How Comedy Central Grew Up to Hold Its Own Against Netflix

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With Trevor Noah at the Daily Show desk, a more inclusive slate of scripted series and a new “strategic” approach to stand-up, can the network reclaim its name in the streaming era?

On the Hollywood set of Lights Out With David Spade, a 50-year-old man named Johnny the PA (not his real name) is wearing Daisy Duke cutoffs, a midriff-bearing T-shirt, and a hairstyle the show’s host likens to that of murderous It clown Pennywise.

“Hey, Farley, by the way, the [hair] plugs are working perfectly,” says comedian Norm Macdonald to Johnny, whose real-world identity is John Farley, the youngest brother of Spade’s late, great buddy, Chris Farley.

Sporting sparkling-new Nike high-tops, jeans, and a flannel shirt that belie his 55 years, Spade attempts to keep the nonsensical gag rolling (Johnny is trying to install a car alarm in NASCAR legend’s Kurt Busch’s vehicle) while engaging his other panelists for quips—Tonight Show veteran Jay Leno and stand-up star Natasha Leggero. The latter likens the two-month-old late-night show—featuring a rotating roster of Spade’s pals riffing on news and nonsense—to “a poorly planned barbecue: It smells like meat, all your old friends are here, and you’re almost too drunk to attend.”

Backstage after the taping, Spade rates the chaos of the episode (“fairly typical”) and reflects on this latest iteration of his career. “Jay [Leno] called after we premiered and said, ‘I love that the show is loose and not about politics.’ That was half of our pitch to the network,” says Spade. “[Daily Show host] Trevor Noah is already doing great, deep-dives on the issues. Why would I do a second version of those jokes?”

He also has a keen self-awareness when it comes to his place in the ever-more-tumultuous business of making people laugh. “I’m worst-case scenario: I’m an older white guy. Everyone hates me. I may as well be an Exxon board member,” he says, laughing. “But that’s okay because our show isn’t about me. It’s all about jokes. And that’s why we’re on Comedy Central. ‘Comedy’ is in the name.”

When Comedy Central launched in the early 1990s, some of its early programming included Mystery Science Theater 3000, Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, and reruns of Absolutely Fabulous. But by 1997, the network had an enormous following of ad-friendly young, male viewers whose embrace of the animated series South Park helped anoint the network as TV’s first dedicated home for comedy.

And for more than two decades the Viacom property enjoyed breakout success: South Park, whose 23rd season premiere on Sept. 25 was the top cable-comedy telecast of the year in the 18 to 49 demo, has been the No. 1 prime-time cable comedy for six years and was just renewed through a 26th season. The network also has supported dozens of iconic comedians, from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to Dave Chappelle and Amy Schumer, and created a cache of zeitgeisty scripted and sketch series like Key & Peele, Broad City, and the still-going Drunk History.

But about five years ago, the foundation under Comedy Central shifted when Netflix started shelling out millions for talent deals and stand-up specials, including epic rumored payouts to Schumer ($13 million), Chris Rock ($40 million), and Chappelle ($60 million). Because of this, says one agent, Comedy Central suddenly had more “nostalgia factor” than buzz for his younger-comedian clients, many of whom had spent their teens and early-twenties Netflix-and-chilling.

Complicating the brand’s identity in the marketplace, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish announced last fall that the company would, like fellow behemoths Time Warner, Disney, and others, be restructuring its media networks—a plan that rolled Comedy Central, Paramount Network, and TV Land into one entity, led by veteran executive Kent Alterman as president of all three brands. One industry insider says the recent corporate shuffle has led to a “bit of a triage-like environment” at the company.

But as every cable and broadcast entity girds itself for the next wave of streaming-platform competition—Disney, AT&T, Comcast, and Apple are all set to launch their own direct-to-consumer video-on-demand services in the next year—Comedy Central may actually be in a unique position.

In the wake of peak bro TV series Workaholics’ finale in 2017, the network has been doubling down on a slate of more culturally and gender-diverse scripted series, including South Side, Alternatino With Arturo Castro, The Other Two, and the upcoming Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. The network remains a hub for signature properties South Park, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, Tosh.0, Drunk History, Crank Yankers, and the Comedy Central Roast, whose Sept. 15 Alec Baldwin installment has drawn more than 3 million viewers, and a mix of comedian-heavy showcase and talk-show series, like Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents and Spade’s Lights Out.

The network also has established a robust presence on YouTube with its Comedy Central Stand-Up channel, which has generated more than 206 million views since its 2018 launch, and expanded viewing options for all of its series: Shows can now be downloaded from the Comedy Central app, purchased through Apple and Amazon, or streamed from the network’s website.

Sarah Babineau-Jonas Larsen-Comedy CentralSarah Babineau (L) and Jonas Larsen attend Comedy Central’s Emmys Party at The Highlight Room at the Dream Hotel on September 16, 2018 in Hollywood, California. Both currently serve as coheads of Original Content at the channel.

Michael Kovac—Getty Images for Comedy Central

“What we ask ourselves is, How do we supercharge our top-performing franchises but also be future-proofing and forward-looking?” says Sarah Babineau, who alongside Jonas Larsen serves as cohead of original content under Alterman. “Broad City showed that Comedy Central isn’t just for young, white frat guys anymore. We still do well with young men. But our secret sauce, and Awkwafina and Arturo Castro are great examples, is identifying, developing, launching, and retaining talent.”

Adds Larsen: “We aren’t going to spend $40 million on a stand-up special. We want to be more strategic and invest that money for the long run.”

