Comedy was dead.
The first stand-up boom began somewhere around the time Ronald Reagan raised his right hand, solemnly swearing to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. It came crashing down around the same time as the Berlin Wall.
In between, live comedy emerged as a massive industry. This wasn’t Lenny Bruce pacing amid musicians in a tiny Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Nor was it, a few decades later, the same polite, patient journeymen (and even fewer women) staggering along a direct career path that started in nightclubs, was gatekept by Johnny Carson, and led to sitcom stardom.
In the early ’80s, acts hailing from the Improv or Comedy Store could make a living touring the so-called “comedy clubs” appearing in large cities. By the mid-’80s, stand-up was the new rock ’n’ roll. Clubs pervaded. Comedy nights started in the back of restaurants took over the entire space. Bars and music venues flipped formats to welcome enthusiastic hordes eager to laugh at someone—anyone—who’d been on TV. There was money to be made and territory to stake.
Soon, club talent became increasingly inexperienced and interchangeable, their material formulaic and safe. By decade’s end, demand outstripped quality. Live audiences began thinking the two-drink minimum might not be worth it.
But there were always Saturday Night Live reruns to watch and Kids In The Hall sketches to discover. Amid prevailing uncertainty, Time Warner (the parent company of HBO) and Viacom (home of MTV and VH1) would form a network that since 1991 has shaped the face of modern comedy with cutting edge, socially conscious showcases like The Daily Show, South Park, Chappelle’s Show, Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City.
Having celebrated its 25th anniversary on April 1, Comedy Central remains, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson puts it, “the way to follow your bliss on TV.”
“I had been thinking about a comedy channel since college. But I didn’t actually get to do anything about it until I was at HBO. And HBO originally resisted the idea.”
Paul Provenza (Comics Only): As comedy became more mainstream in the late ’80s, that’s also when a lot of networks started. Comedy was one of the easiest, cheapest forms of programming for a new network that wasn’t spending a lot of money. Every network was doing some kind of “Comedians in front of a brick wall” show, and everybody amassed those credits. A&E got into stand-up, Showtime had a mixed-bill show, Fox started doing a stand-up show. Audiences were steeped in the Evening At The Improv-style of material. Those kind of TV shows were everywhere, since the comedy boom and the boom in cable television were happening simultaneously. They were completely intertwined.
Art Bell (HBO, The Comedy Channel, Comedy Central): Michael Fuchs, who was the chairman, had famously put Billy Crystal and Robert Klein and Whoopi Goldberg’s one-hour specials repeatedly on HBO. HBO was known for comedy. What HBO didn’t know how to do was sell advertising.
Stu Smiley (Comedy Channel SVP of programming): I was an executive at HBO in comedy from ’86 to ’90. Art Bell, who was in new development, had this idea to put together a comedy channel based on promotional clips from movies—much like MTV showed videos, which were promotional clips for albums. We were going to have anchors, like MTV, to host these clip-packed shows, and that would be the beginnings of this comedy channel.
Bell: I had been thinking about a comedy channel since college. But I didn’t actually get to do anything about it until I was at HBO. And HBO originally resisted the idea. A lot of organizations did: The idea that you would have a 24-hour channel that was devoted to one thing—there are lots of them now, but it was a little bit radical in those days. This was the mid- to late-’80s; there were a handful of cable channels, but it wasn’t like today, where there are 500. To me, there seemed to be plenty of room for other channels. I thought I’d pitch my idea elsewhere, and I started writing it up. My boss walked in, asked what I was doing, and he took a look. He immediately said, “Let’s go see Michael.” We walked into Michael’s office, and my boss said, “You know, Art’s got a good idea here. We should pursue it.” We pulled in Stu Smiley and Fran Shea, who later became president of E! Entertainment, and the three of us worked on it.
Joel Hodgson (Mystery Science Theater 3000): I worked on Jerry Seinfeld’s first HBO special, which was called Stand-Up Confidential. I wrote it with Jerry, and that’s where I met Stu Smiley. He was an executive at HBO. I found out he was going to be running The Comedy Channel, so I had an in. That was really useful.
Jonathan Katz (Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist): I was invited into a room by Stu Smiley in which there were maybe 20 people who he thought were funny. One of them was Larry David. Another was Joel Hodgson.
Smiley: We did a brainstorming session: How are we going to fill a channel with comedy?
Allan Havey (Night After Night): The great thing was that everyone was doing something for the first time. It was a wonderful mix of excitement and fear. Everybody was open to create anything they wanted for their specific show. It was like the early days of television. It was this incredibly free feeling of, “Do what you want to do!”
Hodgson: They were offering what seemed like a lot of money at the time—$4,000? $5,000?—to do a pitch. I took the money and produced a pilot for The Higgins Boys And Gruber. And it worked out great, because those guys got a job for a couple of years.
Smiley: Joel put together a reel, and The Higgins Boys And Gruber became another interesting choice at the time. We got to hire some sensational people. Larry David helped us; we did a pilot with Richard Belzer. Michael Patrick King, who ran Sex And The City and runs 2 Broke Girls—he wrote for Rachel Sweet.
Havey: Tommy Sledge was a private eye, and Rachel Sweet I knew since she was, like, 16. We started out as a three-hour show showing clips from old movies or old comedy bits. It’s not like music: After a while, people got tired of seeing the same movies and specials. There were some great content, but we kind of whittled it down. We wanted to do our own comedy instead of just throwing to a clip. We didn’t want to be VJs.
Smiley: Havey was always a great comic. We auditioned as many people as we could possibly see, but everybody who was in on those decisions liked him. Allan was very different at what he did. He certainly had an acerbic, dark wit. He would do things like an “audience of one.” It was just a different point of view, still to this day, as far as stand-up goes.
Havey: Mike Rowe came up with the “audience of one” concept. That distinguished us from a lot of other shows. [Johnny] Carson and Arsenio [Hall] and [David] Letterman and every other talk-show host was behind their desk. I put my chair in front of the desk. The desk was behind me, with a little cot there to take naps. Our show was the first to put on Mike Judge. He sent in a bunch of VHS tapes of Milton. We flew him out, ran it on the show and I said, “We should sign this guy!” I don’t think they made him a great offer, so he went on to MTV. When I saw Beavis And Butt-Head, I was very happy about that.
Smiley: Short Attention Span Theater came about because we needed to fill time, and we didn’t necessarily have the budget for a regular host at the time. From there it was booking a regular host. Or a host for a period of time, because people came and went. It wasn’t one show, per se. It was an amalgam of whatever the clips were and the hosts that they had for that time period.
Hodgson: Short Attention Span Theater gave birth to the great Jon Stewart.
Katz: I loved that show, especially with Patty Rosborough. She was really funny. I think she had to leave because she had a baby.
Lizz Winstead (The Daily Show co-creator): I was involved with Short Attention Span Theater. I was a fill-in host with Jon when Patty Rosborough was gone.
Katz: For one or two weeks when Jon Stewart wasn’t available, I co-hosted that show with a woman named Stephanie Miller. I don’t know what the opposite of chemistry is, but we had it. She hated me. And we weren’t funny together.
Bell: Short Attention Span Theater was a precursor to what everybody is watching on YouTube now, in terms of short clips of comedy from movies or television or watching your cat play the piano. Something else came out of Short Attention Span Theater: short clips of comedians, which similarly are an internet staple. There was a huge trove of stand-up comedy that we mined, and that really helped propel The Comedy Channel and helped us get noticed. Before The Comedy Channel, stand-up comedians didn’t really have a place to call their own. What The Comedy Channel gave them was their home, a place where they could hang out and try new things, even as crazy and bumpy and rocky and unguided as it was. It gave the comedy world a little more self-respect.
Provenza: They also did a show produced by Jerry Kramer called Comic Justice, which was an urban comedy show. I did some writing and directing and sketches on that. Mystery Science Theater 3000 started a little bit after.
Havey: Mystery Science Theater was the big one. That drew in a lot of people. It was the most innovative and funny show we had.
Hodgson: We had done I think 22 shows locally, so once it appeared that the Comedy Channel was going to get going, we cut together a sell tape. That was important, because when I started, it wasn’t clear to me how much we should be riffing. How much people could dual-task—watching a movie and hearing commentary—wasn’t really clear. When we made that eight-minute tape, it was basically a highlights reel. When I saw that, suddenly it made all the sense in the world to me: “Oh, this is how the show has to be. We have to have jokes all the time.”
Smiley: Somebody sent it to us in the mail. We opened this package and saw it, and said, “Gee, this is kind of cool!” We were not so dumb as to not see something in it.
Bell: It was the two puppets and Joel Hodgson sitting in front of the movie and commenting… I think they actually used The Godfather. They were literally using movies they’d just pulled off the shelf. No rights involved, no licensing fees, none of that. Why complicate life? When they put that in front of us, it looked great; our challenge was to turn it into something you could put on television legally. We had to find really crummy, often public-domain movies or movies that could be licensed for almost nothing.
