Previously in our Comedy Central oral history: Dave Chappelle broke out, then broke away, the Reno Sheriff’s Department doled out justice while “Stephen Colbert” preached truthiness, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele had some anger to translate. And in part one: The first 12 years of the network, from the Comedy Channel and Ha! to The Daily Show, South Park, and Comedy Central Records.
“When I got there in 2000, it was pretty much just a website where you could buy a Comedy Central mug or a South Park chess set,” says former Original Programming and Development SVP Lou Wallach of Comedy Central’s online presence. “It was sort of post-Broadband 1.0 bubble-bursting. People were definitely passing around videos you could watch online, but we hadn’t really got into doing production or development on a bigger scale.”
In the vein of VH1’s VSPOT and MTV’s Overdrive, on November 1, 2005 Comedy Central launched MotherLoad, a five-channel embedded broadband player featuring short television clips and extension content like outtakes and behind-the-scenes interviews. The Daily Show, Strangers With Candy, and Viva Variety! were early highlights. Greg Giraldo provided minute-long daily updates on new offerings.
Driving incremental ad revenue while testing the creative waters with an incoming comedy “farm team,” the network also foresaw its online platform as an original-content destination. Breakthrough spoof I Love The ’30s introduced John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, while Jim Florentine’s hidden-camera series Meet The Creeps led to a Comedy Central pilot. The stand-up showcase Live At Gotham successfully made the leap to TV as a six-episode series the following year.
A second development wave welcomed a foodstuffs soap opera dubbed Guacamole and the blaxploitation homage Judge Fudge, the latter from Drawn Together creators Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser. A series of truth-telling vignettes called Honesty and the talking testicles of The Adventures Of Baxter And McGuire were among the first web programs to be considered for a Daytime Emmy Award.
“It was around the same time when places like AOL and Yahoo! and everybody else were trying to get into the business of distributing other people’s content,” says Wallach. “We were trying to develop a mini-cable network off the back of a real cable network on a platform that still felt like the Wild West. And that was very exciting.”
Property names and production strategies would see different incarnations over the next decade. In summer 2006 MTV Networks bought Atom Entertainment, whose AtomFilms library and personnel would merge with Comedy Central to become Atom.com, Comedy Central’s de facto online platform. AtomFilms titles included Jon Glaser’s Tiny Hands and the Augenblick Studios-animated Golden Age, which Wallach describes as “a parody homage to an E! True Hollywood Story.”
Web production tended to remain in New York, where ad sales and marketing coordinators were based. “We had our own little dedicated team and budget and business affairs, and we were trying to develop stuff that worked online, but ad sales played a large role in an endeavor initially thought to plug televised content,” Wallach explains. “Hyundai sprang for a series of stand-up lessons curiously titled Crash Course In Comedy and Subway sponsored a Test Pilots talent search offering an online-development deal, but for the most part the big bucks remained on screen.”
Comedy Central hesitated to use television programming to advertise for or financially support the company’s online endeavors. “Can’t we use the TV to drive some traffic back to the website?” Wallach recalls asking. “The answer we got back—which I get—was no. We were still a television business: ‘Whatever time we have that we can’t sell to advertisers on the channel, we want to use to promote the shows on-air. You guys are there to help plug us or be a value-add for the clients.’”
The compromise: In early 2007, Web Shows came to Comedy Central as an AtomFilms best-of. Half-hour showcase Atom TV subsequently ran late nights from summer 2008 to autumn 2010, during which the sketchbook cartoons of Waverly Films’ Stickman Exodus led to the puppets-as-police pilot The Fuzz with Brett Gelman and Jon Daly. (Today, Waverly Films will produce Jon Watts 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.) Atom.com was folded into Comedy Central in 2012; in-house production hub CC Studios launched in early 2013.
“Nobody ever saw any of these things,” Wallach says of Comedy Central’s early experiments in what’s now referred to as “digital” content. “But it was just a ton of fun to play around behind or in front of the camera with people we thought were funny.”
Comedy Central’s digital output increasingly comprised larger facets of multiplatform programming, but it wasn’t just functionality that grew more inclusive. Between February 2013 and January 2014, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (whose series for Atom.com, Stephen & Steven, followed twins attached at the penis) joined Jon Benjamin Has A Van player Nathan Fielder to co-exec produce Nathan For You, an unapologetic stand-up parlayed Comedy Central Roast notoriety into sketch ascendancy, a nightly game show broke the internet, and a pair of UCB hopefuls became the faces of a new comedy generation.
2013: Inside Amy Schumer
“I think Amy changed the entire landscape of Comedy Central.”
Bridget Everett (recurring Inside Amy Schumer performer): Amy and I met at Just For Laughs in 2010. I think we were both on the Nasty Girls show. We both have similar senses of humor, so it was a natural meeting of the minds. Later, I was still waiting tables, and Amy texted me, “Hey, do you want to come with me to Atlanta and open for me at the Punchline?” I’d never done comedy clubs before, so I wasn’t sure. She said, “Just come with me. It’ll be great!” That’s Amy’s mantra: “Let’s just do it!” She’s a lot more “up and at ’em” than I am. Those shows went really well and I started doing some touring with her.
Kent Alterman (president of Comedy Central): When I came back to the network six and a half years ago, one of my first orders of business was to dive back into the stand-up world, which I had somewhat lost touch with during my years in the feature world. People in development were plugging me into who was there and relevant, and there were just a lot of fans of Amy’s. She had already been on Live At Gotham and done a half-hour. She had also done some work for our ad-sales and affiliate-relations people that someone had told me was really funny. It was people-on-the-street interviews, and I because I worked with Michael Moore for two years as a writer/director/producer doing those kind of documentary pieces, I know how hard it is for people to make that stuff really funny, and she was so good at it. So she was immediately on my radar.
Jonas Larsen (senior VP of Talent And Specials): Our stand-up offerings are very deliberate in the way we’ve set it up. Stand-up is really the lifeblood of Comedy Central. It’s the talent we develop from and for. From the very beginning, we start identifying the voices that we really like and think we can develop. It’s really a development pipeline of talent. So our slate of stand-up programming is kind of divided into three categories: It’s the up-and-comers, the young unknown comics. Then it’s the graduation at The Half Hours, where they’re official sort of “real” up-and-comers. And then it’s the hour specials that is the “I’ve arrived.” That’s kind of the pipeline process, to put it in an industrial term.
Alterman: We started having conversations that became simultaneous conversations, and we signed a multifaceted development deal with her that included an hour special that we shot that next year in San Francisco. And it also had a development deal for a series. I’m not sure if it included a Roast spot, but we had that in our heads. When the [Charlie] Sheen Roast came around and we pitched her to the Sheen camp, they were resistant. And that was one where we really put it on the line and just went to the mat, and said, “We just know she’s gonna kill. We have to put her on the Roast!” Charlie and his manager agreed, and that was also around the time Charlie was about to go out with his pitch for the Anger Management show. As resistant as they were, at the party, I think, they approached her about being a part of the Anger Management show, but she was already committed with us. It was sometime after that we developed the pilot.
Dan Powell (executive producer, Inside Amy Schumer): She had a blind pilot commitment in place, which the network offered after her performance on the Roasts. The Charlie Sheen Roast in particular got so much attention, the network said, “Look, we want to do something with you. We don’t know what it is, but go find a producer, figure out what the show is, and bring it back to us.” She approached me around November in 2011. I had some free time, and I’m just lucky that’s when Amy approached me. Amy didn’t necessarily know what the show was out of the gate. The network had hinted that they were looking for something in the talk-show space potentially for late night, like a Chelsea Lately-type thing. So that’s what we started developing. There was always going to be some sort of sketch element to the show, but it was more something that had a studio home base where Amy interviewed people.
Kim Caramele (writer, producer, Schumer’s sister): Initially, Amy had planned on her pilot having a talk-show format. She met Jessi [Klein] for drinks and to talk about the show. After a few drinks, Jessi told Amy this was her opportunity to do something really special and to make the kind of show that she dreamed about.
Powell: Amy texted me about 48 hours before our pitch meeting and said, “Scrap the treatment we’ve been working on. I want to do my Louie.” I called her, because sometimes with Amy you don’t know if she’s fucking with you or if she’s serious. She picked up the phone and goes, “I’m serious. I’m not joking. I don’t want to waste this opportunity on something I’m not really excited about, so we’re going to reconfigure what the show is.” Amy had met Jessi Klein—who used to be my boss at Comedy Central and then was a fellow development executive with me in that department—for a drink. Jessi had a couple glasses of wine and basically told Amy, “Look, I want to impress upon you how rare this situation is that you get a blind pilot commitment to shoot whatever you want. Most people come in with an idea that they pitch, then it goes through a script process, then maybe you get to shoot it. You may not get this opportunity at Comedy Central again if it doesn’t work out, at least not in the near future. So really make sure that you’re making the most of it.” I think that sort of jump-started things creatively for Amy, and she realized, “You know what? Let’s go all in on this thing.”
Caramele: Jessi is my hero and beyond my spirit—what’s more than an animal?—my spirit farm? Jessi is absolutely the person you want in the room with you, whether it’s during the writing period, while were shooting, or just to hang the fuck out with.
Powell: The next day Amy and I got together again, scrapped the first treatment, and rewrote it from scratch. We knew that interstitially we would want some stand-up and some man-on-the-street, because she is so good off-the-cuff with people. And then really building in these sketches, which at the time we called “vignettes” because we wanted to separate ourselves from Key & Peele and Kroll Show. Amy was always going to play “Amy,” a version of her stage persona. She wasn’t going to play big, broad characters where she puts on a wig and a lot of makeup and has a different name. And the sketches would be more cinematic, like little short films instead of sketches. We whipped the treatment together, and a day later we were pitching to Comedy Central. They said, “Look, we already have a lot of sketch in the pipeline, so you might be making it more difficult for yourself. But if this is really what you want to do, go do it—as long as you stay on budget.”
Caramele: In addition to stand-up, Amy is such a strong actress, so having a show that incorporated stand-up, sketch, and man-on-the-street just seemed like a better way to play to all of Amy’s strengths. Amy still talks about that moment with Jessi, and is so grateful that she was encouraged to think bigger in that moment.
Powell: After Jessi had that meeting with Amy, and because Jessi and I were so close, it only became natural that Jessi join the production, so she was actually our first hire, as head writer. So she was very involved from nearly the beginning, and frankly the format of the show owes a great debt to that initial conversation she had with Amy about the show.
Kurt Metzger (staff writer, Inside Amy Schumer): I’ve been friends with Amy for a while, so she called me when she was starting to work on the pilot. It was me, Jessi Klein, Amy, her friend Brandon Snider and Dan, we wrote the pilot. Dan did a lot with comics, so he was already connected with Amy. And she just wanted to hire me from knowing me.
Powell: From beginning to end, the process of starting to staff up through wrapping the pilot, took less than four weeks. And about April of 2012 or shortly thereafter Inside Amy Schumer was picked up. Originally the pilot was called Come Inside With Amy Schumer, a much longer, much more graphic sexual euphemism. When it was picked up to series, we simplified it.
Chris Hardwick: Inside Amy Schumer is brilliant. I think Schumer has done some of the best, most insightful sketches in the history of stand-up comedy.
Colin Quinn: Amy’s is obviously an amazing show. It’s unbelievable. They’re all funny sketches, but I would say one out of every two sketches is masterful.
Jillian Bell (Idiotsitter, Workaholics): I love Amy Schumer. I just think she’s so talented, and I love what she’s doing for all comedians. I was going to say “women,” but I want to say “all comedians.”
Lisa Lampanelli: I can’t even believe that women comics now are represented so well. Amy is just as smart as the guys, just as sexy as anybody. She just is a genius.
Natasha Leggero: I love her show. I’m always in awe of her and where she’s able to go comedically. She’s always on the cusp of what people are talking about.
Michele Ganeless (former Comedy Central president): Her show is incredibly unique in its point of view for a sketch show. With head writer Jessi Klein, I think the writing has been incredibly strong.
Caramele: As our head writer, [Klein] not only brings the funniest shit to the table, but she helps everyone make their own pitches and scenes better. I know that I have learned so much from working with her and watching her work. She has totally elevated my writing as well as how I approach being on a set. As a performer, she is so hysterical every time she is on the screen. This last season, she wasn’t able to be in any of the sketches, which was a real bummer because she is so fun to watch. I guess what I’m saying is, “Jessi Klein, will you accept this rose?”
Christine Nangle (staff writer, Inside Amy Schumer): Right around the time season two of Kroll Show was wrapping up—I wrote for Kroll Show for seasons two and three)—Jessi Klein, who I wrote with at SNL, hit me up to apply to write for season two of Inside Amy Schumer. I wrote for seasons two, three, and four.
Rachel Feinstein (recurring performer, Inside Amy Schumer): Kyle Dunnigan is really funny; he writes for and is on the show a lot, and Kurt Metzger, and Christine Nangle. So she has great writers, and they have been not afraid to do the most outrageous things on the show. I think everybody knows that, and goes to it for that.
Mike Lawrence (staff writer, Inside Amy Schumer): That writers’ room is one of the best experiences of my professional life. You always feel respected in there in a way you necessarily don’t in other places. And you know that you’re going to make good stuff. You work on some shows, and you have no idea what the quality control is. That show has such a high quality control and high pedigree.
Nangle: I worked on a show where I was literally told they “don’t like when girls write stuff like that,” among other things. So to be in a room where I could feel comfortable pitching what I wanted and not feeling like a freak was unreal. It gave me a sense of gratitude to the women writers before me who had to go through a whole lot of bullshit to just get to the table, just to get to the point where this show could happen.
Metzger: It’s a pretty even split of male and female viewers. I wanted to make it not, like, a “chick show.” But we always hung out at the Comedy Cellar, and the way she writes comedy is similar to how I do. Amy’s also a killer actress. I really picked a lot of stuff up from watching her. She was an actress first before she did stand-up, so she did both of those things. She is really talented; she just moves and speaks and reacts very naturally.
Powell: She was actually a trained actor before she was a stand-up comic. People think of her as a stand-up who is now acting, but it was actually kind of the reverse. Amy’s a founding member of The Collective, which is a theater organization in New York City, which also includes Kevin Kane, who is a supervising producer on Inside Amy Schumer. You see lot of the actors from The Collective on the show. Amy’s an extremely loyal friend. It just so happens that her friends are also very talented themselves, and now Amy’s in a position where, because of her success, she can help her very talented friends be able to take their next steps toward a broader audience and more mainstream success, the opportunity she got a few years ago.
Everett: When she got her show, she asked me to be a part of the stand-up portion. She said, “I’m going to have you close the season. I really want people to see what you’re doing.” If it was my show, would I have somebody else close the season? Probably not. But that shows how generous she is. She wants others to do well and share her success with those around her.
