By now, no one needs convincing that legitimately talented people do not attempt to jump-start their careers by winning reality-show competitions. The granddaddy of them all, American Idol, is probably the best example of this: The victors aren't actually gifted musicians but manufactured personas voted the most pleasing by a nation of teenage girls. If you were to rank your 200 favorite musical artists, an American Idol winner would not appear on the list.
Which is what makes NBC's Last Comic Standing, now in its sixth season, such an interesting reality show: While most of the contestants are amateurs who are just starting out, quite a few are comics who have been in the business for so long they've landed the occasional Comedy Central special or talk-show appearance. The show throws its doors open wide in the audition process, which makes the competition way more interesting, and makes the rookies' victory that much more depressing.
In order to win the latest season of American Idol, David Cook didn't actually have to out-sing his superiors; at no point was Cook made to battle it out with Eddie Vedder to prove his worth as a "rock" singer. But the previous season of Last Comic Standing featured among its finalists Doug Benson, who's already done a few specials and is most easily recognized for being a talking head on VH1's Best Week Ever. It was a given that most of the people who blindly wandered into the nationwide casting calls could not have been expected to beat a guy with Benson's time onstage; it was a numbers game, and they were overmatched. He wasn't using the show to start his career, but to advance it. His inclusion in the finalists was inevitable.
But equally inevitable was the fact that he wouldn't win. In a set-up almost guaranteed to make sure you go home unhappy, the contestants selected by talent scouts and other comedians serving as judges are then voted on by a live audience whose tastes tend to lean more toward Larry the Cable Guy than David Cross. A few pros are assured entrance to the contest, but the winner is picked by the less-than-discerning crowd at the Paris Las Vegas. Benson didn't win his season. It's been like this from the series' inception in 2003, when a house full of witty, seasoned comics were felled by the moronic Dat Phan, whose entire routine consisted of mocking his Vietnamese mother in pidgin dialect. This season is already shaping up to have the same problem. Among the 32 semifinalists are pros Louis Ramey and Sean Cullen. These guys are sharp and quick and know what they're doing, and they will probably be sent packing by a tattooed kid named Marcus who won his Tempe audition by doing impressions of George W. Bush and Matthew McConaughey—you know, the ones you don't see coming.
But those folks in the desert ate it up, and this is where the show breaks down: Instead of allowing comics or scouts or marginally talented people in the industry to weigh in on the victor, the choice is handed over to tourists who couldn't get tickets for Cirque du Soleil. It's no surprise that they wind up picking performers just as bland as their singing counterparts. Instead of someone with a polished voice and proven material, you wind up with someone who does funny voices and won't go anywhere. Ask anyone who their favorite comedian is: The winners of Last Comic Standing won't be mentioned at all.
airs at 8 pm Thursdays on NBC.