Hodgson: It registered with them right away. It was so ambitious to try and do an all-comedy channel: They needed a show like ours that was 90 minutes long and filled a lot of time.
Katz: It was just such a great conceit. It’s what my friend and Dr. Katz co-creator Tom Snyder calls “production breakthrough.” It was so great, the way they were able to use that footage… and not pay for it… and make it funny.
Hodgson: I think compared to the other content, we were pretty trouble-free. We were just out in Minneapolis. They really left us alone, which I really appreciated. We only got one note from the network the whole time: They said, “You know, the silhouettes, when you’re doing a black and white movie, you can’t see them. Is there anything you can do?” So there’s one episode of Mystery Science Theater where we tried to make the silhouettes green, which doesn’t make any sense. Later, we figured out if it’s a black and white film and you tinted it blue, the silhouettes would pop.
Bell: They had come up with this format, it was theirs to run with. We did pretty much leave them alone, but I think we left a lot of the talent alone. We really wanted to nurture the creative abilities of everybody involved. The people who worked on The Comedy Channel are now a who’s who of the entertainment business. You had a lot of people working on those early shows who were great producers and great performers, and who went on to terrific things. We were really lucky in that way… and we were also the only game in town for a while.
“Hey, we’ve got to compete with this other channel.”
“We announced first we were going on the air, and they announced shortly thereafter,” Smiley recalls of The Comedy Channel’s rival operation—and eventual partner in the merger that created Comedy Central. “Then it was a race to get on, to get launched.” The Comedy Channel had debuted November 1989. Viacom followed with Ha! on April 1, 1990.
Lewis Black (The Daily Show): The Ha! channel is where I did my first longer set of comedy on TV. I don’t remember what it was called, but I know it took place at The Lambs Club in New York back when it was a theater.
Smiley: HBO had a long history in the stand-up comedy world, because it was one of the things Michael Fuchs programmed almost from the beginning: Robert Klein, George Carlin, David Steinberg, and old Alan King. Knowing the marketplace of young comedians and specials, it felt more like we were going to tap that market as well. Ha!, much like Nick At Nite, was going to license many shows and films, etc., like Saturday Night Live early on and Mary Tyler Moore, Newhart, or Rhoda. They were going to build their stable that way.
Michele Ganeless (president of Comedy Central): It was more historical, nostalgic acquired content.
Havey: The suits would say, “Hey, we’ve got to compete with this other channel.” I remember a bunch of us saying, “No, we don’t have to worry about what they’re doing. Let’s just work at making our own channel really good.”
Smiley: It was economics. There wasn’t really any room, regarding distribution, for two comedy channels. For cable distribution there needed to be one, at least without everybody hemorrhaging money for a few years to see who would be the victor. At the time Michael Fuchs ran HBO and Frank Biondi ran Viacom. They had been partners four or five years prior at HBO. So they knew each other well, and it was an ongoing discussion to when or if that [merger] was going to happen.
Ganeless: I joined the research team at Ha! in 1990. And then we merged just a few months later. I actually went down to research facilities down in Florida. We tested out different names in focus groups. There just wasn’t enough operator demand for two comedy channels at the time. Cable was still growing. There were certainly a number of channels that launched after we did, but the heads of the networks came together because the operators said, “Look, you guys have got to figure it out. We’re not going to launch both of you when neither of you can get to critical mass alone.”
Bell: John Malone [of cable provider TCI] was running the big system in the U.S., and he was very interested in making peace. He kept saying, “We need peace in the valley. Nobody’s going to put two comedy channels on a system. Everybody is going to choose one. Neither of them is going to be successful on its own.” Even then, I think a lot of people thought it was unlikely that the merger would survive.
Colin Quinn (Tough Crowd): From a stand-up perspective, it was kind of like, “What are they doing?” Both of those networks were not doing well. And comedy itself had reached a point where there were Evening At The Improv and all these comedy shows. I thought it was going to be a failure. I think a lot of people felt that.
Bell: There were conflicting visions of a comedy channel being brought together. But the people from both Ha! and The Comedy Channel who were left with the task of building a comedy network were pretty much dedicated to the same concept of the world needing a comedy channel. We had to get a new name, we had to get a new logo, we had to put a new programming lineup together. We had to manage two budgets into one. We had to make sure that people who had been tooth and nail against each other for the previous year were now best friends working together in the trenches. It was a pretty daunting task. But we were committed to making it work.
Havey: When the merger happened, there was paranoia. They were concerned about Rachel’s show or Tommy’s show. The Higgins Boys lasted. I was off the air for a couple months and they were still paying me, but they had my stuff boxed up just in case we had to go.
Provenza: I started doing Comics Only for Ha! in 1990. When they said they were interested in doing a show with me, I told them I always wanted to do The Tonight Show minus everything but the comedians. So it was a talk show with just comedians. While we were in production, Ha! merged with the Comedy Channel to become Comedy Central.
Dave Attell (Insomniac): Paul Provenza is kind of our Captain Ahab. He’s always hunting for the elusive whale of comedy. He’s a purist who really believes in the art form and is very protective of it.
Provenza: We had Steve Allen, Phyllis Diller—Rip Taylor was like our Larry “Bud” Melman—and also all the new young talent that was coming up. They weren’t necessarily stars or names, but they were known in the comedy world. I liked to mix the old and the new, to create the sense that comedy was its own world. Some of the young comics were Judd Apatow, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Foxworthy, Dave Chappelle when he was maybe 17, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey. Bob Odenkirk brought Andy Dick on as his “nephew” because it was career day at Andy’s school. Dave Attell and Louis CK and Steven Wright when they were just beginning, before they were maestros. Robert Schimmel was on a bunch of times, Richard Jeni. Jon Stewart, Denis Leary, and Judy Gold were on the opening credits. John Tesh had an office in the building, so he did our theme song.
Black: It was one of the first times that anybody recognized that I was a comic. It was great to be able to sit there and be interviewed as a comedian, and not have to do stand-up. Paul was a good interviewer. He actually listened.
Provenza: When Comedy Central first came on the air, it was not only a long time before anybody took it seriously—it was a long time before anybody even noticed. At the beginning the market penetration wasn’t great. It was pretty primitive relative to a network launch nowadays. Comics Only filled gaps in on-air real estate. They would rerun the hell out of them—five days a week for, like, three times a day—especially when they broke into new markets and people hadn’t seen the show yet.
Adam Carolla (The Man Show, Crank Yankers): I was living in La Crescenta, California, in a place that had a horrible cable carrier called Salmon Cable. They didn’t have it, and I remember that was one of my complaints.
Provenza: We were on for about a year before Comedy Central was on the air in New York. They did a whole big thing for the New York launch. It was me and Judy Tenuta on top of a building, and they lowered her to a countdown like she was the New Year’s Eve ball.
Bell: There was no real attempt to bang everything into shape, because we weren’t sure what shape we wanted it banged into. We wanted a place where people felt comfortable doing interesting and funny things.
Provenza: Comedy Central didn’t have much on their schedule at the beginning. It was a real struggle to define what a comedy channel was.
Matt Stone (South Park): They were acquiring original British comedy, which is still some of my favorite stuff.
Attell: What I remember about the early days of Comedy Central was no matter when you turned on the channel, you either were just about to see or just had missed a Gallagher special. Gallagher and I think Sinbad had the original lock on that channel. Maybe those Absolutely Fabulous reruns, any of the Porky’s movies…
Bell: One of the early insights we had was that people who were watching this network at the time were young, 18 to 24, 18 to 34 males. There were women as well, but it was very hard to get young men. That really drove the business model, because now we could sell advertising to advertisers who were looking for young males, and didn’t necessarily want to buy sports ads.
Quinn: It reminded me of MTV, and they would kind of pattern themselves on MTV. Just these studio shows with a very ’90s look and not a lot of stuff going on. No one really knew what they were doing. Like I said, at the time it was like comedy was kind of going under. Stand-up was getting overexposed, so people were like, “Oh, this isn’t gonna work out.” It was the end of the first comedy boom. But little did we realize, a bunch of kids were probably watching those shows and saying, “Oh, I’m gonna get into comedy!”
“You know, Jonathan, Dr. Katz is allowed to be funny, too.”
The merger created CTV: The Comedy Network—which soon changed its name to Comedy Central to avoid confusion with Canada’s CTV—and early operational structure remained a mix of Viacom and HBO loyalists. When MTV Productions head Doug Herzog (now president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group) threw his hat into the ring to succeed Comedy Central president Bob Kreek, he arrived amid “tribes and warring factions and kind of a mess internally, because they had not come together as a group. There was a constant push and pull over which people from which side were going to get which jobs and control.” At the time, Herzog’s appointment was considered controversial.
