American Idol has been the #1 show on TV for the better part of the last decade, and given its raging popularity, it’s pretty surprising that no one has ever aped it with a sketch comedy competition show. Sure, there was Last Comic Standing, NBC’s underwhelming riff on American Idol with stand-ups battling for a sitcom deal instead of musicians for a record contract, or Acceptable.TV, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab’s short-lived VH1 adaptation of their democratic video sketch fest Channel 101, but sketch comedians have never had a cheesy, performer-based TV competition to call their own. Just because there hasn’t been a show like that, though, doesn’t mean that no one’s tried.
Lorne Michaels, of all people, was the first to develop a sketch comedy reality show, way back in the wake of the nonscripted TV boom in 2004. Michaels sold NBC on a competition show based around Saturday Night Live’s casting process. The proposed show, which was set to air in primetime during the summer of 2005, would have followed a group of comedians vying for a job on SNL with one being eliminated each week until the winner scores a job as a featured player. Best of all, Lorne Michaels was set for a prominent onscreen role as the Donald Trump figure on the show. NBC had just axed Last Comic Standing (for the first of two times) that year, and the SNL competition would have replaced it as the network’s summer comedy reality series.
The SNL reality show didn’t end up happening that summer, and it’s pretty easy to see why. A cheesy, overdramatic competition would have jeopardized the show’s integrity and not really fit well with a fun comedy show. Can you imagine wanting to watch a performer on SNL after you’ve seen them participate in fierce and potentially ugly contest like that? Complete with hokey challenges where the wannabe performers would, say, have to stay up all Tuesday night writing sketches or see who can read cue cards better. It doesn’t seem like something that would be sustainable, as holding a new contest every summer would have been overdoing it.
The concept of a Saturday Night Live reality show is so absurd that the show even made fun of it during a Donald Trump-hosted episode in 2004. Trump starred in an Apprentice parody sketch (back when The Apprentice was a hit show) in which he was tasked with firing either Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, or short-lived cast member Finesse Mitchell. Lorne Michaels even comes in at the end and speaks Trump’s then-popular catchphrase “You’re fired” to Fallon and Poehler. The sketch hits all the right notes, demonstrating how the drama and tension of a reality show don’t befit the production of a comedy program, but that didn’t stop Lorne Michaels from selling pretty much exactly what the sketch was poking fun at as a show to NBC.
The SNL reality show, which was never given a name during news stories and press releases, didn’t meet its summer 2005 summer start date, but Lorne Michaels continued to develop and retool the show, while the odd pairing of Paul Scheer and Whoopi Goldberg began to work on a sketch comedy competition show of their own for TBS, using a bunch of competitors from New York’s UCB Theatre as contestants in the pilot.
Paul Scheer and Whoopi Goldberg’s reality pilot, which Scheer says Goldberg was pretty hands-off with, was called Sketch Off. For the pilot, seven sketch groups competed and 12 individual players were pulled from those groups for the next week and divided into new teams. Here’s the roster from the show, which included now-famous folks like Donald Glover, Bobby Moynihan, and Parks and Rec writer Katie Dippold (the performers’ original sketch teams are listed after their names):
The Green TeamDonald Glover-The Wicked Wicked HammerkatzSarah Burns-Cooter ShortsEric Scott-Lame Ass Mandatory MeetingCurtis Gwinn-Cowboy and JohnThe Blue TeamEugene Cordero-BuffoonsKatie Dippold-Lame Ass Mandatory MeetingJohn Gemberling-Cowboy and JohnJohn Reynolds-Lame Ass Mandatory MeetingThe Red TeamBobby Moyihan-BuffoonsJulie Brister-Laid UpSteven Gardella-UCBTShannon O’Neill-Laid Up
TBS passed on the pilot, but many of Sketch Off’s entrants found fame and success in the entertainment industry without it.
Meanwhile, back in Lorne Michaels’s popcorn-scented lair on 30 Rockefeller Plaza’s 17th floor, Michaels was still mulling over the idea of an SNL reality show. According to The Edmonton Sun, the comedy mogul toyed with the idea of turning SNL’s dress rehearsal into a reality show and had “serious discussions” about it with NBC, but ultimately, Michaels made the right call, telling the press:
“Donald Trump is perfect at being Donald Trump, you know… But for me to be in that role, I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing it… We’re not American Idol in that sense. Not everything has to be opened up to the public… It’s not a bad idea. But it’s a little bit what we make fun of, so it’s hard to then go out and do the straight version of it.”
Just like the Comedy Buddha he is, Lorne Michaels summed up exactly what’s wrong with all comedy reality shows, and why Last Comic Standing and any future TV competition of its kind will always feel like a violation of the very art of comedy itself: “It’s what we make fun of.”
Bradford Evans is Splitsider’s Associate Editor.