July 15, 2008

Last Comic Standing Review: The Auditions

I’m going to blog this years series of Last Comic Standing because… well someone has to. Actually I’ve never watched the show before, but I’m no stranger to US reality TV (I am a regular watcher of Survivor, The Apprentice and The Amazing Race) but this year, the shows 5th, I decided to give it a go because I happened to be a fan of two of the acts that I heard made the finals: first is Brit comic Paul Foot who combines Boosh-esque surreal delivery with actual genuine jokes, which is seemingly enough the bridge the culture gap and make him work with a US crowd. Second is US Christian-Rock parody duo God’s Pottery who I’ve always really liked but also always wished were a little bit better, and am hoping they develop a bit during the show.
Paul Foot
Of course, before we get to the ‘finals’ where they all live in a house and do various comedy tasks for 8 weeks, we have 5 weeks of auditions, then 2 weeks of semi-finals. Those already watching it will be aware that in fact they’ve just aired the first week of finals so I’m around 7 weeks behind. That’s mostly because it’s impossible to blog the auditions in detail as there’s just so many short clips that are all over the place you can barely remember who’s who. Hence we’re going to do one blog for the auditions, one for the semi-finals and then hopefully we’ll be caught up by the time the second ‘final’ airs later this week.

So the auditions: the way it works is they do a bit in front of two judges (from ‘Popular NBC sitcoms’ – really? Even Pop Idol had actual industry figures like Simon Cowell that it turned into famous ‘characters’). If they do well they go onto the showcase, where they do the same thing in front of a crowd. Interestingly, they get 3 minutes for the showcase, and there are around 10 comics in each one, and each audition location gets about 40 minutes. So they’d actually have time to show the entire sets. But no, we get 30 second clips, and the rest of the time is spent with Fearne Cotton talking to people in the queue, and showcasing twenty second clips of strange novelty acts.

That’s the first weird disconnect with the Last Comic Standing auditions. They appear to run open auditions at about 7 locations around the US, much like in something like Pop Idol. So 100s of people turn and queue around the block. Now, there are a lot of stand-ups in the US, but there aren’t that many. A lot must just be people giving it a go because their mates told them they were funny, and them being rubbish makes amusing TV. But unlike Pop Idol, pretty much every single act that gets through to the showcase is an established circuit comic. They don’t even try and hide it with some of the comics remarking about how everyone in the showcase knew each other from the circuit. Now admittedly in our reality shows such as I’d Do Anything you get people with experience in the field, I believe the winner had been on the cabaret circuit a fair while, but you also get complete amateurs. That isn’t the case here, as while people with no formal training or experience may well be able to practice singing in the show or do karaoke and so develop decent voices, no one stands naked in the shower doing stand-up routines to a bar of soap. Although I think that might be an Edinburgh Fringe show this year. Basically, if you don’t have prepared material you’ll have zero chance, and if you’ve never been on stage before your chances are minuscule. Suffice it to say, after two auditions and a semi-final, there will be no ‘new’ people left. Stand-up really is something that’s learned through work and practice and not so much a ‘gift’.

Second weird thing is all the novelty acts. Now the likes of God’s Pottery or Jim Tavere (stand-up that uses a double-bass and got through to the semi-finals) could be considered novelty at first glance but they have a depth of material to back it up (and given the show doesn’t allow repeating material, you need that). But there are magic acts and dancers and downright weird vaudeville-esque entertainers that just don’t fit the show at all. The amount of times the guy that plays The Janitor on Scrubs has to tell acts “you’re funny, but not right for this competition” gets amusing in and of itself. Either they’ve never watched the show, or they just want their 20 seconds of fame on the auditions episodes.
Gods Pottery
Conversely, the number of straight observational comics that get through to the semi-finals is predictably high, even some with fairly hack material. But there at least were some attempts to to put through more interesting stuff like a musical trio or brothers, a pair of twins, and this bizarre Israeli impressionist guy, though I imagine most will be weeded out at the semi-final stage.

The third disconnect is reactions shots. Often times we’ll see a comic do a joke and it’ll cut to the judges reacting, but it’s obvious that the reaction shot is from somewhere else entirely. Because the joke just wasn’t that funny or that offensive or that bad to make the reaction feasible. It’s a dangerous thing for the show to do as it renders it horribly artificial, and ruins what could well be one of the more interesting aspects of the show: just what does Richard Belzer find funny?
Along the same lines, the fact that it’s filmed for TV with a US audience is also an issue. Because when you do that, you pretty much ensure no-one is going to die on their arse. The audience laugh regardless as they’ve been instructed to, and even if they weren’t, they lack the cynicism of us Brits and the mean-ness to leave the comics hanging. So when the judges say “I’m putting you through to the showcase, to see how you do with an audience,” we already know they’ll do pretty well.

Obviously for me the most interesting thing was the final, ‘international’ audition. Rather than running the auditions at various venues in Europe and Australia, they figured this year it was cheaper to fly a hand-picked selection of comics over to them. Which makes it all the stranger when they make them all queue outside and film them pretending to look excited and such. What’s also weird is that this was the one show where I could remember the names of who got through and when, as I’ve seen half of them before. And the show really is hugely disjointed. Both Dan Atkinson and Adam Bloom were shown standing around at the end of the showcase, waiting to see if they’d got through. We knew they hadn’t, as they didn’t show any of their stand-up at all. Adam Bloom was featured for three seconds saying “this is where it could all go horribly wrong”, which would be interesting if we actually knew what that was in relation to, and Atkinson was only shown making a brief quip in the ‘laughs box’ (literally a box with a camera where comics go and act weird, and Bill Bellamy goes to feel up Fearne Cotton) about not knowing the US anthem, though in his case I imagine it could be down to this rather interestingly blog entry he wrote on the subject. And most oddly of all is Danielle Ward, with whom they go to the trouble of showing her entire audition to the judges, show them putting her through to the showcase, then don’t even show five seconds of her performing to the crowd. I was secretly hoping she’d said “bugger this, it’s shit, I’m off to go get pissed in Miami” and hadn’t turned up for the second part, but alas you can catch a quick glimpse of her stood behind Jim Tavare at the end. It does make me wonder how many similar editing choices were made in the other 4 audition shows, and maybe that’s why they were so stupidly hard to follow and it wasn’t just me being dim.

So now we’re down to the final 32. Semi-finals coming up, expect most of the interesting acts to be cut in favour Seinfeld-esque observational acts.

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