Emmy-nominated Daily Show host Noah tells Fortune that Comedy Central’s more-populist approach to programming is helping also to debunk antiquated ideas about demographics. “No network has a fixed viewership—your audience always reflects what you create,” says the 35-year-old South African comedian, whose post-Stewart tenure has seen the Daily Show’s 18-to-49 demo double in its diversity makeup and become TV’s most digitally engaged late-night show, with nearly 70 million weekly video views across social media. “There’s nothing wrong with white guys loving a show, but wouldn’t it be better if black women could enjoy it too?” he says.

If Comedy Central seems pro-risk, it could be because the company was a bit of an experiment out of the gate: In 1991, rival upstart networks the Ha channel (owned by Viacom) and the Comedy Channel (owned by Time Warner) merged into a single, ad-supported basic cable network devoted solely to comedic content.

“The beginning was a free-for-all,” says producer Debbie Liebling, who served as senior vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central in Los Angeles until 2002. “We threw stuff against the wall to see what stuck. I bought South Park. We had a show called BattleBots where nerds made robots that fought each other. What I loved was the rashness to try different formats. Nathan for You, Andy Daly’s Review—you’d still never see those shows anywhere else.”

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone hit Comedy Central’s sweet spot when they adapted their crudely animated shorts about a group of profane kids in a small Colorado town into a weekly series in 1997. With its equal-opportunity skewering of everyone from Tom Cruise to Gloria Allred to the Pope, the show became Comedy Central’s Holy Grail of appointment viewing for a young male audience seeking an edgier alternative to The Simpsons. (The show’s weekly refrain of “Oh, my God, they killed Kenny!” became as ubiquitous as any Wayne’s World catchphrase.)

South Park fans also helped transform the network into a welcome mat for comedic voices deemed too dangerous for broadcast TV. It was a trend that hit fever pitch in 2003 with the debut of Chappelle’s sketch series Chappelle’s Show, which became cult-level iconic when its star host dramatically walked away from his $50 million contract amid a rift with the network in 2006.

By the time Netflix started to dominate stand-up in 2012, the network had become so synonymous with what one agent calls “dude programming,” it was hard to persuade his younger, streaming-obsessed comedian clients to pitch to the network. “There was no way around the fact that Netflix got more eyeballs than any outlet for stand-up; young comics wanted their work to live there instead,” says the agent.

If Comedy Central couldn’t compete with Netflix’s funny money, its 151 million subscribers, or its unprecedented glut of stand-up offerings (at press time, nearly 200 specials have streamed or will stream on the platform), its execs could entice series creators with near-unfettered creative freedom.

“Other networks wanted big, tonal changes; Comedy Central liked our show for exactly what it was,” says Sarah Schneider, who cocreated, alongside fellow ex–Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, the critically acclaimed new series, The Other Two. The show centers on two wayward older siblings, one gay, whose Justin Bieber–ish younger brother becomes an Internet sensation. “I’ve heard horror stories from friends who make shows for other companies. Even if we don’t take notes from our execs, they’re still smart and make us think,” says Schneider.

Currying favor with a new generation of comedy writers—one that wasn’t as white, straight, or male as it was even a decade ago—meant that the network had to also boost inclusiveness within its own ranks. A spokesman for Comedy Central says that since 2014, its development team, which is now more than half female, has added several executives who are African-American, Latinx, and identify as LGBTQ.

South Side 2019 Series Premiere PartyCreator/Executive Producers Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin attend the Comedy Central South Side 2019 Series Premiere Party at HYDE Sunset: Kitchen + Cocktails on July 16, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.

Jesse Grant—Getty Images for Comedy Central

“A lot of translation happens when pitching comedy because most execs don’t look like us,” says Bashir Salahuddin, a cocreator and star of South Side, about a pair of African-American buddies hustling in Chicago’s working-class Englewood neighborhood. “But [development executive] Kellyn Parker, who is black, helped with that translation. Comedy Central was the only network that heard our pitch because it felt like a place that would protect the writer’s intention.”

In addition to curating new scripted fare, Babineau says she and Larsen are also “leaning more heavily into what the streaming platforms can’t do.” This includes ushering the Friday-night stand-up showcase series This Week at the Comedy Cellar through an upcoming second season (the topical-humor-heavy show has featured a total of 150 new comics thus far), exploring myriad feature projects with corporate sibling Paramount, and “tripling down” on animated-series development. They’re also immersed in the newly launched studio Comedy Central Productions, with plans to broaden the company’s comedy-music festival Clusterfest, held annually in San Francisco.

A New York–based media buyer says that all this bolsters Comedy Central with added brand value that may help the network weather the broader, impending streaming wars among Disney, Apple, and others. “It might level the playing field for a network like Comedy Central, which, in a way, has had a head start,” he says. “No one has a clue what’s coming, other than the business won’t be Netflix-versus-everyone-else anymore.”

Says one agent, who reps comedians, on whether the streaming giant can sustain its comedy dominance: “The feeling over the last few years that Comedy Central is old and stale … the tide is turning again as some comedians now feel that they can get lost in Netflix because of the volume.”

For Spade’s part, he’s relieved that his only job is to tell jokes. He says he has a diverse writing staff to keep his monologue fresh: “It’s a good mix … I’ll ask them, ‘Isn’t that sexist or racist?’ and they’re like, ‘No, no it’s fine!’ ” He also loves incorporating “silly shit from Instagram” and is most excited when he can can “break” up-and-coming comedians who otherwise might not have a shot on TV.

And if all else fails, he’s willing to bleed for a laugh.

“Sean Penn gave me this tattoo for a Saturday Night Live bit in 1995,” he says, revealing a rough-looking “Calvin and Hobbes” vignette on his left arm. “We thought it’d be funny if he gave me another one for this show,” this time revealing two letters on his right arm: C.F., for Chris Farley. “I interviewed Sean while he was doing it and told Farley stories. He loved it. Also, I couldn’t think of any other tattoo to get. Better than another dopey cartoon right?”

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