Art Bell | Founding Comedy Central and Reinventing Court TV

John Corcoran 9:18

It’s funny that he said those expenses, I think of standard big being really inexpensive compared to other scripted television.

Art Bell 9:25

Well, you have to remember that the comedy network I was describing and the comedy network that I had in my brain was not just stand up, I mean, stand up. At that point it was just getting funny, you know, that was the end of the 80s. Right? You know, at the beginning of the 80s there was no stand up comedy to be really, I mean, there were a handful of clubs but by the end of the 80s it was really starting to cook but that was only part of it. You know, I was a big fan of all kinds of comedy movies and, and sketch comedy and sitcoms and innovative comedy. You know, one of the things that we got going, as you may remember, is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was a big hit for us.

John Corcoran 10:09

Right, which is something that probably would never have started on another network, because it was so different from what else was out there.

Art Bell 10:18

Well, that’s exactly right. And that was, you know, that came to us in the mail before we even launched the comedy channel. And that was one of the first things that made me think, okay, maybe this thing is really going to work. Because I expected some innovative comedy to find us. And he was a great example. And they wrote a letter when they sent us a tape and they wrote a little letter saying, Hey, we hear you guys are starting a comedy channel. Is this something you might be interested in? And of course, yeah, are you kidding? But yeah, exactly. Right. HBO went to put that on, nor would have, right. The network’s wouldn’t have put it on now. Yeah, you’re not gonna touch this thing. It was like, stupid even considering.

John Corcoran 10:56

And when you watch the demo reel, was it done? Did it impress you? Like you weren’t like, What is this thing? You were like? This is really good. This could be interesting.

Art Bell 11:06

Yes, it was, first of all, it was brilliantly done. Second of all, this is a true story. We had thought about doing a show like that. The head writer at comedy channel, his name was Eddie Gorodetsky. And he said, you know what we really need to show he taught kind of funny. We really need to show where comedians watch television or watch the movies and make stupid comments. And so we said, Yeah, sounds good. Any. So we started going about developing that show. And we didn’t even really get very far when this thing showed up in the mail. So Problem solved. Yeah, but it was brilliantly solved. It wasn’t just, you know, sort of a half baked effort, though, oh, we could do better. Nobody even thought we could do better. Even Eddie. He was like, oh, man, I’m going out there. He said, I want to see these guys. I want to work with these guys. And he did. He did. He sat in a bunch of writers meetings, he helped shape the program.

John Corcoran 12:01

Now tell me, so you were doing financial modeling, then you have this idea for a new network, and they decide to back it, but they didn’t put you in charge? Not like CEO, you know, president of the network, what role did you step into? And what role did you have during the development? You know, are you doing financial models one day, and then the next day, you’re sitting in a programming meeting and saying, here’s an idea, guys, here’s what we should do? What was that transition period like?

Art Bell 12:28

It was kind of crazy. And I’ll tell you why. I loved comedy. And I knew a lot about comedy. But I didn’t know anything about the comedy business. And I really didn’t know anything about programming in any way, shape, or form. I didn’t know how to acquire programming, you know, I didn’t know how to produce anything. You know, I really was completely new at all of this. I had no credibility, and I was young. So they teamed me up with the head of comedy programming at HBO. His name was Stu Smiley.

John Corcoran 13:04

What a perfect name. That’s his real name? Seriously?

Art Bell 13:07

That was his real name. Yeah. Wow. It is his real name. He’s still around, working in the comedy business, but still knows the comedy business. He’d been in it for 10 years, he knew everybody he knew the comedians. He knew the agents and the managers knew their home numbers, you know, he knew what it costs to get these guys on the air, you know, I knew nothing. So the first day I met him, he said, What do you know about comedy? And he said it in a not really nice way. Let me just say that, that way he was challenging me, like, What the hell are you doing here? And what am I supposed to do with this? And he wasn’t the type of guy who was going to take me under his wing and show me the ropes, you know, if I may mix my metaphors. But so I had to, I had to sort of break into this comedy community, on my own. And it took a while. And it took a lot of attention on my part, to make sure you know, to try and figure out what was going on and how to do things and hadn’t become part of the team.

John Corcoran 14:07

I’m always fascinated by them. People who make a career switch from one area to another and how hard that can be but made even harder by someone who’s not that interested in mentoring you or helping you. Is there anyone else there during that time? Who did help guide you or help show you around? or any of that? Are you kind of figuring it out on your own?