Feinstein: Amy and I met through stand-up and doing bringer shows and all that kind of stuff when we first started stand-up. We were hanging out, and we did some specials together [2010’s Comedy Central Presents episodes and 2013’s Women Who Kill], and now we live together. We’re roommates! And she produced my hour special Only Whores Wear Purple, and she’s producing my pilot for me.
Lampanelli:. I ran into her at a benefit last November, and she said something to me like, “Lisa, if you hadn’t turned down the Charlie Sheen Roast, I wouldn’t have got on it. And thank God! So I’m very appreciative to you.” So she helped me by putting me on her show the first season—what an honor!. How great is that? I just think anyone who remembers anyone they like is fine with me.
Everett: She says she loves funny people and wants to be surrounded by them. And she wants people to have a chance to see people that they may not have seen. I certainly hadn’t had that opportunity to sing one of my songs on a national platform like that, and it’s really changed my life. A lot of the things I’ve done are because people have seen me on Inside Amy Schumer. People I’ve met that have offered me jobs or even just wanted to have lunch with me, a great deal of those people saw me on her show.
Feinstein: She really brings a lot of New York comics into her show, which I think says a lot about her. It’s always great working with your friends. We did what was easily my favorite sketch together, called “’80s Ladies.” Nikki Glaser was in that sketch too. You could hear us all coming down the hall with our gallons of hairspray rustling and awful heels clacking. But that was the whole idea of the ’80s: There could never be enough. Bigger hair, bigger shoulder pads, bigger everything. My jacket was insane.
Leggero: I just remember [“The Gab”] being really fun and Amy being really cool, and doing tons of improv. They edit it together to be something short, but the way she would just veer off script, that was really cool to watch. You have your lines memorized, there were four people in the scene, and you’re trying to do a really good job, but then you also know Amy really created this environment to have fun and totally feel free to go off script. We improvised so much stuff that day, and it was already a funny scene.
Everett: The first one I did, the “Sex Tips”/Cosmo spoof thing, I wasn’t even supposed to be in it. We were going to shoot this tennis thing, but there was a snowstorm and we ended up doing it the next season. So they plugged me into that Sex Tips thing. Neal Brennan was directing it. There was a script, but they let you improv a lot. You’d do a take or two as scripted, then they’d be like, “All right, just play around a little bit.” People on the street still come up to me about that sketch.
Nangle: There’s one where Amy adopts a bunch of pets and she’s trying to get rid of them. It’s really silly, but she’s so committed, and that’s why I love it. I also love the cellphone commercial from this last season. Neil Casey wrote it, and it’s such an efficient and hilarious take down of TV advertising right now. Quite selfishly I’m partial to “You Can’t Go In There” because it’s a sketch I had written years before at UCB. Amy took it and rolled with it, and I can’t believe it ever got to see the light of day again.
Powell: I think my all-time favorite sketch is the “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” music video. The commentary’s great, it’s really funny, but it’s a really catchy song! If that was a real boy-band song and was played less for laughs, I sincerely think that song could have been a radio hit. There are a lot of comments on our YouTube video that are basically to that extent. I’m just in shock that in addition to this being really funny and well made, this is a very good song. Kurt Metzger pitched that idea, and wrote the initial draft. But then it came into the writers’ room, and everyone jumped in and contributed to the lyrics. Then we had to go about making a song that sounded like a real boy-band song. Our writer-producer Kyle Dunnigan—who has a music background—brought in a producer to help him with it. Kyle composed a song that was really fun to listen to, and then produced it out into a track that sounded really professional.
Metzger: I loved the Secret Agent sketch [“Operation Enduring Mouth”]. That was one I wrote, and think it came out really funny because Jessi Klein came up with the idea that her name was “Butterface,” which I think just made the sketch. “Down To Earth” is one I wrote that I’m really happy with, where Amy’s trying to show she’s still down to earth even though she’s famous—from a mega-zeppelin 40 thousand miles above the earth that doesn’t ever land for tax reasons.
Lawrence: My favorite sketch is where they talk about how they haven’t gotten laid, and I got the line in, “My pussy’s so dry, it’s like a Frasier marathon down there.” I’m very proud of that. In the gun sketch, I had a joke at the bottom of the screen in a crawler: “Every gun purchased for a child comes with a free Minions tote bag.” And the sketch that I wrote from concept to pitch to completion had Julianne Moore and Jennifer Hudson in it. That’s pretty cool, too.
Alterman: In the past the word “pussy” and the word “dick” were both okay to use as an adjective, but not as a noun. At some point they started allowing in stand-up for people to refer to their dick as long as it wasn’t sexual, but they could refer to it anatomically. And so the Amy Schumer folks said, “Well if that’s the case, why wouldn’t we be able to refer to ‘pussy’ in the same way?” Standards And Practices said, “Yes, that sounds reasonable.”
Caramele: It was important to all of us. Somewhere there is a very well-articulated, beautifully worded letter making the appeal to Comedy Central Standards And Practices (I think?) to allow the word “pussy” to be aired un-bleeped during our show. Dan wrote the letter and it pointed out that the word “dick” was allowed to air un-bleeped in certain contexts, and we made the case that those same rules should apply to the word “pussy.” ’Cause fair’s fair.
Larsen: We always have an ongoing dialogue with our Standards And Practices people to move our language forward. We always want to be on the front lines. Language is literally the lifeblood and expression of comedy, and by censoring certain words, you essentially stunt comedy. That’s always been our philosophy. We look at the landscape, what other people are doing, but we always want to lead the charge. The fact that you could say “dick” but you couldn’t say “pussy” felt like a real miss. If you can say one, you should be able to say the other. I think it’s common sense.
Nangle: The topics we choose to write about can get pretty serious, so trying to stay light and funny and earn the darker parts can be work.
Leggero: It’s cool as a comedian to get to watch people run their show like that, because it inspires you, and it’s instructive for when you have your own show: Just trying to create that sense of fun on set, and it’s encouraged for people to play around.
Lawrence: I knew that I was getting the job when the Emmys happened. And I didn’t know whether I wanted them to win or lose, because I thought, “If they win, then I’m writing on an Emmy-winning show—which is amazing—but God, it’s a lot of pressure.” But going in with them having won the Emmy, the confidence was there. You know you’re working with the best possible people. I always felt like the least-funny person in that room, and that helped.
Caramele: Being nominated for an Emmy felt cooler than I am proud to admit. Before getting nominated, I would have said things like, “Oh, we don’t do this for the praise and external validation of others. We do this because it’s important to express ourselves through blah blah blah.” But then the second we were nominated, I was bouncing around, jumping up and down on the bed with Amy, crossing my fingers that someone would hand me a statue of quantifiable, physical validation. I fucking love my Emmy. It’s so pretty. I bring it to meetings with me like it’s the Stanley Cup. People get very grossed out, but I don’t care. And I want more. Oh, sorry—also it’s nice to have nominations because it recognizes the incredible collaboration and team work of our writers—give me another trophy! Sorry.
Nangle: My reaction in general to any of our accolades has been a mix of “How are we getting away with this?” and “Yeah, duh.” The Peabody experience was surreal: All of us doofus writers sitting at this fancy event being honored next to, like, journalists who’ve literally put their lives on the line for their work. Then Tina Fey presented our award, which I wasn’t expecting, and she started talking about a sketch I had written, and I got very emotional. I had feelings of “I’m so proud of us,” then “There’s been a mistake,” then “I will never have another good idea in my whole stupid life.”
Alterman: With the sketch shows, there is always built-in shelf life even in success. They are enormously labor-intensive. So it’s a question of “How much inspiration and fortitude does someone have to keep generating?” The people that break through are the people who have high standards for themselves, and when you’re the creator of your own sketch show, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. There’s a reason why a sketch show like SNL brings in new writers or a new talent. I think it’s kind of a natural course of the evolution that people go into other places as opportunities arise to find new avenues of expression.
Metzger: The next one’s the last season, and the goal is just to make it as funny as possible. I’m pretty lucky with all the stuff I’ve gotten to write. When I see what happens with her being that well known, it’s not something I want. I kind of just want the money. She’ll be in line at, like, a Starbucks and people will pull her headphones out of her ear to talk to her. It’s kind of crazy.
Powell: I lucked out that I met and connected with someone who is really, truly one of the most staggering comedic talents of this era.
Feinstein: I think Amy changed the entire landscape of Comedy Central. It was more of a boys’ network, and now it’s absolutely the opposite, so it’s exciting. And Nikki Glaser as well—her show Not Safe is hysterical. It’s cool that they’re opening up more and more, and the female-driven shows are doing really well, which is great and also not surprising. I think people are hungry for that.
2013: @midnight With Chris Hardwick
“Night after night, thousands of people are able to be as funny as some of the best comedians in the country, at least in the context of a silly hashtag game.”
Are there standard requirements for being a comedian?
Is the point of entry earning a first paycheck? Having a TV credit? The acceptance of peers?
Or does live-tweeting from your parents’ Midwest basement alongside thousands of international comedians make you one of them? What if doing so earned comparable numbers of followers and even the chance to appear on the very show you’re tagging?
Co-creator and executive producer Alex Blagg posits that @midnight With Chris Hardwick is all about chemistry: knowing what works across different social media, creating a well-crafted joke in the moment, reacting to the compounded reactions of others.
“Every night it’s different, based on the personalities coming in the building,” the former Workaholics writer says. “The energy and vibe that’s created is always going to be the alchemy of those three people and Chris. We get improvisers, comedic actors, straight stand-ups, comedic YouTube musicians, and all these people with different comedic approaches and energies in a room together. Sometimes it creates this insane harmony that you never would have thought of before.”
And for those playing along at home, online traffic and on-screen shoutouts can form the bedrock of a writing or performing career. A daily hit from the get-go, @midnight is the rare game show that levels the playing field and entertains while it informs, all while elevating cat memes to the pedestal of fine art.
Alex Blagg: I’m one-third of a production company called Serious Business that I’ve run with Jon Zimelis and Jason Nadler for about five years now. I was coming out of stand-up, doing internet comedy, making videos and trying to get into writing, and they were both coming out of the agency world. We joined forces to try to get some shows of our own going, and our first slated project was the initial idea for @midnight.
Hardwick: In December 2011 I met with Comedy Central and they said, “What kind of show would you want to do?” I had just come off of Attack Of the Show on G4, and I said, “I would love to do a show like that. It was sort of an ‘information first, comedy second’ show. What if we did a show that was comedy first and information second? Same kind of setup as Attack, but more social-media involvement. Segments would pull more off social media and interact with people.” I did a pilot [Hardwired] with John Hodgman, Grace Helbig, Steve Agee, and Wil Wheaton. It covered similar topics we ended up doing on @midnight, but more in an Attack Of The Show format. And to be honest, it just didn’t test very well. People weren’t that into it.
Blagg: I kept this little notebook of ideas all the time. I wrote down “Comedians competing against each other in hashtag games.” I was always an early-adopter social-media nerd, just very internet-y from the beginning. I remember even going back as far as 2008, 2009, I would see these hashtag games start to organically pop up on Twitter. Patton Oswalt would start doing it, and all the comedy people that I followed would tweet out jokes, and as a comedian and somebody who likes to try to be funny on Twitter, I would get so excited and just tweet out 20 jokes like a monkey pressing a button over and over. It tapped into something really fun and addictive for me. When my partners and I started up, we set about expanding on that and kind of cracking a format for what would be a game show of comedians competing at jokes using Twitter.
Doug Herzog (Viacom Music and Entertainment Group president): @midnight was built partly on an idea that came to us from Tom Lennon and Ben Garant, about using the content of the digital world as fodder for jokes every day.
Blagg: We set up a meeting and pitched it to Funny Or Die. They liked it and wanted to get involved, and wisely decided that it might be helpful—since my partners and I had at this point done nothing in our careers—to set us up with Tom Lennon and Ben Garant. I was watching The State as a kid, quoting it, and really hung with them all through Viva Variety and Reno 911!. I’ve just been such a massive fan of those guys. When we first had a call with them, we were so nervous just to tell them about the idea. But they were like, “Yeah, it sounds fun. Let’s do it.” And we were just like, “Holy shit! Tom Lennon wants to make a show with us!” From that point we went in with Tom and Ben, pitched it to Comedy Central—they obviously have a longstanding relationship at the network—and Kent and Jim [Sharp] said something like, “Seems like we’d be crazy to not see what this is.”
Hardwick: Comedy Central had shot a pilot for another show called Tweeterdome, created by a company called Serious Business and co-produced by Funny Or Die, and Tom Lennon and Ben Garant.
Jesse Joyce (staff writer, @midnight): Tom hosted the pilot. It used to be called Tweeterdome in the original iteration of it. And it was a lot more Mad Max: It was in the round, the audience was up above, and it was all Twitter-focused.
Blagg: Tweeterdome was an admittedly terrible name. We set it up as playing into the joke of how absurd it is to compete at Twitter, so we made it this super high-stakes, post-apocalyptic Battledome-type thing. There were smoke machines and lasers, and I think there were ninjas involved. It was much more bells and whistles and pomp and circumstance, but it was super fun. At the time we couldn’t find a full-time host, so Tom generously agreed to host the pilot presentation. The panel was Natasha Leggero, Kumail Nanjiani, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, which as a comedy nerd was insane. And it came out great. There were just so many jokes per minute.
Leggero: When Tom told me about it, it sounded cool. His scheduled didn’t allow him to continue [hosting] because of his movies and TV, but I think he wanted to show the concept.
Blagg: The big notes from the pilot presentation—and I think smart notes—were to expand it beyond Twitter, really try to make it more about all of social media, and really pulling all content from Instagram and Facebook and Tumblr and Reddit and every other emerging social media platform. And then also pulling back on the campier, post-apocalyptic Battledome stuff, which was the right call.
Hardwick: Comedy Central said, “We’re going to send this to you; let us know what you think.” Within the first minute, I was hooked. It completely made sense. It was all Twitter-based, though, and it was much more tonally like Iron Chef. It was great, and I said, “I’m in!”
Blagg: We started doing test shows in Funny Or Die’s lobby and break rooms, little fake shows for their employees. We would have some of the comedians that worked for them compete. Then at a certain point Comedy Central called us and was like, “So we want to do this show. You guys need a host. We have this other pilot we did. We love the host but we’re not as crazy about the show. What if we put them together? What do you guys think about Chris Hardwick?” We were just like, “Oh my God, that’s actually the perfect person.” We had this meeting with all of our executive producers and Chris and the network, and in that one probably 20-minute meeting, @midnight was born. Chris had the brilliant idea for “@midnight” because they told us it would be on at midnight.
Hardwick: By then it was spring, and Comedy Central said, “In October we’ll give you a month of shows.”
Blagg: When Chris came on we decided to do a two-month series of test shows at Meltdown, which Chris is a co-owner of. We started testing out different games, playing with the format, trying to troubleshoot and problem-solve to make sure the show felt fun and fast and worked.
