Comedy Central’s Reality Bites Back and The Gong Show debut tonight

Does the world need another reality show talent competition? That’s a rhetorical question, but it’s worth answering: No. Twice: Hell no. But if we must suffer through another one, we could do worse than the revival of The Gong Show, which debuts on Comedy Central tonight at 10, followed by a new satirical reality show that’s a lot better than it should be.

The new Gong Show is basically America’s Got Talent with more humor and less talent. Dave Attell hosts, but really the judges provided the most comic relief, primarily Triumph the Insult Comic Dog/Robert Smigel. For example, a woman farts into a microphone, and Steve Schirripa gongs her and says, “She sounded a little pitchy.” After the judges are introduced on the first episode, Triumph mocks his fellow judges’ celebrity status.

The rules or reward are never really mentioned; the judges just start awarding points (which go up to 500, although that’s not clear until later) and the winner gets handed $600 in cash. Ultimately, that’s beside the point. If generating a few laughs is the show’s goal, it occasionally succeeds. Anything beyond that and it needs to gong itself.

A half-hour later, at 10:30, the network gives reality TV a better series. Attempting to satirize a genre that’s so full of intentional and accidental irony and humor is a difficult task. Comedy Central’s new series Reality Bites Back succeeds, primarily because it softens the satire and emphasizes the actual competition between a group of comedians. (One of those is Road Rules alum Theo Von, who showed up on and even won part of Last Comic Standing last year.

The host, Michael Ian Black, is perfectly cast and performs terrifically, even though he does little more than read off a teleprompter and pose, something he acknowledges in one of the show’s witty and well-written lines: “Find out which two contestants face potential elimination, as soon as I’m done reading this sentence.” He introduces the series by saying they’ll compete in “all kinds of pointless challenges” for $50,000 “and the opportunity to humiliate and degrade themselves on basic cable television”

Each episode loosely adapts the format of a popular reality show, starting with Big Brother and continuing on to Flavor of Love in episode two. The satire is there, but it’s not overdone, so the humor really comes from legitimate challenges, like the one featured in the preview, where the comics unknowingly hit on their own mothers.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that the comedians try too hard to be funny, particularly in their confessionals. Many seem used to a live audience, and thus when they say something funny, they pause and wait for the laughter, and that’s awkward. Theo is particularly bad at this, and comes across as enamored by his own jokes, which makes them less amusing. The comedians are a lot funnier when they’re just spontaneous or reacting to whatever situation the show’s producers have put them in.

It’s produced by 3 Ball Productions, so it’s not thrown together, and actually seems like it has a bigger budget than their awkward but watchable Animal Planet series Groomer Has It. And with just half-hour episodes, never mind a new show every week, there’s no time for filler or boredom.

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