Midway through Sunday's premiere of ''But Can They Sing?," VH1's new vocal contest, Bai Ling performed ''Like a Virgin" in front of a live audience. Writhing ridiculously on the ground in a flouncy red dress, she was a demented Madonna with the voice of Tiny Tim in a chokehold. The China-born actress had already told us, ''I don't speak very well English," but she neglected to warn us about her lack of singing skill.
It was one of a number of oh-so-painful moments during VH1's ''Dancing With the Stars" clone, which will air Sundays at 10. Watching ordinary people humiliate themselves during the ''American Idol" auditions is uncomfortable, and watching these B, C, and D level stars make public fools of themselves is only slightly less cringe-worthy.
While the contestants of ''Dancing With the Stars" were certainly amateurs, at least they didn't make you feel sorry for them. They were easy to root for. The contestants of ''But Can They Sing?" --including model Kim Alexis and soap actor Antonio Sabato Jr. -- are so out of tune they seem to be in serious denial. Only Joe Pantoliano emerges with his dignity fully intact, as he appears to be the only one laughing his way through the competition.
One or two of the nine contestants are slightly better than karaoke dropouts. Morgan Fairchild is stiff but not gratingly off-key singing ''These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," and Michael Copon (you know, the blue Power Ranger) rocks with ''I Don't Wanna Be." But Carmine Gotti Agnello from ''Growing Up Gotti" delivers a comically mincing performance of Nelly's ''Ride Wit Me" and Sabato massacres ''Every Breath You Take" with a sincere smile on his face. Talk show host Myrka Dellanos fumbles awkwardly through ''Don't Know Why." There are three vocal coaches on hand, but they'll need to be miracle workers to up the quality of this gang.
And the singing isn't the hardest part, folks. Host Ahmet Zappa runs the show like an extrovert on Paxil, proudly yelling out his nonstop bad jokes and popping out his eyes for emphasis. He wants to be Las Vegas to Ryan Seacrest's LA, but he fails. He tells Fairchild, ''Is it wrong that I think I'm totally in love with you?," and he teases Sabato with ''I would absolutely go gay for you," firing off his silly lines as if terrified of even the briefest of silences between sentences.
Perhaps the producers urged him to talk fast to avoid the plodding pace of ''Rock Star: INXS," or maybe he's just a grating circus ringleader at heart. Either way, he's the only reason on ''But Can They Sing?" to look forward to the musical performances.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.