On this episode of Uncommon Convos Dennis talks with two very talented men. Rowan Joseph and Shane Partlow are business partners who have had some great successes together over the years, which we will certainly explore. But separately and individually, they have each had amazing careers in the entertainment industry.
Art Bell, original pitchman for The Comedy Channel from HBO (which later became Comedy Central) stops by the podcast to talk about working in the entertainment industry, his lessons in competition, and how to get through a battle of the titans.
In This Episode
Dennis talks with Art Bell and how he came up with Comedy Central.
Full Episode Transcript
Hey, stick around to learn what it takes to make a dream come true. We’ll be talking to Art Bell, the man who started Comedy Central. Hi, I’m Dennis VanDerGinst. Join me in a series of entertaining and interesting conversations with entertaining and interesting people. We’ll explore various aspects of the human experience and what makes life more fun. This is Uncommon Convos. Thank you for tuning in to Uncommon Convos, I’m your host Dennis VanDerGinst, I hope you’re having a great day.
I also hope that if you haven’t already done so, you’ll take a moment to subscribe to Uncommon Convos on your favorite podcast platform. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s free to do so. If you aren’t sure how to accomplish that, just go to Uncommon Convos.Com and follow the prompts. That way you’ll be alerted whenever there’s a new episode dropping. And you can also find your way to the video version of this and each episode. I’d like to thank our sponsor VanDerGinst Law.
Yes, that is the law firm that bears my name. If you’ve been injured on the job or due to the wrongdoing of others, VanDerGinst Law would be honored to help. Now, those of us who really love comedy owe a debt of gratitude to our guest today. Art Bell is the man who started Comedy Central. And I know I’ve spent countless hours watching comedy programing that started out on the Comedy Channel and eventually became Comedy Central. Some of those notable shows include Mystery Science Theater 3000, Politically Incorrect, The Daily Show, and countless others.
Art wrote and published a great book about his experiences called “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor.” But if you read the book, I think you’re going to find that he hasn’t really lost his sense of humor because there’s some really funny stories in the book, though nobody could blame him if he had given what eventually occurred. In addition, Art was the president of Court TV, which as an attorney is also right up my alley.
So I’m so glad to talk to him today. Art, thank you so much for being with us. I really appreciate that.
Denis, thanks for having me.
You know, first of all, I want to tell you, I loved the book. I read it in one sitting. Yeah, it was it was a it was engrossing, a fast read. You know, I think everyone watching or listening should be sure to check out the book and show it right here. For those of you who are tuning in to the video version of this episode, here it is right here. “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor.”
And you can also get this via Art’s website, ArtBellWriter.Com or go to Amazon or other booksellers online and I suggest you do it. It’s a great, great read. You know, some memoirs are funny and interesting, but not very inspirational. And I think the thing I really liked about this book was it was both it was extremely inspirational, as well as being instructive in many of the trials and tribulations that that you went through and you kind of recited in the book are are ones that I am I feel, you know, are familiar to me and probably, you know, anyone else who’s tried to make a long held dream come true.
So, you know, let’s talk about that dream, Art. You know, what it was, where it came from, and how you made it come true.
Oh, OK. Well, first, I’d like to thank you for noting that it was inspirational, a lot of people have said that. And I’ve talked to business school students and film school students and lots of people who said, I’m giving this to my kids. So I’m glad that’s coming through for you as well.
Yeah, I. I started getting interested in comedy when I was eight years old. I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show, which, as you probably know, is a was a weekly variety show that featured comedians.
And that was my first taste of, you know, some of the great comedians, including Richard Pryor, who I saw for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. And I just thought I wanted to know more about this because it was so cool that these guys could make the whole country laugh at the same time. I like that.
Yeah. You know, and in reading the book, it seemed to me that you did, as you mentioned, have this passion for comedy, you know, from a very early age. But you didn’t exactly take a direct route to get into the business. I mean, if I remember your your your undergraduate degree that–was that economics or something along those lines?
Yes, that’s true. I never I never kind of dropped my passion for comedy along the way. I did some comedy in high school and wrote some comedy and performed a little bit in college. But I got fascinated with economics, I have to say, and I think it was probably due to the fact that I failed my first ever economics test my freshman year. I got to 17 and I thought, OK, I’m going to have to rethink my approach to this whole college thing.
And so I worked very hard on economics because it was hard. And by the time I finished the course, I thought, wow, this is really fun. And I loved it. So, yes, I took a job out of college as an economist, despite the fact that some of my friends said, hey, we’re going to L.A., we’re going to be writers. And I went, never happened. My parents beat it into me that you cannot make a living in the arts.
You cannot do that. You either have to be a doctor or lawyer or an accountant. I see you–you fit into one of those categories. So good for you. Your parents must have been very proud.
I was going to say, you know, as much as I would like to think that I’m funny, I never had that kind of passion, though. So it wasn’t like I was being pulled in a different direction to go into comedy, as it seems that that you were and you mentioned in college and doing some writing and performing. And I know that you were in the Follies at Wharton.
And isn’t–is is that where you actually started to envision this idea of an all comedy channel?
Yes, that is actually because I went to Wharton to get into the entertainment industry and I did write and perform in the Wharton Follies, which was a comedy musical comedy revue, and it reminded me how much I loved comedy. And so I started looking around for places I could work, like, how about a comedy channel? And it was it was just stupefying to me that there was no comedy network out there because it was, you know, sports and there’s news and there’s music and there’s lots of other things.
Discovery was showing whatever Discovery does, documentaries. No comedy network? I mean, what the heck? Did somebody forget? Or–so I was just I was flabbergasted, and I started talking up the idea of a comedy network with my friends, and they all thought it was a good idea. But, you know, under the heading of, “Yeah, but it’ll never happen and you probably won’t have anything to do with it.”
So that’s yeah. That’s how it started.
And so then after you get out of college, you–I think if I remember correctly, your first job in, at least peripherally entertainment, was at CBS–is that right?
And that was some kind of analyst.
Yeah, you got to remember, I came out of business school and I had this background in economics and econometric modeling and finance and all that stuff, so I wasn’t going to burst into producing or anything else. I just wanted to get a job in the business. I figured if I got closer to the product, then I could look around and maybe see what I wanted to do or impress someone. You know, I, I did have some faith in my own abilities.
