Comedy is serious business – especially when it’s destined for network television. Attending the Minneapolis auditions this past winter for “Last Comic Standing,” which kicks off its sixth season on Thursday, offered the opportunity to see some of the best stand-ups in the Midwest, but it also provided further proof that “reality TV” usually turns out to be a bogus label.

During the night performance, which spotlighted the 18 “best of the best,” the audience was bullied into clapping until their hands hurt whenever prompted, a common practice at the taping of almost any TV show, although in this case the crowd had paid to be in attendance. Most studio audiences provide wild, artificial enthusiasm in exchange for getting to watch the stars for free.

The front two rows were filled with gorgeous women and it was apparent that professional models had been brought in to goose up sex appeal, a trait most Minnesotans abandon for sensible clothing.

When host Bill Bellamy flubbed the name of one contestant, taping stopped and Bellamy told everyone to endure another take. “It’ll be beautiful on TV,” he promised. When one of the three winners was announced, the comic accidentally walked off the wrong end of the stage, forcing another do-over, in which he mimicked his “look of surprise.”

But these can be chalked up as misdemeanors compared to the most glaring crime: The judges don’t have the final word.

The big twist this season is that different celebrities are playing “talent scouts” in each audition city (New York and Tempe, Ariz., are featured in Thursday’s 90-minute premiere). It’s a neat idea to have established stars like George Wendt and Richard Belzer selecting the 32 comics who would be competing in Las Vegas for a chance to be among the dozen finalists. But it doesn’t quite work that way.

Following the Minneapolis auditions, judges Brian Baumgartner and Kate Flannery, stars of “The Office,” went behind closed doors, presumably to come to a consensus.

When they returned after more than a half hour of deliberation, I was stunned by their choices. So was Acme comedy club owner Louis Lee, who has one of the sharpest ears in the business.

Turns out they weren’t working alone. The two admitted afterward that producers played a significant role in making the final call and that they were frustrated that some of their favorites got passed over.

It’s not that NBC fibs about additional input. Each episode clearly points out that producers may have a say – but this tidbit is buried in the credits and only the most astute viewer will find it.

I’ve got nothing against a veteran TV producer playing judge. But why not have that person or people front and center instead of hiding behind some curtain?

It’s been a tough few months for those who want to believe everything they see. We know now that Bear Grylls, host of “Man vs. Wild,” sometimes takes up cozy quarters when we’re led to believe he’s sleeping in snake-infested jungles. We know that the “American Idol” judges sit in on rehearsals to better prepare their “impromptu” comments. We know that “The Hills” is as choreographed as pro wrestling.

Maybe I’m nitpicking. These tweaks are nothing compared to the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. But I do think it’s time to reserve the title of “reality” to only the purest of documentary shows. The rest belong in a new category: Tainted TV.

“Last Comic Standing”

9:30 p.m. EDT Thursdays


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