Reality Bites: Last Comic Standing
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: June 26, 2003
Mix 10 strangers in one house like Big Brother, with immunity challenges like Survivor, and add in elimination based on performance before an audience like American Idol, and you come up with Last Comic Standing, one of the latest entries in the reality television genre. While this might sound like a train wreck waiting to happen, the result is a fun, funny, and surprisingly satisfying show.
After auditions in Los Angeles and New York to choose 20 semi-finalists, and then another audition in Las Vegas to bring the field down to 10, the finalists moved into one house to live together. Each week, one finalist will be eliminated until July 29, when there will be a showdown of the last five comics in the house, and call-in votes determine (cue dramatic music) the Last Comic Standing!
The ten finalists consisted of the following:
1. Sean Kent: A comedian from Austin, TX, complete with cowboy hat.
2. Cory Kahaney: A comedian from Manhattan, New Yawk whose most memorable moment from the first round of auditions was when she teased Sean about his cowboy hat, only to find out he began wearing it when he was recovering from cancer.
3. Dave Mordal: A sort-of demented version of Garrison Keillor from Elk River, MN.
4. Dat Phan: A Vietnamese comedian from Santee, CA, who spoke movingly in the audition episodes about his experiences growing up as second-generation Vietnamese-American.
5. Ralphie May: A very large comedian from Houston, TX.
6. Geoff Brown: A former marine from Chicago, IL.
7. Rich Vos: A somewhat caustic comedian from Plainfield, NJ.
8. Rob Cantrell: A goofily sweet former assistant teacher from Washington, DC.
9. Tere Joyce: A woman with Statue-of-Liberty hair from Fresno, CA.
10. Tess Drake: A plus-sized diva from Sandusky, OH.
Entering the House
As is standard in these shows, we're shown the contestants ooh-ing and ah-ing as they're being shown their new digs by show host Jay Mohr. The house is bright and colorful, with many whimsical touches (e.g., Sean and Geoff share a room with beds styled like racing cars). There's a theater, a pool table, and a tennis court.
But what makes a house a home is the people in it, right? And as Dave remarks to the camera, "Ten comics living in a house together -- it's just going to be a matter of time before everybody gets used to it or somebody snaps and kills somebody."
Dat remarks that Rich Vos is "kind of like the uncle that's been in jail," citing his tattoos, his cigarettes, and his crass attitude. Whether or not Rich smokes in the house is a big deal to some of the others, with Sean and Dat asking that he smoke outside. Rich then suggests that all alcohol be removed, saying he's a recovering alcoholic and citing the health concerns associated with drinking. Ralphie in turn addresses the camera, asking that, along the same lines, all delicious food be banned from the house. In the background, you can see the comics turning away toward Rich pontificating in a chair.
While this little spat seems to die down when Sean declares he'll no longer participate in the conversation, what remains is definite animosity between Sean and Rich. We're treated to a game of tennis between Sean and Rich where Sean nails Rich in the arm with his serve. Sean laughs, protesting that it wasn't his fault -- and then remarking in voiceover that "New Yorkers are really tough ... unless you come at them with a tennis ball" and that he hoped he'd hit Rich in the smoking arm. Rich, for his part, said that if they weren't in the house together, Sean wasn't the type of person he'd hang out with.
First You Must Teach
On Survivor, they have tree-mail. In the Comic House, communiques arrive via a mechanical carnival fortune teller. Dat reads their first message, which tells them that "you cannot truly be a master until you are a teacher." This flummoxes Dat, and Rich remarks, "If you, the Asian guy, can't figure it out, how can we figure it out?"
The comics speculate about what the message could mean. Teach comedy? Teach defensive driving -- no, wait, they realize, they're not licensed to teach defensive driving. Finally Jay Mohr arrives and explains: They are going to each teach a first-grader a joke. No competition aspect
to it, just teach a kid a joke and coach them on the performance.
At home, I'm rolling my eyes. I hate bringing out the kids for cuteness appeal. At the Comic House, the comics seem equally nervous. Tess says she could teach a kid to get married and divorced in ninety days, but that's about it. But despite nerves, the comics must go, and they head off in the Comic-mobile, appropriately a school bus.
We're both proven wrong. As a viewer, I found the segment with the kids very real and very revealing about the comics. And, as it happened, the comics seem to have a good time with it as well.
