not as it seems in "Contest Searchlight," Comedy Central's mockumentary
series about the making of a bogus sitcom starring Peter Gallagher
as Jesus. In chaps. In New York City.
exactly, is the deal with "Contest Searchlight"?
been some confusion in TV viewer-land," a Comedy Central spokesperson
admits, doing little to clear the confusion up. Comedy Central
promoted the show (which premiered Aug. 14) quietly and earnestly,
making it sound like a shameless rip-off of HBO's "Project Greenlight."
Which it is, only not. "Contest Searchlight" is a wholly fictional,
giddily cruel smartass's-eye view of the HBO show, which last
year took us behind the scenes for a glimpse at what a clueless
neophyte might do with a million dollars of Miramax's money:
Spin it into a theatrically released after-school special, become
puffy with entitlement in the process and fall flat on his face.
Pete Jones' completed film, "Stolen Summer," grossed $134,000
at the box office.
back, the promos for "Contest Searchlight" were a dead giveaway.
They featured a smiling and suspiciously sunny Denis Leary gushing
over the chance to give an aspiring writer-director the chance
to make his or her very own sitcom. The press release Comedy
Central sent out was equally straight-faced and sincere. "Denis
Leary and Comedy Central search for a shining light when 'Contest
Searchlight' premieres." Soon it was being reported that Miramax's
lawyers had sent a threatening letter to Comedy Central and
that even Harvey Weinstein was angry about the show's similarities
to "Project Greenlight."
Miramax did send a letter asking for more details on the show
early on, after it was announced at the TV critics' showcase
in Pasadena earlier this summer. But the studio neither threatened
legal action nor took any further steps after it became clear
the show was a parody. "We can take a joke," a Miramax spokesperson
says. If anything, Miramax execs seem more annoyed that "Contest
Searchlight" has milked the nonexistent Miramax "controversy"
for all it's worth.
it premiered to high ratings (according to Comedy Central, it
attracted 1 million more viewers than that network's prime-time
average), "Contest Searchlight" would still probably benefit
from being promoted as the spoof that it is. Another obstacle
for the show is that it's an inside joke that relies heavily
on the assumption that you watched "Project Greenlight" and
that it drove you over the edge.
"finalists" are actors (the Comedy Central executives featured,
however, are real, with the possible, unconfirmed exception
of a suspiciously bouffant-haired "creative executive"), their
ideas are beyond terrible and the result is a hilarious spoof
of the recent "win a career you don't deserve" offshoot of reality
TV. If you did watch "Greenlight," the first four episodes of
"Searchlight" (the third airs Wednesday night and all four will
run back-to-back on Sept. 8; the resulting "sitcom" will "debut"
in January), which "document" the beginning of the show, the
party for the finalists, the pitches and the shooting of the
"sitcom," are milk-out-your-nose funny.
In the first
episode, Leary is surprised by the cameras in his office and
quickly tries to back out of the project. When Jon Stewart,
who was to co-host the show, flees in terror, Leary begins making
calls. Matt Dillon, Gina Gershon, Ray Romano and "the fat guy
from 'Swingers'" all decline to play Ben Affleck to his Matt
Damon, so Leary decides on "live body" Lenny Clarke, his former
costar on the short-lived ABC series "The Job."
"When Denis called me and asked me to be co-host of this wacky
show we're going to do that included giving young people a chance
and on top of that being a co-producer, I said, 'It's like winning
and Clarke attend a "press junket" to describe "Contest Searchlight"
and defend it against accusations that it is a rip-off of "Project
the Japanese," Clarke says. "If we're going to steal anything,
we're going to steal it and improve on it."
tell you something," Leary adds. "If I was doing that 'Project
Greenlight,' and that guy, what's his name, Pete Jones, started
doing that scream he did to get that crane shot? ... I would
have put duct tape around his entire body and thrown him in
the trunk of the car for three hours."
The set of the spurious junket is plastered with product placement
ads for Mike's Hard Lemonade, as is the venue for the party
for the finalists that follows. As the 10 goofy finalists mill
around the party, doing shots, greeting Comedy Central execs
and feeling validated, Clarke remarks:
all so excited. This is probably the biggest thing that ever
happened in their lives. And the biggest thing that ever will
happen ... The Comedy Central executives were there. And that's
always good: To parade these little losers around and go, 'Look
at who you're meeting!'"
proceeds to get wasted, and pretty soon is awash in anger and
self-pity. Asking Clarke why he doesn't have his own show anymore,
he lashes out against George Lopez. "A Mexican has his own fucking
sitcom and we got nothing!"
are chosen -- seemingly at random, save for one girl, Amber,
for whom both Leary and Clarke obviously have the hots -- and
the next day, they are brought in to pitch. Amber pitches a
show about four friends in New York who "meet religiously every
Sunday and they talk about philosophy and they talk about the
world around them ... and then Jesus comes."
says Clarke, "I was thinking about how I could get into Amber's
pants, and I wasn't really listening to the pitch. It was only
when she mentioned Jesus and [Comedy Central executive] Lou
Wallach nearly choked on a roast beef sandwich that I realized
what was going on."
pitches an idea called "Shews," which is about five roommates
who live in the Shews Building in New York, and is somehow about
walking around in other people's shoes. A third guy, Carmine,
pitches an animated series about five guys sharing a beach house,
but mostly spends the pitch meeting trying to unload some hats
and posters for a movie he made.
thought we'd be in that room so long," says one of Leary's producers
as they try to pick a winner. "It just proves to me that the
idea of a contest to give some aspiring TV writer a shot is
a giant waste of time."
In the end,
Leary, Clarke and the Comedy Central executives decide to go
with the "Shews" concept -- only incorporating Amber's Jesus
into the household. The next day, Leary hires Amber to be his
"eyes and ears" while he's away from the set and checks into
to imagine that the resulting sitcom, "Shews" with Jesus, will
be funnier than watching "Contest Searchlight" winner Mike Lombardi
pull one Pete Jones moment after another in preproduction and
on the set. Anyone who remembers Jones' instant imagined social
and artistic parity with people like Emma Thompson and Harvey
Weinstein will appreciate his insisting on calling A-list actors
for his jury-rigged sitcom and forcing Peter Gallagher, eventually
recruited to be the show's star (and consistently described
as "the best actor in New York") to wear chaps.
If we learned
anything from "Project Greenlight," it's that few things are
more amusing than a self-important talentless hack, and one
of them is a self-important, talentless aspiring hack
who bites the hand that feeds him. "Contest Searchlight" is
dead-on in its mockery of a Cinderella story gone bad. If things
continue in the vein of "Project Greenlight" and "American Idol,"
the next generation of celebrities may be thrust upon us after
popping off a lucky bottle cap or a winning yogurt lid. We can
only hope Denis Leary will be there when that happens.