Last Comic Standing: The Search For The Funniest Person in America

Have you heard the one about the talented comedian and actor who, after a couple of movie bombs, found himself hosting a TV reality show, putting him in the company of such gifted performers as Brian Dunkelman, Mark Walberg, and Monica Lewinsky?

What’s up with Jay Mohr’s career?

You know him best as slimy sports agent Bob Sugar in Jerry Maquire, for his two-year stint as a regular on Saturday Night Live or, in his best role, as amoral TV exec Peter Dragon from Fox’s 1999 series Action. Or maybe you don’t. A challenging show that took a racy, unflinching look at Hollywood, Action was cancelled after only eight episodes. Mohr has most recently been such big screen stinkers as Pay It Forward and The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

So now he’s back, as host, co-creator, and executive producer of a new NBC reality show with the longwinded title of Last Comic Standing: The Search For The Funniest Person in America. It’s not such a bad gig, really. Last week’s two-hour premiere was a rollicking good time and delivered big laughs and even bigger ratings to the network, a good start for a show that will be with us for eight weeks in this, the summer of the reality show.

The premise is familiar: celebrity judges, including Colin Quinn, Buddy Hackett, and Caroline Rhea, see thousands of aspiring and professional comics at clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Ten finalists then move into the “Comedy House,” a 13-room, 12,000 square foot Hollywood Hills mansion where they will live together for six weeks while competing for the grand prize, in this case, a special on Comedy Central, a “talent deal” with NBC, and, of course, bragging rights to the title “Funniest Person In America.” Viewers will decide who stays and who goes.

For the past few weeks, Mohr has stumped heavily in behalf of the show, which has been described as American Idol meets Big Brother meets Tough Enough (MTV’s reality show of pro wrestling wannabes). In interviews, he says that he wants to show stand-ups in their offstage environments, and it’s here that Last Comic Standing succeeds. Interviews and pre-taped segments allow us to get into the heads of some of these jokesters and we learn what drives them to make others laugh.

We meet Craig Baldo from Manhattan, who spends seven hours each day writing jokes in a downtown Starbucks, and Dat Phan, a Vietnamese comic from California, who tearfully recounts that making people laugh has helped him overcome a painful childhood. Both buff Midwesterner Lang Parker (“You ever get mistaken for a lesbian?”) and a flamboyant New Hampshire comic known only as Ant draw on their experiences as gay people as a source for their comedy.

We also get a deep sense of their desire to make it big and we hear them speak of their dreams of gaining national exposure, of being the next Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock or Margaret Cho. While most have sacrificed almost everything to get to the next level, few regret giving up more traditional careers for the life of a comic. “I could never go back to a 9-to-5 job, being on-stage telling jokes,” said Minnesotan Dave Mordel.

This diversity of personalities gives LSC a refreshing change over the buff and beautiful contestants of most other reality shows, and I’m guessing that the show¹s creators are counting on this mix of quirky, creative, and competitive people to make the six weeks in the house worth watching. But judging from some of the semi-finalists in the show’s premiere, a houseful of neurotic comics might not be the laughfest one might think.

Meet Eddie Pepitone, 44, from Staten Island, New York. Squinty-eyed and intimidating, Eddie doesn’t speak so much as snarl, and he describes his nightmare of “being 44 and getting no laughs after bypassing other career opportunities. Hoo-boy, that makes for a bad night’s sleep.” Eddie goes into an on-stage rant about his miserable life and when he’s through, his hands are shaking, his face flushed. Eddie got a positive reception from the judges and crowd, so there’s a good chance he’ll get a shot at living in the house. But I’m not sure I’d like to be around when Eddie Pepitone finds out that someone has short-sheeted his bed or stolen his toilet paper.

Thankfully, none of the other comics come close to that kind of intensity and most are genuinely funny. Predictably, jokes often concerned the comic’s ethnic or social background, with varying degrees of success. Phan’s diatribe about Asians bordered on offensive, while Randi Kaplan overdid the Long Island yenta thing to the point of irritation.

But the premiere’s stand-out stand-up was Ralphie May, who stole the show with a hilarious routine about being white and living in South Central L.A. that included a brilliant dialogue between two rappers at a McDonald’s drive-thru window. When asked by Mohr if he had ever been a contestant on Fear Factor, the 300-plus-pound May retorted, “I could be an event.”

Like a lot of the jokesters seen in the premiere, May displayed the type of onstage poise that only comes from performing onstage regularly. Indeed, most of these comics seem ready to move on. What LCS provides for May and the others is the type of national exposure that only network TV can provide. Some of these contestants took themselves off the comedy circuit for months to compete on the show, suggesting their ambition extends beyond taking home a monetary reward and a new car.

This promise of bigger things makes LCS promising. Whereas past winners of reality shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race have quickly faded into obscurity (where have you gone, Richard Hatch?), these comics have a real chance at stardom and, perhaps, the opportunity of hosting a reality TV show of their very own.