‘Last Comic Standing’ exclusive: Discussing the finale, format, and Norm with EP Page Hurwitz

Wednesday night is going to be a particularly significant night for NBC, and also for many comedy fans in general. It marks the finale of “Last Comic Standing,” and what is ultimately a chance to see whether or not Clayton English, Andy Erickson, Dominique, Ian Bagg, or Michael Palasack ends up being the season 9 champion.

Before we write up our finale review a little later in the day, we wanted to bring to you something that was a real treat to do: An interview with executive producer Page Hurwitz, who has been a key part of the show for many years and has seen not only some of its stars to go on to do great things, but also seen the show itself undergo many different iterations and format tweaks.

CarterMatt – In general terms, how are you feeling about this season?

Page Hurwitz – I think it’s a great season. I think we’ve got great comedians. Anthony Jeselnik is bringing something different to the table [as host], a different vibe … I love having Norm as a part of the panel. I think each one of them, again, bring something very different to the table that’s nice. Keenen [Ivory Wayans] can speak as a writer, a director, a producer. Roseanne had one of the most successful sitcoms of all time based on her standup, and Norm, in addition to being one of the most respected standups working today, also has a tremendous background from film and from ‘SNL,’ as well.

I think among the people who I’ve talked to about the show, Norm is one of those guys who does get a little ‘out there’ with his critiques. Were you there for all of the Invitationals [when he was giving some of these]?

Yes. He would get really unpredictable, and in a world that can sometimes be highly predictable, I really welcomed it. It was nice to not know where he was going, but beyond that, he really comes to it from a place of respect and love when it comes to standup comedy. He even said it: ‘What I know is standup. That is what I know, what I do. That is what I’m very good at.’ I think it shows because he really did put a lot of thought into what he was saying, even though at times we were like ‘wait, he is talking about golf? Why is he talking about golf?’, but he would always bring it back to a button that made some sense. I loved him there. I thought he was a nice change of pace, and he and Roseanne had an existing long-term relationship. They were really fun together. There were times when it might have taken Norm a little while to get to a point, and Roseanne would just given him an elbow and be like ‘come on already.’ (Laughs.) It was kind of fun to watch them together.

If there is one thing that I think is consistent with ‘Last Comic Standing,’ it is probably that it is inconsistent thanks to all the different formats, timeslots, and stuff NBC has thrown your way. This year it started so much later, and I didn’t know if you guys were going to have two-hour episodes or something later in the run [to make up for it, but alas that isn’t happening]. This season there’s no challenge round, and I know that there are some people who are wondering what happened to it. Were there decisions made on the network side to [change things this season], or were these creative choices?

It was definitely a network decision, how many episodes we get and how many hours we get. Last season we finished with 17 total hours; this season we have nine. As you can imagine, that presents a lot of challenges in terms of how much content we can actually get on the air. Our goal is to get as much on the air, and when you have 100 comedians, you want to give everyone a little bit of love if possible … You want to get to know them a little bit, but then with the host and the judges, you want to give them time, as well. With nine hours, with may have been the smallest order ever in the history of the show, it was very challenging to get all of that content. It was a bit of a surprise to us; airing in July was something we hadn’t anticipated. The network had a variety of different shows to air this summer, and they had some new shows that they wanted to launch, which I truly understand.

We’re sort of like that little engine that could. We’ve never really been blessed with a huge budget compared to other shows, and we’ve never really been blessed with a lot of promotional and marketing support, but it still thrives and survives. I think that’s a testament to viewers wanting to see standup comedy on primetime network television, and at the end we’re making a good show. Would we love to have other things and two-hour episodes like the other talent competitions? Certainly, but we know there are limited resources so, more than anything, we’re happy that NBC continues to support the show and we can get another bite at the apple next year and continue to make it better and with any luck, we’ll get some more hours and we’ll be able to do some more things.

But really, many of our creative decisions were dictated by the number of hours that we had.

Over the course of the season, have you ever gotten a call or a text from one of the judges or Jeselnik saying that they were disappointed that something that was great on the show was cut out? I’m just curious because I am a big Jeselnik fan, and I’ve seen him say on Twitter that he had some great jokes that were on the cutting room floor. However, I’m sure at the same time there’s only so much time in those hours you can give to someone whose job is fundamentally introduce the contestants and keep things light.

That’s exactly right. I think while we were shooting it, we had a real embarrassment of riches. Anthony is hilarious and did such a great job; he had so many great one-liners and moments, and we were excited about that. Then, getting to post and realizing that we only had so many hours, we had to make those choices … it’s like every choice is a [tough] choice essentially.

I wish we had some additional hours, maybe they’ll throw us a special or something, where we could put some of that stuff in that people didn’t get to see. I could understand if he feels frustrated; he had so many great [bits] in there that we would like to include. But, like you said, it’s the competition and it is about the comics competing. Our job is making sure we get as many of the comics on as possible and airing as much great material as possible.