So, yes, I took a job as a financial analyst at CBS, which was I got to say it was like working at the post office. I mean, and with no offense to the post office, it just it was this giant monolithic corporation. I was so far away from the product and programing that, you know, I had no chance of talking to anybody over there. And I was working on financial reporting. That’s what I was doing, financial reporting.
I was pumping out financial reports that people weren’t reading, which stupefied me. Yeah. You know, I was working hard, but nobody cared.
Well, so so then you move over to HBO, which seems to be a better fit for what you’re attempting. But what how how did you get to HBO? What brought you there?
Well, interesting, a friend of mine who had worked at CBS with me went to HBO, he got a job there, and he called me a few months later and he said, hey, Art, they’re looking for somebody to do forecasting of subscribers at HBO. And you’re the only guy in the television business I can think of who knows how to do economic modeling. So why don’t you apply for the job? So HBO in those days, I got to say, was the cool place to work.
That was like Netflix is now, you know, is really leading the way and in television. And they wanted to change television and I wanted to work there. So I applied for that job despite the fact that doing econometric modeling was about the last thing I felt like doing in the entertainment industry. But it was a way in.
Another, another foot in the door.
And then I thought it was kind of funny. In the book, you talk about your first pitch to–I guess it was Bridget Potter, who was the head of original programming at HBO at the time,
and you pitched her on this idea of the of the “all comedy channel.” And I don’t want to steal your thunder, but walk us through that, what she said and what what her–or what her thoughts were.
Yeah, it was an interesting meeting. Now, remember, I was a junior, very low level member of the HBO organization, but it was you know, they had a thousand people there. So I, I called up Bridget’s office thinking, all right, I’m just going to tell her about my idea for a comedy network and see what she says. I’ll just go right there. And I got an appointment pretty easily. And I went down her office and I said, “Hi, Bridget.
I think HBO should do an all comedy network, 24/7 comedy.” And she said, “Stop right there. That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” And then she went on to tell me why it was the worst idea she ever heard. She gave me lots of reasons–too many too much comedy on television already, why would HBO risk its reputation, you never going to get any decent comics on the channel… I mean, she just went on and on for why it was a bad idea.
And she capped it off with telling me I didn’t know anything about television, which she probably had right at that point.
I will give her the–I will give her that point. And she said, “Thanks for coming down.” And I left her office without saying much more.
Well, I love that eventually she she was kind of cornered and had to change her tune. If I remember the timeline, it was–what was it, about ’87 that you did this pitch to her?
And and then so you you kind of got the door slammed in your face, but you and you went on to…Your focus at that time, I guess was the festival channel. I remember.
I remember the festival channel, like vaguely.
I do. I remember it–at least the idea of the festival channel. Can you tell the folks who are listening in what that was all about?
Yeah, HBO had started Cinemax as a flanker channel, and between HBO and Cinemax, they were getting a lot of subscribers, but they weren’t getting a bunch of subscribers who said they weren’t getting HBO or Cinemax because they didn’t want bad language or sex or violence in their home for whatever reason. They were religious or they had kids or whatever, whatever it was. So HBO, given that research, came up with the idea of putting together a channel called Festival, which was no sex, violence and bad language movies and other things.
In the first day in the job, I said, how are we going to sell an entertainment network by saying it doesn’t have the following things?
That doesn’t sound like a great [inaudible]. And not only that, but the following things are things that a lot of people find interesting in entertainment.
I said, I think this is a tough call. And my boss said, shh, don’t don’t say that again. So we so we put together the festival channel and we tested it.
And it never actually made it out of test because it was just it just didn’t work very well. So at the time I pitched Bridget, I was actually kind of out of a job because Festival had shut down and I was thinking about what I was going to do next. Now, HBO said, hey, stick around, we’ll find something for you to do, which was nice of them. But I didn’t really want to rely on that.
And, you know, I had this idea for a channel. I figured I might as well work on that.
Well, it sounds like your gut was right with Festival. And then it was also right eventually with the Comedy Channel. So you finally you got a chance to to pitch it to the big boss, Michael Fuchs, the head of —
The head of HBO. How soon after your rejection with Bridget Potter did that take place?
It was just a couple, three weeks later, you know. And her rebuke, you know, her her trashing the idea didn’t bother me that much because I, you know, I just had this conviction that she was wrong. I mean, it stung a little personally. Right. But so I went back to my office immediately after talking to her and started writing it down, thinking I would write out the plan for my comedy network, do some financial analysis, you know, modeling, and staple that essentially to my resume and see if any other entertainment company we get interested in me or that.
And that was my plan. I was going to leave, so. But I didn’t leave. Yeah, my my boss’s boss came by and said, what are you working on? And I said, this is what I’m working on. And that’s how it started.
Well, by the way, there are a few folks that you didn’t necessarily cast in the best light in the book.
Oh, that’s interesting. That’s interesting. You say that because I really didn’t I didn’t really go out to trash anyone.
You didn’t. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you trash anybody. But certainly I like I walked away from the read thinking, well, there are a few people here that I don’t know that they were necessarily the best person for this job at this time or they weren’t necessarily the nicest people or whatever. But did you ever have any concerns that you were burning bridges that you might later want to cross when you were writing and publishing the book?
Of course, yeah, of course, I had the concerns, I thought about it a lot and I was taking some memoir classes because I, I wanted to get better at writing memoirs, which is where the books kind of started. And there’s a saying among memoirists and it goes something like this. I can’t remember who originally said it, but if you didn’t want to be portrayed badly in my memoir, you shouldn’t have been such a jerk in real life.
And I mean, it does come down to that. You can’t skip over the people who were not not particularly nice in your story. You know, again, you don’t have to go out of your way to trash them. But from my point of view, I was telling the story as it happened from my point of view, without too much commentary, you know, I didn’t stop to say, what an idiot. I just told a story and let let the reader draw conclusions.
Yeah. You painted the picture. And we could like you said, we as the readers could draw our own conclusions. So you didn’t call people idiots. I might have felt that some people were idiots or not the nicest folks, but. But be that as it may, I you know, I would think that any any of these people who are portrayed in in the book, I imagine some of them have read the book. Has there been any backlash from anybody as far as their concerns about the portrayal?
