"I think the FCC or something should look into this," says Drew Carey, and he's not talking about nationally-exposed body parts. "If I was NBC, I'd be furious."
What Carey is upset about is the Peacock Network's Last Comic Standing. Currently in its second season of filming, the reality program follows comics culled from nationwide invitational and open auditions as they compete for spots in a Los Angeles group house and subsequently for the title of "Funniest Person in America." During the February 26 taping at the Paris Las Vegas, 20 semifinalists were whittled down to 10 finalists by a celebrity voting panel consisting of Carey, Brett Butler, Anthony Clark and LCS first season finalist Tess Drake.
At least that was the idea.
In a message appearing on her personal website, Butler writes, "We are bound legally not to say more than the following regarding our participation allegedly 'judging' the comedians who were semifinalists on the show Last Comic Standing: As panel judges, we can say that A) we were both surprised and disappointed at the results, and B) we had NOTHING to do with them. Period. No shit."
According to Carey, he and the others were unaware that program and network producers had final say in advancing contestants. After host Jay Mohr announced the 10 finalists, Butler removed herself from Le Théâtre des Arts to the backstage area, where she began crying, and Anthony Clark angrily ripped off his microphone. "Then I went backstage, too, found a camera and bitched," Carey says.
The judges were consequently alerted to a clause stating that votes made by "celebrity talent scouts" were not the ultimate factors in passing comics. A similar disclaimer that briefly ran at the end of each first-season episode read in part, "Applicants were chosen to advance to the next round of auditions by the celebrity talent scouts in consultation with the producers of NBC."
"The celebrity judges didn't fully understand or get briefed that they were one component of the decision-making process," says an NBC spokesperson. "They were there to judge the performances in Las Vegas, and the network and producers were there to base their judging on performances and cumulate that with the judging in New York and their perspective on how the comics fared in the regional searches."
Joe Rogan, host of NBC's Fear Factor and Comedy Central's The Man Show, served as a celebrity judge during a semifinal round of LCS's first season. Like Carey, he was unaware at the time of a proviso giving producers final say. "There's some sort of fine-print clause that enables them to put people in; that the final decision is up to the producers' discretion," he says. "If that's the case, why would they use high-profile comedians to judge? The whole thing smacks of sleaziness."
The first installment of Last Comic Standing averaged 8.3 million weekly viewers during its summer run. Though winner Dat Phan received a contract with NBC, as well as his own half-hour special on Comedy Central, the series provided excellent exposure even to those who did not advance as far. In particular, finalists Rich Vos, Ralphie May, Cory Kahaney and even non-top-fiver Dave Mordal have seen their profiles rise significantly.
Those contestants could not have appeared on The Tonight Show, The Late Show or have been in a network deal in the last five years to be eligible to participate in the series' first installment. This year, in an effort to raise the tide of the potential talent pool, no restrictions were placed on contestants. The plan worked, as several finalists have appeared on multiple late-night talk shows, one is a regular on Comedy Central's Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, and another starred in a Fox sitcom in 1998. But finalists still compete for a contract with NBC, which explains why certain "types" might be more likely to advance. "Of course, these comics are talented, but they're casting it," says Carey. "Be honest in what you're doing. Cast it or don't, but don't cast it and say that you're having a contest and blame it on the judges."
Comedy Central Executive Vice President Tony Fox confirmed that the network would once again partner with NBC to air weekly encore showings of each episode, and though three finalists and one semifinalist have previously taped their own episodes of Comedy Central Presents, the network would again tape an episode featuring the winner.
Decision-making misunderstandings aside, Last Comic Standing is first and foremost a reality show. It must be understood with a grain of salt that while talent is often a factor, it may inevitably be overshadowed by predictable typecasting. But there are other aspects of the series' advancement process which have led to contention in the comedy industry.
"What they were really looking for was confrontational personalities and to try to bring their own clients into the house," says an industry insider who requested anonymity. "At least half of the people [who advanced] had some kind of tie-in, whether it was through management or some kind of deal. Some people believe that certain ones were guaranteed spots in the house."
LCS talent scouts Bob Read and Ross Mark, who also serve as bookers for NBC's The Tonight Show, had been instrumental in advancing comedians from regional auditions in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Tampa, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and Nashville. Though they were not present at the Vegas competition, Read and Mark previously represented one finalist, with whom Read also produced an independent film in 2001. Read and Mark could not be reached for comment.