This show is so unique now in that there’s really nothing else out there that gives you a development deal in exchange for winning. Is this something that you and [fellow EP Wanda Sykes] sit down and talk to the judges about before filming, to try to have them keep it mind that they should be looking for someone who is not just funny, but could also have a show built around them?

We have an initial conversation with them at the beginning of the season, and we do talk about the fact that yes, the winner gets a development deal as a result of winning the prize and that is something that we should consider. We want the winner of the show to have a huge career. Though really, after that initial conversation we try to stay as hands-off as possible when it comes to the decision-making. We feel like it’s the only fair way to do the competition; Wanda and I select 100, and then after that we hand it over to the judges. I think at times, given Roseanne’s experience of translating standup into a sitcom, she may consider that more than others. How often I don’t know; I think Keenen as a producer and director thinks about that, too. I think for all three the most important [factor] is funny. Are they making us laugh, hard, week in and week out? Do they have the chops for a long career in comedy, not just for a sitcom but to make a long career in comedy?

Do you guys carry some sort of badge of honor behind the scenes? While I know comics continue to work hard after the show, you’ve had so many people go on to have more careers, maybe more on average than any other show in the genre. Even in one season you had Amy Schumer, Doug Benson, and Lavell Crawford.

I’m very glad you brought that up! (Laughs.) I don’t feel we get enough credit for that, not to be obnoxious, but that is why Wanda and I do the show. It’s a labor of love, and we want the show to be a platform for great things [in] comedy. Hopefully, it’s the first step in a lot of things to come. So I think historically yes, this show has provided the springboard. You just mentioned a lot of people, [and then there’s] Tommy Johnagin, Iliza Shlesinger, a Cristela Alonzo … I know that a lot of industry executives watch the show as a means to cast [people], and we get calls all the time about comedians who have done the show or are on the show. Even people who don’t necessarily win, there are plenty of opportunities and I do think that happens more than any other talent show. It is corny, but I really think it is the best reward that if we can provide that springboard, we’re happy.

Going into tonight’s finale, what I think is really fun is that you have five different comics who are from very different backgrounds, but also have very different styles of comedy and joke-writing. Is this just coincidental, or do you think the judges purposefully seek this sort of variety?

I think it just happened to work out that way, because I don’t think they go into it thinking ‘we need a storyteller, we need a veteran.’ They really don’t. It really just comes down to the funniest. It is a competition, and I think it worked out that way because when Wanda and I cast [the show], and this is how we cast every show, it’s really not that much about looking for types as it is looking for talent. And when you do a really thorough search of talent, it’s not just going to certain wells, it’s going to all the wells and finding the best from each well. It’s inevitable that you’re going to find the best of each group. That is the state of comedy … It is more diverse than any other [field]. I think it’s changing every year and becoming more and more diverse, not just with men and women, but people with different experiences, different backgrounds. I think it’s just a matter of if you do the casting thoroughly and well, you’re going to wind up with a diverse group.

In terms of the future, have you heard from NBC at all about another season of the show? I know you guys had a pretty tough timeslot this year, and not always the best lead-in support.

Not yet. It’s difficult this season because we have nine episodes. It’s normally around this point we start having these conversations, but there’s usually a little bit of the run left. I think this time we’re going to wait until after tomorrow night’s show, and we will reconvene and talk about it. We had some challenges in terms of airing later in July, the lead-in is challenging for us. But, I do think we’ve held our own. I think what’s also interesting is that our live+3 numbers are really good, and it’s good to see how much people want to watch the show. We’re improving really week significantly [in that measure], so that’s a good indication of the appetite out there.

We will have these conversations. We feel like the network is pleased with the show, but I think given where we are and where we’ve run, I think we’ve done well. Hopefully the network feels the same way! They’ve been very supportive, and we’re working with them on [the Rod Man show]. They really have been a really good partner in this, so I can’t complain.

Let’s talk about the Rod Man comedy. What stage are you in right now in development?

Right now we’re working with Kenny Smith, who is the executive producer of “The Game” on BET, and is a co-EP right now on [the upcoming] ‘Uncle Buck.’ He’s terrific, and we are working on a pilot for NBC. Right now we’re in the mix with everybody else. We turn in a pilot script in December, and then we’ll find out with everybody else if the network wants to move forward and shoot the pilot.

That brings me right into the last question I have for you: What is the process like for whoever the eventual winner is this season to get them to the point where Rod Man is now? What are the early stages of the collaboration like?

We’ll start having conversations with [the winner] and we’ll start having conversations with the studio about what ideas that comic may have in mind. It doesn’t have to be a sitcom; it could be an unscripted show, it could be a skit show. We could do whatever that comic has in mind. We start from square 1, thinking of ideas and trying to flesh them out, and then we’ll go to the studio and see if they like anything. So right now it’s very preliminary, but we would very much like to see the winner [announced], and then move forward like Rod has with his show. We’ll do everything we can to make that happen.

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