I've been writing about comedy—live, taped, whatever—for a few years now, so I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone I knew—like actually knew in real life—wound up on Last Comic Standing. So I just have to say upfront: I might be a little bias towards Lil Rel. I've seen the dude destroy empty open mics and jam-packed houses all over the city of Chicago, so I hear one of his jokes, and I already know the entire set. I just think he's hysterical, that's all.
Last Comic Standing has always been an odd show to me. I relished those first few seasons because they offered an instant peephole into the nuts and bolts of comedy. I got to know the contestants well over the many weeks of competition, and like I alluded to with Lil Rel, it's wholly more satisfying to watch someone you know, and are genuinely rooting for, kill. It was also an instant outlet to catch undiscovered stand-up before it broke, so I felt cool and "in the know," as they say in the business of "knowing." And, to top it off, it was good for a chuckle.
It was all well and good until Doug Benson was on.
Look, I love Doug Benson, think he's fuck-diculously funny. The problem, though, was that he just wasn't great on the show. And I started to realize why: Everything about Last Comic Standing is a comedy killer. The challenges they subject the comics to, like doing material at Medieval Times, are certainly meant to test their ability to be vaguely wacky (a type of funny, I suppose), but have little to nothing to do with the business and craft of stand-up comedy. The actual stand-up itself wasn't all that great either, because sets were cut down significantly and broken up in weird ways. That's not to say some contestants weren't up to the challenge and found inventive ways to let their senses of humor shine through. I had just started to notice how tenuous this show was, and it lost some of its appeal. In the grander scheme of things, too, Last Comic Standing was losing some of its luster. Comics no longer needed it to gain unexpected exposure, plus the caliber of talent increased to the point where audiences weren't feeling "in the know" anymore about these people. Last Comic Standing wasn't the tastemaker it once was.
But NBC made a smart move this season, throwing caution to the wind and reinventing the show as a place to kick it, have some laughs, and who knows, maybe cut a few steps out of the process for one lucky lad or lass. And they found the perfect laid-back host in Craig Robinson, who says things to people in the audition line like, "Don't bother trying, NBC already named Jay Leno the Last Comic Standing"—and they didn't edit it out. It was time for something totally different.
Well, not quite. The two-hour season premiere was still an audition showcase, and it acted as such with one major exception: The crazies were kept to a minimum. Sure, there were some—the gothic killer clown, the alien warrior comedian, the act that consisted of a woman and a dog and another hidden woman doing the speaking for a reason that is not nor will ever be clear—but they were mostly over and done with fairly quickly. The people we saw were the ones the judges deemed worthy of screen time, and screen time they got.
Well, not quite again. For though the purpose of these two hours was to cull contestants from the thousands who'd shown up to give it their all, the focus fell squarely on the judges: Greg Giraldo, Natasha Leggero, and Andy Kindler, all of whom are staples of today's stand-up comedy landscape. The show not only gave these guys the bulk of the screen time, but did so in the loosest way possible. They'd let a comic perform about 30 seconds of material (at least, what we saw sitting at home), then let Kindler riff on what the comic should wear to the showcase that night for twice that length—as the camera guys and producers giggled off screen. Sometimes it was necessary, like when Kirk Fox eliminated himself after only one joke and the judges had to coax the rest of the material out of him (and, later, pass him to the next round), but often it came out of nowhere.
That's not to say it wasn't funny; it was, especially anything that came out of Kindler's mouth and the time that eliminated guy said he was nervous performing in front of his two comedy idols and Natasha ("Nancy") got super offended. It's just that after two hours, I feel like I don't know any of the comics at all. There's limited time to show material, and it felt even more limited tonight.
But what I did see made me optimistic for the run. The first group found its strongest comics embracing playful material and unconventional delivery. Maronzio Vance was an early favorite for his bit about a studio apartment being just one room away from being homeless. I also liked Shane Moss largely for his physical commitment to the bit about how he fucks with people who give him crap for not knowing what day it is: He mimes grabbing their face, visibly shaking, and shouts, "I MEANT WHAT YEAR IS IT?" Felipe Esparza compared sex with large Latina women to his own death, giggling to himself in utter silence between each line (endearingly so), and Fortune Feimster flips seamlessly into characters like a future Maria Bamford. Then there was Lil Rel. He's great.
The second part had fewer stand-outs and erred on the side of more conventional bits; but the ones who made the greatest impression were the ones who played standard material to the hilt. James Adomian, like Fortune, had an arsenal of characters at his disposal, and Chip Pope spun a line about how the B-52s can write a song about anything into an epic monologue delivered like its lead singer.
Though I guess there was that one guy, Jonathan something, with the sparkly gold shirt who went all anti-comedy on this puppy. And that first-hour comic Guy Torry who was the epitome of "all sizzle, no steak"—best delivery, boringest material. As I mentioned before, the judges probably saw a lot of what we didn't get to see, and thus some decisions came out of nowhere. It's fun to play along at home, but I need to see more of each set. I suppose, in that regard, this season of Last Comic Standing has set forth exactly what it tried to do: leave 'em wanting more.
More Lil Rel.
- "Now I see why Paula was constantly on pills."
- During Fortune's set, one guy in the background was loving her lesbian-based material.
- I still can't believe Andy Kindler was on this show. Last Comic Standing going for indie cred?