Art Bell 14:29

The guy that had me report to them was head of programming, and Steve and I both reported to him was John Newton. And John was not a comedy guy either. As a matter of fact, he had been in acquisitions for HBO Mini, he worked. He went to the studios and made deals for movies that HBO put on the air, you know, licensing deals, very big, you know, expensive deals. But he was not a producer and he was not a comedy guy and The president of the channel, the guy named president was a guy named dick beers, a great guy, who is a sales guy. So you know, the only guy, the only person near me to begin with for sure, was still. And again, he wasn’t so forthcoming. Eddie similarly, would say to me all the time, what do you know about comedy? And any really, there’s a story in my book about when Eddie wanted to have me for lunch. And he, he wanted, sat me down at lunch. And he told me that I really shouldn’t be doing the things I was doing at the channel. And he should take them over, which, you know, possibly, but you know, and he was a writer for the most part, and he really couldn’t do the things I was doing. But the interesting part is in order to disarm me, any any brought me to lunch at a strip club at 12 noon, so we were the only people in there basically, besides a stripper and the waitress, and he did it to disarm me, I’m sitting there in a suit, and he’s sitting there in a T shirt. It was the craziest lunch ever. And we parted absolutely, neither of us changing our opinion of the other one. I mean, listen, and he’s a genius. He’s still writing to today’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. I think he represented the talent portion of the channel. At that point, they were nervous that the channel would fail. And that would be bad for everybody. And I was nervous that the channel would fail, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it that way. I had to keep saying I had to say, let’s go. Let’s just keep moving. Right? And let’s, let’s figure out ways to make this work.

John Corcoran 16:42

So when it launched, I’m not sure Viacom’s had the comedy network, if that was also live at the same time, but it was around the same era. There were two. And what was it like after that your network, the comedy network after it launched? What was the reception like?

Art Bell 17:03

The reception was almost immediately to trash the comedy channel. And I’ll tell you why. I think it was a little bit of a shot in Freud and payback time because Michael Fuchs, as I mentioned, the chairman of HBO, was named the most powerful guy in the industry. And he had an ego. I mean, there’s no question about as a matter of fact, when he announced the comedy channel, he did it. You know, in a press conference in Los Angeles, a press breakfast, a lot of famous comedians around, I remember standing next to Billy Crystal. And he said, essentially, HBO knows television, we have a lot of smart people here. We are the first name and comedy in television and we are going to nail that we are going to watch the funniest channel you ever saw. Now, what do you think happens when somebody says we are going to you know, we are going to watch the funniest channel you ever saw? Yeah, the worst one

John Corcoran 18:01

is like introducing a comic saying this guy is gonna make you laugh is hilarious. No comic wants to be introduced that way. Exactly.

Art Bell 18:07

And day one, we just got you know, hey, this isn’t funny. Michael Fuchs made a big booboo here. It’s, uh, you know, it’s falling flat on its face? What are these guys thinking? You know, and on and on. And the press had a field day with it. I, you know, listen, I was, I was concerned, as you can imagine. Because, despite the fact that I wasn’t the president of the channel, I felt like it was on my shoulders. I mean, I pitched it, I was in a position of shaping, you know, not every piece of programming, but sort of shaping the Gestalt there, and also, figuring out what the brand, what caught what the comedy network should look like, should be. It’s not like we were trying to, you know, emulate another comedy network somewhere else and just do it better. We were in number one. You mentioned. Ha, they showed up later. Yeah. And what was that, like when you suddenly have competition on the block? Well, I mentioned the press conference, the day after we announced, they put out a press release saying we’re doing a comedy network too. And what was going on is they weren’t doing a comedy network until we had a press release. And then they said, Well, if they think it’s a good idea, maybe it’s a good idea. So we better do one.

John Corcoran 19:25

And then it becomes a competition for talent and all that kind of attention. Additional talent,

Art Bell 19:29

competition for programming competition for advertisers, distribution, everything.

John Corcoran 19:34

Let’s talk about some of the other early shows, the Daily Show. I don’t remember what year that launched but that launched around the time I was leaving 96 okay and now and even predated Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart is not the first host of The Daily Show. Talk a little bit about the idea of doing a show as you know, a Tonight Show style show.

