Reality television is sports for people who don’t like sports. The lobby of the Winspear Opera House at AT&T Performing Arts Center was buzzing Thursday night with patrons yakking it up before the Last Comic Standing Live Tour convened. People compared notes on comics’ performances on the shows, debating the whys and hows of who remained after a dozen elimination rounds. Like with sports jocks, some had rather passionate opinions on the process, but to most it was a game. With jokes.
The reality genre seems like a natural for the competitive field of stand-up comedy. Yet it almost wasn’t. Last Comic Standing aired on NBC from 2003 to 2010, the glory years of reality television, and then struggled to get back on as the reality show herd thinned. The show had become long on gimmicks and short on comedy. Painful it was, a dehumanizing stand-up version of Survivor.
It took a strong retooling under the direction of Wanda Sykes to bring the show back alive. In the new Last Comic Standing, the emphasis is on performance. Established comedians help comics create their best short sets, though some are coached right out of their authenticity and that’s anathema to stand-up. The comics faced challenges such as working as a tour guide at a place they didn’t know and doing stand-up to bored patrons of a Laundromat.
Three celebrity judges Roseanne Barr, Russell Peters and Keenen Ivory Wayans—pontificate over the comics. But when the points are counted, the voting television audience has the sway. The show’s gem is new host JB Smoove, the oh-snap, sly quip champion who’s easy to be around.
Reality on the Road
Sykes’ new challenges shook out who possessed original comedic talent and who was just skilled stand-up by numbers. Most illuminating were the improv and sketch challenges that brought to the fore those flexible and ensemble-oriented enough for television.
The hearty finalists were sent on the road in an epic tour, showing off the goods and shilling the next season. To upsell the fan base, top-tier ticket buyers were showered with swag and invited to a pre-concert meet-and-greet, hosted by Dallas comedian Dave Little who did the entire tour.
“I use whatever I can to keep everyone entertained before the comics come out,” said Little. The tour grind is humorously recounted in his audio blog, Things I Thought About Today. But, said Little, “Nothing lasts forever. I’ve been on this tour for two months thinking that it is never going to end and then all of a sudden there are only four shows left.”
And the Winners Are
The five Last Comic Standing finalists performing at the Winspear on Thursday night came from a talent pool of 100 comedians that was quickly trimmed to 20. Various reality-show challenges winnowed that to 10 comics, then five and ultimately to one who received $250,000 and talent deals with NBC and Universal Television.
Lachlan Patterson, one of the top three finalists, led off the night, a Canadian funny guy who resembles Benedict Cumberbatch. A dry yet silly wit, he presented a series of unique takes on typical topics like couples’ relationships. A technically perfect set with a strong beginning and end, yet overly methodical and in need of more dynamics. Patterson’s a great joke constructionist, showcased in a long bit on asking directions that had real momentum and a gut-busting punchline. He’s great at boiling down the topic to succinct bites and using perspective shifts. The best location for hat stores is “next to Supercuts, whose motto is ‘Give it a couple of weeks.’ ”
Nikki Carr came out late in life as both a comic and a lesbian. “I have four kids. I tried to be straight.” Her camaraderie comedy shows an easy way of getting the audience pull for her. Stating that she was “never going to be a sexy gal,” honesty and self-acceptance is her rallying cry. She spoke of her Last Comic Standing experience, teasing that she’d “been traveling around the nation with four of the country’s funniest men. [pause] I’m glad I’m gay.” Even though Carr somehow made a joke out of balls (the sports kind), vaginas and gymnasiums, her material was not that strong. It was her sincerity and personality that pushed her into the top three.
Rocky LaPorte, a likeable, balding Italian-American guy’s guy from Brooklyn, was all blue-collar boots and overshirt. He worked the put-upon everyman angle while avoiding clichéd xenophobia à la Larry the Cable Guy. Still there was plenty of drinking humor such as a silly inebriated ramble on if Hitler was named Chip. Also covered: the terrors of manscaping and the symmetry of North American cultures. “I’m all like ‘Eh, what you doin’?’ Canadians are ‘What you doin’, eh?’” It may not have been deep, but the laughs were big.
Joe Machi has benefitted greatly from the Last Comic Standing process. A nervous, neurotic, character-based comic, the high-tension strangle in his voice has softened and he’s not as bug-eyed. He’s still 100 percent nerdy and being the one the cool kids made fun of still stings. So logically he turned self-depreciation into art. He’s edgier than you might think from his meekness, and was the only one to tackle social issues. Machi takes you strange places, like killing baby Hitler, and he’s perhaps not parent material: “The only thing you have to do to graduate kindergarten is to not die and we already have a party every year for that.”
Rod Man was this season’s winner raking in the dough and deals. Boasting a laid-back style and southern charm, he’s confused by the world and trying to talk it out, especially long-term relationships. “How do you stay married? You keep going home.” Yet he’s such an affable guy that he fessed up to DUI, and talked way too much about sex and fecal matter, all without affront. Sort of a dirty doofus; you worry about him a little and that’s part of the allure.
Will the resurgence of Last Comic Standing give a significant boost stand-up comedy? The field has risen much in success and size, able to support the arena-size shows like Oddball Comedy and Oddity Festival. But will people who paid big bucks to see primetime television live stars amble into the dark, boozy, sardine-can conditions of the average comedy club?