Art Bell is the author of Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. Yes, that’s right, he’s the creator of the Comedy Central cable channel in the United States (launched as “The Comedy Channel”).
While some favorite mistakes result from not listening to experts, it’s good that Art didn’t listen to all the people who told him that a basic cable channel built around comedy would never work.
Art convinced Time Warner and HBO to take a chance on the channel. As if to prove Art’s hypothesis that there was a market for this channel, within two days of their announcement, Viacom announced a planned competing channel to be called “HA! The Comedy Network.” The two channels merged within their first years, with the original combined name “CTV: The Comedy Network,” a mistake that caused confusion with a Canadian network. They adjusted by changing the name again to “Comedy Central.”
The initial format for The Comedy Channel was basically MTV for comedy, with the equivalent of MTV veejays introducing short clips of stand-up comedy, along with short clips from TV shows and movies in place of music videos.
One mistake was assuming that the channel could use short clips from movies and stand-up comedy. A few weeks before their launch, one of the unions, the Director’s Guild, changed their mind and withdrew their support. “Suddenly, we could no longer use the pile of comedy clips we had created.”
In the heat of their early struggles and executives threatening to shut them down, Art recalls, “The smart thing that we did was pivoting and making small changes as quickly as they could.” They bought existing programs like “The Kids in the Hall.” They developed programming, like The Daily Show and South Park, which led to great success as the channel celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021 (and Art thought it was a curious mistake for the network to never celebrate that anniversary on air).
One of the most innovative programs launched at Comedy Central started as a one-off special in 1992 called “State of the Union: Undressed,” which provided live commentary (and skewering) of the last State of the Union address of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
Art was excited to hire Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer and performer and future (now former) U.S. Senator, to provide commentary. They had rehearsed for a week, and, an hour before the broadcast, Al and his co-host Billy Kimball were told to relax as “we’re going live in one hour.”
Franken responded, “We’re doing this live? I thought we were doing this ‘live to tape.’ I’m doing this life,” and stormed off the set.
They all survived the mistake, regardless of the source of the miscommunication or misunderstanding about it being aired live. Franken came back five minutes later after a quick chat with his agent. But Art eventually learned from his lesson: Do not surprise the talent.
We sometimes have to repeat a mistake a few times before it sinks in. Jon Stewart’s first show on Comedy Central was “Short Attention Span Theater,” with his co-host Patty Rosborough. The consensus at the network was that Stewart was getting most of the laughs and would probably do better solo. It seems that Stewart was surprised to hear of Rosborough’s firing, as he got angry and threatened to quit because of his empathy for her, as Art recalls.
They surprised the talent again.
“Most people, including myself, keep repeating the same mistakes.” — William Shatner
Although Stewart left in 1993 to host a show on MTV, the mistake didn’t completely burn the bridge with him, as Stewart returned in 1999 to replace Craig Kilborn as host of “The Daily Show.”
Art’s favorite mistake was his outdoor marketing campaign for the 1992 launch of the show “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.” Art loved the campaign, so he showed it to everyone — except Maher.
Art knew not to ask Maher for input or approval because “He would have hated it. He would have hated anything.”
He admits it was a “gamble,” but “everybody loved” the campaign.
Right after it launched, Art got a call from Maher. “Art. I just saw that outdoor campaign you did for my show. And I have to say; I hate it. It’s terrible.” He told Art he was doing his job “very badly” and promised to have him fired before hanging up.
Thankfully, the head of talent at HBO and the president of HBO both refused to fire Art even after getting phone calls from Maher.
Was it a mistake to launch the campaign without Maher’s input? Was it a mistake to anger the star of Art’s show?
Other than that drama, Art thought the campaign was going well. It’s good that he didn’t listen to Maher because the ad campaign got nominated for a prestigious award. And who was going to be the host of the awards show? Bill Maher.
As Maher was announcing the nominees, he turned and looked at the screen and said, “That’s great advertising.” Art rolled his eyes. Maher had to announce that Art, his team, and partners at the ad agency had won the gold medal for the best outdoor advertising campaign in New York City.
After the victory, Art recalls, “Bill Maher walked by our table. And I said, ‘Hey Bill.” He didn’t say anything; he just walked by. That’s why it’s my favorite mistake.”
Art is still processing what happened, reflecting on what he learned — would he have done anything differently? Art was concerned that Maher would have shut down the campaign, but he wondered if having a conversation would have been the right approach. But Art knew his bosses would have his back.
He learned the same lesson from the Al Franken mistake: Don’t surprise the talent. Make sure they don’t see the campaign for the first time on their own. And that’s probably a good change management lesson for us all — be careful with the risks that come with surprising people, whether that’s your client or your boss.
And we sometimes must be careful when listening to the experts, or otherwise Comedy Central might not exist. But, we sometimes ignore experts at our peril. How do we know which is the case in our situation? Only time will tell.