Interestingly, no. It’s kind of gone the other way where I heard from a lot of people who read the book who were there at the time, either at HBO or in the business or knew about it or whatever, and knew a lot of the people involved. And they were very complimentary. They said, man, you really captured Michael. You captured, you know, and they went on and on, you know, and that made me happy.
I it was more about the people I didn’t hear from that I found, you know, to be interesting. There were a few people I thought would read the book and maybe take a little bit of offense. Again, I didn’t trash them.
No not at all.
But I you know, I was hoping that they would read the book and enjoy it. I didn’t hear from them. I suspect they didn’t like the portrayal that that they got.
They got in there. So that’s uh…
Well, as an objective reader, I think you did a very honest and admirable job. You know, I didn’t feel like you were coming down too hard or heavy on anybody. And you probably did have a right to at times, given the circumstances that you outlined in the book.
But now, I’m surprised as a lawyer, you did not ask about libel.
Uh, no. I think I, I didn’t see anything like that that I felt sniffed of libel. I mean, I imagine that something that you would have been aware of and concerned about or had, you know, reviewed for those purposes.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, I will say that people write novels and memoirs, are constantly worried about being sued for something for sure. But it turns out the memoirs are rarely sued because.
Well, you can–You can always offer opinions. And you are you know, you’re you’re fine when you’re doing that. As I tell people and I’ve done a lot of call in programs and things like that, and people will ask, well, can I get sued for this? Can I get sued for that, or can I sue someone for this? And as I say all the time, you can get sued for anything from anyone at any time. Doesn’t mean that it’s a viable cause of action, but it doesn’t stop people from, you know, filing the lawsuit.
Now, hopefully, it gets dismissed along the way and before people are out of pocket, a lot for attorney expenses cost. But–
That’s the problem.
That is the problem for sure. Well, circling back a bit to your pitch with Michael Fuchs. It seemed like you didn’t have a lot of convincing to do with him that he was kind of on board right from the get go and actually put your feet to the fire since it was your idea just gave you a couple of months to to get it together.
How’d that make you feel?
You know, as it turns out, Michael was exactly the right person to pitch. Michael Fuchs had been the one responsible for putting comedy on on HBO. The uncut comedy showcases and the uncut comedy specials with Whoopi and and Robin and and Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. And he loved comedy. He was like me. He was a comedy fan, very funny guy. But, of course, you know, a very serious businessman. And I think that it was probably a combination of factors.
He loved comedy and he might have been getting a little, you know, pressure from his bosses to get out there with another product. You know, festival kind of bombed. Maybe that maybe he felt the need to kind of prove himself a little bit there.
Well, you know, as is the case with so many things, you know, the it seems the stars aligned in a lot of ways. So you had that going on so that he was on board. And then I guess shortly after you announced that the Comedy Channel was was going to be developed by HBO, you had MTV jump in. And and I know at least the the sense I got in reading the book was that that was horrendous. It was so much pressure because MTV comes out with the HA network or the Comedy Network HA and and they’re going to be competing with you.
Both of you are competing before you’ve even got a foot through the door, before you even have a product. You’re both competing for advertisers, for, you know, cable placement, et cetera. Yet it seemed like maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing down the line. I don’t want to get your sense about it, but how do you think the rivalry impacted what occurred in the months and years that followed?
Well, it’s a good question, but before I get to that, I think. That was a pivotal moment when MTV announced that they were going to compete. They did that right after we made our announcement in a big press conference on the West Coast. Up until that point, we hadn’t really talked about HBO, hadn’t talked about this thing and or even led on to the press or anybody else that we were doing it. So we made this big announcement and literally the next day they came out with a press release, not a press conference or anything.
And I marveled at that. It was not my first lesson in competition, but it was my first lesson in, OK, you know, there are bare knuckle competitors out there. And I’m sure MTV–and I actually talked to people subsequently–MTV said, why should we sit around and let HBO take this comedy space if they think it’s a good idea? We know they’re not stupid. Maybe it is a good idea and maybe we should just jump on the chance.
So now’s the time. And yeah, it was it was at first terrifying because I had enough problems at that point trying to get a channel launched without thinking about, OK, what’s, you know, what’s the competition going to be and what’s that going to mean? And MTV was formidable. They had Nick at Nite. They knew how to make cable channels. They knew how to sell advertising. They certainly had a lot of resources and they were certainly brash and bold and they weren’t going to lose.
And Michael Fuchs at HBO said he wasn’t going to lose. So it was the Battle of the Titans in the comedy space for about six months.
Yeah, and then we. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Well, I just wanted to point out that during that six months, I think neither of us did particularly well at the beginning, but we both sharpened our game because we had to learn what a comedy network could be. Right. You know, and I will say this, if you’re starting something like that, you have to have a vision. You have to have some of some idea or solid idea of what it is. But you also have to be willing to compromise your vision for all the obvious reasons and the financial realities of the situation, availability of talent, all the things that that that kind of direct you in ways that you didn’t either anticipate or want.
But that competition, again, I think that accelerated everybody’s understanding of what a comedy network should be.
Yeah. And that’s what I was going to say. You know, as is the case in so many situations where there’s competition, I think it tends to make each other better. And ultimately, it’s the best thing for the consumer ultimately. And I might be getting ahead of the story a little bit, but as you alluded to you, you were running your separate trains for about six months and then ultimately merged the Comedy Channel and how into what is now Comedy Central.
So and I really and I think you did a great job in the book of expressing how much angst there may have been about that merger. And some it seems like there were maybe with Michael Fuchs and I don’t recall who the they had of MTV was at the time, but they had some kind of personal animus or–
It was Frank. Frank. Frank Biondi was the head of Viacom.
And Frank Frank had been the chairman of HBO before Michael.
And then they were cochairman. And then Frank left and became chairman of Viacom. So, yes, they they knew each other. They weren’t on the best terms at the time. I think they had a little falling out, but they got on good terms because they realized that they were it really was the battle of the Titans and nobody was going to lose. But that also meant nobody was going to win. They were spending a lot of money.