Doug Herzog (former Comedy Central president): It was a very different Comedy Central. They weren’t in 40 million homes yet. The only thing they had going was AbFab. That was very highly rated, but there were only a handful of episodes, and it wasn’t really an original. And we had Bill Maher. But it was very much a fledgling operation—with not a very great creative reputation—trying to find itself, and really struggling on a certain level.
Smiley: It was a crazy time, but there were talented people who got to work and grow from it. Nancy Geller ended up taking over Downtown Productions, which HBO had. When they merged the companies [into Comedy Central], HBO had a group of shows they submitted. Out of that came Politically Incorrect. And Jonathan Katz came out of that when he did his half-hour show, Dr. Katz.
Katz: [Geller] got HBO excited about the show, and they got Comedy Central excited about the show.
Attell: Dr. Katz was the first thing I saw that really felt different. They were going in a cool direction. I would say that was definitely one of the shows that helped brand the network.
Katz: Squigglevision looks like nothing anybody had ever seen before. It was based on this algorithm Tom Snyder created that replicated human error. It was shot like a series of stills. The characters were just vibrating. They weren’t really going anywhere.
Bell: They made it cost-effective, which meant we could afford it.
Katz: I was just a straight man. Then John Fisher, who was an executive at Comedy Central, called me one day and said, “You know, Jonathan, Dr. Katz is allowed to be funny, too.” So he sort of gave me permission to be funny.
Bell: You had comedians who had developed 20 minutes of brilliant stand-up comedy after working on it for years and years, and that was the script! No other comedy show could be that well-written. It showed the versatility and insight of great comedians.
Katz: In the beginning it was me asking friends like Dom Irrera, who I knew from stand-up, to do me a favor. And then it became guys like Ray Romano calling to ask if he could do it. Ray and I had worked together a little bit doing stand-up, but before Everybody Loves Raymond, doing Dr. Katz was the most publicity he’d gotten.
Winstead: Jonathan had me on the couch talking about how much I never wanted kids and would be a terrible mother. Turns out I never had kids because I would be a terrible mother!
Katz: I love the stuff that I did with Brian Regan. Wendy Liebman was fun. Laura Kightlinger, I think, is still the best female comedian in America.
Attell: They used a lot of comics, and it wasn’t really scripted. You would go in and do some jokes, and then they would animate it. And Jonathan Katz—there’s nobody like the guy: The back-and-forth with him felt really loose and free. And you could curse!
Katz: For the first one or two seasons, Tom was working in the pantry of his home. But then we outgrew his home and he replicated teams of editors and animators. Loren Bouchard—who created Bob’s Burgers—he and [H.] Jon Benjamin would go back into the studio and edit all night long. They could because they were young. And Jon Benjamin was just this amazing force in my life. I spent so many hours just laughing and getting paid.
Katz: Dr. Katz has such a loyal fan base, even now. At one point not so long ago Comedy Central approached Tom Snyder and myself to make webisodes of the series. The idea was they would introduce all the [young] comedians in Comedy Central’s stable. They backed out at the last minute. But I expect it will be back somewhere in some form.
“I literally started writing on the programming grid ‘The Daily Show.’ And that turned into the name of the show.”
Comedian Lizz Winstead had moved into her new apartment building the same day as incoming tenant Madeleine Smithberg, then-producer of MTV talk venture The Jon Stewart Show. Winstead joined the show as segment producer six months before its cancellation. With MTV’s Doug Herzog now President of Comedy Central, the pair were brought in for a meeting.
Herzog: Bill Maher was doing a really great job with Politically Incorrect. It was an original show; it was getting good reviews. But it wasn’t getting ratings.
Bell: I remember taking a pitch from Bill in a diner in Los Angeles. He said, “I want to do a show where people actually talk. That show was not a home run out of the gate; it took six months until it finally came together. And then like so many things in comedy, it got snagged by somebody else.
Herzog: No sooner did I walk in the door in 1995 that I got a phone call from Bill’s managers at Brillstein-Grey, who said, “Bill’s contract is up. We’ve already signed a contract at ABC. There is nothing you can do about it. This is happening, he’s going, we’re sorry. He will play out the rest of his contract.” Which he did, and he was very gracious about it, truthfully. But since Bill was leaving, we needed something we could do every day. My idea was to do “Weekend Update” every day, our take on the news and pop culture. I had my eye on Craig Kilborn, who was on ESPN at the time.
Ganeless: That was my second tour of duty, when I was VP of programming. Doug Herzog said, “We need a daily show that people can come to the network for.” I literally started writing on the programming grid “The Daily Show.” And that turned into the name of the show.
Winstead: Madeleine had the executive producer experience and I was doing all this political satire, so that’s how The Daily Show took off. The network didn’t make us do a pilot. They let us try it on for a year and work the kinks out, which rarely ever happens. I was managing a writing staff—I had never done that before. We had six writers—I think they have 12 or 15 now to do the task of getting something on every day. I was also doing on-air stuff and trying to make a system that would be an executable one to keep a show on every day. Turns out we did that through a lot of trial and error.
Kent Alterman (president of original programming): They started by having no studio audience. That seemed to be a big glaring omission. And it was fixed immediately.
Winstead: Brian Unger was at CBS News, working on 60 Minutes and news magazines. He was like, “I didn’t go to journalism school to cover the O.J. trial!” “What if you quit journalism and became a fake journalist and make fun of what journalism has become?” So he did that. He set the mold for all the correspondents to follow. Everyone else looked at what he did. He really was the model.
Black: They got in touch with me. They needed material, and I had it. Nobody had “found me” yet. I had tons and tons of stuff that nobody heard. So they brought me on to do commentary. When they started with Craig Kilborn I was on from the very first week, I think.
Winstead: We wanted an Andy Rooney-type of person, and Lewis was the obvious choice. That was simply a phone call, like, “Hey, you want to do this thing? You basically sit at a desk and rant, instead of having to do it onstage all the time.” And he was like, “Hell yeah.”
Black: Initially I did it without an audience, and improv-ed it. Lizz would come up to me and go, “That was good. Keep that, drop that, do this…” And then I’d do it again two or three times, and we had it. Then we got an audience, so I started writing it and they put it in the teleprompter. I don’t know how long we did it that way. I wanted it to be done at the end of the week, a two-and-a-half, three-minute summary of all the news events that had occurred that week. All I wanted to do was summarize the nonsense. But that wasn’t what it evolved into. It certainly went well for me in terms of my career, but in terms of what I really wanted to do, no. They had all this film footage that was dropped on them—and was free. A lot of it was nutty, like squirrels on skis, pig races, all sorts of stuff. Then we’d put it all together, come up with a through-line, and I’d do it. And that went on for years. Then it became “Back In Black.”
Attell: Lewis Black is super important to The Daily Show. He was there all the time. I was only there once in a while. I do remember stressing out about having enough jokes and then trying to put them in the order to go back and forth with Jon [Stewart] on a topic.
Black: Everyone brought a talent and point of view to their work. And they were working on the fly, which was amazing. When I was there and Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell were there, it was terrific. It was a thrill to be able to watch them work. You knew you were in the presence of special talent.
Winstead: Stephen, I always loved him from his sketch comedy. Then I saw him on Good Morning America, and he was clearly winking at the audience and doing stuff that didn’t feel like it should be on GMA. It felt like it should be on The Daily Show. We snatched him right up from legitimate news to illegitimate news.
Alterman: It was out-of-the-gate evident that it was the kind of show that helped put Comedy Central on the map in terms of being a vital, relevant voice on a day-to-day basis, in the true sense of comedy. Reacting to the absurdities or hypocrisies or abuses of power in the world—and having that platform to have a voice within that context—I think really means a lot to the network.
Winstead: We started to develop ratings, and people started writing about us. It was pretty cool to have your instincts pay off. We made sure we were not just a mock of Entertainment Tonight, and covered the big news of the day and the way that the media had advocated its role in being the voice of the people. We made sure that was always in the foreground of what we satirized. People just responded.
Herzog: We carved out a name for ourselves, and Craig did a particular thing particularly well. That went on for a few years. And then his agent came to me and said, “We signed a deal at CBS and we’re leaving!” Which was our big thanks for turning him into a star and commodity.
Ganeless: When Craig left to go to CBS, our goal was to find somebody who had a really unique voice. Jon was someone who me, Doug, and Eileen Katz—who was running original programming at the time—had all worked with at MTV. We knew how talented he was and what a great point of view he had—and still has. But back in 1998, the thought was, “Who is going to shape this show as something that will be a franchise for years and years to come?”
Herzog: I had given Jon a show at MTV that Madeleine had produced, but he wasn’t the first guy who came to mind. We didn’t think he’d want to do it. Somebody who was working with him at the time—a comedy manager named Jimmy Miller—said, “You know, you should talk to Jon. You might be surprised.” We took him to lunch, then took a cab straight from downtown to his manager’s office and made him an offer.
