The final stage of tryouts for NBC's reality series "Last Comic Standing" has drawn the ire of two big-name comedians, Drew Carey and Brett Butler, who participated as judges but in several cases were overruled.
Though its format is different from the Fox hit "American Idol," "Last Comic Standing" has a similar conceit: a competition to present a fresh face to the public, in this case a stand-up comedian. The first installment of the show aired last summer, and this edition is once again planned as summer programming.
But casting the show, at least this time around, has proved controversial. "They're presenting this to the public as if it's a contest, but it's not," said Carey, star of the ABC sitcom "The Drew Carey Show." "It was not a comedy contest. I've got no beef against casting a reality show if you want to have a mix [of personalities], but this was so clearly cast."
Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of programming at NBC, attributed the controversy to poor communication between show producers and the celebrity judges, who weren't fully briefed on how the show's casting worked.
"The judges alone were not the sole decision-makers, and they probably misunderstood their role in the process," he said. "I'm completely comfortable that we followed all the rules that we set out on this production."
"Last Comic Standing," whose ratings were encouraging enough for NBC to renew the series, puts 10 unknown comics in a house together, where they're supposed to clash and interact in a humorous way while also competing to stay in the house. Each week, two comics must perform brief sets in front of a studio audience, who vote one of the comics off the show.
Carey was one of four celebrity judges flown to Las Vegas two weeks ago to judge the finals -- five-minute performances that Carey understood would determine which 10 comics would win a spot in the house this summer.
Instead, the comic said, in some cases show producers and network officials were more intent on finding the best reality show cast, not the funniest acts.
In particular, Carey wondered why an openly gay comic named Ant was cast on the show, even though Carey believed his performance clearly wasn't as strong as that of another comic, Dan Naturman.
"It was like my first 'Tonight Show,' one of those kinds of sets," Carey said of Naturman's performance. "I don't know how in the world Ant got picked out of these 20. The only thing I could think was that he's gay" and would add to the personality mix in the house.
As it happens, Ant has done audience warmup on "The Drew Carey Show." But Carey said he didn't have one of the stronger sets.
"They brought us in there" to judge the comics, Carey said of the producers, "and they were going to pick whoever they wanted."
Butler, another incensed judge, could not be reached for comment, but on her website she posted a message that read in part: "Regarding our participation allegedly 'judging' the comedians who were semi-finalists 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."
Carey said celebrity judge Anthony Clark, star of the CBS sitcom "Yes, Dear," ripped off his microphone in disgust when the results were announced.
Clark's manager, Jason Solomon, said the comic would not comment.
A show source, asking not to be named, put it this way: "There are a lot of comedians who have great sets but are not funny outside their act. We're looking more for someone who makes a great sitcom [personality] rather than a comic."
Once "Last Comic Standing" begins airing, the public picks the winner. But getting on the show is a murkier process. To cast "Last Comic Standing," hosted by comedian Jay Mohr, producers conduct auditions at comedy clubs around the country.
Contestants perform numerous times for show producers and do interviews for network officials, until the field is narrowed to 20 finalists. Those finalists do five minutes of material each onstage at the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Of those 20, 10 are then picked for the series.
Though ostensibly a democratic search for comedic talent, the fine print in the rules also allows for "producer's discretion" to determine who makes the cut. This has led to charges from the comedy community that the acts on "Last Comic Standing" aren't the best and the brightest of the profession but the ones NBC feels will make the most salable reality-show personalities.
While not as career-making as a spot on the old "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, getting on "Last Comic Standing" has proven to have real value to struggling comics. Last year's winner, a Vietnamese American comic named Dat Phan, has since seen his profile rise, including a guest spot on NBC's "The West Wing" and a coming half-hour special on Comedy Central.