Both sides thought they were winning. I mean, you know, when I got the phone call that they were merging to me, that was the most it was the craziest call I couldn’t imagine. That we were going to stop fighting these guys and dominate the space. I thought we were winning. I thought we were doing a great job. I thought they were doing a lousy job, you know, and. They thought the same thing. So for people who haven’t been through something like that in business.
It’s incredibly disappointing to have a business that you have put so much into in a short period of time, and for us it was, you know, maybe a year, year and a half. And it wasn’t just me at that point. There were hundreds of people working on this thing on the HBO side and on the other side. The disappointment on both sides were just devastating for people. And most of the people didn’t go to the new the new entity.
I was lucky and a little bit surprised, frankly, that I was tapped to go over and work with the my opposite member, the head of programming at the HA and come up with the new comedy Network.
Well, it would have been really tragic if you hadn’t been since you it really was your baby. And, you know, and ultimately, well, again, don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but you go through the trials and tribulations that took place before the merger. And I think, you know, folks that are listening or watching, you really need to to read the book and get a real appreciation of what Art’s saying here about how difficult it has to be when you’re when you’re nursing your baby like this.
And then ultimately it feels like somebody is just yanking that carpet from underneath you and, you know, not the least of of your troubles, I guess, after beginning with HBO and the Comedy Channel. But maybe the first of the troubles that I recall is that you had the Directors Guild rescind their agreement to allow you to play the comedy clips and correct me if I’m wrong, Art, but it seemed like most of the programming that you had initially envisioned was going to be these comedy clips from a number of other movies and television shows and whatnot.
And that had to be devastating when they’re essentially taking probably, what, 90 percent of the clips out of your hands at that point? Is that fair to say?
Yeah, absolutely, we had really kind of performed a miracle. One of the objections always to a comedy network was it’s too expensive. Very expensive to do comedy, original comedy and, you know, programming a network with all acquired programming is also very expensive. So nobody really wanted to take a shot at it. And I said, well, what if we take a page out of MTV books and start with clips? I mean, MTV shows music videos.
They get them for free. They’re highly produced. And guess what? We can take clips from movies and use them promotionally if we’re clever and clip all the great scenes from all the great comedy movies, television shows, stand up comedy acts. I mean, we had access to everything. We had to get permission from the guilds, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, and amazingly, we did. So, you know, we’re like cruising. And I had these guys and these people, men and women, called the kleptomaniacs.
That’s what we call them, watching all these shows, movies and and stuff and clipping them, you know, noting where the best, where the scene started and ended, producing them. And we ended up, you know, before launch, eight weeks before launch, we had a huge pile of clips in the in the in in our back pocket to launch with. And then the Directors Guild calls and says, you know what, we changed our mind.
We don’t want you to use the clips now. As a setback, that is monumental.
Sure, yeah, I would and I understand it at least that there was some speculation that Woody Allen was behind the–
Yes, and it was speculation. I have never had that on good authority. That’s what I was told as a possibility. And that’s how I present it. I don’t know somebody else, but somebody somebody on the board said, you know what, I don’t like this.
Put the brakes on.
So that was the end of that. And I remember telling my staff and the scheduling guy looked at me and said, “What are we going to do?”
And I said, “plan B.” He said, “what’s plan B?” I said, “I don’t know yet.” But we had to come up with one because we had announced we were launching. Michael Fuchs was counting on it. And I put something else together.
Yeah, well, and I thought–
It didn’t work so well at the beginning.
And of course, it you know, you were you were [inaudible], but as I as I recall in the book and probably even remember this to some extent, you know, not being that tuned in but or focused on what was happening. But certainly when the Comedy Channel came out, I was keen on it and in checking it out. And so you did still have some clips available to you. I guess those clips that were running were related to whatever was running with HBO at the time.
And then you also I mean.
That’s right. And the lawyers at HBO were great about that. They said, OK, here’s a workaround. You know, we said we show 150 movies and standup specials a month or whatever. Right. And if you promote those in the same month, you can do that. So while it reduced our clips by 90 percent not to have the the original traunch, we did have some and we knew we were going to have to pull in other comedy from all kinds of other places to fill things up.
Right. And of course, you know, I know you went to look to some student comedy or student films. You had to obviously recycle those clips quite a bit, I would imagine. And then you also.
And maybe this was a good thing or maybe this was running simultaneous. I don’t recall. But you did have some great original programming that came about, including Mystery Science Theater 3000
Mystery Science Theater.
Mystery Science Theater. That’s a great story, because that was that was the first time I realized that this thing was actually going to work. This comedy network was actually going to work because we had been talking about before we launched about putting a show together that was a “watch us watch” show, because that the head writer at Comedy Channel, a guy named Eddie Gorodetsky, still a writer in Hollywood, very funny guy, very talented guy, he said.
And he talked kind of funny talk like this. He said, “Hey, we need we need a show where comedians sit there and watch comedy, watch movies and make comedy remarks.” And we said, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. And so we started working on it. And then lo and behold, in the mail came a tape and it was Mystery Science Theater 3000, that these guys had been producing at an independent station in Minneapolis.
We’ve got on a plane and flew out there the next day. They were such great guys and they were so funny and they had the thing down. And that was a miracle. And the reason I say that was a first first time I thought we would be successful is because in my my vision of the channel, we would be the center of comedy and great comedy would find us. We wouldn’t have to go looking for it after all.
And here it was. I mean, there was a show, Mystery Science Theater, that would not have been on any other channel in existence at that.
And we gave it a national platform.
Yeah, well, another great early original program was Short Attention Span Theater from which Jon Stewart came. And I love the story about Jon Stewart. I’d love you to recite that–regale us with that story because it paints him in such, in my mind, a great light, a lot of integrity for what he did in light of something that occurred in the course of that his his time there at what was Short Attention Span Theater.
Yeah, we we we had Jon on from the get go and he was kind of a baby comic at that point. He, you know, he’d had some success, but he was not, you know, a big deal at all. So we put him on with another comedian, Patty Rosborough, and they were hosting a clip show. You know, we talked about the clips and called Short Attention Span Theater. At one point, we realized that Patty was
Just basically operating as an audience most of the time, because Jon was so funny and he was such great television, that you would just sit there laughing. And for me, that was great, you know, but some of the other programmers and the producers said, you know what, we don’t need both of them and I think we should get rid of Patty. So they told Patty that she was no longer needed and Jon Stewart went nuts. He said, you can’t do that.
