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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Comedy is no laughing matter

Reality show puts comics in a stressful spot

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Comedy is serious work for J.B. Smoove.

As the host of the upcoming edition of Last Comic Standing, premièring Thursday, May 22, on NBC, he doesn't expect the audience to lean back and wait for the competing comics to create laughs, snorts, guffaws or giggles. The show should be a learning process.

Those lessons will come each week as the comics try to survive different comedy disciplines -- sketch, improv and standup -- to win the grand prize that includes an NBC talent deal and a half-hour scripted project.

It all depends on how they impress the three new celebrity judges: Roseanne Barr, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Russell Peters.

"It's not like going to a club and you just go and bring your girlfriend and bring a friend. You all just go laugh, leave to go home and tell the jokes at work the next day," Smoove says. "You're going to learn a lot more about what goes into being a standup comedian: preparation, the energy level, the performance, all these different rules."

The competition starts with 100 comics battling for 20 spots. Twenty then compete in a semi-final round, with the top 10 moving into the challenge rounds.

When it comes to judging the comics, Peters will look at how well the comic reads the audience. A comic goes into every performance with a game plan, but they have to be able to adapt if the material isn't working and those changes should look seamless.

Wayans points out that good comics don't change their material but can get the audience to come around.

Barr says "it's also about control."

She should know. She began her career in standup comedy, using her experiences as a wife and mother to create the "domestic goddess" act that made her a hit on stage and eventually in her own comedy TV series. Barr has won Emmy, Golden Globe, Kids' Choice and American Comedy awards.

Wayans is no comic slouch. Along with his TV series In Living Color, he's starred in such funny films as I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Scary Movie and A Low Down Dirty Shame.

Peters has set attendance records globally with his tour and was ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the top 10 highest-grossing comics in 2013.

Peters promises this season will be different from past versions of the series.

"I think the last few seasons of Last Comic Standing were more of a popularity contest than they were a talent contest. This time it's more about the talent than it is about how popular. We don't care how many people in America you made phone in. It's not about that. It's about are you funny, can you consistently be funny, and will you be able to hold your own show in the future," Peters says.

Even the show's executive producer, Wanda Sykes, has a long comedy career on stage, TV and in films. She and producing partner, Page Hurwitz, looked at thousands of comedians to narrow the initial field to 100. They knew the comics had to be top-notch because of the icons judging the competitors.

"We're not going to waste their time and put people who aren't funny or credible in front of these people. And even if you didn't make it through, a comic in front of these judges, they all walked away with something that will help them," Sykes says. "They got good advice, they'll work on it, and maybe be back next year."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2014 C6

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