Art Bell | Founding Comedy Central and Reinventing Court TV

Art Bell
Smart Business Revolution

Art Bell was the Founder of Comedy Central and former President of Court TV. He is a writer and former media executive known for creating, building, and managing successful cable television channels. While working at HBO, Art pitched the idea of a 24-hour comedy network and helped develop and launch HBO’s The Comedy Channel, which became Comedy Central. He went on to hold senior executive positions in both programming and marketing. 

After leaving Comedy Central, Art became President of Court TV, where he was a guiding force behind one of the most successful brand evolutions in cable television. In addition to writing, Art plays piano and drums and co-hosts The Constant Comedy Podcast with Art Bell and Vinnie Favale. His memoir is Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor.

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran is joined by Art Bell, the Founder of Comedy Central and former President of Court TV, to talk about Art’s journey of launching a comedy channel. They also discuss people’s response to the launch of Comedy Central, Art’s work at Court TV, and the people who guided Art in his career.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Art Bell talks about coming up with the idea for Comedy Central, pitching it to the chairman of HBO, and the launch of the channel
  • The role Art played in the new HBO comedy channel and the people who guided him during his job transition
  • How people responded to the launch of Comedy Central
  • Art talks about doing a daily news show and his thoughts about Jon Stewart
  • How South Park was started, Art’s involvement in HBO programs, and how he transitioned to Court TV
  • The peers Art respects, the future of innovation in TV, and the people Art acknowledges for his achievements
  • Where to learn more and connect with Art Bell

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:14

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran 0:40

All right. Welcome everyone. John Corcoran here. I’m the host of this show. Every week I get to talk to interesting CEOs, founders, entrepreneurs, all kinds of different companies ranging from the CEO, original CEO and co-founder of Netflix to recently, YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard, LendingTree, Open Table, you name it. Go check out the archives, lots of great content there. I’m also the Co-founder Rise25, where we help b2b business owners to connect with their ideal prospects. And I want to give a quick shout out to Mike Malatesta from the How’d It Happen podcast to introduce me, introducing me to today’s guest. And his name is Art Bell. He was the founder of Comedy Central and former President of Court TV. He’s a writer and former media executive. He’s known for creating, building and managing successful cable television channels and by working in HBO, he pitched the idea of a 24-hour comedy network and helped to develop and launch HBO as the comedy channel which became Comedy Central and went on to hold senior executive positions in programming and marketing. After leaving Comedy Central, he became President of Court TV where he was the guiding force behind one of the most successful brand evolutions in cable television. 

In addition to writing, Art also plays piano and drums and co-hosts The Constant Comedy Podcast with Art Bell and Vinnie Favale. I’m gonna, I’m butchering that last name there. How do you say his name? Favale. Favale. There we go. And his memoir is Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. Art, it’s such a pleasure to have you here on this show. Thank you. Yeah, thanks for being here. And Art, you know, I was looking over the list. There’s so many iconic big name stars that we wouldn’t even know about today. They came through Comedy Central, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, even those that came after your tenure there. But if it weren’t for Comedy Central, maybe I wouldn’t know about them. So you know, looking back on, on the impact that you’ve had on that world of comedy, How’s that feeling?

Art Bell 2:40

feels great. I mean, the idea that this is the 30th anniversary of Comedy Central. I mean, I was really hoping to start a comedy entity that would be really the center of the comedy universe for a while. I had no idea it was gonna last for 30 years, but it did really attract some of the best and the brightest in terms of comedians, comedy writers, and innovative television.

John Corcoran 3:04

Yeah, for sure. So take me back. 1988 I think it was when you had the idea, you went into pitch for it. Well, what did that look like? How did you share your idea? What was pitching it like?

Art Bell 3:19

Well, I gotta say, I had the idea before 1988, I had the idea as I got into the television business, because as a kid, I loved comedy, always wanted to, you know, be around comedy, didn’t want to be a standout necessarily, but I wrote some comedy and stuff like that. And when I was coming out of business school, I decided to go into the television business and I looked around, and there were some new cable channels, starting up ESPN, all sports and CNN and MTV or music. And there was no comedy network. And I just kind of scratched my head. I said, I don’t get this. How can there not be an all comedy network? Um, I went to work for CBS. And that wasn’t very helpful because it was a giant company. But then almost immediately, like a year later, I ended up at HBO, nowhere near programming. I was doing financial forecasting, which is a lot different from comedy.

