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Behind The Pundits

Meet the new, snarky stars of VH1 -- B-list actors and obscure comedians are what make the music channel's pop culture shows so addictive 

''Gap tooth!'' Paul Scheer gets that one a lot. It's screamed affectionately in public parks, from moving automobiles, on the sidewalk, in the subway. In the past few months, Scheer, 28, an intermittently starving actor-comedian-writer from New York City, has become someone people feel comfortable accosting. He's a star...of sorts. He gets fan mail and amorous instant messages from strangers. Even Ashlee Simpson joked that he should ''call me -- I'm legal.'' Perhaps you see his picture on the facing page and sense that you know him. Maybe from college. Maybe from work. Or maybe, just maybe, from those endless hours spent plopped in front of VH1, listlessly absorbing instant nostalgia for the events of the previous seven days. Which brings us to the other thing people regularly shout at Scheer: ''''Best Week Ever!''''

On clip-and-panel shows like ''A2Z,'' ''I Love the'' [insert recent decade], and ''Best Week Ever,'' VH1 has demonstrated a commitment to using every part of the pop-culture buffalo. In the process, the network has reaped a summer-ratings bonanza: The premiere of ''I Love the 90s,'' for example, drew 1.2 million viewers. But more importantly, it's spawned a new class of media being, fast displacing Bug Eaters and Doofus Wooers in the pantheon of TV metafame. They are the Droll Hipster Pundits (DHPs), those snarky, increasingly prominent nobodies who now infest your TV set. ''I'm always surprised when people recognize me,'' says Scheer, who just a year ago paid his rent by distributing CompuServe promo CDs on Rollerblades. ''One girl ran down the street to get my autograph, and I told her, 'It's not worth it. There are millions of people more famous than I am.'''

Well, sure. Consider ''Queer as Folk ''star Hal Sparks and ''Daily Show'' alum Mo Rocca, both of whom are better known in some circles for their quip parades on ''I Love the...'' than for their primary careers. And the ubiquitous Michael Ian Black (''Ed,'' ''Spy TV,'' ''The State'') acknowledges that he's more or less identified with VH1 programming, ''for good or for ill -- probably for ill.'' Rubbing elbows with these C-listers are a fast-rising batch of Z-listers, a pool of unknowns scoring ever-growing amounts of airtime: Jessi Klein, Christian Finnegan, Chuck Nice, Michael Colton, and John Aboud, to name just a few. Household names? Hardly. Household faces? Getting there.

This latter group is drawn, in large part, from an incestuous underground comic scene that performs for the New York City comedy cognoscenti in grungy downtown venues. They are not, in other words, your typical cable commentators. ''They seem like real people,'' says VH1 talent-development manager Jim Kozloff, who deplores the glossy products of the traditional casting machine. For years, Kozloff has sought out quirkier, scruffier talent in less traditional spots like New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre -- where Scheer regularly performs with other improv comedians you'd recognize from VH1. (The network's new series ''A2Z,'' for example, depends almost entirely on UCB folk.)

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