The Good, the Bad, and the Deeply Strange: Comedy Central’s One-Season Wonders
Comedy Central cancels a lot of shows. Enough that Daniel Tosh was able to shout one out in every episode of the first five seasons of Tosh.0 (“We’ll be right back with more Michael and Michael Have Issues”). Tosh’s show has thrived, but what about the supposedly failed shows he mocked? Were any of them good? Why did so many of them only last one season? What if they were supposed to only last one season? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at all the Comedy Central shows that lasted just one season.
First up: the reality and mockumentary genre.
Contest Searchlight is a parody inextricably linked to 2002. Even its title is a specific reference to what it’s satirizing: Project Greenlight, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s show documenting the filmmaking process. Instead of a movie with Hollywood’s favorite Bostonians for HBO, Contest Searchlight has second-tier Bostonians Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke producing a pilot for Comedy Central. Project Greenlight and Contest Searchlight have the same premise: a contest is held to find a great script from an unknown writer/director, and then the famous actors and powerful studio get it made, and the whole process is shot for a warts-and-all making-of TV show. The difference is that Contest Searchlight is a satire rather than a celebration of show business, where everyone involved is an egomaniac, all visions are compromised, advertising undermines art (Mike’s Hard Lemonade fuels Leary’s trip to rehab), and dozens of people tirelessly labor to make a terrible product; in this case, an improvised multi-camera sitcom called Jesus & the Gang, starring Peter Gallagher, Patrice O’Neal, or Eddie Brill as Jesus, as the actors get injured and replaced.
Contest Searchlight is a full-on Denis Leary production, created by his longtime producer Jim Serpico and produced by Leary and Serpico’s company, Apostle. It was made during a period when Leary could pretty much do whatever he wanted at Comedy Central, whether roast himself or make a loosey-goosey, four-episode, one-off lark during his downtime between The Job and Rescue Me. Contest Searchlight features appearances from many of Leary’s associates from Rescue Me and The Job, including Lenny Clarke, John Scurti, Adam Ferrara, and Mike Lombardo. It also features small, early-career appearances by Todd Barry, Jessica St. Clair, Kristen Schaal, and Jason Mantzoukas, as well as a cameo from musician and cult hero Adam Roth.
Denis Leary is guilty of a lot of comedy sins, but Contest Searchlight is a positive check for him. It’s a harsh and bleakly funny sendup of showbiz insanity, and Leary doesn’t let himself off the hook. In the show’s room full of assholes, he’s the biggest one (which is its own sort of bravado, isn’t it?). The show’s self-contained arc keeps it from wearing out its welcome, and it’s, you know, pretty good. And now that Project Greenlight is coming back, Contest Searchlight is once again relevant.
You can watch all of Contest Searchlight right here (embedding is disabled).
Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust
Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust was a travel show parody that aired for six episodes in the spring of 2003. The show was created by comedian Josh Gardner, who previously wrote for Crank Yankers and The Man Show. The show followed the titular German host, played by Gardner, as he visited exotic locales like Thailand and Peru. It was a parody of Lonely Planet-style tourism guides with a deadpan absurdist sensibility reminiscent of Fishing With John. It precedes current Comedy Central star Andy Daly’s very similar August Lindt character, and Borat, with the way it depicts a foreign fish-out-of-water weirdo interacting with the real world.
Gerhard Reinke is one of the more sympathetic characters from Comedy Central’s stable of sociopathic provocateurs. Instead of a cruel asshole, Gerhard is a wide-eyed, naive young fellow who wants to share his adventures with the world. However, his cheapness, insecurity, and lack of sense get him in trouble, like getting assaulted by Bigfoot in California or being pee-shy in Thailand. His thick German accent changes all v’s to w’s, and “village” pronounced as “willage” occurs many times per episode.
Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust is the smartest and funniest of Comedy Central’s one-season mockumentaries, and its failure to thrive was not due to inferior quality or low ratings. On a very interesting appearance on the podcast Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend, Josh Gardner claims that Wanderlust was vindictively canceled after executive producer Jimmy Kimmel left Comedy Central for ABC, and the fact that the Comedy Central executive assigned to the show “had a room temperature IQ.” My theory is that audiences are generally not interested in shows with unknown people’s names. After Wanderlust, Gardner starred in the cult classic Saul of the Mole Men before leaving Hollywood for rural Maine, and has mostly left show business except for appearing as his Deaf Frat Guy character on various Adam Carrolla properties, and opening for Norm MacDonald, with whom he shares a cerebral anticomic approach. He uploaded Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust to YouTube himself, which is pretty menschly of him.
I’m With Busey
I’m With Busey ran for a full season of 13 episodes in the summer of 2003. Creator Adam de La Peña, like Wanderlust’s Josh Gardner, was a writer for Crank Yankers and The Man Show. The show’s premise was simple: de la Peña hangs out with actor and noted lunatic Gary Busey. Busey was ostensibly imparting life lessons to young de la Peña, but the show was mostly a showcase for Busey’s inscrutable aphorisms like “fear is the darkroom where the devil develops his negatives” and “leave food on your face so people know you’re proud of it,” which Busey says twice, once while eating oysters and later while eating ribs.
It’s almost impossible to tell if Gary Busey is for real or not. Some moments are obviously scripted, but the things Busey says are so strange, and de la Peña’s reactions to them so genuine, that this couple would have to be Apatow-caliber improvisers to act as natural as they do. There’s also the fact of Gary Busey’s well-documented head injury and behavior on other shows like Celebrity Apprentice (check out his genially intimidating appearance on The Late Show in 1990, an underrated weird talk show moment).
