The motto of this week's episode: Comedy is hard, but watching people make comedy can be even harder. Or not, depending.
I can feel this round is going to be different when I arrive at the stage, three days after the last elimination (the longest time between challenges yet), and find a laptop on a table in the judges' green room. David Hill and I meet our guest judge, Regency Television's classy president Robin Schwartz (whose company produced such comedy hits as
Malcolm in the Middle
The Bernie Mac Show
), and we're instructed to play a DVD with video performances of two very different stand-up acts. (We see what the contestants saw on their field trip to the M Bar comedy club.)
Major kudos, by the way, to Robin Schwartz for taking time away from one of the most intense periods of any TV year - the week before the network upfronts and schedule announcements in May - to help us out. In between camera set-ups, she's checking her Blackberry and returning calls, because she's only days away from hearing the fate of several shows her company is hoping to get on the fall schedule. (Two make it: Fox's
and Amy Sherman-Palladino's midseason comedy
The Return of Jezebel James
; ABC would later pass on a series version of the movie
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
So, after some initial gossip about what a tough year it's looking to be to get new comedies on the air, we gather around the laptop to see the comics in action, and we make our first impressions. Natasha Leggero, what a find. David Hill likens her to a new Rita Rudner. She's offbeat, absurd, completely winning. And then there's Brian Dunkleman, infamous for having dropped off the radar after co-hosting the first season of
. His material isn't nearly as distinctive, but his hangdog self-deprecation is endearing.
We figure whichever team draws Natasha is the lucky one. We turn out to be wrong.
But then, look at the team Sharon has assembled: Zo and Evie, already mortal enemies! (As Zo said on camera, "What concentric circle of Hell is this?!") Poor Adam, the wannabe comedy writer, hardly stands a chance. "I should own this," he says. By the end, I'm thinking he probably wishes he could trade it in for a better model.
Schliz leads the team building a sitcom pitch around Brian Dunkleman, and it's clear his group (Daniel, Jessica and Gwen) runs much more smoothly. Good for Schliz to step up in what for him is alien (as in: scripted) territory.
What we discover in watching the producers' pieces is that while Natasha could well be a comic discovery waiting to happen, Brian's story makes for a much more coherent, and funnier, comedy presentation. From where we sit as judges, it looks as if Sharon's team took a sharp comedian and drained much of the humor out of her by trying to push the wacky comedy. Whereas Schliz's team milked the sad-sack situation of Dunkleman's act to the fullest.
Plus, we love Gwen's pitch. She's the youngest of the contestants, but she sure doesn't act it when time comes to step up. (Watching the episode, I see that she's just as strong when it came to pitching ideas about the show to her star.) Could this underdog become a front-runner?
Zo also comes into his own in this episode, for better or worse. While Sharon naps (one of many fatal flaws in lousy leadership this round), Zo steps up. He directs, and even takes on one of the acting parts, and is clearly good at what he does - except when it comes to collaboration. There, he's a bust, tearing his teammates down and shutting down others' ideas way too quickly, storming out of the editing room rather than consider compromising. (I admit I laughed when he said of Sharon: "Sweetheart, you got a future - just not in this business!")
For the judges, Nobody's
is a hit. Delusions of Grandeur is anything but. It's a painful loss for Adam, who takes pride in his comedy, and for Sharon, whose leadership is assailed on all fronts. I feel especially bad for Adam, but I can't stop myself here from quoting my fellow judge David Hill, who gets off one of his pithiest "Hill-isms" of the entire series in this episode: "I don't think he could sell fresh fish to hungry seals." Ouch! But ultimately, Adam gets another chance to prove himself, while we send Sharon home.
Final thoughts: In the first few weeks that
America's Next Producer
has been on the air, I've been in situations where I've had to defend our decision to keep Sharon on the show as long as we did. Reality shows like this often get accused of keeping questionable but controversial contestants around longer than they deserve because they make for good TV. In this case, I assure you there was no pressure from the producers or anyone to cut Sharon any slack whatsoever, regardless of her obvious (and to her fellow contestants, often maddening) eccentricities.
She survived the first week, barely, because hers wasn't the worst piece and because Brad couldn't keep his mouth shut at a critical time. In week two, she overcame a setback by becoming the star of her own reality show, and as bizarre as that spectacle was, we couldn't punish her for having produced something so startling and different. This week, Sharon was put to the leadership test, and not only didn't she deliver, she seemed to let her team and her star down.
It really wasn't much of a choice this time. But as we look at who's left standing, we can't help wondering who will step up next and who will collapse under the pressure.
Yes, comedy is hard. But reality? Absolutely surreal.