Art Bell 19:56

It was really not so much thought about as Tonight’s tonight’s show style, it was really thought about and thought of, as a news show, a daily news show. And that idea came up pretty early in our history, but we never had the money on, you know, in the early days. Yeah. On the money. Yeah. Because you know, and you asked, the question isn’t stand up comedy cheap? Yes. Isn’t the Daily Show cheap? No. A huge team of writers. And we knew in order to do a daily news show, we needed lots and lots of writers. But there were some precursors that we developed. One was in 1992. We did. What’s an appropriate day to talk about this? We did a special where we covered the presidential State of the Union address live on television, and we had a comedian making comments and commenting on the show live. The comedian Al Franken, he was on Saturday Night Live at the time. We snagged him for it. And great. Yeah, it was really a great moment on television. I mean, I talked about how I mean, the press had been, and they warmed up to us after a while. But that was kind of a water watershed moment for us. Because they, they really started saying, hey, these guys had Comedy Central, you know, they’re starting to get their act together. This was a really interesting piece of television, and funny television and maybe the future of television comedy. So that was our first shot at sort of live news, news coverage. We also covered the conventions that year. We did it every year after that. Jon Stewart was part of that as a matter of fact. And, yeah, we had a great time doing it. So the Daily Show, I mean, you could draw a straight line from that to The Daily Show. Right?

John Corcoran 21:41

And what were your thoughts on Jon Stewart, you when you first came across him?

Art Bell 21:47

I thought he was great. Jon Stewart started with a comedy channel. He was the co-host of a show called short attention span theater. And his whole job was to throw out clips of stand up comedy clips, you know, here’s a clip of so and so here’s a clip of this, or sitcom, or whatever it was, and in between the clips to talk a little bit about whatever you want to talk about. be funny. I mean, we’re writers and everything. But even from the beginning, we knew he was going to be something special because he was a great guy. And he was very funny.

John Corcoran 22:24

Yeah. And you had a minor spat with him at one point.

Art Bell 22:27

Well, it wasn’t so much a spat. There was a little upset in that. He was working as a co-host with another comedian named Patty Rosborough. And she was pretty funny, I thought. But as the show developed, and time went on, it got to the point where Jon was talking, doing all the talking and making a lot of jokes, and Patty was laughing. Because he was so funny. And the decision was made to fire her. I didn’t make that decision. But as soon as Jon heard that she was being fired, he went nuts. Just went nuts. And you think about that for a second. I mean, so many co hosts in news or any other situation we have that are whispering into producers. You’re like, I can do this by myself. I don’t need this other person here. You know, because they want more airtime. Jon, No, he was indignant. You can’t fire her. She’s part of the show. She’s my you know, she’s my partner, and he actually threatened to quit. And it felt to me somehow to go back, go down and and talk to Jon and say, “Look, Jon, you know, don’t quit. Please stay. We like you. We’re sorry. You know, you feel this way about Patty. And I did talk about quitting but he was very upset. And that’s when I saw that he really, really was an empathetic guy and a sensitive guy and really had principles, you know”, instead of them. I remember he said, “You know, you can’t just fire somebody” and I thought, Oh my gosh, this is HBO. They just fire somebody almost every day. That wasn’t what he was thinking.

John Corcoran 24:02

Right, right. Talk about South Park. I wanted to ask you about South Park.

Art Bell 24:06

Well, I was there when he came in. Yeah, that was pretty exciting.

John Corcoran 24:11

I remember South Park when it debuted. I was a big fan of it from the get go. Who wasn’t?

Art Bell 24:16

Yeah. It came in as they said that what the guys did is they did a Christmas card with the South Park characters. And they sent that around to all the networks. That was how they pitched the show. And the Christmas card was, you know basically about the spirit of Christmas and Jesus Christ comes back and you can imagine what happens. The most blasphemous, filthy, crazy. I mean, it just went all the way. I have to say but it was hysterically funny. Everybody was falling off their chairs saying something along the lines of this is so funny, but we can’t put it on television. But at Comedy Central He said, yeah, we can put it on television. And actually, MTV wanted very badly, as well, I will say that. But it came to Comedy Central. I think the guys wanted to be on the comedy network. And that was I have to say, in all honesty, I was on my way out, then a new regime came in. And I was sort of moved aside. But I was still at the channel still working on some stuff.

John Corcoran 25:28

And did you feel slighted in some way? Like I’d founded this thing I should have been put in charge I should have been president.