If Busey is as crazy as he seems, I’m With Busey takes on an exploitative freakshow dimension. Adam de la Peña is an unlikable presence at the center of the show, a smug nerd with unearned sarcastic superiority. De la Peña gets abused by Busey (and once by Andy Dick, another guy whose instability de la Peña is laughing at, not with), but he’s the perpetrator, not the victim. Real or not, though, Busey is hilarious while terrorizing de la Peña, and the two have chemistry.
While Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t involved in I’m With Busey, its fate seems similar to its cousin Wanderlust, due to Adam de la Peña’s connection to Kimmel. It could just as well be that I’m With Busey was always supposed to be a one-off, though, as its premise doesn’t leave much room for growth.
Adam de la Peña went on to create Code Monkeys for G4, while Busey still hasn’t published a book of Buseyisms, which seems like a missed opportunity for someone. But perhaps I’m With Busey’s most lasting contribution is inspiring the name of the terrible metal band iwrestledabearonce.
Straight Plan for the Gay Man
Remember Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? It had a retrograde parody that lasted just three episodes in the winter of 2004. Rob Riggle was on it. It can’t be seen anywhere.
Wanda Does It
It’s a shame that this 2004 show isn’t available anywhere, because Wanda Sykes is still funny. The (mostly sketch) show followed her as she tried out different civilian jobs, like repo agent and pilot. It sounds like Hannibal Buress’ pilot is similar.
The only Comedy Central show to share a title with a TV On the Radio song, Halfway Home lasted 10 episodes in the spring of 2007. It was an improvised mockumentary that profiled five ex-cons and their counselor at a Los Angeles halfway house. The show was created by The Office’s Oscar Nuñez, who also co-starred as Eulogio Pia, a hypersexual, English-mangling stereotype of a gay Latin man. Eulogio is the best example of Halfway Home’s strengths and weaknesses: a creative idea and a different type of character than we’re used to seeing on TV, but one whose execution is unfortunately conventional.
The best part of the show is Octavia Spencer, who played a crazy-eyed armed robber named Serenity. In 2007, no one watching Halfway Home would have said “this woman will win an Oscar someday,” but in retrospect her talent is visible. She makes what was supposed to be a typical Angry Black Woman into someone resembling a real human being. Spencer delivers her lines naturally, like she’s a person talking the way she talks, while most of the characters use stilted archetype-speak. The worst offenders here are Regan Burns’ Alan, an arsonist who speaks in the nasally, contraction-averse voice of the uptight racist white guy, and Jordan Black’s C-Bass, who is a Black Muslim thug. The joke about C-Bass is that he’s actually a computer scientist from Calabassas who grew up wealthy and was imprisoned for white-collar rather than street crime. But instead of actually exploring the stereotype of the Criminal Black Man, C-Bass is just presented as a wannabe thug. Nuñez’s other show did a much better job with the same premise in its episode “The Convict,” in which a black Dunder Mifflin employee did time for insider trading and inspires the creation of Michael Scott’s “Prison Mike” character. The Office also featured Oscar Nuñez’s own performance as Oscar, which is still one of the more sympathetic portrayals of a gay character on TV.
Halfway Home seems like it was supposed to be a satire of stereotypes, but still ended up reinforcing them. There aren’t even clips of it on the internet anymore.
American Body Shop
Speaking of stereotypes, American Body Shop was a terrible and racist show. It aired for 10 episodes in the summer of 2007. It had a deep vein of cruelty and misanthropy and was very unpleasant to watch.
American Body Shop was created by Sam Greene, a real estate developer who wrote and shot a pilot using his own money and mailed it unsolicited to Comedy Central. He has not worked in comedy since.
The show was a parody of workplace reality shows like American Chopper, which American Body Shop is essentially a fictional version of. Both shows are based around people yelling at each other and behaving like childish assholes. American Body Shop, however, added white supremacy to the mixture.
Most of the jokes in the Arizona-set show are about Mexicans, such as “you can’t leave folding money in a customer car, the Mexican will steal it. For him, a $5 bill is like a C-note.” A character named Brooklyn Johnny uses a racial slur in almost every line of dialogue. Nick Offerman straps a Peruvian man to the underside of a car because “midgets are too expensive.” The racial hate is compounded by the fact that all the characters seem to hate each other, too. There are no moments of warmth to offset the grimness and cruelty. There are also no laughs. The humor is predictable and uncreative. I was watching one episode and thought “I’m surprised there hasn’t been a fart joke,” and then there was a fart joke.
Perhaps the most notable thing about American Body Shop is that it was the last show Nick Offerman was a cast member of before starting Parks & Recreation. There are glimpses of Ron Swanson in Rob, his character, but mostly Offerman is sleepwalking. This show shouldn’t have even lasted 10 episodes. As of 2014, full episodes aren’t available anywhere.
Reality Bites Back
The most complete Comedy Central reality parody is Reality Bites Back. While most of the other parodies are inspired by one or two specific shows, Reality Bites Back takes on the reality competition show as a genre, with comics competing in challenges like “The Biggest Chubby” and “So You Think You Can Dive?” All the big shows are represented: Survivor, American Idol, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, and of course, Last Comic Standing. In fact, runner-up Amy Schumer had her break on Last Comic Standing the year before. Theo Von was the winner. Other contestants included Bert Kreischer, Kyle Cease, and Chappelle’s Show’s Donnell Rawlings. The host was Michael Ian Black, in fine smug prick form.
Reality Bites Back was clever and funny. It functioned as a parody of reality shows and as a reality show itself. It only lasted one eight-episode season in the summer of 2008, but like Contest Searchlight, one short, self-contained season was all it needed to make its point. Reality Bites Back isn’t available anywhere, but Reality Bites Back is also the title of a book.
Liam Mathews is an underrated writer and comedian.