When recently being interviewed about my new novel, I'll Be Here All Week, I was asked about the TV series Last Comic Standing, and how it relates to the main character in the book. About a struggling stand-up comic and his desperate attempts to save his love life and career, I'll Be Here All Week focuses more on comedy clubs than TV shows, but the presence of Last Comic Standing is definitely felt throughout its pages.
Last Comic Standing returned this spring for an eighth season on TV. When it first debuted in 2003, it was heralded by many in the entertainment industry as American Idol for comedians. Seasoned veterans of stand-up and newcomers alike lined up around the block at comedy clubs everywhere, hoping for that ticket to stardom. Several of the winners and finalists have since gone on to hugely successful careers.
Sure, there was some controversy here and there. Many accused the show of being phony in its depiction of the audition process. Drew Carey angrily called the show "crooked and dishonest" when his votes as a judge were overridden by producers. But, regardless, the show has always showcased top notch stand-up comedians and some great talent.
The overall impact of the show on the stand-up business, however, can't be disregarded. Last Comic Standing put stand-up comedy back in prime time. For years, stand-up comedy on television was relegated to basic cable and late night talk shows. Comedians broke out every so often, but live stand-up comedy had lost its lustre and mainstream popularity.
This lull is of course after years of it being seemingly everywhere, all the time. The late-80s was a boom for stand-up, with every major network and premium cable channel offering new comedy shows and specials. Comedy clubs popped up everywhere (even in the smallest towns) and comedians became TV and movie stars left and right.
Then, suddenly, it all crashed. Some say it was due to overexposure. People just got tired of stand-up comedy being all over TV. Sure, Seinfeld was a huge hit, but too many comedian sitcoms came and went too fast, and those premium cable specials became fewer and farther between. The late night shows featured comedians less frequently and comedy clubs started closing almost as quickly as they'd opened. The last place to catch long-form stand-up comedy was on Comedy Central, itself a product of that "Boom" which had imploded.
Last Comic Standing helped usher in what could very well be a second boom in the stand-up business. People not only didn't have to stay up late to see a talented comic doing seven minutes of jokes, but they could watch some really funny people week after week on a major network. Almost every comic on Last Comic Standing hit the road, headlining comedy clubs all over North America. Audiences came out to see them and, in many cases, are still filling seats to see the likes of Ralphie May, Alonzo Boden, and Iliza Shlesinger.
It's because of the mainstream success of Last Comic Standing that people gravitated towards watching comedy on Netflix, where dozens of new and old stand-up specials are waiting to be discovered or watched for the twentieth time. Comedy has proven so successful on Netflix, in fact, that the streaming giant now produces it's very own stand-up specials, featuring some of the best rising talent coming out of comedy clubs everywhere.
Many wonder if this will lead to another burst of popularity of stand-up comedy or if this will just be another bust. There have been several close calls over the years. Louis CK self-produced his own comedy special and offered it online for cheap, only to have many other comics try and not come anywhere near matching his success. Even Last Comic Standing took a four-year hiatus after being cancelled once back in 2010. And, amidst all of this talk of comedians making new specials and TV appearances, comedy clubs everywhere are still constantly hustling to fill seats and find audiences. Everything from the multiplexes to the local sports team are a serious threat to bars that sell funny for money.
Still, for many comedians, the success of Last Comic Standing may be bittersweet. Some feel the show is just another reminder that television is the ultimate barometer when it comes to attracting audiences. People love to go to the comedy club to see the comedian they heard has been on TV, even if they've never seen the comic before. Yet seasoned vets who lack the TV credits find their work dwindling, ironic since the success of Last Comic Standing and Netflix comedy specials was supposed to be a Godsend. Others have bemoaned the idea of a competition series that pits comics against one another, especially when something as subjective as "what's funny" is being judged.
Still, Last Comic Standing at least deserves a tip of the hat, even from those of us who never once considered auditioning for it and maybe never even watched a single episode. It did, at the very least, get people talking about stand-up again. It helped to find new audience members who might not have been staying up to watch Conan or tuning in to watch Live at Gotham. And, in some cases, it got comedians who never came close to getting on The Tonight Show a real shot at prime time. For that alone, the show has been good.
We will see if season eight creates any new superstars, and if a ninth season is in the cards.
I'll Be Here All Week is available from Kensington Books online and in bookstores everywhere.
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