The first job is to match each comic with a kid. Some get matched up quickly. Rich makes a connection with a boy who reminds him of himself when he was a boy. Tess asks who's got the diva going on, and grabs a little girl who responds by flapping her hands on her head.
For other comics, the matching process is more difficult. Ralphie May asks the kids if anyone wants to be his partner, and tries to convince them that he's cool -- he's just fat. I feel for him, because I have the feeling this is a re-enactment of the grade school trauma of worrying about whether you can find a partner or if you'll be the kid no one wants to play with. But, as he relates in an interview, all the kids looked nervous at first except for one, who looked at him with a big smile on his face, as though the kid were saying "Pick me." Ralphie asks him his name, and then says, "You're my man," and the two head off hand-in-hand.
Geoff, near the end, had two kids to choose from, so he closed his eyes and pointed at random to one of the two girls left. Neither of them seemed pleased at the idea of working with him. Geoff was saved when a 12-year-old kid in the audience jumped up and volunteered to work with him. I don't know what he was doing there, but I'm glad for Geoff's sake that he was. Good heart, that kid.
The kids' performances -- well, I'm glad the show wasn't Last Kid Standing. Some got through their jokes okay; others could have used more work on their performance, and one of them (paired with Dave) ignored the joke aspect and spent his time crawling on the ground and hiding behind Dave's legs. (Dave's response in interview afterwards to his kid never telling the joke was that it would keep people on edge -- after all, maybe he would tell it in the next show!) But hey, everyone had fun, and the sentiment expressed by Dave about his kid ("What the heck, I think he did a great job anyway!") seemed to be echoed by everyone about the whole experience.
What's Cooking At The House?
The comics might have appreciated the individual aspect of the day with the kids, because they were still working on learning to live with each other. Back at the homestead, the big issue was about appreciation. Cory took control of the kitchen, spending a great deal of time preparing supper. Most were appreciative of her efforts, and were shocked when Sean expressed his
displeasure with the meal. Sean became a marked man, with Rich and Ralphie being the most vocal in interview about their disapproval, with regard to both Sean's comments and the fact that Sean walked away from his post-dinner argument with Rich. Sean explained in interview that walking away was his method of dealing with Rich.
Okay, Make Me Beg
Every week, the comics are to compete in challenges. Jay Mohr popped back into the house to explain this week's challenge. The comics were all to go to Universal City Walk, where they were to perform or do whatever to get people to give them money. Whoever made the most money would win a featured (solo) spot on Extra, and would also be exempt from the elimination round (more on that later). Dave, in his droll manner, asked for a rule that the L.A. comics not be allowed their "regular spots" for this.
Again, I rolled my eyes at the description of the competition. Maybe they could salvage the invasion of the munchkins, but I hate to watch people on TV shows begging. But once again, Last Comic Standing showed me up.
Out on the street, the comics took varying approaches to raise money. Dave offered to provide genuine fake celebrity autographs. One girl protested that they weren't even real, but Dave pointed out her friends wouldn't know that. Dat put on an energetic show of karate, patter, and the splits. Ralphie offered to not strip if he was offered money ("Just a mere dollar a piece can help keep my clothes on!"). Tess laid out the situation, getting up close and personal with passer-bys. Cory, Rob and Tere offered to sell jokes. Rich and Sean ironically took the same approach -- offering the chance to be on TV for money. Geoff offered to teach Ebonics.
Back at the house, Jay Mohr counted out the buckets. For quite a while, Ralphie was in the lead with $34.81 (and two pieces of candy, prompting Ralphie to comment, "Oooh, delicious!"). However, he was surpassed by Tess, who collected a grand total of $52.29. Tess remarked in interview that she hadn't thought she'd collected that much money, and then added, "But then again, I should have known. I'm fabulous." Surprisingly, the hardest working man begging, Dat, only came up with $20.53. I guess the audience philosophy was "Why pay the comic when the karate is free?"
So Tess was the winner of the Extra spot, and of exemption from elimination. Jay informed the others that they needed to think about the phrase "I know I'm funnier than ____". And with that, the tension of upcoming nominations for elimination began.
Ralphie, Rich, Cory and Dave began covert strategizing. It was not covert enough to escape notice, though, and Sean made vague mention of the L.A. comics getting together. Cory also giggled some strategy to Tere ("I don't think Dave Mordal's going to take me on. He's too stupid."), remarking, "This is like everything evil that I love." Tess remarked in interview that she was keeping quiet, sizing things up on her own.