Art Bell 25:38

Initially, I didn’t think I should have been president. Partly because I didn’t. As I said, I didn’t know anything about comedy, business or anything else. And despite the fact that I wasn’t President, I found that I was, as I said, involved in every aspect of the channel in a way that I don’t think the President was even involved in. Because I was, as I said, I felt personally responsible. And I had, you know, I had the vision, I was the one with the idea and the vision, and I knew what I wanted it to be. So people often turned to me and said, No, what do you think? But when I got fired, and that’s what happened, you know, when the new guys came in? Yeah, of course, I was, I felt terrible. I felt it was, you know, a terrible injustice. And I said to myself, What do you have to do to keep a job in this town? How about you start the channel, you make it a success? You know, it’s right. It’s a it a business enterprise a going concern? And at that point, you know, really kind of embedded in the culture. Now, that’s not enough to keep your job from feeling bad. That’s hard.

John Corcoran 26:42

Yeah. I mean, you’re talking to someone. My father worked in television my entire life, when I was growing up and getting ready to work. I worked in the DC and LA and Boston markets, local TV news, but it was the same thing, you know, a new director would come in and heads would roll and, you know, you’re unfortunately on the wrong side of things. So that you did go off and then you were president of core TV talk a little bit about what that experience was, like?

Art Bell 27:08

Well, talking about a transition, right? Um, as soon as, as soon as I left comedy, I, you know, I wasn’t feeling great about the situation. But luckily, I found a consulting job right away because some friends at comedy called some friends at A&E and said, “Hey, Art’s out, can you give him you know, you got anything for him?” And they put me to work, which was really nice. And I consulted for a couple years there, and at several other places, children’s television workshops, and PBS and channel 13. And, you know, it was good for me to sort of get around town and see some, some other channels and see how they worked. So after a couple years of that, I really wanted to get a job. And I actually got three job offers pretty much the same week from clients. But there was another job offer that came from Court TV, you know, which at that time was a failing channel that I had absolutely no interest in. Because what they were doing was they were showing courtroom trials all day and all night. And I thought, you know, that’s a great idea for a channel. But I was interviewed for a job there. And the guy interviewing me was a guy named Henry Schleife, whom I knew a little bit from HBO. I suspect Michael Fuchs told them to talk to me. And Henry basically said, Look, I’m going to be chairman of this. I don’t know anything about cable television, you seem to know a lot about cable television. So I’m going to hire you, and you’re going to make this place a success. And I’m going to do everything else. And that’s pretty much what I mean. I got to work revamping the place. Now, it was a very interesting place, because it had basically a newsroom. You know, there were journalists covering courtroom trials all day. And there wasn’t much else. But I had never worked in journalism. And so you can imagine that walking in as a guy who was previously at a comedy network, and talking to a bunch of journalists who would, you know, crawl over glass to get the story and, you know, oils about journal oil and water. They looked at me, they couldn’t decide whether to throw me out, or you know, me up first, you know, and I really had to win them over. It was a similar situation. What do you know about journalism, right? Yeah. And the answer was not much. But I had to learn fast and also had to learn about what they were doing. During the day at night, I realized that we were never going to make a channel out of this place, unless we didn’t put a primetime schedule and that could compete with the rest of the world, you know. So we went from a channel about the justice system, to being a channel about the crime and justice system, you know, the criminal justice system, and we started covering and doing documentaries about crime and also about investigation. forensics, and we built it around forensics, really, the science of investigation. And that’s the Primetime schedule we put in and we got to be a very, very popular network. We were among the top 10 networks after, after a few years, and when I left we had 85 million subs. We had started when I came in with 25 million, and I was every year and we really did make it a success.

John Corcoran 30:26

Wow, impressive. Wow. Well, we’re running a little short on time here. This has been such a pleasure talking about all these different experiences. I want to wrap things up with two questions. First, I’m a big fan of gratitude. So if you look around at your peers and contemporaries, however you define that and I know you do a lot of writing now, but it could be people from your prior life or not. Who do you respect? Who do you admire is out there doing good work today?

Art Bell 30:54

Well, you know, I’m going to point to one guy in particular, Vinnie Favale, who’s doing the podcast with me. Vinnie, left around, he was a comedy with me, he left around the same time, he went to CBS became the executive in charge of production and spent the next whatever years until recently, with the letterman show and cold bear, you know, and was really kind of in the, in the thick of it and knows everything about comedy, and he makes me laugh. And it’s very important for me to find people who can make me laugh, or I can just really have a good time with. So I would, I would put him first. Um, and there was another guy from that time, a guy named Dr. David Cohen, who’s a radio personality. Similarly, you know, he just makes me laugh. We’ve started a business together, in, in, I guess, around the time I left Comedy Central. And you know, he’s gone on to great things, his radio, comedy businesses, is doing great. He got bought by IR radio, and, and we still keep in touch, and we want to work together as much as we can. And sometimes we do. So it’s those guys who really, I think I look around and say, Man, it’s been great working with these guys, throughout my career.

