In 1993, Art Bell, marketing head for the fledgling Comedy Central network, commissioned an ad campaign to run on New York City buses for a new show called “Politically Incorrect,” starring comedian Bill Maher. In his previous role as co-head of programming, Bell greenlit the show, giving Maher his big break.
Just after the campaign debuted, Bell took a call from a clearly irate Maher, who asked him, “What the f–k were you thinking with those bus ads?”
The ads featured politically incorrect statements on the side of buses directed at the passengers, such as, “Does this guy’s head look pointy to you?”
“If you think this is good advertising, then you obviously don’t know what the f–k you’re doing,” Maher said. “I’ve made some calls, and I’m trying to get you fired.”
Bell shares this and countless other anecdotes in his new memoir, “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor” (Ulysses Press).
Bell started thinking about an all-comedy network consisting of short, funny clips from movies and TV shows while pursuing an MBA at Wharton. While doing economic modeling for HBO in 1987, his dream became reality when he successfully pitched the idea to CEO Michael Fuchs.
“Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor” (Ulysses Press).
Bell named it The Comedy Channel, and HBO lawyers negotiated with the major entertainment unions for the rights to air clips.
Fuchs announced the channel on May 17, 1989. But two days later, Bell’s excitement was quashed when MTV announced their own all-comedy network, which would feature old sitcoms, called HA! The TV Comedy Network. Then, eight weeks before The Comedy Channel’s launch, the Director’s Guild rescinded their permission to use clips. An organization board member balked, and it was “rumored to be Woody Allen.”
Bell’s entire strategy collapsed, as they could now only use clips that aired on HBO.
Over the next two months, Bell bought short film libraries and added original programming.
The Comedy Channel launched on November 15, 1989. Critics hated the repetitive content, with New York Magazine calling it “the biggest cable flop in years.”
While trying to keep the channel afloat, Bell also discovered the challenge of dealing with talent.
Their clip show “Short Attention Span Theater” was hosted by comedians Patty Rosborough and Jon Stewart. Channel executives quickly realized only one of them was necessary.
“We immediately recognized that Jon Stewart was a standout performer and destined for bigger things,” Bell writes. “He and Patty were cute together . . . but Jon was the show.”
But when Rosborough was fired, Stewart quit in solidarity. It was left to Bell to talk him down.
“You can’t do this!” Stewart yelled. “You can’t just fire Patty without even talking to me about it. We’re partners, we’ve been working together for three months. If Patty goes, I go.”
Stewart ultimately agreed to stay “. . . to be fair to you, and my commitment to SAST.”
Meanwhile, HA! launched on April Fools Day, 1990, also to poor reviews. Many called for the networks to merge, and it was little surprise when the merger was announced around Christmas.
Comedy Central debuted on April Fools Day, 1991.
In early 1992, they hired Al Franken to mock the State of the Union speech as it happened for a heavily-promoted special called, “The State of the Union: Undressed.”
This show became the first step toward Comedy Central developing a unique identity.
The night of the speech, Bell was at the studio watching Franken and producer Billy Kimball prepare. By 7 pm, Kimball said to Franken, “Al, you need to get to makeup. We go live in two hours.”
Franken shot Kimball a glance.
“Did you just say, ‘We go live?’” Franken asked. “I thought we were taping it. No way I’m doing this live.”
“He started walking toward the studio door and said to nobody in particular, ‘I’m calling my manager,’” Bell writes.
Bell thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t, and Bell watched him leave in “confused horror.”
Laurie Zaks, the network’s VP of Talent, hurried after Franken, and got him to return a few minutes later. She never revealed how.
And with that, Comedy Central had its first hit.
“As I watched, I felt we were entering unclaimed comedy territory and planting our flag,” Bell writes. “It was our first foray into using news and politics as a platform for comedy. That night was a turning point: we discovered what we were good at.”
Comedy Central covered political conventions and returned to the State of the Union. But the live broadcast format would also cause more problems.
The 1996 edition found Dennis Miller handling the comedy.
Dennis Miller hosts Comedy Central’s third annual “State of the Union: Undressed” in 1994.
The broadcast went smoothly until an hour in, when, Bell writes, Miller interrupted his commentary to tell the live TV audience, “I have to take a leak real bad.”
Once again, Zaks watched, then followed, as their host bolted out of the studio, but this time it was live on the air.
“Oh man, where’s the bathroom?” Miller said on live TV, still wearing his headset. “There’s gotta be a men’s room around here somewhere. Or a woman’s room. Hold on. This’ll have to do.”
The sound went dead as the audience at home watched the State of the Union, unmocked, while, Bell writes, Miller peed into a garbage can in the hallway.
Miller aced the rest of the broadcast, but when it ended, he “ripped off his headset, slammed it onto the desk, and stormed out of the camera frame.”
“F–k!” he screamed. “Oh God, what have I done?”
He ran into the men’s room, and Bell followed to talk him down.
“Dennis was sitting on the floor between the sinks and the stalls, his back against the wall, his head down, and his hands over his face,” Bell writes.
“What have I done? I just killed my career,” he said.
Dennis Miller on “Saturday Night Live” in 1988.
“You were great out there,” Bell said.
“Art, I took a leak into a garbage can. On TV. In front of what, two, three million people?”
“Audio only,” Bell replied, before finally convincing him the damage wasn’t that dire. They left, and Zaks gave Miller a comforting hug just as a woman who worked for her ran up and said, “Guess what? The switchboard’s lighting up like a Christmas tree — tons of people are calling about Dennis peeing!”
Despite this, the episode generated solid viewership, the reviews were positive, and Miller lived to pee another day.
But if Bell survived the debacle, outlasting entertainment industry politics was another matter.
Around this time, MTV executive Doug Herzog took over Comedy Central and brought his staff with him. Bell was fired shortly after.
He spent several years consulting before becoming president of Court TV and helping shape that network’s future.
Bill Maher in 1999.
Not only was Bell’s concept for a 24-hour comedy channel a great success, he also got some revenge on Maher.
While Maher was trying to have Bell fired, the bus ad’s creator, Allen Kay, informed Bell that the campaign was nominated for a Effie, the award for the most effective advertising in the industry.
That year’s Effie’s were hosted by Bill Maher.
As Maher read the nominees, a picture of each campaign appeared on screen behind him. When he read the name of his own show, he turned, saw the bus campaign, and said to the crowd, “Now that’s advertising!”
Then he read the winner: Korey Kay and Partners for ‘Politically Incorrect.’ ”
At the end of the night, Kay and Bell accepted congratulations as Maher walked by.
“From the corner of my eye I saw Bill walking through the crowd toward our table,” Bell writes. “I started to stand up. When he reached our table, Bill looked right at me, nodded slightly, and continued walking without saying a word.”