Hardwick: I had this theater at Meltdown Comics, so I said, “It’s a comedy show. Let’s do it live every week until October to nail down the beats of it.” And that’s what we did. We tested @midnight live at Meltdown every week during the summer, and kind of workshopped it and figured out what worked. By the time we were on the air, we’d already done the show 20 times.
Ganeless: He was so passionate about the idea. They stood up the show for weeks before we actually went to air to tinker with it, make it better, make it more fun, make the game-show element of it really take a back seat to the comedy of it, and raise the comedy.
Blagg: Comedy Central initially picked us up for a one-month test run. And it seemed like people were really into it right from the beginning. It rated well, and every night my whole Twitter feed would just be taken over with whatever the hashtag game was.
Hardwick: There’s not actually a lot of stand-up on television anymore. Comedy Central definitely has the most, but there’s not a lot of stand-up the way that it used to be: all over television. I always wanted a show that comics could come on and get to be funny the way that they’re funny—without burning through their material. So it’s a really great disposable way for them to get their voice onto the show.
Blagg: As comedy fans we love the fact that we’re able to have all these different voices come through night after night, and bring their points of view to the topics of the day. We’re giving a platform for not only our favorite established comics but young up-and-coming comics. They’re very supported and protected, and it’s a very positive, fun environment.
Lawrence: You had all these different panel shows like Chelsea Lately and things like that, and there was never an easy way to get your stuff in. Everyone talks over each other, and the way they do it at @midnight, the game-show format allows everybody to chime in.
Blagg: The researchers basically start the day. They look at everything that’s going on online from news sites to top social-media sites, and put together a 20-, 25-page packet of everything from front-page big news to just the dumb, weird, “A horse looks like a hamster!” type of things. Then the writers come in and go through that packet to shape the more topical aspect of the show in that day’s script. The executive producers and Chris meet with the writing team around 11, 11:30, go through the script, and Chris makes his changes and pitches jokes and does his magic on it. Then the writers do a quick rewrite and the production team starts to get all the video and photo elements into the game system.
Everett: They email you a couple hours before you’re supposed to be there to say, “Here’s what we’re going to be talking about tonight.” They pair you up with a writer and have joke suggestions, or you can use your own. But it’s a fast process. The fact that it’s as funny as it is when they do it in such a short amount of time is really impressive. It’s a lot of content.
Liza Treyger (Like It With Liza): The writers they have are incredible. It’s just a fun process that’s all about writing quick, fun, tight jokes.
Blagg: The panelists come in, get ready, go through the material and prepare themselves. Then the taping happens at around 4 p.m. each day. It takes about an hour, hour and 15 minutes. We have a quick notes meeting afterwards and the editors go off and edit. It feeds at 7:30, 8 o’clock Pacific time and goes out live each night.
Lawrence: They record everybody’s answers, so you know you’re going to get at least X amount of lines. And they do a great job of trying to make every person on the show look good.
Treyger: I like being able to tape shows where they encourage you to riff and make fun of each other and address the crowd. You’re able to play around, and it gives you the opportunity to take more risks, because you know they’re going to edit stuff to make you look good. If you try something that doesn’t work, it’s fine.
Everett: It’s totally outside my comfort zone. It’s really fast-paced, and that’s something I’m not used to. But any time you can make comedians laugh, that’s the best part of it.
Donnell Rawlings (Chappelle’s Show): I enjoy @midnight, but I think the buttons you engage to answer questions were showing signs of racism. My buttons never worked! But I think I did it three times and I’d be excited to do it again, because at the end of the day, when your job is to bring happiness to people and make them laugh—and you get paid for that—you can never be upset.
Blagg: We’ve done a few where people have played the show in character. That Reno 911! show was great, where they all came in as the cops. We did the Trump Vs. Bernie debate, where we slightly changed the format into more of a debate thing, and James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik—who both do insanely great impressions of the candidates—came on as them.
Kerri Kenney-Silver (Reno 911!): Chris Hardwick is a friend of ours, and obviously Tom and Ben had been working on that with them. But it’s just another muscle, another way of working. It’s fast and it keeps you on your toes, but it’s always fun to do shows like that.
Gilbert Gottfried: I wasn’t all that familiar with the show. They asked me to come on, and at one point I read an email that some guy wrote to the show. He said that he’s an ass-eater, and I started improvising and saying, “I will only eat a girl’s asshole if it’s gluten-free.” I remember after the show aired, I was certainly happy that my name started trending.
Blagg: One morning I was doing my usual scrolling through Twitter in bed, and I saw they had announced the Emmy nominees. I didn’t even know that we’d be submitted, and I was just kind of scrolling through the categories and saw that we were nominated for Outstanding Interactive Program. It dawned on me: “Holy shit, did we just get nominated for an Emmy?” It was a surprise that first year, and exciting to get dressed up in a tuxedo and pretend to be fancy because of our show about hashtags and dick jokes.
Joyce: We won an Emmy for a new category of people whose multimedia platform is the most comprehensive. We beat out Game Of Thrones and other shit that have interactive-website kinds of things. We have the most direct connection to fans of the show. The hashtag thing trends worldwide literally every night.
Blagg: As time has gone on it definitely has its hardcore fans, and is kind of the signature game of the show. It still trends globally pretty much every night three years in. We’re very proud of the fact that the show has been innovative in its interactive approach and methods. The ways we’ve been able to bridge that gap between the digital and television audience is something that was very important to us from the beginning. To see it not only embraced, but ultimately honored with shiny trophies is about as cool as it gets.
Leggero: It’s so smart to have a show that’s internet-based. You watch it while you’re online. I have so many comedian friends who still play the games and chime in.
Blagg: For a long time the term “UGC”— “user-generated content”—has been used pejoratively, like, “Ugh, people on the internet aren’t capable of creating or saying anything of value.” I feel like our show proves that’s wrong. Night after night, thousands of people are able to be as funny as some of the best comedians in the country, at least in the context of a silly hashtag game.
Hardwick: We feel it’s always our responsibility to innovate as much as possible in how we interact with the challenges in social-media communities. And I say this hopefully with the least amount of arrogance as possible, but we see a lot of things trickle onto other shows that I know we did first. That kind of makes me feel like, “Hey, we’re doing something right.” We just can’t ever rest on that. We have to constantly stay ahead of the curve. How do we continue to evolve this show when the engine of it is basically a game show?
Joyce: Whenever a new thing like Periscope or Snapchat comes along, we’re really right on it to see if it was going to be a thing. If it is, we were right there at the beginning, adding digital content for that.
Hardwick: We’ve done some really fun stuff on Periscope and Facebook Live, where we just do extra segments in the middle of the day that don’t air on the show. It’s fun, and if you give a shit about our show or seeing the process, then you get to experience that process as it’s happening. It really is just about creating all those different types of experiences. And it’s just how people do things now.
Blagg: We really tried our best to make the experience feel organic and seamless between what happens online and what happens on the show. When it’s working well it’s this kind of closed-loop conversation between us and our comedians and our audience. I don’t think a lot of other shows had really done that, and I think that’s the thing we were the most excited about: We managed to build and launch a late-night show that was truly interactive.
Joyce: It’s a gigantic joke machine. That’s its whole purpose. I feel like there’s more jokes per minute on our show that any other show on cable.
Hardwick: I think our show allows for the most jokes per minute, of any show on television. But it also means that there are some things we can’t be as in-depth about as possible. We’re a little bit restricted by that format, just in the sense that if this was The Daily Show or Wilmore, they have more runway to tackle some of the bigger issues.
Blagg: That is the one challenge of the game-show format: It’s not as loose and open as a sketch or variety show where you can just all of a sudden pop out and do anything. We do owe it to the audience to somewhat resemble the premise of our show, which is comedians competing against each other with jokes about the internet. But within that, I think we’re always looking for more ways to push and innovate.
Hardwick: We’re experimenting now with taking a whole act that’s built around one story or one idea, and attack it from as many different challenges as possible so we can go more in-depth with things. We’re constantly trying to innovate with games, or how comedians interact with our show. I think that never ends.
2014: Broad City
“You really believe their relationship, because it is real.”
Acquired digital content remained an area of interest since 2005’s MotherLoad launch. Following the online discovery of the Workaholics crew, Comedy Central’s two greatest web acquisitions made the TV leap in rapid succession. For nearly 10 years the first has proved that while history is written by the victors, it can also be rewritten by intoxicated comedians.
After Super Deluxe vet Derek Waters and director Jeremy Konner debuted a duel reenactment featuring a bewigged Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton at Waters’ monthly UCB video show, the short passed a million YouTube views in one week. The nascent Funny Or Die video-voting site prominently featured episodes from the onset, eventually showcasing the series on HBO’s Funny Or Die Presents.
In 2010, the Sundance Film Festival awarded a U.S. Jury Prize for an episode starring Will Ferrell as Abraham Lincoln, Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Don Cheadle as Fredrick Douglass. “We didn’t have any real plans about how we were going to leverage that into some other form,” Konner remembers. “We took a meeting at Gary Sanchez Productions to say, ‘Hey guys, what if we make a TV show out of this?’ even though we didn’t totally know what it was going to be. But we wanted to do something.”
Drunk History has earned five Emmy nominations since coming to Comedy Central in 2013, with one win for Outstanding Costumes For A Variety Program or Special. “We have the best costume designers and production crew—that is used to working on big-budget television shows and movies,” says Konner. “We have to keep telling them, ‘No, we want him to wear Converse. We want to see the Converse. We want the wig to look shitty. We like the mustache falling off.’”
Early episodes highlighted different cities; in season four, Drunk History’s stories and reenactments are organized around weekly themes. Coming full circle to that first episode, the fourth season features an appearance by 2016’s most prominent champion of Alexander Hamilton. “One of the coolest experiences of my life was having the opportunity to get Lin-Manuel Miranda drunk and spend the evening with him at his place,” Konner says. He got totally wasted and FaceTimed everyone he knew and played us music and sang, and we talked about Hamilton.” The acquired webseries has continued expanding outward, correcting injustices and highlighting forgotten heroes on an increasingly larger scale.
Comedy Central’s next big online acquisition would go inversely personal, taking self-discovery and discomfort to new levels with a scripted TV series similarly spawned at UCB. In the annals of Drunk History, finding oneself born on the wrong side of gender, sexuality, or race could prove detrimental. For Broad City, all variations thereof were not only welcomed, but celebrated.
Eliot Glazer (writer and actor, Broad City): Ilana and I started taking classes together at the UCB in probably ’07 or ’08. That’s where we met Abbi and also started an improv group with some other folks. We all sort of started our comedy careers together there. Abbi and Ilana branched off to do their webseries, which became Broad City.
Ilana Glazer (co-creator and co-star, Broad City): We were pouring our energy and resources into improv, and it came to a point where we wanted to do something more permanent and be able to send our parents a link to prove we were actually doing something. We started making videos, and after a dozen of them, we had a season of a webseries.
Sam Saifer (former exec producer, Broad City): I was a super-young manager. I went to New York, saw Ilana do two minutes of stand-up in Brooklyn, and I thought she was so engaging and interesting. I told her, “I want to work with you! I don’t know what you’re going to do yet because you’re two years into stand-up, but you’re so vulnerable and amazing and interesting that… let’s do it?” She was like, “Great, I have this webseries I’m working on with my partner. I’d love to send it to you.” I think they were maybe 15 episodes in. I watched it and said, “Let’s make this a TV show.” They said, “We haven’t thought of that!” I said, “Bless your little hearts. Just keep making the webseries, and I’ll figure out the rest.”
Abbi Jacobson (co-creator and co-star, Broad City): We did the webseries for about two years, and it was gaining momentum when we decided to write a pilot in the summer of 2011. Before writing the pilot, we had to finish the second season of the webseries. We wanted to finish with a big guest star.
Saifer: They were trying to get a big guest who was super-cool, super-New York. In our minds, we were thinking, “This is the last episode of the webseries. We’re ready for the next level.” So we really wanted to go out with a bang. We tried to get Christopher Meloni. I reached out to Woody Allen’s PR person, who actually got back to me. She said, “Woody’s in Cannes, but thank you for thinking of him.”
Jacobson: We went out to Amy Poehler from a mutual connection at UCB, and she said yes, which was nuts. She shot the finale in May 2011. She was so great that we pitched her on being an executive producer on the show, and she said yes!
Saifer: She was so cool on set. Abbi and I were like, “We should try to get her as an EP.” We have the script, we’re going to pitch this, all she has to do is show up. The three of us crafted an email: “We know you’re super busy. Here’s the final thing, we’re going to take it out, we’d be so honored if you’d come with us.” She said, “I was going to ask you guys, but I didn’t want to step on your toes!” That was around May of 2011. In August I scheduled a bunch of pitch meetings for them in L.A. And I didn’t know how to do any of that shit. I was totally making it up.
Jacobson: We sold it to FX, who developed the script with us for about eight months before passing. We went back out with the script, and Comedy Central bought it and we went to pilot.
Alterman: Whether it comes from a webseries or people performing in stand-up clubs or sketch performers performing in theaters, we look for people that have a really strong, distinct point of view, a voice, and something to say. People that can make that leap from a webseries of shorts to scripted half-hour shows, like in the case of Broad City, we were really taken with who they were as talent. They’re smart, they’re funny, they have a really original voice.
Ilana Glazer: When we first started at Comedy Central, [then-executive producer] Brooke Posch had just gotten to the network, and she was a perfect fit for us creatively. Communicating all the ideas floating around was genuinely enjoyable.
Saifer: To Comedy Central’s credit, they said, “Do Broad City. Don’t do anything else. Pretend like no one’s watching. Just make a great script and a great pilot. We believe in you.”
Ilana Glazer: The biggest change is the scale. Before it was the two of us with a rotating, ragtag crew of people from the comedy community, just getting practice being on a shoot. When it came to the TV show, so many more people were involved, from all different departments.
Saifer: You don’t want the thing to change too much just because you’re doing it on a bigger scale. You want to protect what makes it authentic and interesting. There’s something great about digital products when people do things not necessarily for attention, but just to do things. So the fact that there’s no viewer in mind makes them more authentic and inherently vulnerable. I think the biggest challenge in going from digital to TV is now you’re so much more self-conscious. How do you keep what was so beautiful and authentic and interesting about this alive now that there are so many more voices and people with money riding on it?
Eliot Glazer: It was hard to jump from the web to TV even at the point that the girls did, just because it was new, uncharted territory. I guess the real challenge was being able to validate the idea that being able to turn out web content as fastidiously as they did would equate to them being able to do the same thing with a full TV show. But with their tenacity and ambition and the fairy-godmother essence of Amy Poehler, they were able to very quickly prove they were super capable of being up to the task.
