tell a joke, it was rare that a contestant from the line outside the audition clubs made it through to the next round on the show.
Behind the scenes, auditions were arranged by agents, managers and based on industry members’ recommendations. When word got out that contestants like Rich Vos, Gary Gulman, Kathleen Madigan, Amy Schumer and Myq Kaplan had been making a living at comedy for years, viewers at home were not too pleased at being duped. Some also criticized the show for taking advantage of brand new comedians hoping to hit it big off the street by letting them embarrass themselves on national television. Many comedians simply complained that stand-up comedy shouldn’t be a competition at all. Ratings went into decline and the show was cancelled twice before Sykes resurrected it last year (potentially in light of the popularity of comedians on NBC’s friendly talent show America’s Got Talent). No details were released on how Sykes and the show’s producers planned on improving the hopeful premise. Well, we’ve been digging around and found out some exciting new information about the show’s second revival.
I hate to break it to you young aspiring comedians hoping to camp out on line for days in hopes of getting lucky, but there will be no open-call auditions. We hear that they are ditching the ruse that they are “discovering” new talent and admitting that they have booked talented rising comedians for the competition. Sources familiar with the show’s planning tell us that originally they were going to audition comics out of New York City and Los Angeles. Though they will not limit themselves to LA comics, they will now only audition the comics in LA. The show has been asking around for recommendations of who should get a shot at the big show, but they have also been taking pitches from managers and agents, “but that’s secondary,” one industry insider shared.
By focusing on having good comics on the show, NBC avoids taking advantage of naïve newbs with undeveloped material. We’ve been told they don’t want to have a bunch of trainwrecks, that they want the show to be more positive. It seems like NBC hopes to point its unscripted talent shows in an uplifting direction. America’s Got Talent has had whacky acts, but has rarely been seen as “mean.” One of the network’s top shows, The Voice, allows judges to choose acts to mentor, focusing on improving talent rather than belittling bad acts. Even the recent season premiere of American Idol skipped their infamous tradition of airing terrible auditions.
I couldn’t agree with the decision more, but it’s important to not just show comic after comic killing on stage. One problem with the most recent season of LCS was that all of the judges refused to say anything truly negative about anyone (partially because they had worked professionally with or were friends with some of the people auditioning). Episodes bordered on boring congratulatory pats on the back week after week. A middle ground of constructive criticism and honest editing can make this approach work extremely well.
And to that end, Last Comic Standing will undergo a format rebirth as well. Think less Survivor and more The Voice. Our sources tell us that producers will match up contestants with veteran comedy mentors. Tight-lipped negotiations are still going on over which premier funny people will work with the rising stars, but they have been described as “Ray Romano-level comedians” (Ed. Note: Ray Romano has not been brought up as a potential mentor to our knowledge, but only as an example of what level of comic to expect). Word is not out yet if they will keep separate judges, and if so, if those judges will be comedians themselves, as has historically and controversially been the case.
This new aspect of the show is certainly the most surprising and most exciting development. Think of all the great comedians who once called NBC their home! Jeff Foxworthy, Paul Reiser, Joe Rogan, Judah Friedlander, Tracy Morgan and Bobby Lee have all held prominent roles on NBC sitcoms. Saturday Night Live has an excellent list of veteran stand-ups amongst their alumni, such as Adam Sandler, Darrell Hammond and Chris Rock as well as former Last Comic Standing contestants and judges. Let us not forget that Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby shot to fame with NBC sitcoms. They also may not limit themselves to comedians with which they have had a past relationship. This is purely speculation, but I would not be surprised if we saw Tom Papa (host of the short-lived show The Marriage Ref), Jim Norton, Sarah Silverman or Wanda Sykes herself as high-profile mentors.
It seems like Wanda Sykes and Co. are committed to making a show that treats comedians with dignity and respect, while at the same time creating compelling competition for TV. There are still many variables that could make the show a hit or a flop, a proud credit or an embarrassing experience. For one thing, honest advertising will be a deciding factor if audiences will believe “the Network Who Cried Wolf.” If folks at home don’t believe the reality portion of this reality show, it will likely crash and burn again. But it seems like they are finally trying to do it right this time, so us comedy fans might want to give it one last chance.
Last Comic Standing returns to NBC for its eighth season this summer.