Last comic caring...
Dan Atkinson on the trials of NBC's reality show
I, like many of us, had been gigging the night before. We had to be at the airport for an early flight, which meant waking at the ungodly hour of about 6am. For a comic that’s like a normal person having to get up at about 2am.
This was my first long-haul flight for some years, so I wasn’t overly impressed to find myself reading an ewspaper article about the Canadian pilot who had to be restrained because halfway through a flight he started speaking to God.
At check-in we got our first glimpse of the other comics who were going to Miami – people that NBC would like me to call The Opposition but I would rather refer to as My Mates. We dribbled through the various checks with the mandatory grumbles (‘Shoes? Why do they need to check my shoes? Etc etc’).
On the plane we were all spread out, and I was sat next to a retired couple who were going on a cruise. It was a delight to see their faces as I was greeted by more and more people during the course of the flight. I didn’t let on that there was something going on, I just let them think they’d witnessed an amazing coincidence. I read my book for the flight, as the films didn’t work. No in-flight entertainment for nine hours. If I’d paid for my ticket I would have been miffed.
In America, immigration took nearly two hours. Photographs, fingerprints, question after question; my first real brush with the true extent of American paranoia.
We collected our bags and were then met by representatives of NBC (I say representatives, I think the eldest was 22) It’s worth stressing here the general mood of the comics: very tired indeed, slightly bored, hungry, restless and wanting nothing more than to just collapse into the hotel.
Filming began almost immediately. We were frogmarched around the airport, being filmed walking up escalators, down stairs, through doors and then back up some more escalators. Scintillating footage, I think you’d agree. Now we’re becoming downright irate. Then we were to be greeted by the show anchor. Our instructions were to walk down some stairs where she would greet us on camera, and we were to chat, pretend we’d just walked off the plane and generally enthuse.
Not having any choice in the matter, we English trudged down the stairs and the anchor turned around to greet us to reveal: Fearne Cotton. Almost as one, you could hear the collective sigh of ‘Oh for Fuck’s sake’. It was an emphatically British moment. There followed a heroic parade of moaning and grumbling. First question to first comic: ‘So you must be pumped being here in the US! How do you feel?’
Answer: ‘Tired. Can we go to the hotel?’
Second question: ‘How do you fancy your chances in the big competition?’
Answer: ‘I’m a lot funnier when I haven’t had to walk around an airport for three hours.’
To meet the various nationalities arriving, Fearne dressed ‘appropriately’ for each country. We English got off lightly with some sort of a chauffeur’s hat. A little more crass, dare we say edging towards racist was the traditional Indian costume. Most bizarre sight of the day was the Kiwi comic arriving to be greeted by Fearne dressed…as a sheep.
On the coach on the way to the hotel there were yet more individual interviews where we were, to a man, disruptive, rude about America and Americans, surly and uncooperative. I couldn’t help but feel a little burst of pride.
Finally arriving at the hotel after nearly 24 hours without sleep, we were informed of the start time for filming and being funny for the following day: 7am
Amazingly, we were all in the lobby for seven. Then there was some more waiting around (a feature of the trip, by the way) before we were driven to the location. Then there was more waiting when we got there. A truly American breakfast was served: stodgy cakes and weak coffee. There was no option but cakes made of 90% fat.
We waited some more, then it poured with rain drawing a wry smile from those familiar with pathetic fallacy. Then there was some sort of bloody flag parade, where we were meant to walk behind a flag or something. The whole thing was so disorganised that if it did happen, I certainly missed it.
More waiting. We were told we couldn’t leave the location under pain of expulsion. Now, being in Miami, expulsion from the show seemed the most attractive option so a few of us fucked off in search of a decent cup of tea.
Arriving back from a satisfying cuppa, frustratingly our absence had gone entirely unnoticed. This might be the best place to point out how very much we were as cattle. In the other heats across America, people would have been overexcited at the prospect of being on the TV, coupled with the already nauseating American genetic enthusiasm. They would have been happy just to be there. The fact here was that we’re all working, professional comics already. None of us particularly needs Last Comic Standing. Granted, to progress would be a good thing for a comedy career in America, but not progressing, well, genuinely, who gives a shit?
The first round auditions were to two of the producers. I got through to the afternoon auditions quite swiftly once I was in there. It was near to lunch, so they were obviously hungry and making those kind of basic mistakes.
Then more waiting, 30 minutes to get a shower and some lunch at the hotel (an impossible timeframe), then work up some more material for the two minute audition in the afternoon. It’s for a US audience, so you have to remove/alter British references, and it’s for a mainstream TV show, so you have to remove blasphemy, swearing and overtly sexual references. It’s fascinating to find, once you’ve done that, how little material you seem to have.
For the afternoon auditions we had to do the new two minutes to the judges, a couple of chaps from 30 Rock. It was a real conveyer belt, one in, one out, next! Next! We were all waiting in a line down a corridor to do our two minutes. I was behind the curtain, primed, ready, poised to do my best two minutes when without telling me, they took a break for coffee and cake. For 25 minutes I was like a coiled spring behind the curtain. By the time I went on my legs were jelly and my brain was fried. I managed to give a fairly decent account of myself, and somehow they put me through to the evening show in front of a live audience at the Improv Comedy Club, Miami.
