NBC recently announced it would bring back the long-dormant reality competition show Last Comic Standing (LCS). This show has one of the strangest broadcast histories in network TV. It began airing in 2003, ran for three cycles and was taken off the air in 2004; then it was brought back to life in 2006 and ran four more cycles until being taken off the air again in 2010. Now, after a long absence, NBC wants to bring it back with a new executive producer, the veteran standup comedian Wanda Sykes.
LCS’s broadcast history is a strange one, suggesting that NBC just kind of pulls it out of its back pocket whenever it has nothing else to put on the air. To paraphrase someone far funnier than anyone who’s been on Last Comic Standing, these comics get no respect.
Last Comic Standing is interesting because its pool of talent has traditionally showcased a very wide range of experiences. Veteran standups looking to re-gain exposure have gone far on the show performing alongside complete amateurs. It makes for a strange reality competition show. If I were to compare it to a singing competition show, LCS is more like The Voice than American Idol, it takes itself less seriously as a launching pad for amateur performers and more like a place to showcase people who have already made stabs at making it in the business.
But the comedy community’s viewpoint of the show is a complex one. First off, the concept of a comedy competition is inherently dumb. Performing arts in general aren’t competitions, so any reality competition show, whether it be about singing or dancing or anything else, is going to be a phony mess. But this seems to be even more true for comedy. How does it make any sense to have a comedy-off? Especially considering many comedians are trying to do completely different things in terms of style of humor, joke structure, crowd work, etc. Can we really judge these comics against each other and come out with the funniest performer?
The answer seems to be a strong no, and many comedians have gone on record saying the show is worthless as far as competition goes. Not only is a comedy competition intrinsically stupid in the abstract, it’s stupid in actuality. Last Comic Standing has done virtually nothing in terms of making its winners into comedy stars. Yes, plenty of comics have gained exposure from it which is valuable in and of itself, but LCS can’t be said to have launched the careers of its contestants.
Nevertheless, most comics would say any prime-time opportunity for standup is a good one. For a contestant on the show, the best way to view LCS is probably as just another club that they can get a steady gig at for a while until the club owners don’t want them there anymore. The upside is exposure, no matter how ridiculous the production around it is.