What’s Wrong with Comedy Central?

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I have been writing about comedy for about seven years now — hi, 2005! — and, whenever I interview a comedian, almost without fail the conversation will end with something like “Don’t make me sound like a jerk” or “Oh man, I’m just now realizing how long we’ve been talking and everything I said.” There’s a lot of anxiety and even dread among comedians; that much is pretty common knowledge: the wounded self-esteems, the brittle egos, the chest-puffing aspiration. But the thing I’ve always liked most about comedians is their candor. My mother always told me that people who are into brutal honesty do it for the brutality, not the honesty; but candor is a virtue where comedians trump business executives, tech entrepreneurs, fashionistas, dramatic actors, professional athletes and politicians like nothing else. Comedians tell it like it is. So imagine my confusion when I called up a bunch of comedians and asked them to contribute their thoughts to this story. For the first time in all those years, over and over I heard “you can’t quote me, man” and “I don’t really think I can talk about this, not even anonymously” and the old-school flat-out “no comment.” There was also a lot of understandable community-oriented “I don’t want to step on any toes.” This is a story about Comedy Central.

We’re in the middle of an interesting moment for Comedy Central, given some recent noteworthy departures there, including former Director of Development Sam Grossman. As pilot season gears up, it’s a good time to ask: how did Comedy Central get to its current situation?

On April Fool’s Day, 1991, Time Warner’s The Comedy Channel and Viacom’s Ha! cable channel merged to create CTV: The Comedy Network, which was renamed “Comedy Central” just two months later (Viacom bought out Time Warner’s share in 2003). Whatever the channel is today, it is a pioneer. Or was. Without Comedy Central, Adult Swim wouldn’t exist. Neither might, say, Archer. And Trey Parker and Matt Stone might still be struggling writers who pay their bills by making animated Christmas cards for execs at Fox.

But the fact is that Adult Swim does exist. And it is the best example of what has gone wrong at Comedy Central. It’s not just that Adult Swim is eating Comedy Central’s lunch. It’s also that its existence only highlights how out-of-touch Comedy Central is. Adult Swim’s weirdness — Robot Chicken, for example — allows for even deeper weirdness to be added to the mix (enter Delocated). Whereas if Delocated went to Comedy Central, it would seem out of place and would be sandwiched awkwardly between Tosh.0 and random stand-up routines. Certainly Comedy Central has found great, amazing, once-in-a-generation success in South Park, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Lightning has struck the same place many times, and even grazed again with more-fleeting cult hits including Mystery Science Theater 3000, Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, Politically Incorrect, Strangers With Candy, Chappelle’s Show, and Reno 911!. And, yes, South Park recently got extended until 2016. But when the news is all about the extension of the show for another season or two or even four, that’s a sign that the show is on its last legs (see also: Friends, ER, The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Simpsons).

The majority of Comedy Central’s programming has been flash-in-the-pan messes — and not in the cool way of Freaks and Geeks, Family Guy (the first time around), Arrested Development or Party Down — which, damn Comedy Central, where were you when those shows were being shopped around? Not even the hardest-core of comedy nerds cares about or even much remembers shows like That’s My Bush! or Straight Plan for the Gay Man. Of its dozens of cancelled shows, mostly one-season wonders, the two with the greatest longevity, tied at six seasons each, are the takes-little-effort Win Ben Stein’s Money and the appropriately-named Canned Ham. Although, thank God someone at Comedy Central was good and smart and kind and brave enough to open the door to the Upright Citizens Brigade, Stella and Sarah Silverman.

Even as comedy enjoys a renaissance where the Upright Citizens Brigade is enough of a cultural force to be profiled by Rock Center and where R-rated comedies such as The Hangover and Bridesmaids not only smash box-office records but also get Oscar nods, in the middle of all of that, why is Comedy Central so dull and irrelevant? The channel just announced that, beginning next year, it will show syndicated episodes of Community; that news follows last year’s syndication deals for 30 Rock, Entourage and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That adds to former syndication deals for Just Shoot Me, Married With Children, Scrubs and others. Not to mention the reheated corpse of Futurama. How did Comedy Central become a showcase for other channels’ comedies?

Partly — and here’s where all those “no comment” blurbs come in — that is because Comedy Central has a reputation as perhaps the most professionally thoughtless and creatively obtuse operation in the business. But, seriously, how bad could they be?

One comedian described a development process where, over the course of about four months, execs worked with writers to fine-tune every joke in a pilot — only to turn around at the end of that process and say “We love it. It’s perfect. Now all you need to do is change every single joke so that it feels fresh to us.” And that is far from the only case of bad blood. Louis C.K. was so wary of Comedy Central’s tinkering that he didn’t even try shopping his self-distributed stand-up special to them, writing them off as what he diplomatically called “a weird place” in an interview with The New York Times. In another case, an up-and-coming comedy troupe was purposely kept in development purgatory even though the channel didn’t have any intention of greenlighting anything, all just so that the execs could, as one comedian familiar with the situation said, “keep their hooks in” the troupe’s rising star — apparently a common practice.

Inexplicably, Comedy Central maintains two entirely separate-but-equal development offices, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. By the anecdotes of at least a dozen comedians and former Comedy Central insiders interviewed for this story, the job of the folks in LA is mostly to squash the ideas that come out of New York. The New York office seems to exist entirely for the sake of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

When I emailed Jenni Runyan, a top publicist at Comedy Central, to tell her about this story — “a kind of state of the union piece,” I told her, specifically looking at the channel beyond the buzz of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — she seemed really excited to connect me with Kent Alterman, the channel’s new head of original programming and production. She very enthusiastically told me all about Comedy Central’s DVD packages and other peripheral merchandising and brand extension; I told her I was more focused on the creative work involved in actual programming. “Can you send me some more specifics on the story you’re looking to do? Anything more than just focusing on the other shows that we air?” she wrote. So I sent her some specifics: I said I’d like to know how and why development is split between the two coasts, how they feel about Adult Swim and other competition, how Alterman’s vision and approach differs from his predecessor, Lauren Corrao, and the like. “I’m sorry,” I suddenly heard back from Runyan, “but this week doesn’t work for Kent. He’s interested, so maybe we can revisit.” Sure thing, I replied, because I convinced my editor to extend the deadline, so when is the earliest Kent is free? I never heard back. I guess that gives Comedy Central the last laugh here?

Richard Morgan has a really loud laugh that has abruptly ended some dates, including but not limited to his own. He has written about comedy for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, ESPN The Magazine and others.