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TV Series Review

When Last Comic Standing debuted during the summer of 2003, contestants' stand-up routines left studio audiences in hysterics. The reality show's premise—to find the funniest person in America—seemed lighthearted and innocent. And by combining elements of American Idol, Survivor and The Real World, it drew impressive ratings.

But offstage it exposed the comedy industry's darker side. Fun and games quickly turned into cutthroat competition between desperate, crusty veterans who, after years of barely scraping by, could taste their big break. The grand prize included a six-figure talent contract, a stand-up special on Comedy Central and an appearance on The Tonight Show.

With the field pared to 10, viewers saw how unfunny comedians can be. Head-to-head elimination rounds nearly came to blows. Secret alliances formed to dispose of rivals. In the finals, underdog Dat Phan (who'd been sleeping under a desk before entering the contest) managed to withstand repeated gang-ups from his peers and beat the crass favorite, Ralphie May.

The following season delivered more behind-the-scenes fireworks when celebrity judges Drew Carey and Brett Butler called the Top-10 selection process "crooked and dishonest," saying they had no impact on who advanced. Other critics noted that two of the semifinalists just happened to be managed by an executive producer for the series—an obvious conflict of interest. NBC reminded the judges of contractual fine print that gave network executives and show producers the final say on casting decisions. Then, once the 10 finalists advanced, viewers would determine who stayed and who went.

Ratings continued to rise. The network immediately renewed the show. This time, a twist had winners from the first two seasons facing off in a "battle of the best." Then a strange thing happened: Weekly viewership began to slide. With one episode to go, NBC pulled the plug, leaving loyal fans hanging. And outraged. The final episode aired on Comedy Central, but not before NBC leaked the results. Suddenly, no one was laughing.

It's a mystery as to why NBC has revived Last Comic Standing for another go-round this summer. Will viewers return, having been treated so shabbily? Has the show's credibility been irreparably damaged? One thing is certain: Expect the same dosage of PG-13 material in stand-up routines, roasts and off-the-cuff comments. In the past, early episodes showed restraint, but content quickly deteriorated into off-color, frequently bleeped jokes about sexual positions, oral sex, masturbation, rape, strippers, prostitutes and other randy fodder usually restricted to cable TV.

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Marcus Yoars

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