Now we were all exhausted. The ones who hadn’t progressed got to go off and enjoy Miami for the rest of their trip. Hand on heart, I envied them something rotten. I know that sounds ungrateful, but that’s how I felt at the time. I know most of them would have loved to have been in my position, doing the show to the crowd, but by then I was so tired I just wanted to sit on the beach with a cocktail. It’s a bit frustrating knowing that Miami is all around you but you’re trapped. One of the comics pointed out that as we were working for no money and had to do what they said, that effectively made us slaves. Good point. So we had about two hours between the afternoon auditions and the evening show in which we had to: work up a completely new three minute set for the evening, fill out reams of paperwork about as thick as my thumbnail, shower, eat, do two or more interviews and maybe catch three minutes rest.
The evening show was sold out, a good sign, and the audience were in a good mood, enforced upon them by the compulsory ‘Two drink minimum’ rule. It wasn’t a bad gig, some acts absolutely ripped the nuts off it, others struggled. I fell somewhere in between.
Most jokes worked well, I got one reference badly wrong so the joke fell because, simply, they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I was fairly satisfied with the gig but knew absolutely that I wasn’t going through to the next round in Las Vegas. And my honest reaction was relief. I’m really genuinely glad for those who went through, because they did want it, and equally I feel sad for those who really wanted it and didn’t get it. But I got further than I ever dared presume I might, and I was glad that time had been called before it got out of control.
After the show, the first time to relax at all, I ordered a double G & T (which apparently in Miami means ‘hello, I’d like half a pint of neat gin, please). Ended up through exhaustion and booze becoming thoroughly trolleyed. I think everyone did. The following day there were reports of breaking into hotel pools in the dead of night and skinny dipping, among other things.
Without a doubt, that was the most tiring and relentless day of having to Be Funny since the first day I stepped onto the comedy stage.
More filming. Just when we thought we had a day off, they’d arranged to film us having fun (which is an utter paradox. How much fun can you really have with a camera shoved up your nose?). I got the time wrong so wandered down to the lobby an hour early with a fuming headache and limbs made of clay, to find nobody else about.
The original plan was that we would be filmed mucking about on a boat trip. That fell through because apparently messing about on the river is classed as ‘work’ in the US. As we didn’t have work visas, we couldn’t do that work. So whilst NBC Legal worked on an alternative, we munched our way through an American buffet breakfast that included beef patties. That’s right. Hamburgers for breakfast.
The geniuses at NBC managed to come up with an alternative, which was to take us all for lunch and film us at an eatery called ‘Hooters’, with topless waiting staff. That idea was rounded upon with some force by us, and swiftly screwed up into a ball and hit out of the stadium (A poor US analogy for a dreadful US idea).
We ended up going on a trip about an hour out of Miami to a Gator Park, whizzing about on one of those boats with a massive fan at the back like in Gentle Ben. I ate alligator for lunch, and can report back that it’s chewy and tasteless. I don’t know what I expected, considering the thing is pretty much a bloody dinosaur.
The boat trip was fairly entertaining, and took about an hour. One of our number was in the toilet when the boat left, so missed the trip. The poor girl went all the way to an Alligator Park for a shit then went back home.
Finally, the cameras packed up and left us alone. We were dropped at the hotel, free at last with a few hours to spend in Miami before going home the next morning.
Determined to make the most of it, a number of us headed down to Ocean Drive and Miami Beach. By now of course it was pitch black, but you could get a feel for the art deco architecture. Sat in the open air, on leather sofas, sipping on a Mojito and having a great time. Finally a little bit of what I’d hoped the trip would be about.
Having eaten aligator for lunch, I wanted to try something new to eat in the evening too. We found a restaurant, and on the menu was an intriguing item named ‘Mahi Mahi’. I asked the waiter what it was and in a broad Latin American accent said ‘well, you know, it’s illegal to kill dolphin, but…’ Then winked. One thing led to another and I can report back that dolphin is rather tasty indeed. Highly recommended.
Dinner was followed by a paddle in the sea, some antics with a massive white snake and its handler, who was quite potty. Then back to the hotel with a second wind. I found in my room a bottle of ‘American champagne’ which isn’t quite up to the French stuff. Someone had ordered it to the wrong room, a mistake of which we took full advantage. Champagne guzzled, world put to rights, then to bed.
Woke up for the first time on the trip ready to enjoy the day, just in time for: the homeward journey. We handed in our receipts to the film crew for reimbursement (mine were frighteningly liquid in content). The plane was boarded without incident, then a night flight. We were all knackered, mostly too tired to sleep.
Arrival into Heathrow was at about 5am Tuesday. The trip had been worthwhile for meeting and having a laugh with some incredible comics, making new friends and having a peek into the weird world of NBC. I’m so very glad that I went, but I definitely wouldn’t go again.
Posted: 10 Feb 2008