Black: Jon came in and made it his own show. It was never really Craig’s show. Craig was really working as a talking head, as far as I could tell. It’s being written for him and he’s looking at it in the teleprompter.
Winstead: When Craig was the host it was more of a Colbert situation, where everyone was a character. When Jon came in, that would have been a waste of his talent to be in a character. That wasn’t going to reflect his strong suit. I loved when he became the voice of the people and surrounded himself with the goony correspondents.
Herzog: Jon Stewart changed The Daily Show. He changed the game. But I like to remind people that Jon Stewart wasn’t Jon Stewart on day one either. The Jon Stewart who left 16 years later was not the Jon Stewart who started. He evolved quite a bit and made it his own. He clearly had a vision of what it could be, and what he could be within it. It evolved to what it became, which is one of the greatest shows of all time.
Winstead: When you have a show that is a formula and a format satirizing something else, people often say, “Did you ever think the show would be so successful?” It’s like, “I never thought the media could get so horrible that the show could constantly have something to make fun of!” It’s been a reflection of who we are as a society and a nation, and I hope that it continues to be a moral compass, be our funny bone, and be our bullshit detector.
“It opened up a whole other world for the network, and gave the network a whole other level of credibility.”
Members of influential sketch group The State debuted the satirical Viva Variety on April 1, 1997, Comedy Central’s sixth anniversary. Michael Ian Black, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Thomas Lennon, and Robert Ben Garant’s series was original, out-of-the-box, and high-profile, but ultimately not the breakout hit the network still desperately sought. On August 13, 1997, just four months after Viva Variety’s debut, a pudgy Colorado loudmouth pestered by anally probing aliens put Comedy Central in demand with cable connoisseurs across the country. For the cartoon’s creators—a couple of broke, frustrated former film students who’d never had a high-paying gig before—South Park provided not only an actual budget, but the opportunity to see their vision through on a larger platform, and on their own terms.
Stone: It feels like some sepia-toned photo at this point, how the world was back then. It was ’95 or ’96. The internet barely existed—it was just people sending emails, I think. I didn’t even have my first internet account at the time. Trey and I had some success with this little Christmas card, “The Spirit Of Christmas,” that went viral in an early, people-copying-VHS-tapes kind of way.
Katz: One day, Doug Herzog came up to me. He said, “Jonathan, I’ve got to show you something.” And he showed me a VHS tape of South Park.
Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy): I’ll never forget that: They showed us the very first Christmas episode. I was like, “Oh my God, this is really hilarious.”
Stone: “The Spirit Of Christmas” got us a little bit of attention. We went and had a few meetings: one with Fox, one with MTV. Of course we were going to take those meetings, because we had no money and no place to live, and were trying to get something going. But in our circles of people trying to get television shows made, there was this name that kept coming up, and it was, “You’ve got to go talk to Debbie Liebling at Comedy Central.” And we thought our stuff belonged on Comedy Central. They were showing Monty Python, Absolutely Fabulous, Mystery Science Theater. Those were shows that we loved, and we felt like whatever we were doing—or were going to do—it just fit there in some sort of protean sense. It wasn’t even a business decision, just, “That’s where our stuff belongs! Over there with those guys!”
Herzog: They were brilliantly smart and at the same time brilliantly funny, and it was a wicked combination. You add the animation, and you have something very special and unique that’s never been duplicated.
Stone: We went back to Colorado and produced a pilot, and that took the better part of a year and a half. We did it all on construction paper, which was super time-consuming. They focus-grouped it, but it predictably scored through the roof with young men, and through the basement with everybody else. Comedy Central sort of wobbled for a second and said, “We don’t know about the show,” and commissioned a second script. So we wrote another script, and then they got confident and ordered six episodes.
Ganeless: Showing it to focus groups and viewers, it drew such strong, visceral reactions. As a programmer, when a show hits nerves like that, you’ve got something special on your hands.
Stone: Now we think in terms of, “Oh, what should we do this season?” or strategy and things like that. Back then it was, “Holy shit, we’re going to have a show on TV!” We couldn’t believe it. Then it quickly became, “Okay, how the fuck are we going to do this?” We started talking to and hiring people, and looking into doing stop-motion animation on computers using construction paper scanned in.
Jimmy Kimmel (Win Ben Stein’s Money, The Man Show, Crank Yankers): Win Ben Stein’s Money premiered the same week as South Park. Before we went on the air there was a press conference with the TV critics, and it was me, Matt, Trey, and Ben Stein. I wound up getting in a big fight with some TV critic there defending South Park. I didn’t even know Matt and Trey, and they didn’t know me. It was an adult-themed cartoon—which seems charming now—but even though I think it was on at 10 o’clock, a few of the critics were very, very upset that this was being put on television, even though it was cable television and even though it was late primetime. It’s funny: I bet those people would like that to be forgotten now. But if you look into it, I bet you’ll find a few critics who had a real problem with that show.
Stone: Producing the first season was hard because we fell behind, we went over budget, we went over schedule. I don’t think anything terribly out of the ordinary for that process, but going from doing one thing to doing six of something and making them funny, and how to produce those and make a system of animating them when computers weren’t really that great in 1996—that was hard. I remember internally we really worked our asses off and had a million false starts. And then once the show started airing, the ratings were just meteoric.
Herzog: Not unlike the Daily Show, South Park were truth-tellers. Cartman was everyone’s inner voice talking—okay, not everybody—but I think people related to the characters.
Stone: Comedy Central was only in, like, a third of the homes in the country. So even in Colorado, our friends couldn’t watch South Park on television because the cable operator didn’t carry it. So there was this “I want my MTV moment!” that was linked to South Park.
Herzog: South Park is what really gave Comedy Central jet fuel. It was responsible for bringing in huge ratings, and also really helping us drive our distribution from 40 million homes to 50 million homes to 60 million homes.
Provenza: South Park seems to mark the turning point. It opened up a whole other world for the network, and gave the network a whole other level of credibility. And a huge monster infusion of cash.
Stone: When we got the six episodes on the air, we barely finished them. Then they were just, “Okay, that was awesome! The ratings were through the roof! We need more!” We were like, “Okay, we can give you six more… in a year?” We all made the decision to do a holiday special, so we did a Hankey special that was kind of on its own and not part of the first cycle.
Ganeless: Matt and Trey had a very clear idea of what they wanted it to look like. It had never really been done before: the idea of doing an animated show in a one-week period, where you’re creating it and airing it within that period of time. It took some time, but they figured out how to make it work.
Stone: We had done maybe eight episodes and we were on the cover of Rolling Stone. We weren’t—the characters were. Our office was in Westwood. It was pre-cell phone, pre-internet—we would go down to the big newsstand and just look on the magazines to see who was writing about it. That’s how we sort of took the temperature of, “Holy shit, this is really taking off!”
Herzog: Matt and Trey from the beginning—and to a certain extent remain—the house upon which Comedy Central was built. It all started very humbly, and we’re about to hit season 20.
Provenza: Remember in the beginning, it was controversial all the time? There was always a fuss around what South Park was doing. They haven’t backed off at all, but now people are done fighting. They’re done getting upset about it. It’s almost made itself insignificant by having been so good for so long. After all these years it’s only gotten better, tighter, and more poignant.
Ganeless: Any of the controversy that surrounded South Park always had to do with people not agreeing with their commentary or their satire. It was never about the quality of the writing or the content. And that’s what we are about: We are about really smart, provocative comedy. So there was never a question of not standing behind them.
Herzog: Matt and Trey are always moving forward, never looking back, and they remain completely engaged. They are better at it now than they were then—and they were pretty fucking good then.
Kimmel: I think that’s one of the greatest shows ever made. It’s remarkable how funny it is so many years later, and that it’s still on the air. And that those guys really haven’t lost focus on that show, even though they’ve done a couple of projects. I know they had a million different offers to do a million different things, but that is always their baby and they take care of it.
Stone: We’re committed through season 23, so four more seasons. Beyond that is the great unknown. We take it a season at a time.
Katz: I always thought of these guys as my younger, more successful siblings. They made more money selling sweatshirts than I did selling TV shows.
Black: Their longevity and quality, to go that long and to be that good is beyond belief. It just makes me sick.
Stone: Comedy Central is a huge part of why South Park has been successful. Part of it is just leaving us alone and trusting us to do what we’re doing. They’ve always put the art and the comedy and the people who do it first. And that’s why we’re loyal.
“Amy was sort of obsessed with this hilarious, grotesque, repulsive woman.”
Kent Alterman, fresh from two years of writing, directing and producing Michael Moore’s TV Nation, joined Comedy Central in 1996 as a development executive. When fellow writer Eric Zicklin introduced him to Chicago-based improv and sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade, Alterman worked with Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh on a holiday “reimagining” project called Escape From It’s a Wonderful Life and executive produced the three-season, 30-episode Upright Citizens Brigade series from 1998 to 2000.