You can’t just fire somebody like that. What do you think you’re doing? She’s my partner. We are partners on it. Remember, they’ve been on air for three months together. It wasn’t like they’ve been, you know, doing this show for eight years.
But he was so he was just. And he threatened to quit.
He said, I can’t do this. I’m going to quit.
I love that.
And we all saw at least I saw the integrity and and, you know, the fire in the belly that Jon Stewart demonstrated years later with The Daily Show and beyond that, I mean, he’s he’s quite a guy.
Aside from being funny, he really is a terrific person. I was elected somehow to go down and talk to him and say, you know, please don’t quit, but. That’s when I realized, you know, we had a nice conversation, I did calm him down and he stayed with the channel for a long time, but he was just he he just didn’t get this whole corporate “you can fire anybody at any time.”
Right. That’s good. It’s good to hear, you know, as as the consumer, as the audience hearing, you know, that the people that they have a job to do. Everybody has a job to do. You’ve got the performers. You’ve got, you know, the folks that are in the studio. You have the corporate bigwigs that all have to make decisions to to to make money. And, you know, as the audience, we don’t always see what’s what’s happening back there.
We make certain assumptions and a lot of times you hear these horror stories about the performers having these huge egos and and not being so nice. And then it’s nice to hear that someone like Jon Stewart, who I really admire, is worth the admiration. So it’s great to hear. Speaking of it–
Yeah, people often people people often ask me about, you know, what’s it like working with all these comedians? You know, we hear they’re depressed.
They’re they’re not fun. They’re not nice. They have big egos. My response is always the same, which is, you know, comedians are like everybody else is a wide variety of personalities. And yes, there are, you know, personalities like the ones you just described. But there’s also great, you know, guys to hang out with and women to hang out with were very smart. And and it was wonderful working with these people.
Well, you know, it’s funny because I got this sense again in reading the book that especially early on, you were kind of the outsider, you know, the the young guy who’s kind of on the periphery and you’re dealing with guys like Eddie Gorodetsky that you mentioned and Stu Smiley, who may have felt like you weren’t you didn’t belong there, at least at first. Is that true? And if so, how did that make you feel?
It’s true, it made me feel excluded and looking back on it, as I did as I was writing the memoir, I realized that, you know, again, they were a little bit right.
Stu had been head of–Stu Smiley had been head of HBO comedy programming for years, had been in the comedy business for 10 years. I didn’t even know there was a comedy business when I was putting this thing together. I mean, yes, I knew sort of that there was a comedy business.
But like any business, especially something like that, it was a little clubby, you know. I mean, there were there were people who were in it, the comedians, the writers, you know, and the programmers and people who were involved. And then there was this kid, me, you know, as Stu said, oh, the guy with the big idea, you know, I mean, where did I come from? And it wasn’t that kind of thing where Stu is going to say, OK, kid, come with me.
I’ll show you I’ll show you how this works.
Au contraire. You know, it was like–
Well, somebody’s gotta have the big ideas too.
So they didn’t they didn’t want to show me how it worked. So I had to kind of learn on my own. And I did. By the time I got to Comedy Central, I figured, you know, I had figured stuff out and I didn’t have the baggage of being the new kid anymore.
I was somebody who had been through a year of this stuff. So I had I had some trust. But, you know, it’s a club. Yeah, it’s a it’s a club.
Well, know, speaking of by the time you get to Comedy Central, that’s in what, like 1990, ’91?
So the merger occurs and you, as you mentioned earlier, are one of the few that they carry on into Comedy Central. So what was your position with Comedy Central and how did it evolve over time?
Well, as I said, I was paired with the my opposite number, the head of programming of HA, and we were Heads of Programing. I mean, that’s that’s what they called us. And I will tell you something interesting that I did not put in the book because, again, it was unverified and I didn’t want to just go shoot it around. But there was a rumor that the um, the people who put the merger together at both, you know, in both companies really did it because they were, you know, both losing money and they weren’t really sure that the combined channel, the merge channel, was going to make it through the year.
I mean, they just thought it would you know, they’d merge them, it would fail. Everybody would save face, and that’s life. But the people I worked with, you know that starting with the my opposite number, a guy named Mike Klinghoffer, were as dedicated at that point to seeing a comedy network in the world succeed as I was, as I had been earlier. So we quickly got down to cases and said, all right, how are we going to do this and how are we going to make it work?
And despite the fact that we were completely different cultures and completely, you know, we had never worked together. They were these two people and two groups together. We figured it out and we figured out fast.
And it sounded like you had to because it seemed like you were under constant stress in a barrage of dangers that threatened to get you shut down at any point and that there was always some big event or or program that would come along to save the day. The first that I’m thinking of was the State of the Union Undressed event. I think the first one was with Al Franken.
And it seemed like that was kind of the first big thing to put you back on the map is would that be a fair statement?
Well, it’s it’s it’s a little complicated. Remember, Mystery Science Theater 3000, which we walked into was a at least a cult hit. Really. It caught on. So that was that was a nice little anchor for us. We also had Saturday Night Live reruns which up to that point, had not been on television and there was a bidding war between us and HA. HA got them. But then we merged. So we had them.
So we were starting to collect a nice a nice bunch of programing.
And we had some we had Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect we put on the air, and we were really starting to put this thing together. But I will, you’re right in identifying the State of the Union address as a pivotal point for us, because it was an original program and it was an original idea. The whole idea that we were going to broadcast the president’s State of the Union address live and have comedians live commenting and making jokes and whatever it was
brash, it was unheard of, it was crazy a little bit and um–
You know, the fact is it worked.
It did work.
It worked great. And it was the first it was really among the early first the first times that the press kind of looked up and said, wow, these guys are really living up to their name. You know, they’re really going to pull it off.
So that was a nice moment. That was, you know, I a year plus we were into the comedy.
And I do remember that that first one and I remember the other one. I’m going to I want to bring up that you also mentioned in the book. I remember both of those events.
Yeah. And I thought it was really hysterical. But you also mentioned Bill Maher. And I can’t let that go without without talking about Politically Incorrect and Bill Maher. It seemed that you were I don’t know if you were fans of each other or but there was there was a bit of friction between between the two of you and.