Okay, but how does elimination work, you ask. Here's the scoop.
Each comic goes, one by one, into a mock photo booth and tells the camera "I know I'm funnier than [one of the other contestants]." In that way, they nominate someone for elimination. The person who receives the most nominations will have to do a head-to-head comedy competition with
another comic before a live audience. But who is the other comic? The nominee gets their choice of anyone who nominated them. After the two comics perform, the audience votes, and the one who receives the fewest votes must leave.
This Week's Nominees
After all the nominations were done for this first round, the comics sat together in their home theater and watched each individual nomination on film. The results were as follows:
- Tess nominated Ralphie (who took the news impassively).
- Rob nominated Tere (but he took the sting out of nomination by explaining that it was because she couldn't make it look like her finger was detaching from her hand the way that he could).
- Geoff nominated Cory.
- Dat nominated Rob (which shocked him, because they were roommates).
- Cory nominated Rich Vos (who, with a grin, said "Get out of here.").
- Tere nominated Dave.
- Rich nominated Sean (whose eyes darted nervously around).
- Sean nominated Dave (who grinned and said "sweet!").
- Dave nominated Sean (who took off his hat nervously while his mouth twitched).
- Ralphie nominated Sean (who nodded all during Ralphie's introductory remarks about this person whining and bitching).
With three nominations, Sean was on the block, with the choice of going against Rich, Dave or Ralphie. Sean decided not to pick Ralphie, because he cooks. (Ralphie reacted in shock in interview, because he'd deliberately used inflammatory language against Sean, and decided Sean didn't pick him because he was scared to.) Left with a choice between Rich and Dave, Sean
decided on Dave, because Rich hadn't said anything really bad about him during the nomination, while Dave had (Dave: "No matter what joke is made, he seems to add something to it that makes it so unfunny, it's not fun to have him around."). Dave offered to shake hands, but Sean refused.
After nominations, Rich indicated that there'd been some orchestration to get votes against Sean, because people wanted him out. Sean hinted to Geoff that his choice had been dictated not based on Ralphie's cooking ability, but because he'd rather go against the Midwesterner than the "likable fat guy." Besides, he'd rather get a smoker (Dave) out of the house first. Sean expressed confidence as he packed, but his jaw remained tight. Dave refused to speculate as he got ready to leave.
First Comic Falling
While the competition proper started before the audience, the tension was high in the bus ride to the studio. Dave chastised people for being so quiet: "It's not a funeral! It's a wake." He continued joking with the others, while Sean remained quiet. Sean must have had to work hard to maintain his concentration as some of the anti-Sean crowd began needling him. (Ralphie: "Who did Dead Man Walking?" Rob, with a grin: "Sean Penn!") Rich, mastermind of much of the needling, cheerfully said in interview, "I'm a creep, aren't I?" (Creep he may be, but he's a heck of an ironer -- he was wielding an iron in about half of his interview remarks.)
At the studio, each of the challengers did a short program. Sean went first, and did an adequate job. Mild delivery, mildly amusing jokes (e.g., the bravery of the first person to eat an egg, considering where it came from). The audience seemed satisfied, and Dave at the back of the studio chuckled on occasion.
But Dave was electrifying. He began by wondering why you never heard about a drug deal gone just fine ("Here's your money." "Here's your crack." "Thank you. That's all I'm asking."), riffed on some surreal stories about camping with his dad ("Dad got a deal on a short bus. Now we look
like 'special' campers."), and reflected on how we don't have a machine that makes sandbags -- but surely they don't pack sugar into bags by hand. The audience howled, the other comics loved him, and Sean never cracked a smile but just grew more and more tense.
It wasn't even close. 73% of the studio audience voted for Dave, and Sean hit the road.
Who would have thought I'd enjoy this show so much? But I did. The comics in the house are all interesting people -- perhaps because they are older than the average "house" residents and because they are people who have worked hard for years to develop their craft. There was also a nice blend of seeing them living together, orchestrated challenges, and actually seeing stand-up. And the elimination process itself is intriguing. There's a disincentive to nominating the biggest threat, because you might have to go up against that person, which I think will help to prevent a tyranny of the weak, and having the audience choose who stays based on performance makes it more satisfying than having a popularity contest.
Last Comic Standing is on Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.
On the Internet: NBC.com's Official Site | SirLinksalot.net