The troupe established its own UCB Theatre in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood in 1999. Alterman quickly utilized the space to shoot Louis CK’s Filthy Stupid Talent Show. The future FX star performed stand-up and hosted an off-kilter variety show of acts comprising fictionalized performances pieces from comedians. CK’s sidekick was an animated cow named Nixony (voiced by Jon Glaser), who conversed via video monitor. Recalls Alterman, “At the time everyone thought it was just a little too narrow and off-center. It had a very alternative vibe to it. And I think Louis might agree with that.”
The members of UCB weren’t the only Chicago performers Alterman championed at the network. While working on NYC theatrical productions with her brother David, Amy Sedaris was spotted by HBO Downtown and offered what eventually became 1995’s Exit 57. With fellow Second City vets Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, Jodi Lennon, and Mitch Rouse, says Sedaris, “We did the longest sketches anyone’s every heard of, 11 minutes. Then we had the idea for Strangers With Candy. We pitched it to Kent Alterman, and he helped us develop.”
Alterman: I had gotten to know Amy and Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. We had talked about various projects but hadn’t quite hit on the right thing. They came in to talk about Strangers With Candy, which was unnamed at that point. Basically it was sort of the intersection of two ideas they had: There was a documentary called The Trip Back that had been done in the ’60s. It was about a middle-aged woman from some town in Long Island coming back to talk to the students at her former high school that she had dropped out of, to give a Scared Straight talk about being a drug addict and prostitute. Amy was sort of obsessed with this hilarious, grotesque, repulsive woman. They thought that it would be compelling to cross that character and her trip back to her high school with the idea that she was actually coming back to pick up where she had left off, and then to do the show in the vein of the old ABC Afterschool Specials.
Sedaris: He really helped us shape that show. We went in there with strong ideas—Afterschool Specials, she learns the wrong lessons, it’s this 48-year-old woman—but he changed it a lot from the pilot to the first episode. He had a good eye and really good ideas, and we trusted him from the get-go.
Alterman: Because those Afterschool Specials were sort of melodramatic morality plays, they would present a problem like teen pregnancy or alcoholism, and everything would be neatly sewed up at the end. The way we approached Strangers With Candy was to present each one as a morality play where in the third act the protagonist, Jerri Blank, would always, without fail, make the wrong choice. And then to cap it off, she would come back in the epilogue in the fourth act to say what she learned, and she would also draw the wrong lesson from the wrong choice she had made.
Herzog: Kent recognized the brilliance and genius of Strangers With Candy really early on. He really championed it when a lot of us were looking at it, going, “What is this?”
Sedaris: They gave us the worst time slot, like, 5:30 on Sunday or something lame. We never knew we had an audience. We never knew what the ratings were—we still haven’t been told we were canceled! But we were fine doing more or not doing more, either way. I’m not complaining at all, and neither would Paul or Steve.
Herzog: I think it got us a lot of attention for taking a chance and doing something that was seen as coming from left field. Now with all the different platforms and channels of content you see a lot more of that kind of stuff.
Sedaris: It was almost like we were out in the woods doing this show. No one was around saying we could or couldn’t do something. We just did whatever made us laugh. Sometimes the censors would come knocking on our doors and we would have to deal with them, but other than that it didn’t feel like there were any grown-ups around and we had complete freedom. It was a dream job, really. I don’t know if you could get away today with what we got away with back then.
Alterman: They were immense talents as writers and performers and producers. It was the same as the UCB members. In both cases, they really wore all hats on those shows.
Sedaris: I’m just glad it still lives on. It’s fun to know that you threw a hole on the wall, you went through it, you did this show that you didn’t know what it was, and now there’s a whole new generation of kids watching it. It’s still out there and still alive, and we’re all really proud of it.
Attell: Strangers With Candy, I still think that’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Kent and the producers at the time were dead-on with that. Amy Sedaris is so talented, and Colbert and all of those people were so good. It deserved way more credit than it got. So well-written, just so well-performed. It was perfect.
Herzog: It certainly influenced a generation of comics and comedy writers. There’s an old thing that people say in rock ’n’ roll: The Velvet Underground didn’t sell a lot of records, but every record they sold went to someone who started a band. Their influence is enormous. I would say the same thing about Strangers With Candy.
“I’m getting every feminist card revoked…”
The original game show pitch: Former presidential speechwriter Ben Stein competing against contestants to answer trivia questions asked by a disembodied voice. It lacked a host/sidekick/cool factor.
KROQ’s Jimmy “The Sports Guy” Kimmel was brought in to audition for Stein, and the two hit it off. (Admits Kimmel, “I think I was the only person who auditioned.”) A pilot presentation failed to attract attention from any network except Comedy Central, which subsequently saw Win Ben Stein’s Money racking up Daytime Emmys over the likes of Wheel Of Fortune and Stein nemesis Jeopardy!
Two years later, Kimmel and fellow KROQ personality Adam Carolla, wanting their own radio show together, started Jackhole Productions with Letterman vet Daniel Kellison. Kellison, who had just been fired from The Rosie O’Donnell Show, was introduced to Kimmel by Jon Stewart at a Foo Fighters concert.
Kimmel: My manager at the time took me to a meeting with some hack producer who wanted me to do a daytime talk show for women. I knew it wouldn’t work. It just seemed very unnatural for me. I had a 30-minute-a-month cell phone plan at the time. I was so scared of going over; I never ever used it. But that drive home I think I used 22 minutes of my 30, calling Adam to say, “We need to do a show for men!” I don’t know if we came up with the title during that phone call, but the idea of girls on trampolines is something I pitched to him on the telephone. It was kind of an homage to The Benny Hill Show, where the only glimpse of a nipple you might possibly get was during his comedy show.
Carolla: We did it as a pilot for ABC, believe it or not. It was a little ahead of its time for ABC. The pilot turned out pretty good, but ABC decided to play it smart and go with a show called Cupid starring Jeremy Piven. So we had this pilot out there, and Comedy Central became interested. We liked Comedy Central, so it seemed like a much better fit than ABC.
Kimmel: We had a whole bunch of offers after we made the pilot from cable networks, including FX. I already knew everybody at Comedy Central, and think they offered us 24 episodes for the first season. Adam was doing Loveline at the time, so we got paired with these producers we weren’t crazy about. We put the promos on the air, and Adam and I took a trip to Chicago to meet with some advertisers before the show premiered. People were cheering us on the streets, just from the promos! That’s when I knew we had struck some kind of a nerve, and that there was a good chance the show would be successful. The guys were just screaming at us in Chicago. In L.A. nobody cared, but in Chicago they were pretty excited.
Ganeless: Jimmy and Adam’s original pitch was sort of a celebration of their lifestyle, their humor, the way they see the world. Jimmy always brings so much joy to what he does, and to me that was the essence of the show, the joy that he and Adam brought to the screen: The joy of being a man.
Winstead: I had just finished doing a 20th anniversary of the Ms. Foundation For Women on a Friday, and I flew to L.A. on a Monday to do the Man Show pilot. I was like, “I’m getting every feminist card revoked…”
Carolla: Most of the executives we dealt with were women. We’d had our share of arguments-slash-discussions with certain things we wanted to do that would be considered fairly benign today. The battles were always respectful and would usually reach some compromise figuring out how to do what we wanted to do anyway. It helps when the ratings are good.
Kimmel: They knew we weren’t genuine misogynists, that we were playing characters and poking fun at that stuff. The more controversy and negativity there was, the more we liked it. I think we may have announced that women were not allowed to watch the show when we began, which was something that got people’s attention.
Winstead: I think those guys brought me in to see “How far can we actually go before you have a nervous breakdown?” I think I was the litmus test. But when I worked on that show they were, like, sending me to spas. They were so nice: “You need a break? Well how about Vegas?” Those guys know how to treat their staff.
Kimmel: They were really in on it with us. They were certainly our accomplices. It was always amusing to us to read somebody’s angry denouncement of the show, and to know I have Lizz Winstead, who’s one of the brightest female comedy writers ever, there pitching “What Would Happen If A Woman Were President?” It was so contrary to her public persona.
Carolla: One of the first episodes, we went and did a petition trying to end women’s suffrage. Jimmy and I went down to a farmers market and tried to get signatures. That ticked off some people, but comedy is supposed to tick off some people. That’s kind of the point. We had one where I went on a date with my mother. It wasn’t my actual mother, but it was still pretty risqué. We liked to push the envelope or dance around whatever the line was at the time. We never worried about who was offended or why they were offended.
Kimmel: We got a lot of very negative reviews, and we put them up on billboards and in the trade papers. People seemed to really like that. I think at some point we had a total of negative six-and-a-half stars. And we made an ad with all the most critical lines from every TV reviewer who had reviewed the show negatively. Not all of them did, but we had fun with the ones who called it “disgusting” and “obscene” and “idiotic.” We trumpeted that stuff.