Alterman: You really believe their relationship, because it is real. They play heightened versions of themselves, but that show just exudes authenticity. It makes the comedy even richer and more rewarding. Not only have they failed to disappoint us, they just keep exceeding expectations and hopes.
Eliot Glazer: I think it gives people access to a world in which anything is possible. Not in a cheesy, fantasy-type way, but with a very boots-on-the-ground, almost hyper-realistic, contemporary vibe that’s really direct for the post-label generation. Besides the show just being inherently funny and providing a language that you really don’t see on other TV shows, it also sort of provides comfort to people who have felt disregarded by the main narrative in comedy. There’s comedy nerds, and that’s the sort of world that Ilana and I have always inhabited. But I think Broad City steps it up a notch and takes the secrecy or almost elitist nature of which people identify with comedy and makes it available to everybody: age, gender, race, sexuality be damned. It’s like a smorgasbord, basically, of post-millennial comedy.
Saifer: Fred Armisen is probably my favorite guest star, even though it was the pilot. Him in his diapers and that sweater is still one of the fucking funniest things I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t control ourselves. We were fucking up every take because he was so awesome.
Jacobson: Blake Griffin was amazing. Amy Sedaris is incredible.
Ilana Glazer: Amy Sedaris whispers funny shit to the crew all day.
Jacobson: Susie Essman is definitely one of our favorite guest stars. She embodies so much of the show, she feels like more than a guest star.
Saifer: What perfect casting for Ilana’s mother. I feel like Seth Rogan got on board pretty early on and just did it for the fuck of it. Hillary Clinton is a pretty cool one.
Ilana Glazer: It was fun to watch Amy Poehler work both behind and in front of the camera on her episode. Hillary Clinton was an insane honor—I still cannot believe our next president was on Broad City. It hit me when it was finally on TV. I had seen it so many times in editing, but to see Hillary on the show on the air was mind-blowing.
Eliot Glazer: I actually remember a few years ago right before Broad City aired, being in the elevator banks at the office in Hudson Square. The elevator bank was canvassed with pictures of all the personalities on the network: Jon Stewart, the Workaholics, South Park. I was looking at it, thinking, “This show is about to hit, and whether or not it’s a success, it will be really cool to see two women on the wall, to see their pictures next to the elevators.” I think it’s done a pretty seamless job of doing that without their genders being an issue whatsoever. Not just because the content stands on its own, but also because Ilana and Abbi are pretty tenacious about not letting gender color the conversation more than it needs to. They’ve sort of broken up the Old Boys’ Club and given the network new life with the ability to comment on contemporary thoughts about gender and sexuality—but without making a big deal of it. Abbi and Ilana, Amy Schumer, Larry Wilmore, even Jessica Williams and Hasan Minhaj: These are all people who embody 2016. Not because of the fact that they’re a man or a woman or a person of color, but because that is just what the world is.
2015: The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore / The Daily Show With Trevor Noah
“The goal was not to find the next Jon Stewart, because that could bring nothing but failure.”
From the back of a Sunset Strip comic-book shop to a third season recently shot for Comedy Central, Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani’s long-running stand-up show remains a property highlighting diverse talent while supplying content for an ever-growing number of platforms. Since its July 2014 debut, The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail has encouraged established and developing voices to coincide in an environment deliberately freed of traditional Hollywood machinery.
The Meltdown probably wasn’t on Jon Stewart’s mind when his Busboy Productions set about creating a Daily Show offshoot that similarly broadened the number and types of voices populating the late-night landscape. Yet until its August 15 cancellation announcement, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore’s roundtable format and eye for socially engaged up-and-comers expanded the notion of talk-show convo as a vehicle for inclusion.
Knowing his time at the network was coming to a close, in 2015 Stewart still had one final objective before bookending his Comedy Central legacy: introducing a Stateside unknown to steer The Daily Show through the increasingly rough political waters ahead.
Trevor Noah: We didn’t have Comedy Central in Africa until recently. It only launched a few years ago. Before that we would see shows here and there from Comedy Central. The Daily Show came through, but it came through on CNN and was called The Global Edition, which was a different version of the show. South Park was always huge for me, and that wasn’t on Comedy Central at all. Chappelle’s Show was big, and we didn’t have that on Comedy Central. We had all the Comedy Central shows, but just not Comedy Central the channel.
Alterman: Trevor came onto our radar at Comedy Central a couple years before he became a contributor. Jonas and I met and had discussions about starting to do stuff with him. I think we made an offer to do a stand-up special, and we were really intrigued by the idea that someone who was from another country was really starting to tour a lot in our country. When you meet Trevor you realize how smart and perceptive and funny he is, so we had some conversations about him starting to do stuff on our digital platforms that would be, like, filing reports from his travels through the States. Ultimately that didn’t pan out; he was already so successful I think the digital-platform opportunity probably wasn’t that meaningful to him. We spoke to The Daily Show about Trevor, and at some point he became on Jon’s radar and Jon brought him in.
Larry Wilmore: Before I was Senior Black Correspondent on The Daily Show, I worked a lot in sitcoms as a writer and producer. In Living Color was one of the earliest ones; The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. The first show I co-created on television was The PJs on Fox. Doug Herzog was the head of Fox at the time, so I got to meet and work with Doug back in the day, and got to know him pretty well. And then I created The Bernie Mac Show, and also worked on The Office, where I worked with Steve Carell, who was part of The Daily Show. So a lot of incestuous behavior going on over the years in my career.
Noah: I was in England doing a show, and I got a call from my people. They said, “Hey, Jon Stewart would like to get on the phone with you.” I said, “Okay?” It was so random. Jon got on the phone and said, “Hey, I’m Jon Stewart.” “Oh, I know who you are.” He said, “I’ve wanted to chat to you. I saw some of your stuff online, and I’d love to know if you want to come hang out at the show sometime. I really like what you’re doing. I like your ideas.” At the time I couldn’t come, so I was like, “Well unfortunately I have to say no? But thank you for calling?” Which is a weird thing to have to say to somebody. But Jon was like, “Hey, if you are ever in town, just pop in, see what we do, come hang out, and we can go from there.”
Wilmore: I was looking to get back into performing, which is how I started my career. I reached out to The Daily Show because they were going through a transition at the time. Stephen had just started his show, and they were adding some more correspondents. I think John Oliver had just started. I met with Jon, and we hit it off.
Larsen: He was obviously an accomplished writer and showrunner, and was someone Jon had a lot of respect for, and felt that he was someone that could inhabit that seat.
Wilmore: Before I got there I’d done almost every kind of TV you can think of, from multi-camera sitcom to single-camera sitcom to animation with The PJs. I had done late-night before, sketch shows. But I had never done what Jon does, which is write in editorial every night, which is a different type of late-night show. The satire of the news is one of my favorite things, so just seeing Jon do what he does—and especially now with Jon being gone—just the opportunity that all of us had to learn from Jon and to observe him, what a treat and a privilege that was.
Noah: A few years later I popped in at the show, and we had such a great time we decided to do a piece. And then we had a good time with that, so we decided to do another piece and another piece, and we’ve been doing pieces ever since. The only difference is, Jon left.
Alterman: Trevor wasn’t seeing becoming a correspondent, but Jon encouraged him to start just being a contributor. I want to say he did three pieces. So he really hadn’t even done that much before Jon decided to leave, and Trevor became part of that conversation.
Wilmore: Jon had mentioned to me that he had an idea for a show where it would be good to hear from voices we don’t get to hear from all the time, in a panel-like format—and have it not be like a CNN panel, where it’s just the same pundits. He said, “Hey man, do you want to do something like that?” And I’m like, “Yuuuuhh, sure!” He saw it as a different type of show that was more about talk and conversation, that was still in the language of The Daily Show.
Alterman: The Nightly Show is more of a panel show. I would say ultimately the vibe of them is different in the same way the vibe of every single show is different. It’s always a reflection of the personalities of the people that are leading it and contributing to it.
Wilmore: We like to feature people who are unknown or up-and-coming. Some people are young comedians in the Comedy Central family, we have rappers, or some people may be in blogs, or just interesting people. We like to mix it up. And then occasionally we’ll have some more well-known people, but our show wasn’t designed to have an actor on promoting his movie. It wasn’t built like that, and people seem to like it. A lot of famous people like to come on and not have to talk about that stuff. Instead they can weigh in on what’s going on in the world.
Lewis Black: It’s always fun when you’re going on a show and you feel like you’re not working: It’s a conversation. It’s also a good crew that’s he’s developing.
Feinstein: Larry’s really funny, but he’s also a lovely guy and good person. It’s really great that these shows hire stand-ups as writers, and use them on the show too. Rory Albanese, who is a really funny comic, produces the show and is on quite a bit.
Ganeless: While Larry had a ton of fantastic work in his portfolio, producing a nightly show is a whole different ballgame. Larry brings a unique point of view. Not only is Rory really smart and funny, but he brings a great foundation of the mechanics of a nightly show.
Everett: Sitting and talking politics on a panel is not my strength, but they make it fun and easy and light. They’re a great crew. I was on with Rory, Larry, and Bill Nye The Science Guy. I’m a big fan of his, and I honestly don’t remember what we talked about. I just kept looking at him, going, “That’s Bill Nye The Science Guy!” In show business you meet a lot of cool people, but every once in a while you’re like, “This is bizarre!”
Leggero: I got to do it with Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike, which was cool. They really put you on the spot, so it can be a little more nerve-wracking. I always get nervous with impromptu political questions, because I’m always afraid I’m not going to be read-up enough on something. It makes me a little more nervous than doing @midnight, which is more silly.
Feinstein: It’s always a blast doing it. I did it with 50 Cent and Judd Apatow. 50 Cent was, like, whispering weird things into my neck the whole time in a slow-jam voice.
Metzger: I have my little Larry Wilmore University plaque that I hung next to my Peabody and my Roast trophy award. The episode was about higher education, so we all got little diplomas. That’s one of the few things I’ve ever worn a suit to.
Gottfried: It reminded me of the way I used to do The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, where they’ll come up with these weird bits at the beginning of the show. The first one I did was when somebody during the presidential roast made a dick joke, saying something like, “Donald Trump’s hands are small, and you know what that means.” So the whole premise of that bit on Wilmore’s show was that dick jokes should be left in the hands of comedians. The slogan was “Dick Jokes Matter.” We were up there with protest signs, protesting that Dick Jokes Matter, and each one of us made a speech about it.
Wilmore: We kind of react to what’s going on. I mean, we never saw Trump making it this far in the election, and what would happen to that. So we’re just going to keep reacting to what’s out there and keep evolving as we go along. We did a lot of experimenting up front, but there will be variations to come, I’m sure. It’s kind of hard to predict that, though, until you get there. Ninety percent of the time you’re just trying to stay on the air.
Alterman: When John Oliver left, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were still there and had not declared their intention to leave, so it didn’t leave a lot of room for John Oliver. So he made his deal with HBO. And then it was sometime after that that Stephen decided to leave and not renew. So we worked with Jon on formulating The Nightly Show. Then after that Jon decided to leave, and then it just became a matter of not so much replacing Jon as it was “Okay, what’s the next iteration of The Daily Show going to be, and who will be the right person for it?”
Ganeless: Nobody knows what it takes to host The Daily Show better than Jon, and he had identified Trevor as a great talent and brought him to the show as a contributor.
Alterman: Once we knew Jon was going to leave, our orientation was not “How do we replace Jon Stewart?” because Jon Stewart is irreplaceable. We also thought it would be a fool’s errand to just find a carbon copy of him, a younger version of Jon Stewart. We really started thinking about “Well, where is the show now, and where should it go?” Jon was the first to suggest Trevor to us, and we started meeting with Trevor.
Ganeless: The goal was not to find the next Jon Stewart, because that could bring nothing but failure. The idea was to find a new voice for a new generation. That was qualification number one. Number two, they had to have an incredibly strong work ethic. To work on this show is not for the faint of heart. They have to have an interest in a wide range of events: not just the political, and not just pop culture.
Noah: It’s a show combining comedy and satire with a large amount of journalism and investigating and fact-checking and so on. It is definitely not easy to do it every single day.
Ganeless: When you put all those qualities together, it became a short list very quickly. Trevor was both on the top of my list and Doug and Kent’s, and was on the top of Jon’s list. From the first time we sat down with Trevor and realized the depth of knowledge and the maturity and the fresh perspective there, it became very clear he was the right person for this moment in time to take the show.
Herzog: Trevor was chosen as a guy who we thought brought the requisite skills to the table. The Daily Show’s a lot harder than it looks, and performers that can combine topical humor and political humor with the more right-down-the-middle stuff are few and far between. I think it’s pretty well documented that we talked to some bigger names, and then ultimately the decision was made to go with—if you’re a baseball fan—a youth movement, and hire a guy that we could grow and develop.
Noah: It’s a ridiculous thing to accept. It’s an impossible job, and impossible shoes to fill. So in my head, I go, “You have to take it. Because life begins at the end of your comfort zone. If it’s a scary thing and a thing I’m not 100 percent sure I can do, that’s the thing that I should be doing.” And that was it. I don’t like to live in regret, so I would rather do something and find I’m not able to do it than always wonder what would have happened.
Herzog: He’s had very, very, very big shoes to fill. That should not be overlooked. There are not a lot of people who want to follow in Jon Stewart’s footsteps, and not a lot of people can even consider it, truthfully. There is a reason Jon Stewart went home after 16 years of doing The Daily Show: It is very, very, very hard work.
Noah: Jon said, “Look, I believe in you. I think you can do it. You are where I was when I first started the show. And I know it seems insane when you’re starting off, but you’ll do it.”
Alterman: He’s handed over the mantle to Trevor, and he’s very respectful of allowing Trevor to start to evolve the show in his own image, which is what he did in his time.
Powell: People forget that it took a couple years for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to transition into what we know of it today. There were a lot of elements in place—staff and segments and correspondents—that were left over from Craig Kilborn’s era, including those early correspondent pieces, where it was “find some maniac and treat them like they’re a serious news story.” And it did take a couple full seasons of the show for Jon to really fully transition from what Craig had been doing into The Daily Show that we all know and appreciate.
Alterman: Jon Stewart was very focused on not only politics, but the media coverage of politics through the lens of cable-news networks in general, and Fox News in particular. That world has been changing because people aren’t necessarily getting their news that way. In a multiplatform, social-media world, that’s where news and information is now disseminated. Jon wasn’t really as interested in that world. Trevor is a millennial himself, he’s native to multiplatforms and social media, and he’s already engaged in it himself.
Herzog: The Daily Show—which was born in the ’90s in a very linear world—is continually evolving its relationship with its fans on different platforms. Trevor’s very forward-thinking, Trevor’s a millennial, Trevor’s very interested in social media, and I think that’s going to provide a lot directionally to The Daily Show as he moves forward there.
