On the Internet, if not everywhere, comedy is the preferred karaoke. In this context Calvert DeForest, a.k.a. Larry "Bud" Melman of the old "Late Night With David Letterman," was a pre-citizen-comedian, an unvarnished man-on-the-street interviewer who didn't even seem to understand you held the microphone under your mouth while asking a question. Minutes after I'd learned this week that the cherished Melman had died, I was on YouTube, watching a great bit from 1983 in which Melman handed out hot towels to people at the New York Port Authority bus terminal.
It was great comedy, ineffable and frozen in time, made instantly accessible by technology and resonant only if you recall what a kick it once was to see an otherwise credulous human being on TV. Back then, if you wanted to be funny in the public square, you probably found yourself in an improv class or waiting in line on open-mike night or hoping for a call-back from a manager.
But the Web presents no such boundaries or inconveniences; it's anonymous, instant and takes comparatively little nerve.
"Acceptable.TV," premiering tonight on VH1, is the broadcast spinoff of the website Channel 101.com, the brainchild of Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. In the age of "user-generated content," it was their idea to create a Web space where people could upload digital shorts, a la pilots, putting the site's audience in the role of broadcaster, with the power to cancel or renew a series for another week.
Now their viral network goes semi-legit, powered by Viacom (and executive producer Jack Black). Each week of "Acceptable.TV" will feature six three-minute episodes of what the press release calls "proposed TV series" -- five from the staff of the show and one from a viewer. The premiere episode, at 10 tonight, is like an open orientation meeting in a green room, with co-creator Harmon sitting on a couch and introducing the kinds of sketches he and his team are looking for.
Mostly, it seems, they're looking for high-concept spoofs steeped in pop culture -- what the Web has in spades, for better and for very worse. Harmon and company, who are not without talent, set the bar like so in the initial episode: "Homeless James Bond" (a vagrant as 007), "The Teensies" (tiny family lives in mouse hole) and "Who Farted?" (game show parody of "Deal or No Deal," featuring mystery flatulence instead of a suitcase full of cash).
None of them exactly had me begging for more -- or begging for anything, really. Until further notice, the gimmick of "Acceptable.TV" is more than the sum of its comedy, not because the sketches are raunchy but because they aren't really going after original story and character so much as the power to become the next "it" spoof.
Still, the miscreant fantasy of "Acceptable.TV" imagines a near-future in which you, the home viewer, could not only hate an episode of "According to Jim" but also click on a link to cancel it instantly -- or even better, create your own show and let viewers decide whether it gets to replace "According to Jim."
On "Acceptable.TV," each week will be like vote night on "American Idol" -- four series will die via Web poll, and two will return for another week. It's a nice, utopian-sounding idea, and it does, in this sense, make "Acceptable.TV" look ahead of the game, whereas another new sketch series, "Human Giant," premiering April 5 on MTV, feels locked in the old model of, you know, dues-paying.
Or so I presume: "Human Giant's" core cast of Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Jason Woliner and Aziz Ansari have, well, "acceptable" credits: Ansari is a stand-up who's made Rolling Stone's "hot list," while Scheer, Huebel and Woliner can name-drop the Upright Citizens Brigade and HBO and Aspen Comedy Festival in their bios.
"Human Giant" is a filmed series set in New York, and like every sketch show in history, it's hit (see bit in which Ansari loses a bet and has to walk the streets of Manhattan blaring a bad mix tape from a Boombox) and miss (see running gag involving dog attacks).
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)