Carolla: We sort of talked about four seasons/100 episodes being enough. All the stuff we wanted to do, I got a lot of them out of my system. It’s like when a band does their first album of all these songs they’ve been nursing in their head for 10 years, and then their second album has to come out eight months later. Comedy Central wanted to keep The Man Show going, and we could have kept going and been fine, but ABC came calling for Jimmy to host, and he wanted me to come with him.
Kimmel: We had a deal with these horrible producers who kept the show after. These were guys who did, like, Supermarket Sweep. They really didn’t understand the show. The show was about my friendship with Adam and vice-versa, and the chemistry that we had, and a tongue-in-cheek look at men. I think the newer incarnation of the show was more straightforward, and just didn’t have the kind of feeling of fun. It seemed more serious, somehow. I think their intention was to make the show darker and it was a mistake.
Doug Stanhope (Man Show cohost, 2003-04): I declined the offer a couple times. I told my agent I didn’t want to do it. I knew it wasn’t my sense of humor, but they said, “Oh, we’re going in a new direction.” They auditioned six comics. We’d pair up and write monologues together and do them in front of a semi-live audience, some bus-station riffraff they brought into the studio, and made you go out there and do your little fake Man Show skit like it was a high-school production. I was paired up with Patrice [O’Neal]. All I remember is his looking at me and going, “I don’t work well with other people.” Then I got paired up with Dane Cook, my comedy rival-nemesis. [Joe] Rogan had Fear Factor at the time. They wanted him to do it, but they were waiting to hear if NBC would allow it with his contract, to do both. At the time, before Rogan was confirmed, it was going to be me and either Dane Cook or Ralph Garman from whatever that morning show is. But then when Rogan got the clearance to do it, he said, “I want Stanhope.”
Kimmel: Both of those guys are very funny guys. But it was like someone bought a beloved car and painted it the color of the Dukes Of Hazzard General Lee. That’s what it felt like. It was weird to see the logo that I drew by hand on someone else’s show, and to hear a rock version of the theme song that we wrote together. It was like a hair-band version of the show we were doing.
Stanhope: Both Rogan and I hired a friend to the writers’ room: ultimate nepotism. I hired Andy Andrist. He hired some buddy that he’d get stoned with and wrestle. Neither of them could probably open a laptop, but we hired them because we liked hanging out with them. Andy and I ended up living in my office because I was splitting up with my wife. We kept trying to get a hammock from props in every production meeting, whatever the gag was. We just wanted it for the office. “You’re doing a thing at a nursing home. Why do you need a hammock?” We never got the hammock. We slept on a cot and a couch. We set up a laundry line with socks and shit hanging from it, telegraphing the fact that we lived in the office. This lawyer kept coming in: “You know you can’t live here!” “We don’t live here,” as we’re sitting on bedding. If we needed laundry done we’d just call wardrobe and get new clothes. If we needed food we’d send a P.A. We got a bullhorn from props, and then we’d just holler at people out the second-story window.
Carolla: The template was in place, the Juggy dancers were in place. That’s when the producers actually had to produce.
Stanhope: The show sucked, and as it went we knew it was going to suck and we couldn’t fix it. I think that show would have been a lot better if Rogan hadn’t been doing Fear Factor and was around the office more. He’s a lot more intimidating than I am. We could have gotten a lot more shit through. I did a screaming, literal on-the-floor tantrum, kicking my feet like a 4-year-old after we’d shot it and they front-loaded the weakest shit into the first episode. For all my fucking histrionics, they still aired that episode first.
Kimmel: People enjoyed the show on two different levels, in a way. Some people just liked to watch bouncing tits, and other people liked it for the comedy.
Stanhope: We did 22 episodes, I think. But it was getting such horrible reviews, they stopped it after 11 and called it a season, and had us come back and reshoot some of the stuff to try and “save” the last 11. They called it two seasons. But it was weird that for all the shit we couldn’t do on that show, it seemed that two years later, everything was allowed on cable all the sudden. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia was doing glory hole bits.
“He kept these opposite hours of whatever a normal human being would do.”
In the early ’00s, restructuring would eventually culminate in Viacom’s 2003 buyout of Time Warner’s 50 percent stake in Comedy Central. Former programming exec Lou Wallach recalls the mandate at the time: “We were going for singles and doubles. South Park was clearly a home run, but I don’t think you plan for a home run. You don’t just run down to the store, pick up a few, then take the rest of the day off. We had South Park and The Man Show honing what this audience was—now just go out there and get on base!”
Dave Attell, an HBO stand-up veteran and former writer for MTV’s Jon Stewart Show (plus one season of Saturday Night Live), had appeared on Comedy Central since its inception. From Comics Only and Dr. Katz to providing “Ugly American” commentary on The Daily Show, he was both revered and confounding. The quintessential comedians’ comedian clearly deserved wider recognition. But when it came to Attell, bigger was never necessarily better.
Herzog: Dave Attell was a big mainstay for that early era of Comedy Central. We used him a lot. We would use him at corporate events.
Alterman: Earlier we did a kind of short-form show with Dave that was a mix of some sketch, and also there was some animation to it. I remember a claymation piece.
Lou Wallach: Dave Attell was on everybody’s list, but Dave Attell was never going to be a traditional lead on a traditional network sitcom. I had just gotten to the network, and they were passing on another pilot he had done. Everyone loved Dave Attell, but nobody could crack the code.
Attell: They all liked me and thought I was funny, but it was like, “What kind of show can this guy do?”
Herzog: Eileen Katz and I took Dave out to lunch one day. It was the most awkward thing ever. We got to the restaurant, and they said, “Oh, the guy you’re meeting is here. He went outside to smoke a cigarette.” We find him in an alley. Then he comes in and he was just so—you don’t know if Dave has ever been to a restaurant. He was uncomfortable with the menu, the waiter, everything. We finally get through lunch, and we’re outside in Columbus Circle, New York. Eileen, in a cheery way trying to make conversation, says, “So what is the rest of the day going to be like for Dave?” He says, “Oh, I’ll probably go to Bed Bath & Beyond and then Show World…”
Wallach: I remember setting up a meeting with him and seeing what he wanted to do. He had these crazy ideas. To this day I don’t know if he was serious. “I’ve got this game show idea called Don’t Drop The Baby. Contestants have to take care of an animatronic baby that’ll shit on you and stuff, and you have to take care of it!” I was like, “I don’t know…”
Black: The show I thought was a real breakthrough for him and the network was Insomniac. He was terrific.
Quinn: I loved when Attell did Insomniac. It was just perfectly him.
Attell: I didn’t want to do what other people were doing. I’m not an actor. I’m not a host. I wanted to do more of an on-the-street, travel kind of show, the after-hours kind of thing. At the time there was this E! travel show where they would go to beaches on islands with bikini women and frosty drinks [Wild On!]. It was just this magical show, and I wanted to do the down-and-dirty version of that. The idea was basically “I want to do a show about what happens late nights.” I wanted to do late-night jobs, I wanted to do food, I wanted to do all these different things. They kind of understood it, but we really had to show it to them. We went out and shot one in New York.
Wallach: Dave liked to go out and stay out late, and he was usually the last guy to go up at the [Comedy] Cellar or wherever he was. We started talking about him going out in the middle of the night. He kept these opposite hours of whatever a normal human being would do. He would be the last guy to go up to do a set, and that’s when his night would begin through all these subcultures and countercultures. I was like, “Well why aren’t we doing that? Who the fuck is hanging out with Dave Attell in the middle of the night—and shouldn’t we be?” It was just a no-brainer. That was the first time for me at Comedy Central that the chemistry just came together on all fronts.
Quinn: The best part of that show, for me, was him singing that crazy, like, Bertolt Brecht song that he came up with at the beginning. You just can just imagine him dancing around, this little demonic…
Stanhope: Insomniac felt like hanging around with Attell and there just happened to be cameras. It never felt like a TV show. Just exactly what you’d be doing with Attell anyway.
Wallach: The whole thing is really just true and honest. It was Dave being Dave in real places that he was going to do stand-up in anyways. We were able to help him uncover other things he maybe wouldn’t have done on his own, but it was never faked. You would see him out on the street in between pieces, really having fun with an audience. Sometimes he would say things to insult them, but it was always in good fun. He was never mean—he was always poking fun at himself as well as sort of an even playing field. It just was completely real.
Attell: It’s not like I had to train for it or anything. I was already doing it. They let me and some great producers just go out there and kind of feel our way through it. It was unscripted and was a low-budget kind of thing, but I’m a low-budget act, so it fit perfectly. It wasn’t a huge success, but it was well-received. It was kind of a cult show in a way. The bar people knew about it and the comics knew about it. It was an underground show.
Black: It was a reality show, but really the direction was being controlled by the performer. He was really directing it, outside of editing, in a sense just by what he would do. Dave is just one of the funniest people I know, and it was quick, it was smart, it was crazy, and it was off-the-wall. It really made him one of the faces of the network.
