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Tracking laughs

Canadian comedy institution Second City leaps into the reality show fray, hoping to find its Next Comedy Legend. Chuck Teed is dubious.

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What's in a name? Ask the people behind CBC's latest reality show, Second City's Next Comedy Legend, which airs on the network Tuesdays at 9pm. By adding the word "legend" to the title of the show—as opposed to a less laudatory word like "great"—one assumes the winner of the contest will immediately rise to stardom and join the ranks of such stellar Second City comedians as John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Mike Myers and Eugene Levy.

Of course, hyperbole is an essential part of selling a television show. Survivor contestants are at no risk of actually dying during a competition. MTV's The Real World isn't an accurate model of human reality. But legend is a strong word, and legendary status is a lot to thrust on an unproven comedian on an unproven reality show. Is there really a chance that Next Comedy Legend will find a comic funny enough to live up to all the hype?

"I don't think so," says veteran comedian and Second City alumni Joe Flaherty at the local audition round at Bubbles Mansion, held in the spring. "It's a bit presumptuous to say it's the next comedy legend. I'd be surprised, not that there aren't talented people, but even the most talented people like Dan Ackroyd got better and better from experience. I don't know if anyone right now is in that category, certainly not anybody I've seen. I wouldn't say legend at this point, I'd just say Second City material."

Is "Second City material" enough to drive this show to success? The jury is out based on the first two episodes. The show is hosted by former internet pinup and WWE diva Trish Stratus, and the episodes follow the judges (Flaherty, Elvira Kurt and Mark Napier) as they cross the country—the Halifax trip is featured prominently in the second episode, airing this week—looking for talent. Initially described as a "mockudocurealimentary," the proceedings are politely American Idol-ish, with aspiring applicants of varying quality vying for eight spots in Toronto.

"We ask for them to come in with three characters, so they didn't have to come up with them on the spot," explains the always affable Flaherty. "We judge them from that. It's not just the characters they do, but where their sense of humour is, how interesting the scene is, how funny the monologue is. I don't think I would have done very well on one of these things, and I don't know of any of us that would have done that great in this type of audition."

Sadly, the culling process does not translate well on television. It's hard enough to develop a funny character in one minute, and even harder when the character is broken into 10-second clips, so it is difficult to discern how well someone has done until they make the first cut. And the so-bad-it's-funny auditions aren't nearly interesting enough to elicit much attention. For a comedy show, it's surprisingly void of laughs, which really doesn't bode well for future episodes.

"It's all new, and we're all getting accustomed to each other," says Flaherty. "I don't know what they want exactly, the producers haven't said "Do it this way or that way,' but I think we're developing a relationship on the panel there, as well as, you know, calling the shots."

Someone should start calling some shots before it's too late. The eight finalists are decided upon, without much fanfare, by the end of the second episode, which will force the show to switch gears. Whether or not the show will improve, or whether it will be able to maintain any sort of audience after its lacklustre beginning, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: legendary status for the winner of Next Comedy Legend is far from guaranteed.

"Today I think I screwed up," confides Flaherty near the end of the interview. "I did slightly nod off during one of the more boring presentations. I couldn't help it. Oh well, it'll make for good TV."

We're keeping our fingers crossed.

The Halifax audition episode of Second City’s Next Comedy Legend airs July 17 on CBC at 9pm.

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