The same finalist was eliminated from last year's competition and is now represented by executive producer Barry Katz under the New Wave Entertainment blanket, which acquired Barry Katz Entertainment in November. Katz also manages Mohr, first-season finalists Drake and Rob Cantrell, plus an additional current finalist, who is featured along with two other current finalists in an upcoming DVD series Katz is producing.
"How can someone be producer of the show, manage the host and also manage comedians that got in the house, comedians that weren't even voted for? That's just insanity," says Rogan. "And it's too bad, because the show is a great idea.
"I think that there were comics who were a little bit concerned going into this because of past relationships with Barry Katz," says the industry insider. "It's kind of like going up to a dog when you had your hand bitten in the past. You don't necessarily want to stick your hand back in the cage."
But considering the level of personal interaction inherent in the comedy community, it would be impossible for those involved with a show of Last Comic Standing's nature to possess no familiarity with performers outside of their official auditions. "It wouldn't be fair if people were excluded because of association with a manager," says first-season finalist Ralphie May. "There are so few opportunities that it's almost a crime to be excluded because of association, because when something like this comes up, it's not like a person can just get out of a contract. I do know this, when it comes to Barry's clients, he'll say, 'Excuse me, this is too biased,' and he leaves the room."
"I am ineligible to participate in the voting process for contestants competing in Last Comic Standing" Katz said in an e-mail message. "I want to be very clear about this. I did not attend the casting meetings, I did not participate in the voting and the other producers, as well as everyone at the network, will confirm that I did not influence the outcome of the competition in any way." Katz could not speak on record in regard to other aspects of LCS.
At the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival held March 3-7 in Aspen, Colorado, rumors flew that Katz had been fired from the show but was invited back after Mohr threatened to quit.
"There is absolutely no way that Barry Katz could have been fired, because his executive producer title is because of his connection and working relationship with Jay Mohr," the NBC spokesperson says. "He is not involved in the producing capacities of the show. He was never fired, there was never a reason for him to be fired, and Jay never threatened to quit."
May worked on Jay Mohr's 2002 ESPN venture Mohr Sports before appearing on LCS, a fact that might implicate Mohr himself. Though Mohr's name is another that some comics have singled out, Katz, May, Carey and Rogan say the host, creator and executive producer has no role in judging procedures.
"I was a legitimate stand-up comic for 10 years before I even met Jay," May says. "Jay and I are friends because comedy is a small community and most comics know other comics. If you're going to ostracize people who know each other, there'd be no show."
"Ralphie knew Jay Mohr beforehand, but I was at the LA audition, and he killed," says Rogan. "I voted for him; I thought he was great. He knew Jay, but you know what, I knew lots of comics. Is it a conflict of interest if I know a comic is good and I want to get him on the show? If he's good, no."
Even Carey shares management with one of the finalists, though firm Messina Baker also reps a semifinalist who did make it into the house.
Another current finalist previously appeared in the program's original pilot, Comic House, and has a development deal with executive producer Peter Engel, whose Peter Engel Productions delivered Saved By The Bell. Last Comic Standing is also produced in association with Mohr's Giraffe Productions and NBC Studios. Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz of Magical Elves, who produced the second season of Project Greenlight, have come on board as additional executive producers this season.
"The casting decisions were made by NBC and NBC Studios in consultation with talent scouts, and we appreciate their valuable input," says an NBC statement picked up by the Associated Press. "Now that the 10 participants have been selected, the program will begin. As was the case last season, during the show, the comic-elimination decisions will now be made by audiences who watch the comics perform without any input from NBC, NBC Studio or anyone else associated with the program."
Multiple off-the-record sources say that the last season's final phone and Internet voting results had been altered by producers as well. And much has been made of the fact that all the finalists reside in LA, and though it may be a simple matter of personal performance schedules, there are accusations of inviting high-level comedians to audition in cities such as Tampa and Nashville, where their talent would be more likely to stand out.
NBC has no plans to pull the show, and episodes of Last Comic Standing 2 are expected to air as scheduled in June. Though the controversy will likely serve to increase ratings, those who could be most hurt are the comics who made it into the house, since their talent may now be looked upon in a skeptical light. "We were all a bit concerned that there might be demographic factors involved, but we still thought it was basically a legitimate contest. If that turns out not to be the case, we'll certainly be outraged," says one comic who competed in Vegas. All competitors signed confidentiality agreements that extend through the duration of the season.
"Last Comic Standing has been amazing for me," says May. "It's been fantastic. But mistakes have been made and they have to be acknowledged. I'm sure NBC is taking measures to correct the mistakes and correct the people who made them."