Alterman: Especially in the last couple of weeks leading up to and then really during the conventions, Trevor has really seized ownership of the show, and he’s doing a lot of things you wouldn’t have seen on The Daily Show prior to him being there. We’re seeing a lot of that content go viral and get passed around and shared, and we feel like it’s starting to really bear the fruit we’d always anticipated.
Noah: The biggest challenges are understanding that there has to be a slow evolution of the show, and understanding that people have an idea of what The Daily Show should be. You’re working within those parameters, because it’s a shock to the system to change everything completely. But you also have to try and create your version of the show. So that’s the biggest challenge, is finding a balance between progress, and at the same time, ballast.
Black: He’s fine. It’s just going to take time. It took Jon time. It’s a transition.
Noah: Jon told me it took him two to three years to get it to be his show. Then the ball is rolling and you keep it moving. Now in this day and age you might not have that much time, so you’re working on an accelerated calendar. But you’re still aiming for the same thing, which is to get that show to a place where it’s yours. You see that with all the new hosts on TV: Stephen Colbert, Fallon, and Corden. You have your breaking-in period, where it’s a new pair of shoes. But then after some point you just want them to be comfortable and familiar.
Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele): With Jon, maybe in the moment I felt like I had to make jokes, because he’s so-quick witted. But they’re both quick-witted. There’s something about with Trevor that felt more like a conversation. And with Jon, I just felt like I was being cradled like a baby. It felt good, you know what I mean? I think part of it is that you’re looking at another person across the way who you’ve been watching perform throughout your career. And then recently what I was doing was watching a person who’s coming up with me at the same time. A person of a similar look. A person of a similar point of view.
Alterman: What we’re finding is an older, wider segment of the population misses Jon —we all miss him—and have been slower to spark to Trevor. But young people (and the audience that we really covet) have been really connecting with Trevor. He’s had a lot of ratings growth, and the median age of the show has declined. But the most important thing is how Trevor is doing on the show, and that’s where we’re really pleased. We feel like he is aiming in the right direction as far as getting more comfortable and finding new ways to express his voice and his vision for the show. The longer he goes, we know it’s just going to keep evolving and growing. He’s going to keep elevating the show in his image, where it becomes his show.
Noah: It’s always an extra bonus when you can come up with something that is genuinely unique and completely out there, but every day that you can put a show on the air where the puzzle pieces fit together and make sense for people, that’s really a triumph for me.
Key: Another great thing about Trevor is there’s a decidedly international feel about what he does, being from another country. So it’s fun hearing him speak in a kind of American-urban dialect, and I just love hearing his take on this country, which is just as valid and super insightful but completely different than Jon’s take, which was also insightful and completely valid. There’s this wonderful sense of Trevor seeing it almost from the outside and the inside at the same time.
Noah: We have everything: Your host is mixed-race South African. You have a Malaysian-Chinese-Australian person. You have an American-Indian person who is Muslim. You have a blond white woman from Kentucky. You have a black man from Birmingham, Alabama. You have a white man from Michigan. Definitely a very, very eclectic mix of people.
Wilmore: They’re trying to keep it real, which is good. I applaud them for that. It’s part of the continuing diversification of television, and I’m happy to be a part of that. I give them a lot of credit: They’re going black-to-black from 11 to 12. Good for you, Comedy Central.
On Monday, August 15, 2016, Comedy Central announced, “Production on The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore will cease after its August 18 episode. We thank Larry and The Nightly Show staff for their tireless efforts across the past two years and the conversations the show generated by addressing social issues of great importance to the country, always challenging people’s attitudes, perceptions and bias.”
2015: This Is Not Happening / 2016: Idiotsitter
“I do my story and then just sit there and really enjoy it. It’s always been my favorite show to watch.”
“Why should Richard Pryor standing onstage, just talking, be so compelling and moving and cause such a stir? One person with a microphone shouldn’t really cause such a stir. I think we live in a world where we are all freaks, but we’re trying to pretend we’re not freaks. So when somebody gets onstage and is like, “Yeah, I’m a freak!” I feel like saying, “Thank you! I’ve been trying so hard not to be a freak.” I think there’s something really amazing and spiritual about feeling less alone. And I think that stand-up comedy really does that. The jokes are wonderful, but the great connection between all of us is in the vulnerability of storytelling and the brutal honesty. If Louis C.K. can laugh at himself wanting to kill his children, that means it’s okay for some woman who has post-partum depression and feels guilty as hell. I think when you take the importance and gravitas out of things, it makes things more okay. The audience can watch your story and feel less alone.” – Sam Saifer, This Is Not Happening exec producer
Saifer: I represented Ari Shaffir, and my husband Eric Abrams was booking the Improv. He had the Improv lab, which was not the bar that it is now. It was just an empty black box [theater]. Eric and Ari were sitting around one night swapping drug stories. Ari was like, “Oh, this guy’s got a great story! That guy’s got a great story!” Eric was like, “I have this empty space. Why not book a show of these stories?”
Ari Shaffir (host, This Is Not Happening): We did a show about mushroom stories just for one night. They had a side room that fit 40, so we didn’t think it would be that hard to fill. We didn’t fill it—we got 12 people. The first lineup was Dan Madonia, Dylan Brody, Steve Agee, Joey Diaze, and Marc Maron.
Eric Abrams (executive producer, This Is Not Happening): We started the show in the Improv Lab in February 2010, and we put on one of the best live comedy shows I’ve ever seen for 15 people. It truly felt magical. I loved it right away.
Shaffir: It was a ton of fun, and me and Eric talked about doing it again. We did sex stories for the next one, and a psychedelic one with stories about peyote and acid.
Abrams: We started doing monthly shows, and by December 2010 we moved over to the Main Room at the Improv.
Saifer: We started doing live shows once a month about six years ago, and kept grouping different topics. Then we started doing it digitally with Comedy Central three years ago.
Abrams: We were trying to get Comedy Central to notice us, but they didn’t think [Shaffir] was enough of a name to build a show around him. I talked to Atom.com—which was CC’s digital platform before CC Studios, but really in name only—and they liked the show but never made a move.
Shaffir: A few other places said no, or yes but with another host: Ralphie May, Sarah Silverman. We said, “No, we’ll just wait.” We kept doing it once a month, and took it to festivals too, like Bridgetown and [Just For Laughs] Montreal.
Abrams: Montreal in 2012 was where Comedy Central really took an interest in us. CC Studios was brand new at the time. It was created to be a step forward from Atom.com as CC’s original digital platform. Atom had been a totally separate entity that really didn’t communicate with the network’s development team—as I understand it. I wasn’t there at the time. CC Studios was part of the network development team. They hired Allison Kingsley to run it, and then brought me in. Along with Jordy Ellner, we were the CC Studios development team.
Ganeless: We have experimented with how to break through as a brand with online content, with non-linear content. It’s hard. People think of us as a linear brand. So we created CC Studios as a way to say, “This is our brand online. It’s not Comedy Central. It’s a flanker brand, if you will.” And we could use it as a development lab.
Abrams: Our overall goal was for CC Studios to be a different avenue for developing with Comedy Central. So we would work with talent who made sense for the network—i.e., had a strong, defined point of view that we thought would resonate with the demo, and who we thought were funny, but who maybe didn’t seem to be quite ready for a network deal for whatever reason. Ari wasn’t a well-known guy, and there was reason to question whether or not he could be a star on the network. But the show was good.
Larsen: I was just blown away by the stories. What really struck me was the comics telling real stories. You see comics tell somewhat real stories, but they have a punchline or something they’re building up. Here they’re real stories told in a fun and engaging way—but they aren’t always funny. I liked the vulnerability of it. And we’re always looking for new ways to present stand-up. It was just a different way for comics and stand-ups and writers to show their stuff.
Abrams: The network was looking to present stand-up in new and different and interesting ways. We were a storytelling show, we offered true stories, and we could at least potentially book pretty much anybody—not only comedians. So This Is Not Happening made a lot of sense at the time.
Shaffir: When we started discussing doing it for the web, at the beginning there was a question of making the stories “internet-length,” you know, only a few minutes. Right away I was like, “No, no, no.” Eventually everyone agreed that there were no content rules—people were going to just tell their story.
Abrams: Talent seemed to respond pretty well. I think we started just before the explosion of storytelling shows—in L.A., at least—so maybe people were curious. And there was nothing on the line, so it was probably easier to say yes.
Saifer: We did it for no money because we knew it was kind of an experiment. It’s a storytelling show that sounds pretty generic: “Why don’t we try it and see what happens?” We did 10 or 12 episodes for, like, minimum wage. It was a lot of pulling favors. And no job was too big or too small: If someone needs to move a chair, you go fucking move a chair. It was all hands on deck, everybody doing what needed to be done to get it going.
Abrams: CC Studios’ overall budget was pretty tiny. I mean, one could argue it was absurdly tiny. Comically tiny. And we wanted to make a lot of shows and develop year-round, so we didn’t ever want to risk blowing everything on a single series. So yeah, This Is Not Happening’s budget was astoundingly low, especially when you consider we were squeezing 13 episodes—one story equals one episode—out of a single day of production. It helped that CC Studios had an in-house production team, so that saved us some money. But overall in those days, there just wasn’t any room for ego. Sam and I would show up with the rest of the crew and haul furniture out of the club and help set up chairs. I would feel embarrassed on CC Studios sets if I was standing around like a dickhead while the crew was working.
Saifer: We did the live show in Montreal at Café Cleopatra, which is a drag-queen strip club. And it worked perfectly. So we wanted to try it at a strip club in L.A. There had been vaudeville and then guys like Lenny Bruce, who were doing stand-up in strip clubs because it was the only place you could really say anything you wanted to.
Abrams: Hiring Jeff Tomsic to direct this show was the single best decision This Is Not Happening ever made. He and [director of photography] Steve Calitri went out scouting to find a cool place to shoot, and I think they ended up at Cheetahs, exhausted and dissatisfied, and then they saw it and became obsessed. They invited Sam out and she got it right away.
Saifer: We really wanted to film it in Cheetahs because of the bar in back. The bar that you can see in the shots is an original Tiffany’s bar that was trucked in from Vegas. The owner is this wonderful, helpful, really old-school guy who is friends with people named, like, Johnny Roast Beef.
Treyger: I really wanted to do something with the pole when I walked out, but I don’t have the body strength.
Saifer: We also wanted to film it in a strip club because we wanted people to be non-judgmental. We want the audience to be up for anything. If you’re going to see a comedy show where Bobby Lee is telling a story about cumming in his friend’s eye during a threesome and you weren’t ready for that, you’re not going to be so into it.
Abrams: It didn’t hurt that Kingsley had first seen the show in a strip club. [Then-programming VP] Robbie Praw had a good vision for us when he brought us to JFL and gave us midnight shows at the Cleopatra, a sex club right down the street from the Hyatt. The theme for the whole week was sex stories: We called it “So I’m Fucking This Girl, Right?” because I am a weird idiot. And again, Comedy Central was looking for new ways to present stand-up. Kingsley saw this unusual show in this unusual venue, and I think that really helped click everything into place for her. So Cheetahs—accidentally though it may have been—provided some synergy with her first experience.
Saifer: To Comedy Central’s credit, they were super-cool about letting us experiment with the show and take chances. They really trusted us to go more or less nuts. And also online we were getting millions of hits for this thing that was just kind of an experiment. I think T.J. Miller’s story alone has well over a million hits right now.
Abrams: Keep in mind, when we started This Is Not Happening in 2010, transitioning a live comedy show to TV really wasn’t so common. Now it seems like someone puts on one good live show and they start talking to networks. We really had hopes, but we didn’t have expectations. We didn’t have a reason to believe we would end up on TV, so we weren’t trying to be on TV.
Ganeless: This Is Not Happening was so embraced by the talent community in particular, and our fans loved it. We felt this was another great way to experiment with the stand-up format for online—and linear—as well.
Shaffir: Doing the digital series was a learning curve, and everything got better as we went. So we did that a couple times, and it was popular, so Comedy Central said, “Let’s do it for TV.” They’d been talking about doing digital as, like, the minor leagues for TV, but eventually it was like, “At some point you need to actually do it.” And they did.
Alterman: It’s not about the analytics of how much consumption there is digitally. Other questions are much more important in terms of what their voice is and how much potential it has to evolve and elevate into a full half-hour, and how much potential do we feel it has in terms of longevity to keep evolving and growing. Because there are so many examples out there where you see super-popular digital properties get developed for traditional TV—and it doesn’t work.
Ganeless: For us it’s always about believing in the talent, the uniqueness of the idea. Is it something you can’t see anywhere else? A show like This Is Not Happening, it doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Saifer: In transitioning it to TV, we wanted to be careful about not changing it too much. I think the only thing we really changed was that we were doing cool openings before, but now they’re really grandiose. We’re doing, like, Michael Bay-type epic openings.
Abrams: The opening title sequences from the digital series became a calling card for the show. Tomsic is a big weirdo who always wanted to do big weirdo title sequences, bless his insane soul. So when we were developing up to TV, the goal was always to make bigger and crazier title sequences.
Larsen: It has a very distinct look and is shot in a very intimate space. They shoot these really cool show opens that are always very inventive and cinematic, and that carries on throughout the show.
Shaffir: There were questions about doing things differently with the look or cameras. But they’d already liked the product and trusted what we’d done before. Also one season for us is probably an eighth of a Workaholics or Broad City budget.
Abrams: There’s more pressure to deliver ratings on TV, though Comedy Central in general doesn’t inflict that kind of nonsense on us. It just lives under the surface. But we aim higher in booking the TV show than we did for digital. And we book a lot more slots now, which is a challenge. Cutting down a 19-minute story to fit into one act of a TV show is a crazy challenge, but we have a killer—and very patient—post team.
Saifer: I’ve been told that what comics like about the show is that our approach is really for the comics. It doesn’t feel like “We’re making this for television!” We don’t give people the light when they’re telling their stories, and some of the stories in the live show are 20 minutes long. The live show needs to just be a live show.
Abrams: In digital we didn’t have the time restraints that we have in TV. But Ari has always been clear: It’s crucial to him that comics are allowed to tell the story the way they want to tell it. And that almost never means a tight six-and-a-half minutes. So that took some figuring.
Shaffir: With the live show, I tell people to do five to 15, really broad. It’s not like telling jokes for a specific amount of time. The shortest one was seven minutes. We’ve had 250 stories that are longer than that.
Abrams: The idea is to tell the story the way the comics want to tell it. Of course we can’t put the full versions on TV because they’re just too long, but we are able to release extended versions online. Ultimately someone who tapes a story gets a complete version that looks fucking awesome online, where people can find it when they find it. The best feedback we get is from comics who have found new fans because their story is available for people to discover it. It’s an unusual system and it’s been a process to make it work, but the network has been awesome about it: Anne Harris and Ryan Moran, and Jonas Larson who runs that department and has been so incredibly supportive of the show and of Ari. They have always been open to our suggestions, no matter how big or small.