Well, what do you have to say about that?
Well, you know, as I said, there’s all kinds of of talent that we work with. And when I first met Bill, we met in a diner and he pitched the show and I thought, you know, he seemed like a perfectly nice guy. Of course, he was trying to impress me with this show idea. And we bought the show and I thought, OK, this is going to be great. But Bill turned out to be a hard guy to work with.
And, you know, I won’t take it any further than that.
He’s very, very talented. Obviously, Bill’s been on the air almost as long as Comedy Central, you know, 20 something years in one form or another and good for him. Now, it wasn’t immediately successful because lots of things aren’t immediately successful. And he was tough to work with. But we we kind of had a big conflict because I did a marketing campaign around Politically Incorrect, which Bill had not seen or approved.
And that was you know, that’s on me because I probably should have shown it to him. But I knew that if I did show it to him, he would say, you can’t do this. And I didn’t want that to happen. We had to, you know, like programing and marketing. You’ve got to get stuff done. You can’t just stop and say let’s just redo it.
It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission anyway, right?
I guess so. And, you know, just to be fair to me, I did ask everybody else, including the producers of the show and other people in programming. And, you know, I felt pretty confident that this was going to be OK. But as it turns out, Bill took–Bill was just really upset and he called me up and he said, Art, if I did my job badly, you’d take me off the air, right,
You’d fire me. And that campaign is awful. And so I am trying to have you fired. And he did try and have me fired.
Yeah. And then the irony, you know, and I want the you know, the audience to hear this is that it turned out that that advertising campaign actually won an industry award for best outdoor campaign that year. So.
Yeah, that’s right. And when I heard when I heard that we were nominated for that award, I went, oh, no, you know, like anything else, please, I don’t want to bring that up again.
But the other ultimate irony is when we get to the awards ceremony, who do you think was the host?
Bill Maher! And he had no idea we were nominated or anything. So we sat there just wondering how this was going to go.
You know, that is and of course, we won. And he was so funny because he when they show the campaign or one of the billboards or something and he turned around, he goes, wow, that’s great advertising, because I had his picture on on, of course, you know, so all that other stuff never came up, although he never did come up to me and say, hey, congratulations, good job. Because he didn’t want to congratulate me or wish me good job.
He wanted me fired.
Yeah, exactly. Well, probably, you know, and it’s funny because at this point in time, you were actually the head of marketing. Right. And I don’t know how familiar folks are with with the musical “How to succeed in business without really trying,” but I you know, I was reading the book and I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, I remember in that play, in that musical, it’s always the head of marketing.
That’s the job nobody wants because that’s the guy who’s always going to is threatened to be fired or is getting fired because it’s his head on the chopping block any time anything goes wrong. And it sounds like this is kind of what had happened with this campaign and with with Bill Maher. But you survived it and you know.
Well, yeah. I didn’t want to be head of marketing. I was happy being in program. But I was called into the office and my boss said, we need a head of marketing and we’ve got programming covered right now. And you’re going over to marketing. And I said, what? You know, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t. And, you know, listen, to be fair, I wasn’t a marketing guy in the least, and I had to learn on the job real fast.
So I found people who knew a lot about marketing and I milked them for everything they had and I learned on the job. One thing I did learn about marketing is that everybody feels like they know how to be a marketing guy.
You know, and what good advertising is in a way that they didn’t really…
For programming. It’s a different thing. You know, programming. It’s like, OK, well, people have a [inaudible] gut and they know what to put on and they know what people like.
But with advertising, everybody says, hey, that’s a bad commercial. What did they make that for?
That’s a bad ad or that’s a bad campaign or what are they thinking? You know? And I got a lot you know, I really had to take a lot of criticism from all quarters, all quarters. And I had to learn how to take it.
Yeah, well, he’s speaking of all quarters. I mean, you got it from from Bill Maher. And then I know that you were approached by I don’t recall who the the president of Comedy Central was at the time, but I know that you were approached and told–I think this was right around Christmas time–when you’re told that you’re going to have to come up with something spectacular per Michael Fuchs, or you are going to be fired. And that ends up not being true, by the way.
But I mean, like like you said, you’re getting it from all angles. And that’s got to be tough.
It was I mean, one of the things that people commented on when they read the book is that the number of times people got fired or were threatened with being fired throughout the book. And I you know, I always shrug. I say, hey, that’s the entertainment business, you know, I mean, you were there at the mercy of your bosses. And it’s a creative industry. If things start going badly, they’re going to you know, they’re going to switch gears.
And it happened all the time.
Yeah. You know, and it does spawn some great comedy, some some great programming. I know. You know, we talked a little bit about Al Franken and the State of the Union Undressed, but then we also had Dennis Miller literally getting undressed during the State of the Union to take a leak basically, off camera, we should say.
But that was that was a that was just one of the craziest live TV moments I’ve ever been associated with and certainly one for the books.
But we were watching this thing live and the speech went long. It was Clinton and he just went on and on and it was about an hour and 20 minutes into it. And Dennis was on the air by himself. Dennis Miller, very funny guy, very smart. And he had to go to the bathroom. And we were in a studio that we hadn’t been in really before. So nobody knew where anything was. And he just, with his mic on, walked off the air.
And while he was still talking, he ended up taking taking a leak into the garbage can outside the studio. And that was that. And then he went back in and it was just so deftly done, you know, I mean, talk about–You talk about stage presence and just, you know, knowing what to do in a situation. It almost went by unnoticed. And and the funny thing is, Dennis came out of there at the end of the at the end of the show and said, oh, my God, I killed my career.
And it was he was really upset because he thought it was a disaster. And I said, look, it was audio only know what he saw. Half the people didn’t know what was going on.
Yeah, I so I remember thinking it was part of it was a bit, you know, I, I just roll with it.
That’s great. I had never heard that. I am so pleased that you said that because I, I really hadn’t talked to too many people like just in the audience and what, what it looked like. Yeah. But yeah I guess that’s the beauty of doing comedy or anything like that. You figure whatever is going on they planned it. But no that was not that.