John Corcoran 4:11

They want all their programming ideas to come from.

Art Bell 4:16

I decided to go right to the top, basically to pitch the head of programming at HBO with my idea. And her name was Bridget Potter. And I didn’t know her at all. I was pretty low on the totem pole. And of course, she was at the top. But she agreed to see me So I walked in and I sat down. I said, you know, Bridget, I really think that HBO should start an all comedy network. And she said, Stop right there. That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. And let me tell you why. And she proceeded for the next 15 minutes to tell me why no comedian is going to want to be on this thing. There’s plenty of comedy on the dial already. You know why we need to risk its reputation to start something like that. She went on and on while I sat quietly and I left you know, she said, thanks for coming by walking out. By the time I got to the elevator, I thought, Man, she’s wrong. She’s just wrong. There will be a comedy network. I hope I have something to do with it. And that was that part of it was

John Corcoran 5:14

Just so dejected.

Art Bell 5:18

Yes and no. Again, it was rejected personally, but I had no, I didn’t have a whole lot in the game yet. You know, I was telling her what my idea was. I wasn’t a programmer, she actually pointed out to me while I was there, that I didn’t know much about television, which was, wow, after having been in the business for a few years, that tough audience was a tough audience. But I didn’t, I didn’t really take it that personally, I just said, you know, listen, that’s show business, you know, you pitch an idea doesn’t, don’t take on the first try, you try somewhere else, or something else. And I actually, I actually went back to my office and figured, okay, I I pitch in around town, you know, Viacom, and, you know, some of the other networks, CBS Paramount, I mean, who knew, you know, where this thing would would get, you know, get some traction. And I was young, and I was at the point where I thought maybe changing jobs wasn’t a bad idea. So I put together my resume, and I was gonna staple a plan for a comedy network to my resume. But before I got that far, my boss’s boss came by. And he looked in and saw me working late. And he said, What are you working on? I said, I’m working on, you know, this idea I had for a new channel. And he said, Let me see, take a look. And he said, Wow, this thing’s Great. Let’s go. I think we should see the chairman of HBO. I think he’s got to see this. And I thought, that’s great. And he said, Come on, we’re going right now. Right now, I had no presentation materials, I had no idea what I was going to say. And if I thought Bridgette was scary when she was a little bit, Michael Fuchs had just been named the second most powerful man in Hollywood, by the New York Times Magazine. So walking into his office, you can imagine my trepidation.

John Corcoran 7:10

And I’m picturing like, in New York, you go up like 30 stories, it was like that, and like big, dark, lots of wood office.

Art Bell 7:19

You know, in my book, I set the scene, and you got the big dark, lots of wood office with the big glass table, desk and everything. But um, actually, the executive suite was on the eighth floor. And the rest of us were either below or above, and it didn’t have anything to do with your status in the company, what floor you’re on. So I happen to be on the 10th or 11th floor, and I remember, and we took the elevator down to the eighth floor. And yeah, that was, and what was that experience like? Well, as I said, I was pretty nervous. And I didn’t really know what I was going to say. I thought back to my pitch to Bridget, which worked so badly. I thought, Okay, here we go. Again, I might try something else. And I did I. I, instead of just launching with, I think we ought to have a 24 hour network. I said, you know, Michael, because everybody called them Michael. I said, you know, Michael HBO is really you know, at the forefront of television comedy. Now. You know, we do one hour specials, they’re uncut. You can’t see Robin Williams anywhere else. You can’t see his act anywhere else, unless you’re seeing them live, but you can’t see it anywhere else, uncut, and unedited. And that’s what we’re becoming known for. And I said, I think we ought to keep our franchise and keep that comedy franchise. And the way I like to see it done is start a 24-hour comedy network. I mean, really, just to own the whole franchise, say we are here, plant the flag. And those weren’t the exact words. But you know, something like that. And he asked me questions about, you know, it’s expensive to do comedy, how would you do it? And I explained how I would do it, you know, how we can get it off the ground as cheaply as possible. And after a while, he just said, Okay, let’s do some research. Let’s see if we can get this thing going.