Saifer: The live-show experience is the most important part to us. Because of that, I think we were able to get comics who wouldn’t normally want to essentially give material away for digital. T.J. Miller did our first season for pretty much no money. His story was about almost dying from a brain aneurism, and the reason he survived is because he drank so much. We had David Koechner, Kyle Kinane, Sean Patton, and all these really supportive comics of this kind of “community” show.
Metzger: They edit the story so it comes out well. I probably did 15 or 20 minutes when we were taping it, and I didn’t think about how they were going to cut it, but Ari made sure I was happy with the edit. He helped pull out different details. Some people don’t do that, and you never know what’s going to happen when something gets edited. When they showed me the first edit I was like, “Oh my God, you’ve got to change this!” And he let me.
Abrams: Brian Regan taping this most recent season was really special. And Doug Stanhope: Two of my all-time comedy heroes. And Maria fucking Bamford did the show, too. Louie Anderson—I grew up loving his cartoon show. Those types of bookings still amaze me. And Ms. Pat. I could listen to Ms. Pat tell stories all night. I have listened to Ms. Pat tell stories all night.
Treyger: Sam Saifer, Eric Abrams, and Ari are some of my favorite people in the world. It felt like summer camp, where you get to see everyone and hang out and get to meet legendary comics. It’s a great show, but there is also no set time. You tell your story; say what you want. Their number one goal is to make sure it’s an amazing show for the audience that’s there. I’ve been telling my story since I was 21 years old, when it all happened. So it’s cool having a place where being a chatterbox and having a story of being a drunk mess turns into a positive thing.
Shaffir: You get to know the comedians a little more. It’s just more interesting than seeing someone being a character onstage. It’s not just telling jokes and being funny. Like, Moshe Kasher’s story is sad. You get so much more than just one-liners about traffic.
Leggero: I was there one night just as a fluke, going to see my husband [Kasher], who was on a different story. I happened to be in the audience and Steve Rannazzisi was there telling a story about how Ari threw a drink in my face. We dated briefly, and we’re all cool now, obviously, so I was like, “If you guys want me to get up, I can get up and we can kind of talk about it or reenact it.” And they were like, “Hell yeah!” Basically Ari didn’t want me at the Comedy Store when we broke up because he felt like that was his turf. I was like, “Well, you can’t own the Comedy Store, because I started there.” I went there one night with my friend Morgan Murphy. Morgan went to the bathroom, so I was sitting there by myself for a second, and Ari just came up and threw a drink in my face. But everything is good now, and it was kind of cathartic to talk about it on This Is Not Happening. We have proof now, on camera, that everyone is cool.
Abrams: Watching how good Ari has gotten over the past three years has been really special. It’s not like he’s the host because he was some amazing storyteller in 2010. He was just a dummy who wanted to talk about mushrooms, and I was a dummy who loved hearing about mushrooms. But now—man, he has gotten so good.
Shaffir: I do my story and then just sit there and really enjoy it. It’s always been my favorite show to watch.
Abrams: I’m just so proud of and happy with the way things have gone for the show. It’s cool that it has been a true grassroots effort, every step of the way. So many people have contributed so much to the success of the show—and I really believe we’re making the best stand-up show out there. I actually believe we’re making the best stand-up show ever.
Ian Abramson (host and creator, 7 Minutes In Purgatory): What Comedy Central is trying to do now is look at their digital series as a farming system. The way that This Is Not Happening went is that they did two seasons of a digital show, and then they were like, “All right, I think we’ve got it to a place where we can do a TV show!” So I guess that is what will happen with Comedy Central in the future: They will take chances on digital series. That gives them the chance to really help shape it, so hopefully by the time it would go to series, they already feel really good about where it’s at.
Alterman: We’re driven by our fans, so we really want to develop all different kinds of content with all different kinds of talent and meet them where they are, which is on all these multi-platforms. We want to feed the insatiable appetite for consumption, and we also use it as a pipeline for taking more shots, especially with the emerging talent. Sometimes it’s even passion projects for more established talent. We’re feeding all these masters simultaneously, and sometimes things like Idiotsitter or This Is Not Happening come about where we realize this has great potential for elevating up to becoming a franchise on all of our platforms, including our linear platform.
Larsen: I first met Jillian [Bell] as part of the supporting cast on Workaholics, and Charlotte [Newhouse] was one of our staple of actors we used for Mash Up, which was a series we did with T.J. Miller four or five years ago. They first came on our radar there, and then they came in with this pitch to CC Studios that everybody really loved.
Abrams: I knew Jillian from my days working for Just for Laughs. She showcased for New Faces Characters the first year we did it, and she was a no-brainer to book. She was incredible. Kingsley ran the theater for the Groundlings back in the day, so she had known them both for a while too. And by the time they took Idiotsitter out, Jillian had established herself as never-not-funny on Workaholics. And the chemistry you get from two people who have been writing together for so long is something you just can’t fake.
Jillian Bell (co-creator and co-star, Idiotsitter): We came up with the idea in a very unsexy way: It was like, “What’s the most cost-effective pilot/series for Comedy Central? If we’re stuck in one location, where could be stuck at?” That’s where the idea of house arrest came up. We didn’t have particular parts in mind. When Charlotte and I started to write it, we just said, “Okay, there will be someone on house arrest and then maybe somebody who needs to watch that person.” When we started to improvise it and play around, it seemed that I fit more into the “Idiot” part, and she fit more into the “Sitting” part.
Abrams: I was in the room when they first pitched Idiotsitter to CC Studios, but Allison Kingsley set it up. She was backing the project from day one.
Bell: We pitched it to them with two other things. It was our favorite and they liked it, but it wasn’t quite the right timing, so they passed. We said, “Great—we will write it for you!” They were like, “We didn’t ask for that, but go ahead.” So we wrote it as a pilot and submitted it to them. They said, “Oh my gosh, it’s so funny. At this point we’re still going to have to pass.” We’re like, “Great!” Then the idea got brought up of doing it as a webseries, and we jumped on that.
Abrams: Most everything we did at CC Studios we hoped would continue to develop with Comedy Central and become television shows. I hoped that, at least. But certain shows built around talent that everyone could agree was more “network ready”—like Jillian and like Kurt Braunohler when we did Roustabout—we would bet bigger on those. So yeah, we had high hopes from the beginning, and Jillian and Charlotte had first pitched the show as a half hour, so they had similarly high hopes.
Larsen: It was incubated on CC Studios as a short-form series, and with the same director as This Is Not Happening, Jeff Tomsic, who is a super-talented guy. We saw this potential in it: Obviously it has a great cast and was such an interesting idea, and you could really see it play out between Jillian and Charlotte’s characters. We get a lot of great scripts, but ultimately it’s the execution of them that determines if we move forward. And they did such a great job on CC Studios making that little webseries that was really funny but also looked great. It had such a high production value on such a tiny budget that you couldn’t ignore it. There was so much passion behind it.
Bell: It’s sort of the best way of having a show: It’s a way to get it out to the public and test out our writing and cast and chemistry together, and just have it be out there in the world. Whereas with a pilot, you can shoot it and no one sees it if it doesn’t go anywhere. So we were really excited to do the webseries, and after the webseries they picked it up for 10 episodes, and our minds were blown.
Ganeless: Idiotsitter was a project Jillian wanted to do. She’s a talent we believe in. After the first season on the web, we thought, “Let’s think about what this could look like as a full half-hour series,” and they brought it to life.
Bell: People kept asking us what we were going to do with it as a TV show. We’re like, “We’re going to make it longer! And we’re going to be excited that we’re on TV, is what we’re gonna do!” Hiring writers was probably the most difficult part. It was the first time where it wasn’t just Charlotte and I writing something together, and we sort of share a brain, so it was really hard for us to communicate our side of things sometimes. We had lovely writers—I think it was just an interesting experience for us to be like, “No, this isn’t right,” or “Yes, this is it.” It was just difficult for us a little bit, getting over our baby. But when it came to shooting it, it was the best time of our lives and made us want to do it for 80 more seasons.
Kyle Newacheck (co-creator, Workaholics): Directing Idiotsitter was super-fun. I love working with Jillian Bell—really anything that she’s a part of, I’ll be there to help her out in any way. When I met her back in the National Lampoon days, we did this weird green-screen video. There were 12 or 15 people who had to bring a character in front of the green screen. Jillian did this awesome infomercial about a concentration camp. She was trying to get people to come to her wonderful summer camp—that was called Concentration Camp. The character that she played was so stand-out, I just remember thinking, “Oh, I get it: You’re the best!”
Bell: Kyle is incredible. I had my fingers crossed that he would want to do an episode and was available, and both happened. He just has such an ease at it. He knows what he’s doing, he’s so relaxed, he gets the best out of everyone, he’s just a really strong director. And comedically I just trust him. Hopefully he’ll want to do something for the second season.
Larsen: We all just liked the show and where it was heading, and we loved the talent. Simply on its own merits, it was renewed for a second season.
Bell: We are going back to college. So for Billie this will be returning to her life of academia, and for Gene it will be her first time being a student. So it’s a pretty exciting going someplace completely different than the first season. It’s sort of opening the world to a lot more characters. There’s only so many you can have in the house, so we wanted to take it outside of the house.
Alterman: We started CC Studios as a sort of separate, independent hub within the network for creating digital shorts. Since then we’re thinking of all of that in a more holistic way, and a more integrated way. So instead of having something that’s separate and apart, whatever we’re doing in short form or on digital platforms is just part of the whole of what we’re doing, in terms of content development and production. So CC Studios specifically doesn’t exist anymore, but we just kind of absorbed that function into what we do organically.
Jonas: Idiotsitter was one of the last things that CC Studios did. I think we absorbed it two years ago into Comedy Central development simply as a function of how the television landscape has changed and become more focused on not just more linear, but also on creating content for the social platforms like Snapchat and all those other places. It just became apparent that all of that should go though development. We were more and more using those social platforms as incubating platforms for talent and for show ideas. So it just felt like a natural evolution: Instead of having this separate entity, fold it all within talent and development. It just felt like the next step in this process of adjusting to the changing landscape.
2015: Another Period
“It was the Kardashians meets Downton Abbey: This is a no-brainer!”
Having served as a Chelsea Lately panelist, Last Comic Standing judge and Ugly Americans succubus, in 2010 Natasha Leggero was eager to launch a star vehicle showcasing her wider range of writing and acting talent. But her character-driven social satire hadn’t yet gone mainstream, and the best female-driven comedies on the air were headed by proven stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Even with Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions, a theme song from Justin Bieber Roast pal Snoop Dogg, and direction from Jeremy Konner—looking to expand beyond Drunk History himself—four years later Leggero and Garfunkel And Oates’ Riki Lindhome continued encountering skepticism in the face of a heavily layered concept.
Uncompromising dedication to their vision prevailed. The two would go on to assemble the smartest and most socially relevant sitcom in Comedy Central’s current arsenal, a mash-up highlighting both history and pop-culture hysteria, and—with the likes of Paget Brewster, Michael Ian Black, Brett Gelman, David Wain, Christina Hendricks, and David Koechner—a jaw-dropping cast that proved as fearless as it was challenging to wrangle.
Leggero: Five years ago Riki and I went to Africa together with a bunch of comedians—Nick Kroll and Ed Helms and Paul Scheer—to try to help cure malaria through comedy. It was a pretty heavy trip, and Riki and I really bonded. One thing we both felt similarly about was we wanted to create our own shows for ourselves. We were like, “Let’s meet up when we get back to L.A. and brainstorm.” I had a few ideas I was thinking about—one of them was a fake reality show about just these super-rich assholes. I also had this idea that was a little more serious, and took place in the turn of the century. I was really into 1902, which was this time in the Gilded Age where people were so rich. I was telling Riki the ideas, and she was like, “Well why don’t we combine those?”
Konner: Whenever Natasha talks about it, she says people back then were living like rappers. At this time 110 years ago in Newport, Rhode Island, 90 percent of America’s wealth was concentrated there in this tiny, tiny town with the Carnegies and the Rockefellers and the Astors and the Vanderbilts and every powerful person in the country.
Leggero: People were living in these marble mansions, and they paid no income tax. They had 40-person staffs, no boundaries, no limits. They would have houses constructed in Florence, then deconstructed, shipped overseas, and then put back up in Newport. It was just so over the top, and all these places still exist. You can go visit these 15 or 20 house museums that still exist as part of the Preservation Society Of Newport County, and hear these stories about these insane rich people. I think Rockefeller had more money than America.
Konner: They were, for the most part, new money. People who were disgusting fur trappers all of the sudden are the richest men in America. They’re wiping their mouths with the tablecloth and they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Everyone’s trying to figure out, “How do the rich English people do it? Because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing!” There was no income tax and people could just make so much money as long as they could get cheap Chinese slave labor. What appealed to me about that show was exploring the way that nowadays someone can just create an app and suddenly have a billion dollars. It was in many ways similar.
Leggero: Riki and I both love Downton Abbey. That’s obviously taking place in England, but I don’t think people realize America had its own version of what was happening at this exact same time in history.
Konner: They thought I’d be a good fit because of Drunk History. I started talking to them about Downton Abbey, which they let me refer to as “Downtown Abbey” for a while, and I felt real stupid when I found out later that I’d been pronouncing it wrong the whole time. We worked on a script that they really wrote. The three of us crafted what it would be like, but they’re the two geniuses who created this whole world.
Leggero: Women had no rights, they couldn’t vote, they wouldn’t even let women read. They thought that if women read, it would shrink their ovaries. It was just such a strange time for women, but in Newport women actually had some power because they ran the social life—balls and parties were such a huge, huge deal at the time. We started thinking, “Wow, these girls are like the Kardashians! They’re just trying to get famous so they can climb through the ranks of society.” The only way for a woman to really be upwardly mobile was through marriage and society and parties.
Liebling: I knew Natasha when I was at Red Hour. We had tried to develop other stuff, and then they got Jeremy Konner and shot this undressing scene and tried to sell it. They weren’t as quite well known as they are now, but they came to me and I was like, “This is brilliant. I can’t believe no one would buy this show! It was the Kardashians meets Downton Abbey: This is a no-brainer!” I knew it in my gut, and I said, “I’m going to take this out with you.” When we recut it as a sizzle thing, we realized we needed to make it more of a reality show. What we had before was just isolated scenes that were sort of spoofy of Downton Abbey, but when we put it in the context of a contemporary show, it suddenly changed the conversation.
Konner: We shot a presentation, went out, and tried to sell it, and we consistently heard that people weren’t sure a show with two female leads would be marketable. We decided one year later to go out with it again, because we had seen on TV that hadn’t happened, and it wasn’t the case. The tides had changed, and it was very refreshing that people realized you totally can have a show with two female leads. It’s nonsense. People have been doing it forever. Ever heard of Laverne & Shirley?