Attell: I can’t thank them enough. I bought a house for my mom thanks to them, so tip of the hat.
“There was a real love there, a sort of fraternal love among these guys who would get on TV and call each other stupid.”
Comedy Central needed something to follow The Daily Show. It had to be easily reproduced for nightly consumption. Roundtable debates could help thematically tie to its sharply ascendant lead-in. A sociopolitical bent, unmistakable authenticity, and even a bit of controversy? Even better.
Colin Quinn was a peer and industry favorite, known for late-’80s game show Remote Control, anchoring Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” and long offering up-and-coming comics an open ear and honest advice. When The Colin Quinn Show proved a non-starter at NBC, Comedy Central saw the opportunity to highlight a formidable yet underutilized stable of NYC talent.
Wallach: The Daily Show was a tough act to follow. But if you talk to anybody about Tough Crowd, from the comedians’ perspective, the producers and the audience who did watch it—smaller than the Daily Show audience—it was fun. You felt like you were in this environment of organized chaos, which is what the beauty of the show was—and probably the downfall.
Attell: There was this generation gap of people who grew up watching Remote Control, and then the ones who never really saw it. Colin, who is not only one of the best comics and smartest guys in comedy, he really is a unique character. Tough Crowd was a great platform for comedy.
Quinn: Tough Crowd came about because I did another show on NBC for three episodes, and Lauren Corrao, who I knew from MTV, saw it and said, “This should be on Comedy Central.” I had a weekly show, but they wanted to make it a daily show. They needed a daily show.
Provenza: Tough Crowd was great. It was defined by confrontation.
Attell: Colin was the ringmaster, and the people they had on there—from Patrice [O’Neal] to [Greg] Giraldo, [Rich] Vos and all these great comics—were just basically railing and shitting on each other. And it was so much fun! It was as close to seeing comics just talk to each other as we’d ever seen at that point.
Provenza: They were Colin’s people: really sharp and funny and really substantive. You got to see people like Patrice O’Neal, who weren’t getting on other stuff.
Wallach: Colin is owed a huge debt of gratitude for introducing the world to a lot of people that we all knew in New York as stand-ups, but who were really great television personalities. Greg Giraldo, Patrice O’Neal, Jim Norton, Keith Robinson, Nick DiPaolo, Rich Vos—he had this semi-regular group. Then everyone from Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart stopping by. Denis Leary had a famous back-and-forth with Giraldo.
Black: If you had the right chemistry you had the kind of a show that was remarkable. When comics work well together, it’s magic. It was like being backstage in a comedy club.
Winstead: We would laugh, and Nick DiPaolo would call me a dyke, and then the show was over. Every time: “Liz, are you a dyke?” and I would be like, “Wow Nick, you are a one-trick pony.” That show was really fun and funny, and we did it out of love.
Wallach: The best part about watching that show for me was watching Colin stand back and watch the sort of mayhem that he tried to mimic from what comics do before and after their sets at places like the Cellar and other comedy clubs. It’s sort of a brotherhood, in that a stranger couldn’t sit down and do that. Like, “No one’s gonna insult this guy but me! We’re part of the same group.” And there was a real love there, a sort of fraternal love among these guys who would get on TV and call each other stupid.
Quinn: They all brought that same thing, which was trying to be as brutally honest as possible. We know everyone can be funny and clever, but it was kind of an honest show too, you know? The whole thing was, “Are you going to be saying exactly how you feel?” And a lot of it was very non-joke writing. You got the material later in the day, so you didn’t get to make every joke you wanted. You kind of had to play off the cuff more.
Wallach: It was sort of organized mayhem. It was formatted mayhem. I love the idea that Colin wanted to come in and do all these things because nobody else was doing them. He and I would have healthy disagreements about “If no one is doing that, there might be a good reason for it.” One episode in the second season, he wanted to take away all the chairs and stools. I was like, “Why?” “We’re stand-ups! We’re used to standing up anyway.” “But you’re on TV. This is not a stand-up club.” “Nah, trust me! It’ll be great!” The entire time the camera was not able to follow these guys, who couldn’t stay on a mark. You can’t have someone stay still for 20 minutes. People don’t do that in clubs. It was like, “Okay Colin, we tried it.”
Quinn: Obviously I’m biased, but I feel it was a show that was what people claim they want but they don’t really want, which is a show where every third remark is really uncalled-for and unnecessary. People said shit that offended me on the show, but that’s the way it goes. If you want people to say how they really feel, it’s going to be ugly sometimes. It was a very messy show. And I wanted it to be messy, because I wanted it to be spontaneous. Everybody always says they want non-slick, non-prepared, authentic things, but I don’t know that most people really do. So it was warts and all. And that may have led to its demise, too.
Attell: The show could have used maybe another season to figure itself out, but I never met a comic who didn’t love watching that. Or anyone working in the comedy world, or any comedy fan there is.
Wallach: You actually got to see all these people being themselves. I can see what that would mean something to a younger generation of people watching this, going, “I can do that!” or “What’s the worst that can happen if I say this, Colin shits on me? At least I got the attention, or at least I got the laugh.” It wasn’t the most original format, and it took a lot of work to produce something that looked totally un-produced, but it was ahead of its time.
“I’m getting a paid trip to Vegas and I get to make a prank call while I’m there, and get paid for it?”
“A prank call is improv with an unwitting third party. To me, if you make a funny prank call, you’re probably pretty funny.”—Jimmy Kimmel
Wallach: There was a development or pilot deal made with Jimmy, Adam, and Daniel Kellison after The Man Show. Crank Yankers was sort of the next-loudest show that came out of the network at the time. It really made an impact.
Carolla: Jimmy always loved prank calls. We just could never figure out how to illustrate or act out or what to do with the phone calls. That’s when the puppet idea came in.
Kimmel: I used to do them on the radio, and I wanted a way to do it on television. My original thought was to do claymation. It would be too expensive and too slow a process. Then we decided puppets would be the way to go. I wanted the puppets to be very wholesome, like Sesame Street.
Ganeless: We were always trying to figure out—almost to a fault—“How can we present comedy in different formats, and kind of reinvent?” Even in the early days, Paul Provenza’s Comics Only was stand-up comedy presented sitting down. Dr. Katz was comedy monologues presented as cartoon therapy. Crank Yankers was another unique way to present comedy: prank calls through puppets.
Wallach: [Kimmel] came in and was basically pitching the Jerky Boys. But as he started to talk about the look, he said, “I want people to see the contrast of these somewhat sweet, innocent-looking things and the undercurrent of what we’re going to do to torture these people over the phone.” So that’s what we did.
Kimmel: The writers would write a bunch of ideas for crank calls, and then I would pick the ideas that we liked. Then they would write jokes for them. Some people used the jokes, and some people didn’t really use the jokes.
Carolla: We would write the premise of what character is calling who, and then we’d come up with these coffee shops or transmission-repair places or whatever it was. When we started the calls, it was improvised. Depending on who the actor was you’d have some notes or preconceived ideas, but mostly you would free-form it because you just didn’t know what was on the other end of the line.
Wallach: We would record all the calls first and then back-produce into what the character would look like and what the environment would be.
Kimmel: There was no recording in the state of California. You have to record in only single-party consent states. So the vast majority of our phone calls were made in Las Vegas. In Nevada you can do almost anything. We would fly people to Las Vegas and then we just spend the whole day in this dingy studio making crank phone calls just off the Strip.
Wallach: What comedian wouldn’t want “I’m getting a paid trip to Vegas and I get to make a prank call while I’m there, and get paid for it?”
Carolla: Sarah Silverman was funny and evil at the same time. With Dave Chappelle and Dane Cook and people like that, they weren’t really famous yet. They were just comedians who wanted to do calls. Everybody, whether it was Seth MacFarlane or whoever, they just brought them. That’s what I liked about it. We found out what they wanted to do, and let them run with it.
Kimmel: Some people played themselves, and some people played characters. I played myself and a bunch characters. Colbert was Colbert, but Tracy Morgan was a character called Spoonie Luv. We had some really great people: Wanda Sykes, Fred Armisen, David Alan Grier, Seth MacFarlane, Patton Oswalt. Eminem was a big fan of the show and wanted to be a part of it. We went to Detroit and recorded phone calls with him in his studio.
The most exciting thing for me personally was Richard Pryor’s wife—Richard was alive at the time and apparently loved the show—she would call us and ask for more episodes before the show aired. So we would send him these rough cuts of the show to watch. He was one of my heroes, and the idea that he was sitting there watching anything I was involved with was pretty great.
Wallach: It was ridiculous. We got to see everybody’s inner child.
Kimmel: For me, the best way to make the calls was with no ideas. Just grab the Vegas version of the Pennysaver, called The Nifty Nickel, where people are selling things. When people are selling things, that’s when you really are able to set the hook, because they desperately want to sell whatever it is they are trying to sell. They will stay on the phone with you even if you appear to be crazy.