That’s funny. Yeah. I thought that was hysterical when I read what truly happened and what is his response was so you know, mean you talk like you said, people are their heads are going to roll when when things don’t feel like they’re they’re being created and they’re not getting the audience. And eventually the new regime comes in and you were unceremoniously let go. So looking–what did you feel about that at the time? And looking back now, you know, how do you how do you feel about it?
I mean, it was your damn idea, you know?
Well, yes. And, you know, and at the moment, I thought, well, what do you have to do in this business to keep your job? You know, how about coming up with an idea that results in a big channel?
And the answer was no, that–that’s not sufficient to keep your job in this business, and of course, I was I was devastated at the at the time because I took the business,
I took Comedy Channel and Comedy Central personally. I mean, I did it was my idea. I talked an organization into spending a whole load of money. I got a whole lot of people employed. And I felt, you know, personally responsible in a way that I have not quite felt in any other job, quite frankly.
And not that I didn’t work hard in other jobs and not take it very, very seriously. But, you know, when when it’s all I felt like it was all on my shoulders to a great extent, when, in fact, you know, there were hundreds of people contributing it and lots of people made that a success.
But, yeah, it was devastating. But you know something? I pick myself up.
I I talked to some people in the business and one guy who was I guess he was a chairman of a record company or something, somebody set me up with him and said, go talk to this guy. He knows a lot. And he said, you know, if you don’t get fired once in a while in the entertainment business, it means you’re not doing anything.
And I I took that to heart and I saw that that was true, that people who kept their jobs for, you know, a long time in the entertainment industry were just keeping our heads down and doing, you know, whatever. People get get fired because you’re making something happen.
Mm hmm. You know, it’s funny to that. Again, that’s making me think of how to succeed in business without really trying. And there’s the you know, the guy that’s just keeping his head down, being not not noticed. So he’s not rattling anybody’s cages, but he keeps his job. But but you’re right. If you’re going to if you’re going to succeed, you know, you’re probably going to have to fail in order to get any real degree of success.
And I mean, that’s that’s one of the things I thought about. The object of the game is not to keep your job. I mean, that’s kind of a that’s part of it. But the object of the game is to make something.
To create, especially in the entertainment business, you know, because you want to you want to create something lasting. You want to create something memorable. And that was my goal. I I guess if I had thought hard enough about it, I would have figured that, you know, I’m not going to keep this job forever.
It doesn’t happen that way.
And I certainly saw the handwriting on the wall. It wasn’t like I was completely blindsided one day.
You know, I knew that the new guys came in. They brought all their own people. They moved me out. They fired a lot of people. You know, I knew it was just a matter of time, but I guess it was a little bit of hubris. I thought, OK, but I started the channel so they can’t fire me.
And they did.
And they did. Yeah. Well, as you said, you you landed on your feet. You did some consulting and ultimately ended up as president at Court TV. And, you know, I’m one of those guys that, you know, I do it all day long. I don’t really watch much television that has anything to do with law or not that I even do criminal defense work or anything like that. But, you know, cops and robbers, anything.
And I kind of avoid that. I like mindless entertainment. Maybe that’s why I like Comedy Central so much. But what was it like going from something like Comedy Central to Court TV?
Well, it was–it was bracing and interesting at that moment, I actually was faced with a choice of jobs that when that job offer came in and I chose that one because it seemed like the most challenging. Court TV was a failure at that time. They were losing subscribers, they were losing affiliates, they were losing advertisers. They did not have much of a programming schedule. Sounded like fun to me, you know? I mean, it sounded like it sounded like either, OK, either I can make something happen here or it’s just, you know, I’m going to go out of business.
So then when I got in and believe me. Talking about clubs, I was faced with a floor full of journalists because originally Court TV was just really a news operation that dealt with daytime courtroom trials, you know, and showed live trials and had commentary on them. That’s a club. You know, and these are people, these journalists, these are ex-New York Times, you know, ex-CBS News. These people were really dyed in the wool journalists.
And I had no credentials in that department. And they just assumed I was it made it worse that I came from comedy, right? Who the hell is this? Who does he think he is? And I really had to prove myself. But I will tell you this, I almost instantly got fascinated by the subject matter. I mean, it’s first of all, I broadened the subject matter to crime and justice. It wasn’t just going to be courtroom trials because courtroom, you know, they were running them during the day live and then they’d repeat them at night.
Believe me, that wasn’t getting much of an audience compared to what was on the networks at night. I said, look, we’re no longer about the about the justice system. We’re about the, you know, crime and justice. And we started doing documentaries, crime documentaries, which, of course, is good television if nothing else. And great stories. And we got we got to work with some of the best documentary producers.
And we were early we were early in on the process. Certainly a lot of people copied what we were doing and a lot of shows were made. We did a show called Psychic Detectives, and then CBS did the fictional version a year later, you know, I mean, it was very flattering. And but we were really, you know, if Comedy Central was the center of the comedy universe for a while, Court TV was the center of that universe.
We we saw every lawyer who didn’t want to be a lawyer and wanted to be on television coming through there. And there were fascinating people. We saw all the detectives. And I really did come away with a great deal of respect for detectives and the work they did to try and figure out who is the bad guy, you know, who ar–who did these horrible things. And, yeah, I loved it. I ended up loving it.
And I think, you know, that you and Court TV were ahead of your time because like now it seems that true crime, whether it’s podcast or television or whatever, seems to be the the the content that people just can’t get enough of you. There are advertisers that that want it there. I know I’ve been approached because I’m a lawyer. I’ve been approached about doing true crime, even though that’s not my my background, but doing some true crime, podcasting.
And like you said, it’s fascinating stuff. And you you really if you got the same folks that are on, you know, whether it’s weekly or monthly or whatever, telling their stories, whether they’re detectives or, you know, their attorneys or whatever the case may be, ends up being an admiration for those folks in an understanding of the system, both criminal and civil justice systems that a lot of lay folks just aren’t aren’t aware of unless they kind of get it get it thrown at them in that documentary type of style.
So I think that’s great.
I, I will add that we one of the things that was very successful for us and you mentioned advertisers, you know, when I told the head of advertising that we were going to be the channel of crime and justice. He almost fell off his chair. He said, you can’t say a crime to an advertiser, they don’t want to be associated with true crime. And I said, well, watch us, because we’re going to do this. And what we ended up doing is putting the emphasis on the investigation rather than the crime.