Liebling: We took it out all around town and had two offers. It wasn’t a slam dunk at Comedy Central. It took some pushing, and we got very little money, but we did the pilot. Then it took them about six months to decide they were going to pick up the series, because I just don’t think they were sure. But I got Kent to say yes to the pilot, and that was the next step.
Alterman: Natasha and Riki have a great vision for what the show is. It’s got such an original way into this world. On the surface it’s a period show, but it’s still contemporary at the same time. It really has such deep social commentary about the wealth disparity that’s happening today, and also with reality TV and celebrity culture. It just has so much going on.
Konner: We get to lampoon anything from our current time by sort of showing that it existed 100 years ago, and how stupid it was 100 years ago because everyone was so awful and racist and classist. We get to shine a light on how terrible people were then, and then you can draw your own parallels.
Liebling: It makes it relevant. It takes it from being a parody or a sketch to actually having a real point of view. Manor comedies or Upstairs/Downstairs were always reflective of the times, and in some great way, it shows how things never change. Episode 202 aired the week after Orlando, but it’s about hatchets, and “If everybody had a hatchet, then nobody would get hurt, because you can stop other hatchets with your own hatchet.” The class issues haven’t changed. The way we treat other people hasn’t changed. We have better health care now and we’re not shooting up cocaine at the dinner table—usually—but some of the key social issues are the same. When you put it in the language of that time, you see that these are things we still grapple with.
Ganeless: Fans love it, there’s that. It is just one of those shows that keeps getting better. Not unlike Drunk History, they find ways to evolve it every season. Natasha and Riki and that entire cast are super-talented people.
Leggero: Being able to be in the past and have these characters, they get to dress up and represent a different time. It’s been so easy to get such a great cast, because everyone wants to dress up and talk like they’re from 100 years ago.
Liebling: We were able to get this incredible cast together—and those actors love to dress up. There’s a lot of room for improv, and it’s just a lot of fun for the people in it.
Leggero: Michael Ian Black plays our butler Peepers, and he is just meant to play this part. He is channeling something. It was an honor for some of these butlers to serve the family, and he really gets that in the most comedic way. Jason Ritter, who plays our brother, I feel like he’s channeling something too. I’ve seen him do more dramedy-type stuff, but he is a great physical comedian. He plays an idiot—he’s just so stupid—when he just lets himself go, it’s so funny. He’ll do pratfalls just in rehearsal. Every time he walks by the pool he would pretend to fall in. And you’re just like, “Jason, don’t!” He has such an amazing control over his body—when we get him doing more physical stuff, it’s so great.
Konner: We pay people very little, so we don’t have a lot of leverage in that sense. They have their network shows on NBC and CBS, and we really have to work around schedules. We have to constantly change scripts and cut people out of storylines and add people back into storylines.
Liebling: Almost everybody on that show is on another show. Nobody’s ever available on the same day, so it is a scheduling nightmare. You only have Michael Ian Black for three weeks and Christina Hendricks for three weeks, but they’re not the same three weeks and they have three scenes together, so what are you gonna do? And Dave Koechner is doing this movie and has a booking there, and Paget Brewster’s on Grandfathered. Tom Lennon’s on The Odd Couple. The schedule, because those people aren’t technically locked up on our show outside of a few core players, we have to work around them. Scheduling-wise, the AD probably has the hardest job on that show. On the comedic side, it’s just amazing.
Konner: In one day we’ll shoot scenes from four different episodes, so it is quite an ordeal to keep all the storylines intact, but that’s really a testament to Riki and Natasha. They have such a good sense of how all the stories go together in the season. They really have a vision for everything.
Liebling: Comedy Central is [now] so supportive of it from a content standpoint. I think they were really surprised by it. I think I was even a little surprised by how elevated it became.
Konner: Last time we didn’t get picked up until four or five, maybe even seven episodes had aired. So the fact that we found out we got picked up for a third season so early really opened the door for us to come up with a lot of great things. I can’t tell you too much, because it will give away what happens at the end of this season.
Alterman: It’s so funny, it’s so sharply written and amazingly performed by this incredible cast of comedy powerhouses. We feel really lucky to have it on the air, and so as long as they want to keep doing it, so far we’re right there with them.
Today: Snapchat and beyond
“People aren’t just passive viewers any more of television shows.”
Comedy Central was one of Snapchat Discover’s inaugural media partners; in March of 2016, a Variety survey placed the network second to BuzzFeed in popularity among Snapchat users ages 13 to 24. A week later Comedy Central announced the renewal of four existing Snapchat series, plus the addition of nine new properties ranging from animation and sketch to stand-up and reality.
Launched in September 2011, the social media app monetizes Discover channels based on the views and shares of Snapchat’s estimated 150 million daily users. With content available for a standard 24 hours only, Comedy Central and a dozen-plus other brands continue experimenting with talent, content, and format in accordance with fan reactions. [Full disclosure: Those brands include The A.V. Club’s sister publication, The Onion.] And like MotherLoad, Atom.com and CC Studios before it, the platform encourages the development of new voices. (Popular series Now Hiring even helped Michelle Wolf land a gig on The Daily Show.)
The Snapchat push was the latest in a legacy of creative and technological innovation spearheaded by Michele Ganeless, who joined Viacom in 1990 and has collaborated in Comedy Central’s evolution since its 1991 launch. From 2001 to 2004 she served as executive vice president and general manager of USA before first returning to Comedy Central as general manager, then becoming its first female president in 2007.
On May 10, Ganeless announced her departure from the network for which she’d overseen nearly 10 years of popular and critical success. She remains in an advisory role to transitioning execs including successor Kent Alterman through September.
Konner: I remember very clearly the moment the cable provider in my house started showing commercials for a new Comedy Channel, as well as the commercials for Ha! And I remember very quickly becoming completely obsessed with the network. I watched it almost exclusively, and starting taping everything off of it. I would make Kids In The Hall videotapes to show my friends. From really the first moment it existed, I’ve been a fan. It’s been a dream of mine to be associated with them in any way. Although there was a middle chunk where I think I was not as excited to—it doesn’t matter. Everybody knows there was a middle part. But now we’re in a very exciting new era of leadership at Comedy Central.
Herzog: Nobody else was doing what Comedy Central was doing at the dawn of original programming in cable. What’s changed is there’s a lot of other people who are in the original-content and comedy business now on several different platforms. And competition just grows and grows and grows. That’s probably the biggest change.
Hardwick: People aren’t just passive viewers any more of television shows. People are actively involved in shows, and they influence what happens week to week. Television as an industry was spoiled for a long time because it was basically just a monologue that they would fire at the audience, who didn’t really have a lot of choices: “Well if you want entertainment, this is how you have to get it! And if you don’t like that, fuck you! What are you going to do?” Now things are so much more conversational. It’s a two-way conversation, which I think is great. It’s how it should be.
Lawrence: I grew up on Comedy Central. Beat The Geeks helped get me through college. I think that’s a part of why you get into comedy: So you can make someone feel the way you did. And now they can tweet at you and say that you did make them feel that way, but they no longer feel that way because you’re no longer as funny as you used to be. So it’s great!
Herzog: When I was at Comedy Central the first time, as a 360 business it was understood that comedy’s strength was in the domestic business, and comedy didn’t really travel that well internationally. Now it travels much better internationally and is a much bigger business. And as much as anything outside of music, comedy travels great in a digital world. Phones have become what transistor radios were to me and my generation. My kids walk around with phones, watching comedy content in short form all day. Versus talking to their friends about their favorite songs and favorite bands, comedy is the real commodity out there. I think a lot of these kids are making friends and evaluating people based on who they like in comedy, because that’s what they’re interacting with in their mobile life.
Hardwick: It’s like stand-up: You have an immediate reaction when you do something in a stand-up show. You know if it works or not, because your audience is the other side of the relationship that’s helping to dictate that. Again, television used to be very spoiled because it was one platform, and television now is just a platform. Now you have to chase your audience a little bit and go, “Okay, we’re gonna aggregate the same numbers that television used to get, but we’re going to make content that’s five times the work.”
Herzog: The strategies continue to evolve, as does that universe. Going back now several years, there was a digital group, and then a traditional linear group. A couple years ago we did away with all that and put it all together, saying it wasn’t “digital and linear” anymore—it’s just Comedy Central. It’s the brand. And the brand doesn’t exist just on TV. It’s omnipresent. It’s on all these platforms, and will be on platforms we don’t even know about yet.
Hardwick: I always think it’s a mistake when people refer to “digital” like it’s all one thing. But it’s not: Even Amazon, Hulu, Netflix—the interfaces are different and people interact with those uniquely. “Digital” is a multifaceted, multi-headed beast. You have to create appropriate content for each of the platforms.
Herzog: Every show is different, and very much continues to evolve. It’s something we’re dealing with every day on every platform with every show in a 360 way.
Hardwick: I don’t believe in always repurposing the same content across every platform. People interact differently with Snapchat than they interact with Facebok than they interact with Twitter than they interact with Twitch or television.
Larsen: I didn’t really know that much about Snapchat a year ago. As we started getting into it, we realized, “There’s a huge audience here. And it such a great way for us to engage with our audience, because comedy works in short bites, and that’s what works on Snapchat. We’ve also found—and this is something that’s kind of surprising—longer-form works really well in certain context. This Is Not Happening, we started putting some of those stories on Snapchat, and it actually became, of all the shows that we’ve put out there, the show that engages audiences the longest, even beyond Key & Peele. These are all five- to seven-minute pieces, and people are spending an average of two to three minutes on this platform. With all the others, it’s seconds.
Saifer: For This Is Not Happening, we’re getting 500,000 views per snap for our show. And we have a pretty high conversion rate. I think Snapchat is a cool way to get people who are growing up in a totally different age to show them what the content is and then have them come find it in real life.
Larsen: Finding ways for Snapchat to complement what we’re doing on-air, and sort of creating custom Top Snaps for it, is integrating into how we think about production. When we make a series, we always try to make a Snapchat component that’s tailored to the platform, that isn’t just some discarded footage. It’s real content that is meaningful to our fans.
Alterman: Snapchat is a platform that we see our audience is fully engaged with. When Snapchat Discover launched, Comedy Central was the only entertainment brand to be invited to have its own channel. We look at Snapchat in any number of ways simultaneously. First and foremost, it’s a platform where our audience is, so we want to meet them there. It’s also a platform that’s monetized, so that is of interest to us. And it’s another platform that gives us more shots with people, especially with emerging talent. So we’ve been generating a lot of content with new talent relationships.
Larsen: Once we started seeing that there was real engagement and a real appetite for our content, we revved it into high gear and started looking for young talent to come pitch us ideas. Some we would develop internally with talent we thought would be right for that platform.
Herzog: Nikki Glaser started creating original content for Snapchat even before her show went on the air. It really helped her gain a foothold out there, and sort of sell the show.
Alterman: We’ve been able to use it successfully to launch shows. Before Not Safe With Nikki Glazer launched in January, she started doing Quickie With Nikki as a Snapchat series. In a way it was putting content from the show out, but content that was specifically designed and produced for Snapchat, but it came from the same voice as the show. We started a few months out, and it got the audience starting to connect with her and her point of view in advance of the launch. That proved to be very effective, and she continues to do the Quickie With Nikkis, so we see applications for our existing franchises. All our shows now, Daily Show and so on, are doing content specifically produced for Snapchat.
Ganeless: We launched Not Safe With Nikki Glaser as a Snapchat original—Quickie With Nikki—before we even got to linear, after we already picked up the series. It’s such a great platform for discovery. Whether it’s original series for Snapchat like Swagasaurus or it’s content specifically produced for Snapchat that helps a younger audience discover the shows that air on linear, it’s just become this great place for discovery for a younger audience. Their first choice for platform is not linear television.
Larsen: We’ve developed several shows: Brandon Wardell’s Hot Takes, Nikki Glaser’s Quickie With Nikki, Liza Treyger’s Like It With Liza, James Davis’ Swagasaurus. But we’ve had some real success on that platform, and we discovered that it’s a great place to break new talent. It’s not the same commitment as sitting down, turning on the TV, and spending a half-hour with someone. It’s a quick 30-second, two minutes, and if you like it, you’ll go back for more. It’s a really important talent-development tool because we can do a lot of content. It doesn’t stay up forever, and we can try new things and explore and find new avenues for talent to engage with us and with the brand, and get experience. We found that stand-up works uniquely well on that platform, because it’s short, it’s jokes, and you can get a quick fix and get out.
Treyger: Comedy Central was ahead of a lot of places. They’re still investing a lot into younger talent and giving an opportunity to grow your voice and your skills, and be able to create something. I was really happy when they brought it up that they were doing this and had me in mind. The idea is just so simple: I just tell people what to do: “Eat It, Do It, Ban It, Stop It, Like It.” It’s a minute-and-a-half once a week for six weeks, and then you’re done. I just riff on whatever topic for as long as I want, and they cut it down so it’s tight.
Joe Zimmerman (Animal-Lolz): Comedy Central was reaching out to people, asking if they had any ideas for Snapchat. They’re doing fewer webseries, and putting all their webseries energy into the Snapchat channel. I guess all the data is telling them it’s the next big thing, and they’re getting a lot of traffic through their channel. I did a Comedy Central Corporate Retreat based on nature and wildlife at UCB East. They said they liked my animal stuff, and we started talking about my doing fun Animals Facts and jokes about them. They suggested getting one of their animators [Charlie Hankin] to cut back and forth between me doing stand-up and an animation of the animal I’m talking about. I like Caleb Synan a lot, and he’s also doing one called Deadliest Chef about cooking competitions.
Abramson: We were touring 7 Minutes In Purgatory as just a live show. Jordy Ellner saw the show at the Denver High Plains Comedy Festival. At that show the comedians had performed outside, as opposed to in a separate room. That means people were walking and cars were driving by. It was a really fun way to do the show. He just really liked it and wanted to start taking about it. We’ve been working on it ever since. When you hear of a Snapchat show, it’s maybe on some level a punchline. But I’m okay with that. Anything to remove expectation, I think is great for comedy.
Treyger: With a TV show, I’ve been working on something for a year and a half, and there’s still more work to be done. It’s a huge project. As a kid when you think about TV and someone’s show got canceled, you’re like, “Eww, what a loser.” And now, knowing how much work every single thing takes, getting a TV show on the air is such a huge accomplishment. Just making television is so much hard work. With Snapchat you are doing things on a smaller scale, and it’s just me. You don’t have to think of other characters—there’s just one day of work. The advantages of both are having your story or your thoughts or what you want to share with the world, and having an avenue to do that.