“We weren’t just a channel anymore—we were a brand.”
Jack Vaughn Jr. spent most of his childhood indoors. His father, Jack H. Vaughn Sr., was second head of the Peace Corps, and the family often lived in overseas locations where it was safer to pirate cable than go outside. Riveted by Ha! and Comedy Channel talent early on, Vaughn (now head of comedy programming at SiriusXM) memorized entire sets by Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, and Steven Wright. Vaughn founded the Third World Underground music label in high school and the Slimstyle ska/rockabilly/neo-swing label following college.
After seeing Mitch Hedberg’s early stand-up on Comedy Central, Vaughn purchased the comic’s self-released album Strategic Grill Locations. “That was the most amazing comedy record I had heard in a long time,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t believe there was that good a record not in wide circulation.”
Jack Vaughn (founder of Comedy Central Records): I approached Comedy Central in the first half of 2001 about starting a record label. There were very few people releasing comedy records at the time. Major labels would put one out every so often—but only of the biggest superstars—and those tended to under-perform in comparison to similarly sized rock acts. Rykodisc had just started re-releasing the Bill Hicks catalog, and those records slowly and steadily were starting to find an audience. But there was no real track record for albums by mid-range and developing comics, so no one knew what to do with them or wanted to touch them. The notion was to artistically treat these like indie-rock records with cool, well-designed covers, and spend enough on the recording so that they sounded great. It was always weird to me that a comic would spend a decade or more writing an amazing hour, just to release it poorly.
Attell: Jack Vaughn is an angel. Not only is that guy incredibly cool, humble, and knowledgeable, but is also a comedy fan and totally gets it.
Black: He knew how to help you get it put together in terms of all the nuts and bolts.
Vaughn: Comedy Central was apprehensive and not convinced what form the label should take, and if it should exist at all. They were considering licensing the Comedy Central name to a major and letting them run with it, but thankfully—mostly for me—they ultimately decided that taking a shot at funding and running the label internally was the way to go.
Kimmel: Even at that time it felt like making comedy records was a thing of the past.
Vaughn: The first release by Comedy Central Records was an album of the best calls from season one of Crank Yankers. It was a moderate hit that beat expectations—it would ultimately go on to sell around 100,000 copies—and was a strong foundation for the label.
Kimmel: I remember being excited that there was a CD being made. I blazed a trail—of which I know nothing.
Vaughn: Dave Attell was recorded at the Denver Comedy Works. I would go on to record at least a couple of dozen more albums there over the years. We recorded it on Halloween night, 2002, and arriving in Denver, I remember driving to the club in something called “freezing fog.” The club was pandemonium. Most of the audience had been drinking since noon, and half had come in costume. Two particularly drunk and unruly women were escorted out in handcuffs by the police by the end of the night. Skanks For The Memories would go on to be one of the best-reviewed and best-selling records on the label.
Wallach: Jack and folks from other areas would come in and start to tie up talent in bigger deals, to create opportunities that were both revenue-drivers for the channel as well as making sure we could get into and stay in business with talent. We weren’t just a channel anymore—we were a brand.
Vaughn: Lewis Black and Bobcat Goldthwait came next and did well, and I worked with our design team to repackage and add a DVD of stand-up material Comedy Central owned to a self-released CD from an up-and-coming comic named Dane Cook. The first week, we sold 3,000 units. Almost every one of the Harmful If Swallowed CDs we shipped across the country (and this was before digital sales) sold out in the first week. By the time his second album, Retaliation, came out, he had quietly sold a quarter-million copies of Harmful. Retaliation sold 86,000 copies the first week of release and came out at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200. Everyone was asking, “Who is this guy?” He had seemingly come from nowhere, no one over 25 knew who he was, but everyone on high school and college campuses had a copy of the record. Both of those first two records would go on to sell more than 1.3 million copies each.
Ganeless: We launched Comedy Central Records, we launched a touring business, we ran a home-entertainment business. The idea was that we could reach out and touch the fans in so many different ways. If we’re producing a one-hour special with someone, we can also produce a record. It was a good business decision, but it was also a talent-friendly decision for us, so that talent could come here to produce comedy in whatever format was best for that point of view.
Vaughn: I was able to re-release Strategic Grill Locations and record Mitch’s new album, which would become Mitch All Together. This was 2004, and Mitch wasn’t even a cult figure at that point. Strategic Grill Locations was the iconic Mitch that most people now remember—slow and drawly—and I hadn’t seen his new material, so when we recorded Mitch All Together at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis, it was quite a shock. His delivery was rapid-fire and staccato. The material was fantastic, classic Mitch, but he was a lot skinnier and so much faster. It was really difficult to pull over 40 minutes from four performances. Like Dane, we added a DVD of his Comedy Central performances to the album that would be Mitch All Together, but this time there was an interesting problem. With Dane, we released both the cut-down version of his Comedy Central Presents that aired on TV and the uncut hour-long version, where he went long because he was doing so well. We wanted to do the same thing with Mitch, but the problem was that the longer, uncut version of his half-hour was a disaster. The audience clearly didn’t get him, and there were even reaction shots of people looking at each other as if to ask, “What the hell is this?”
The final aired version is strong and tight with the audience sweetened, so the question was, “Do we pull back the curtain to show a despondent Mitch dealing with an unappreciative crowd?” It was a very long conversation, and in the end everyone was in agreement that including the uncut version was the right thing to do, because Mitch was such a good comic that it was the audience’s problem if they couldn’t see his genius. We put the re-released Strategic Grill Locations and new Mitch All Together albums on sale at the same time. They went on to become the iconic, top-selling records that would solidify the label’s position and Mitch’s career.
Herzog: It’s not like we were Sony or Warner Bros. But there began to be a market developed through CDs—and now streaming—for comedy recordings, and it was a great place for us to be and to extend our relationship both with our audience and the artists.
Vaughn: Over the next 10 years, the label would release another 150-plus titles with what would become the major names in the business, from Daniel Tosh to Amy Schumer to Kevin Hart to Jim Gaffigan to John Mulaney to Aziz Ansari. Almost none of the comedians were household names when they signed to the label. People love listening to stand-up comedy, and its impact on building and establishing comedians’ careers can’t be overstated. I hope the legacy of the label is that it introduced people to their favorite comics, helped the careers of some amazing talent, and maybe helped make a long road trip a little more tolerable.
Ganeless: The idea that the lifespan of a comic—from when they do their first five minutes on a show like Live At Gotham or now Adam Devine’s House Party, up through doing their own Half Hour to their own hour to developing their own series—people like Daniel Tosh and Amy Schumer came through that “farm team.” Along the way, making a record is a big moment for a comedian. So it was really important to have as part of our portfolio.
Herzog: We have never been a business of hiring big stars, or certainly rarely. Guys like Dave Attell and Jon Stewart had a following before they got here, but their Comedy Central shows certainly took them to the next level. The list goes on and on. Our job is to find, identify, and nurture the talent, and find the right avenues. So whether it’s 15 minutes or a Half Hour that then gets them to an hour or a shot at the Roast or whatever it is, we’re in the business of finding new talent and ultimately making stars.
Wallach: I never felt, coming into Comedy Central or in the years after MTV bought us outright, that you were part of a corporation. You were there to have fun and do your job, and they were chicken and egg. The people at the network informed the programming, and the programming informed the people at the network. I felt very lucky and privileged to be part of this period where there was tremendous growth—not just ratings-wise, but in terms of awareness of the network. Instead of having to chase talent down, they were starting to come to us.
Bell: It drove the industry in a lot of ways, and I think it still does. You work on a lot of things in your career, and not a lot of it makes it to 25 years.
Stone: They’ve always been about finding young comedy people and giving them their own show. They’re really good at supporting them.
Hodgson: Back then, everyone still felt that cable didn’t matter. The three networks were where all the really great shows were getting done. In that climate, Mystery Science Theater would have completely fallen through the cracks. I just feel super lucky that Comedy Central was there when it was, because the timing was absolutely perfect for us.
Kimmel: I feel like Comedy Central is where I went to college. I never had much of a college experience, so whenever I see those people that I worked with—some of them are still working with me on [Jimmy Kimmel Live]—it’s always a lot of fun. I made a lot of lasting friendships there.
Black: It was huge in my career, that’s for sure. The thing I learned from Comedy Central is that TV works.
Attell: The people who actually get to call the shots are also comedy fans. There are so many different comedy audiences, and you can’t really put out a wide enough net to get all of them, so I think the heart of that network really is about taking a strong comedy voice and giving them a platform to do a show that connects with a bigger audience. That’s what they do. And they’ve done that over and over and over.
Next time: The second part of our look at Comedy Central’s 25-year history explores Chappelle’s Show, Reno 911, Key & Peele, and more.