Even in unscripted TV, casting is everything. So while this “Gong Show” revival is really just David Letterman’s “Stupid human tricks” in competition guise, the producers have wisely populated the show with the right humans (and hand puppets), beginning with host Dave Attell and, in the premiere, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog as a surly judge. Paired with the reality spoof “Reality Bites Back” — another entry where clever execution enlivens a potentially stale premise — Comedy Central has a potentially fertile hour that adds welcome pep to (sorry, Triumph) the dog days of summer.
If the original “Gong Show” reveled in bad acts but threw in the occasional semi-talented one, the new version in this narrower, male-oriented space exalts slightly dangerous and demeaning ones, clearly catering to the “Jackass” crowd. What adds a smidgeon of redemption, thankfully, is the show’s pervasive awareness of these lowbrow tastes, with Triumph (Robert Smigel’s latenight creation) dubbing one gong-ed act “even more degrading than appearing on this program.”
As loosely presided over by standup Attell, the whole exercise has a kind of gleeful rudeness about it — creating a “panel show,” as they used to call them in the ‘50s, with a “Man Show” sensibility. Nor are the judges above playfully ribbing each other, with Triumph teasing Steve Schirripa about his yawning post-”The Sopranos” availability. Even the grand prize — Attell forks over a few hundred bucks to the winner — has a refreshingly seat-of-the-pants quality.
Given “Gong’s” simplicity, “Reality Bites Back” at first appears too cute for its own good — a Mad magazine-style parody of reality shows (as if most of them aren’t self-parody already) pitting 10 comics against one another in a series of contests modeled after established elimination games such as “The Amazing Race,” “The Bachelor” and “American Idol.”
What emerges, though, is surprisingly witty — perhaps buoyed by the fact that 3Ball Prods. produces such straight-faced reality fare as “Beauty and the Geek.”
Michael Ian Black has mastered the self-important, pregnant-pausing quirks of a “joyfully sadistic” reality host, basking in the suffering of the contestants (whose direct-to-camera commentary, as comics, is periodically pretty funny). In the “Big Brother”-bashing premiere, that includes having the players seek to seduce someone in a darkened room as part of a program titled “Extreme Manipulation: Home Edition,” only to be greeted with a genuine “Lights on” surprise.
Whether the wispy concept can be sustained for eight weeks seems questionable (the mere title “Almost-American Gladiators” teased in a future episode sounds a bit like air seeping out of the tires), but the start is promising — especially on a channel where rare bright lights like “The Sarah Silverman Program” and the durable “South Park” are generally surrounded by clunkers. So for now, anyway, credit the Viacom-owned network with a pair of series that will leave this critic’s gong unrung.