Among the truly dizzying array of unscripted shows being thrown against your TV screen this offseason is a truly strange little show in the talent-contest subgenre: ABC’s The Next Best Thing.
Its goal is not to find a singing star or a comedian or anything that could potentially lead to household name-type fame. It’s really, truly looking for the next best thing — a top-notch celebrity impersonator. Not just a look-alike or an impressionist, mind you, but someone who can really sell the idea that they’re someone else.
And so Wednesday’s premiere — which aptly selected as its venue Grauman’s Chinese Theater in L.A., home to occasionally punchy costumed hustlers dressed like Batman or Chewbacca or Elmo — featured the spectacle of a fake George Michael singing a Little Richard song; a Superman lookalike who doesn’t really do anything; a guy doing a Bill Cosby impression that was more like an impression of Eddie Murphy’s impression of Bill Cosby; a Dr. Phil lookalike coming across like a Borscht Belt comic; and a pair of Dolly Partons who composed a rap about their act. Oof.
Host Michele Merkin (who? Oh, her) is around primarily to introduce the concept (in a truly snore-inducing opening) and hug a few contestants who get a ticket to the next round, courtesy of a trio of comedian-judges: Lisa Ann Walter, Comedy Central roast mainstay Jeffrey Ross and "master impressionist" (and Stacked star) Elon Gold, who showed off a pretty decent Johnny Carson, an exaggerated Jay Leno and a passable Al Gore in the course of the hour.
You get the feeling, watching the premiere, that a good half of the contestants are people whose friends have said, "Dude! You really look like/do a killer Celebrity X. You should totally go on that show." Several others mentioned having done a given celeb in their improv classes, and a few really take their celebrity mimickry seriously.
Like the truly good Lucille Ball impersonator who said she has about $30,000 worth(!) of costumes on hand, or Curtis Bettenheim and Joe Heintzelman (that’s them up top), who’ve been honing their Honeymooners schtick for a dozen years. And, yeah, they were about the best performers of the night.
Part of me wanted to know a lot more about those folks — what do they get out of copying a famous person’s mannerisms and speech patterns? How much work is there in such a racket? And why would you drop 30 grand on Lucy costumes?
Is a celebrity-impersonator contest the stuff of a six- or eight-week reality show? Truthfully, probably not. The stakes are pretty low here — though a $100,000 grand prize is nothing to sneeze at — and even the judges, who are at least occasionally amusing, don’t seem to be taking it all that seriously. But I bet a look inside that world would make a pretty good documentary.
Anyone watch this last night? And if so, what’d you think? Planning to keep watching?