Abramson: I see it as an advantage. I think it gives more comedians a chance to work with Comedy Central. There’s not all of the stakes that come with a TV show right off the bat. It would certainly have been overwhelming for me if that had been the case, even if it would have taken longer. Instead it lets us almost have trial runs. Rather than a pilot that they look at and see, “Okay, does this work or not?” they’re still making something that they can put out and use, and that is great for me, too. Then if it were to become a TV show, we already have a relationship. We already know how we work. We’ve been able to tweak the show and how it’s structured for that format.
Alterman: As we develop with them, we’re looking and seeing how they’re wired. What is their work ethic? What is their broad approach to things? Do they show signs that they will be able to handle the producorial aspects of creating and running their own show? We’re looking at all those things simultaneously as we get to know them and work with them.
Lawrence: Now, being a comic, you’ve got to do everything. Would I like this to eventually be a TV series? Yes. Do I have the clout to have that happen? No. So this is a way for me to make some money, express myself, see if there’s an audience for it at all. They’ve taken some of their Snapchat stuff and made it digital, and they’ve taken digital stuff and put it on TV. So obviously the end goal would be the TV series, but I’m happy doing it right now. There’s a freedom to it that I love, and there’s a direct communication to that audience. You are genuinely entertaining the future, because there’s going to be a lot of 14-year-olds. I’m sure I look like their angry dads, but it will be fun. And it’s just a different thing: There’s podcasts, there’s Snapchat, there’s Instagram, there’s Twitter, and if you want to make it in this business until you have everything you want, I think you have to try it all.
Hardwick: There’s a really nice renaissance of some of the most phenomenal, innovative, creative comedy happening at Comedy Central. And I promise you I’m saying that as a comedy fan, not as an employee. Otherwise I just wouldn’t say anything. Even digital stuff they’re doing, like Kurt Braunohler riding a Jet Ski down the Mississippi, there’s just a lot of really great stuff that I hope people appreciate. Because people don’t necessarily sit down and watch TV all day on one channel like they used to when I was growing up, they may not necessarily think of it that way. But when you look at all the talent back to back to back, I think it’s a really great time for Comedy Central, and it’s a really great time for comedy right now.
Abramson: They seem determined to really help nurture young comedians. They’re looking at digital platforms as a great way to do that, so I’m happy about it.
Carlos Alazraqui (Reno 911!): I always found them to be open and accepting of ideas, and taking risks and letting people try new things. I think they’ve done a great job at shaping really good comedy, even more so than HBO. HBO has some really good shows, but Comedy Central is more for the regular guy. And they’re only growing. They’re like Pixar to me: They evolve. They get it.
Lawrence: What Comedy Central has done really well in the past couple years is realize so many different types of people like comedy, and different type of comedians. They’re doing a great job of showcasing that now. So even though the same person that loves @midnight may not love The Nightly Show, there’s two types of people that are being entertained. You look at Comedy Central for years, and they had good shows but not a lot of identity. I think they have a very good identity now.
Herzog: You’ve got to continue taking risks and taking chances. I would make it analogous to the day when record labels were a little more important than they are now: People would want to be on the same label that had the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan. U2 always said they signed to Island Records because that was the label Bob Marley was on, so that’s where they wanted to be. So people want to be here because we’re the place that put South Park or The Daily Show on. But you also just can’t coast off your history and legacy and heritage. You have to continue taking chances and breaking new ground so people know you’re a place that will do that and support that, and a place that understands artists and comedy. I think we’ve been really good at that. Our ability to find, develop nurture and launch new talent, that’s what we do. That’s the lifeblood of Comedy Central.
Konner: Comedy Central has the greatest legacy of comedy that’s ever existed. It’s the place where everybody started, it’s the place where everybody comes back to, it’s the place where everybody has been given a million opportunities, and a lot of our greatest comedians get discovered at Comedy Central.
Liebling: The thing that was and still is so great about Comedy Central is the willingness to reflect our world back through comedy. That’s what we do, and that’s why those shows stick: because they’re unafraid. There are cultural trends, emotional trends, and periods over time where things are looser or tighter. But Comedy Central really is unafraid to allow people to express their voice, and I can’t think of any other network—certainly on basic cable—that is as much about hiring people for their point of view, and embracing that point of view and allowing those things to define the success and failure of their own shows. They’re never forcing you to try to be this or that. It’s like, “Okay, we like that. We think it’s cool, it’s smart, it’s hitting a nerve.” Sometimes you can’t even articulate the nerve it’s hitting.
Treyger: Everyone at Comedy Central cares so much about fostering talent. They’re on the comic’s side and do a really good job of nurturing unique voices. They go out and see comedy everywhere there’s anything comedy-related happening.
Feinstein: I know a lot of people at Comedy Central are really out at the shows. They’re not just always in the office, but are people comics know and hang out with a lot at festivals and in the clubs.
Noah: They are really about the talent, and a lot of people don’t realize that until they go to other networks. Then they tell you, “Oh, we did not realize how much fun it was to work at Comedy Central.” It’s very rare to find networks that are still pushing the creative before anything else. Yes, it’s a business, but the creative [side] is really, really a big part of what’s going on. So I think that’s the most exciting thing, is just seeing the roster of shows, seeing the talent that is being fostered, and seeing a network moving into the next generation.
Lampanelli: There’s a lot more young programming, which is great. It kind of blows for old bitches like me. As an older person, I don’t think it really represents anybody older, but I get it. Look, it’s owned by MTV, you want your 18-to-34 demographic, and I totally respect that. But I like it now, especially with Trevor Noah. It’s like, “Get with it! The world is a lot bigger than handsome white guys. It’s also a lot of white chicks and others as well.”
Bell: We feel really lucky to be on a show on Comedy Central, honestly. They allow us to be so creative and use our own voices, and they don’t come in with a ton of notes and trying to “fix” what they think your show should be. They just let you do it the way you want to do it, and really get your voice out there. For Charlotte and I—and I know for the Workaholics boys as well—that has been the key to the success of those shows so far, is really just allowing the creative people to be creative.
Adam DeVine (Workaholics): It’s been a real home for me, and it’s amazing that they saw something in the four of us and gave us a shot, gave us a voice, and gave us a career. I think they do that for a lot of up-and-coming talent, and I think without them in the landscape, there wouldn’t be a lot of your favorite comedians, you wouldn’t know about them… What’s cool is in the last few years it’s really been in an upswing, too.
Herzog: Kent Alterman and his staff are largely responsible for the tremendous, constant influx of new talent that we’ve seen over the last couple years.
Liebling: Having Doug and Kent there for so many years, and Michele, everybody is committed to a creative landscape where people can feel so much support to just go at it the way they want.
Jordan Peele (Key & Peele): It seems to me that Kent and Michele made the strides and the direction of making it more diverse. If not, then the way that they conduct themselves in their leadership definitely implies the climate to do so. But I think it’s a really, really fantastic development at Comedy Central that I think will be very rewarding for them. In the past it has felt like comedy was very demographic, that there was white dude comedy, Def Jam Comedy, and female voices in comedy were pretty limited. Comedy Central has put together a nice little melting pot there, and the beauty of it is the voices turn out to be not very different. It’s still all comedy. It operates under the same math and rules that the part of human nature looking to laugh operates by. So it’s a great development. But yeah, I think Kent Alterman and Michele Ganeless had a huge hand in it.
Treyger: One of the things that does bother me is when you hear people say, “Comedy Central’s just for men! It doesn’t represent women!” Miro Terrell, Anne Harris, and JoAnn Girgioni are the three women I met who are kind of in charge, and women are really doing amazing things at Comedy Central. When people say, “Comedy Central doesn’t care about women; it’s just a bunch of men everywhere!” or go on these Twitter rampages, they have no idea what they’re talking about. These women are in charge, and they know what they’re doing—JoAnn’s been at Comedy Central for over 15 years and has seen and worked with everyone. If you’re not getting something or not liking where you’re at, I’m telling you it’s not them. Be cognizant of all the amazing women they’ve been working with for many, many years.
Feinstein: JoAnn Grigioni and Anne Harris and Miro Terrell, who all work in the New York office, they’re the ones that gave me my first TV appearances, so they’ve been real supportive of me for a while. So they’re not just making a lot of female-driven shows, but they have a lot of great female executives too.
Liebling: The world of 20 years ago is not going to be reflected comedically the same way the world is now. Every generation needs their people that can speak to their frustration, to hypocrisy, to social dilemmas. They need those people out there who represent those things for them. That’s why you have Broad City and Amy [Schumer] and these people who are tapping into whatever emotionally speaks to the viewers.
Everett: It’s exciting to see more women on Comedy Central, for sure: Broad City, Amy and Nikki, and the various specials that women are doing. You can tell by how audiences are responding that people wanted it, so I think the shift was timely, and I think it’s paying off for Comedy Central and for the audience. It’s a win-win.
Alterman: The world is increasingly more diverse. We’ve been continually looking to open our aperture. When I first arrived at the network I think there was a little bit of a conventional wisdom that our audience is young guys, so there were hardly any examples of female-driven shows. We started with Amy Schumer and Broad City and continued with Another Period, Nikki Glazer, Idiotsitter. It was important to get Key & Peele on the air. We look at diversity in so many different ways. But always the common bond is it has to be coming from people who have a strong point of view, something to say, a strong vision, and we believe in their potential to be funny and sustain whatever genre they’re going in, and hopefully create the potential for longevity.
Herzog: We’re always looking to broaden our palate. There are now more women on Comedy Central in the history of the channel. For a long time, truthfully, we weren’t sure women could work on Comedy Central, as our audience was very distinctly young males. But we have trounced that notion. We are always looking for diversity in terms of ethnic makeup as well. At the end of the day, what we always fall back on is that we’re looking for funny. So we don’t care what color it is; we don’t care what gender it is. We just want it to be funny for our audience. So it’s “funny first” here, but there’s no question we’re always looking to broaden out our audience, find differing points of view, and reflect who’s out there in the world we live in.
Alazraqui: It’s evolving with the demographics and the styles of comedy that are out there. I think it’s pretty representative of what’s out there. I wish there was a smarter Latino show. Mind Of Mencia was fine, and I love Gabriel Iglesias, but I wish there was a Latino equivalent of The Office or Reno 911! Maybe it’s up to me to write something like that, you know? But that’s the only hole I see: a smart, Latino-driven show like a In Living Color-type show or a Reno 911! or a Key & Peele. Other than that I think it’s pretty damn good.
Key: Because we traffic in stereotypes and generalizations very often in comedy so that you can manufacture a shorthand for a diverse audience as fast as possible, we very often resort to just going, “Oh I’ll just do the stereotype and then I’ll get a laugh.” But there’s no depth to the laugh. What I think is important to have is comics of color, comics of a culture that we don’t know as much about, comics that are female. When we tell all those different stories, it gives us an opportunity to say, “Oh, I guess I never thought of that. I never thought that anybody thought that way. It wasn’t my experience to think that way.” The comedy bends our minds to accept other people’s stories. And the reason you accept stories is because of laughter. The laughter makes you accept other people’s stories. I say this all the time: “Socially, comedy is great because it’s a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.” When you laugh, you start to experience a different level of tolerance. And you will go beyond tolerance to acceptance. So I think you need to hear all those different types of stories.
Hardwick: Comedy shouldn’t just be one voice. Comedy exists to represent as many different points of view as possible.
Larsen: In the stand-up front, that’s probably the most diverse part of our portfolio. We go out with the intent of finding the funniest, most unique voices that fit the Comedy Central brand. Stand-up is a diverse place, but it’s almost like all that stuff melts away if you have a good joke. On that front I feel like we’re going great. When you look at the landscape, it does skew very white on the channel, and it’s certainly not something we’ve blind to. I think we have some huge opportunities in connecting with African-American audiences and Hispanic audiences, and it’s really about find the right vehicles that both work for the brand, that fits—so when you turn on the channel you don’t go, “I don’t know what that is.” You want to make sure it fits the point of view of the brand. I think that sometimes can be a challenge, but it’s something that we’re working incredibly hard on figuring out over the next year or two, getting out more programming that reflects the diversity of our audience.
Ganeless: I feel like the current portfolio—and the last five to seven years—really does a better job of reflecting our audience. We’ve never been like, “We need a black show and we need a female show and we need an Asian show!” It’s, “Who are the funniest people?” There is so much great talent out there right now, but I think the talent we have had from Key & Peele to Amy and Natasha and Nikki and Trevor and Larry and the correspondents on The Daily Show are a great reflection of the viewers now. I think 15 years ago our viewers were mostly white males, and the millennial generation wasn’t really of age. Now, and Trevor is the best representation of this, the millennial generation is more diverse than any generation, and they look at the world in such a different way. I think our channel now—and the talent on the channel—is a reflection of that. I have to stop saying “we,” because it’s “they” now. But I have to say, I’m incredibly proud. I was there for 20 of the 25 years that that channel has existed, and I’m so proud of the work everyone has done. Particularly in the years I’ve been president, because there are so many great voices that have been launched, and so many smart programs.
Larsen: She brought a lot to the table. I love Michele, and she was like “mom.” In this crazy business we’re in, she was a sane person in an insane universe that kept us all grounded. What was so special about her was she is a great listener, and always someone that whenever there were disagreements about things or we got emotionally involved in a project, she was always the one to stay grounded and make sure we made decisions for the right reasons. I wouldn’t say she’s pragmatic, but she was detail-oriented and big-picture. She was always a calming influence on Comedy Central and how we did things. She’s definitely someone we miss, not because the current leadership isn’t great. Just on a personal note, she was lovely.
Alterman: Michele was leading Comedy Central at a time where this incredible disruption and upheaval started, and her real leadership strength was that she’s someone who’s very decisive and really good at executing and getting things done. At the same time, she did not put herself in a position to be vulnerable to expediency. She was seeing how the landscape was changing, and she was really the leading pioneer to start to pivot Comedy Central into not just being a linear network, but into a multiplatform brand. So on the one hand, incredibly decisive leadership and execution, and yet really open to change and disruption. She had a really strong hand in sort of guiding people through so much uncertainty that is still ongoing. It’s not that anything is resolved—it’s still a constant process—but she really is the one who instigated us questioning and changing how we do so much stuff.
Ganeless: I need to try to challenge myself. Not that the job wasn’t a challenge, believe me. But for me it’s just a moment in my life that presented itself: the timing of my deal being up this year and saying, “Okay, do I want to try doing something different?” The hard answer was “Yeah, I want to try something different. Maybe build something else, somewhere else.” The timing was also right, because the senior team there is so ready to lead. We’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years in our process and our structure to make sure that we were meeting our viewers where we needed to. And our process reflected that, so I feel the last couple of years—unconsciously even—I’ve been leading toward this: setting it up, getting it ready so I could go try flexing new muscles and do something different. After a little break. Maybe a summer off, if I’m lucky.
Many Comedy Central shows in this oral history are available to purchase on Amazon, which helps support The A.V. Club.