April 15, 2024

True to Mission, Comedy Central Still Strong at 20

The networks are looking for the next “Modern Family.” Adult Swim is expanding. TBS is betting on Conan O’Brien. IFC is being praised for “Portlandia.” Even the USA Network says it wants to add sitcoms to its schedule. Everybody, it seems, wants to be in the comedy business.

Yet Comedy Central, which turned 20 years old on April Fool’s Day, has arguably never been more relevant. The late-night tag team of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert makes news almost every week, the creators of “South Park” are cracking up Broadway and the channel’s newest star, Daniel Tosh, is drawing more than four million viewers some nights.

Now the channel is patting itself and its competitors on the back with the Comedy Awards, which will be televised on Sunday on Comedy Central and several other channels owned by Viacom.

Comedy Central’s endurance is the result of talent-spotting and demographic marketing. “We have never wanted to be all comedy to all people,” said the channel’s president, Michele Ganeless. Doug Herzog, who oversees Comedy Central and two other channels owned by Viacom, said, “Everybody’s doing some comedy, but nobody’s doing exactly what we’re doing.”

The bull’s-eye for Comedy Central is the audience of males ages 18 to 34. Any younger, and the beer and car advertisers would be off target. Any older, and there are a dozen other channels advertisers could choose.

Sitting in her corner office in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan, Ms. Ganeless said the celebrations for the 20th anniversary were subdued. “Next year, we’ll be 21, we’ll be legal, maybe we’ll have a party then,” she said. “That’s more in the spirit of Comedy Central.”

Besides, the channel is still savoring its last big party, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington last fall. An aerial photo of the hundreds of thousands of attendees hangs above Ms. Ganeless’s desk. Of that day, she said, “I’ve never been prouder.”

To date, almost every one of the channel’s successes has been the equivalent of a stand-up act: what Ms. Ganeless calls “singular point-of-view comedy.”

“It’s taking a talent like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Daniel Tosh or Sarah Silverman, and giving them a platform to do their thing,” she said. The animated show “South Park” is similar, she said, because it comes from two best friends, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. (Comedy Central is a small investor in their Broadway show “The Book of Mormon,” which opened last month.) Even “Onion SportsDome,” the new satiric sports newscast from The Onion, “comes from a very specific point of view,” she said.

Comedy Central’s forays into other formats, like sitcoms and reality shows, have mostly failed, with the notable exceptions of “Reno 911!,” a satire of “COPS” that ended in 2009, and “The Sarah Silverman Program,” a scripted take on the comedian’s life, which ended last year. Ms. Ganeless said, “We’ll continue to try to find the right narrative shows for us, and if we find a reality show that’s the right fit, we’ll do that.”

This week, it will introduce “Workaholics,” a scripted narrative about three twenty-something men who work at a telemarketing company. A week later it will introduce “Sports Show with Norm MacDonald,” which Ms. Ganeless likened to “Weekend Update” for sports, recorded just two days before each air date.

Mr. Herzog has his eye on the midnight time slot, which directly follows the one-two current events punch of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” But first, he said, “we’d like a couple more keepers in prime time.” Last week, the channel ordered another full season of one such prime-time show, “Futurama,” which had been canceled by Fox in 2003 only to find a new life in reruns on Adult Swim, the nighttime version of Cartoon Network.

By far the channel’s most important prime-time show right now is “Tosh.0,” a collection of Internet video clips stitched together by Mr. Tosh, a 35-year-old comedian who attracted as many as 4.7 million viewers to new episodes of his show last winter. To date this year, he is responsible for all 10 of the channel’s top-rated telecasts..

A slide in a recent PowerPoint presentation for Viacom executives called “Tosh.0” “the template for future success stories” for two reasons. First, Mr. Tosh is a product of Comedy Central’s development pipeline. He appeared on the channel’s stand-up specials as early as 1999, and last fall its live events division helped to produce his nationwide tour, complete with $3 million in advertising.

Second, Mr. Tosh’s audience flocks to his Web site and his Twitter feed between episodes, making “Tosh.0” “our first truly multiplatform show,” said Erik Flannigan, the channel’s head of digital media. Perhaps most important, Mr. Tosh talks back, thanks to Twitter. “The millennials that are our audience now fully expect to be able to interact with talent,” Mr. Flannigan said.

For Comedy Central, “Tosh.0” is now the fourth wall of the house, alongside “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “South Park.” And that’s critical because both “The Daily Show” and “South Park” were conceived in the 1990s, making them almost as old as some of the channel’s viewers. Mr. Stewart is signed through mid-2013, but Comedy Central executives already dread the day that he decides to step down.

“If I were the guy who owned the Chicago Bulls, I’d be dreading the day Michael Jordan decided to retire, too,” Mr. Herzog said.

That may be where the development pipeline proves itself again. The pipeline starts with stand-up acts, like the ones that are now being featured on “John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show,” a six-episode spotlight on young comedians. From there, the channel sometimes signs talent deals, books half-hour and one-hour specials with comedians, and contemplates possible stand-alone shows.

“You can never have enough,” Mr. Herzog said. “You can never be funny enough.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d12b33dd2e21e47991ce76114682bd4b

Speak Your Mind