So forensic investigation, which, of course, CSI made famous. We were doing Forensic Files, which were true stories of scientific methods brought to criminal investigations, and they were fascinating. And listen, any time you say to somebody, tell me a story. And there’s a mystery involved like who did it or any kind of mystery, and that’s what makes that’s what makes you turn the page or keep watch it or watch the next episode. You want to find out what happens.
And so it was tailor made for television. And that’s why there’s so much of it on television and podcast, mystery books, as you know, are zillion sellers constantly. Oh, yeah, it’s a great genre and I loved it.
So whether at Court TV or Comedy Central, what would you say were the biggest takeaways, the biggest lessons that you learned through those experiences?
Well, I think the biggest lesson that I learned by doing was that nothing is easy, and you’re going to be thrown a lot of problems and a lot of obstacles in whatever you’re doing, and you just have to keep your mind, you know, your eye on the ball and solve the problem. Don’t dwell on the problem. Don’t say, OK, that’s the end of that, because there are lots of times when you could say that’s the end of that.
But solving the problems is what I ended up liking about television and about any job I was doing because. You know, in order to make things happen, you have to overcome all kinds of crazy things. That’s why the subtitle book is How You Know How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. You know, we didn’t talk about that first year, but I went to work every day thinking, OK, they’re going to shut us down today.
The other thing I was thinking is what can I do more of this working and what can I do less of that’s not working. Every day I went to work thinking about that, and that’s how we got better. I think that’s that’s it really.
And you’ve mentioned, you know, that there were a lot of interesting people that you worked with and for who would you say are the most inspiring or fascinating or amazing people that you worked with at during your career, whether it’s Comedy Central, Court TV or elsewhere? And why what was it that made them inspirational or or fascinating?
There’s certainly a lot, and I won’t I won’t give you the complete run rundown, but the guy who hired me at Court TV is named Henry Schleiff. He was a chairman. He hired me. He interviewed me for 20 minutes. He said, you know a lot about, you know, cable television and I need somebody like that. And your job is going to be to make the channel successful. And my job is going to be everything else.
And that was pretty much, ah, our relationship. I mean, he was the consummate outside guy. I mean, he was smart, funny, was a lawyer. He’d been in the business for a long time. I learned so much from him. But on top of that, he was so much fun to work with. And on top of that. He was completely unpredictable and did some things that were just like…What? And part of my job throughout those years was running interference for the rest of the company when, you know, when Henry had a crazy idea that we just knew it wasn’t going to fly.
But, you know, in terms of a memorable person, a person I think of as just, you know, what a great time was eight years of of partnership with Henry and we had so much fun and so much laughter together and so much success. It was really it was really quite something. And you got to remember when by the time I got to Court TV, I was a little more of a seasoned executive. I’d been through the mill.
I knew what I was doing. I walked in there and people assumed I was you know, I knew something. Which was a lot different from how I started at comedy. And that made a difference too.
Right. So what is it that Art Bell is currently up to and what’s on the horizon?
Well, Art Bell is currently up to continuing writing. I found that I really like writing and that’s why, you know, I only started this whole memoir thing. But I’m writing fiction. I’ve written some short stories. I’m writing something that’s either going to be a novella because it’s that long now or a novel depending on when I finish the thing. And it’s great fun. It’s it’s a mystery. Great fun.
and I just like writing for, you know, for its own sake.
I like reading my own writing. And I know that sounds stupid, but I get it. It’s it’s hard. It’s it’s hard as any writer will tell you, it’s hard to make a living at being a writer. Luckily, I don’t have to do that. But it is just fun if you don’t if you don’t have to worry about it in that way. I’m also doing the audio book of my of constant comedy, which and I’m narrating it myself, which is, you know, a little bit of an eyebrow raiser.
But I thought, look, it’s a memoir. It’s my voice in the book will be my voice on tape. And it’s, you know, like every every one of the things I’ve done in my life, it’s another small adventure that’s part of a big adventure. It’s been so, so much fun and so exciting having this book published because I got to meet such interesting people after the publication and do such interesting things like record an audio book. I mean, you know, it’s life.
You got to take the ride.
Yeah, well, and I’m glad you’re doing more of it, because, as I said, I think it was very well written in engrossing and I really enjoyed it. So, you know, before I let you go today, I want to play a little “would you rather.” We do this with all our guests. So. Ha. So would you rather have been the president of Comedy Central or a comedian performing on Comedy Central?
I would rather have been the president of Comedy Central. I think I think comedians, the work they do, you’re either born to it or. It’s not it’s not going to happen and I wasn’t born to it, so….President.
OK, then I think I know the answer to this, but we’ll see. Would you rather be the lead singer in a band that has a loyal but very small following or be a backup singer in a band that has millions of followers?
A. I would rather be a I would rather be a singer in a small band that has, you know, has a band, has a small following and do great stuff. I mean, you know, somebody was just mentioning this about Kurt Cobain that, you know, is his fame really destroyed him and he didn’t want it. He just wanted to make great music for, you know, and play bars. And I think about that a lot.
Yeah, I think about that a lot.
Well, the last one is a silly one. Would you rather talk like Yoda or breathe like Darth Vader for the rest of your life?
Well, that is silly. I guess I would rather talk like Yoda because I get to talk. I mean, whatever Darth Vader is doing is kind of I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be in that suit.
Well, I. I really appreciate you being here with us today, Art. As I said, I really enjoyed the book and I’m going to get another plug out there. So, again, if you’re if you’re looking at the video, you can see that I’m holding the book right here. If you’re not, I want you to get it. Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. And as you just heard, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
He’s got a great sense of humor. So thank you so much for being here. And thank you all. You bet. And thank you all for checking us out today. Again, be sure to please subscribe to, rate, or review Uncommon Convos on your favorite podcast platform. And while you’re at it, check out our other podcast, Legal Squeaks, and you can get information about some of the latest in consumer and legal news that might be useful to you in your day to day to day life.
If you have any comments or suggestions with respect to this podcast, go to UncommonConvos.Com, where, as I said, you can also check out the video version of this and every episode, please check us out next week when we have another interesting and entertaining conversation. In the meantime, have a great day. Stay safe. And I love you all.
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