John Corcoran 32:07

Right? Where do you think that innovation is gonna come from in the future? Is it YouTube? Is it different channels? I’m not expecting you to be an expert extra expert in all the different channels that are coming apps and stuff like that. But where is innovation? Where does TV go from here?

Art Bell 32:26

Well, the TV is centered on streaming these days, I mean, there’s the linear channels, you know where their program is, then you have to show up at nine o’clock to watch a certain program, those are really kind of refashioning themselves into streaming channels. And discovery just did it. I know NBC, CBS. And that’s the future of the way programming is going to be delivered. Now, something’s lost in that because you can’t push people from one program to another as easily. And also, with Netflix, as an example of throwing a lot of programming at you at once. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience as I have, which is, okay, let’s watch some TV and, you know, you’re confronted with 10,000 choices just hanging in there. As opposed to when there were three networks, you had three shows to watch on any given night. So that made it easier. I think that the future is here in that regard. And the fact that tik tok and YouTube exist, and that’s where the sources of innovative comedy and innovative talent, you know, new talent is, is, is going to be coming from I think that’s very important. But I think the streaming channels are going to own comedy in a way that HBO may not in the future.

John Corcoran 33:41

It’s amazing. There’s a whole nother discussion, but how much the cost of starting something has gone down. You know, like, you know, it’s amazing innovation that’s happening these days and

Art Bell 33:52

voices. That innovation happened probably 10 or 15 years after we started, I mean, digital wasn’t around when I started the comedy channel, you had to have a lot of money just for infrastructure, you needed giant satellites, you needed to lease satellite time, you know, all of that stuff. There was no internet and it was analog, digital came along in 2005. I was working at CT at the time, as I commented to somebody, you know, I could put a channel out of his garage at this point, you know, he doesn’t need all this stuff. Yeah. And that was what happened. Kids started putting channels out of the garage. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that

John Corcoran 34:29

I think so too, you know, I think there’s more talent that is going to be discovered because of it. Alright, last question. Let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet, much like the Oscars or the Emmys. you’re receiving a Lifetime Achievement, Art for everything you’ve done up until this point. And what we all want to know is in addition to family and friends, who do you thank, who are the mentors? Who are the friends who are the business partners, you might have mentioned some already but maybe even looking further back into your trajectory, your career, who would you acknowledge?

Art Bell 34:54

Well, I started with, you know, a professor of economics now. yon comenta He was my econometrics professor. And he kind of changed my life in that. I had been premed, I wasn’t going to go into med school or maybe law school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. And I had a talk with him one day about something else. And he said, What do you want to do? And I said, I, you know, I might end up in medicine, he said, You know what? He said, maybe you should be an economist, you know, he said, doctors and lawyers don’t necessarily have the most interesting lives. And maybe you should look around before you just kind of nail yourself to one of those things. And I ended up becoming an economist, that was my first job out of college. And I spent three years as an economist in Washington, where I met the second mentor, Bob Sansom, he was the president of the consulting firm I was working for. And I think third, I would say, my boss at HBO, before I went to the comedy channel, was Linda Frankenbach. And she was just such a powerful and knowledgeable executive. And she taught me that executives execute, you know, she was always getting things done. She wasn’t just kind of sitting around or waiting for them to happen. She was just saying, okay, here’s how we’re going to charge ahead. And here’s how we’re going to do it. And, you know, taught me how to navigate politics in a corporation too. So I think those are, those are three very important people, I would think. And then most recently, my writing professor, you know, somebody I’ve worked with over the last several years just in a writing group. His name is Steve Lewis. He’s a novelist, and he has helped me so much with my writing, just like my arm.

John Corcoran 36:39

That’s great. Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor, and the host of The Constant Comedy Podcast with Art Bell and Vinnie Favale. Where else can people go to learn more about Art and connect with you?

Art Bell 36:51

Well, they can go to my website, you can find out about my book, there’s an interview with myself about some other writing that I’ve done. And I encourage you to do that. And if you want to contact me, you can do it through that, as well. I’m also on Facebook. I’m also on LinkedIn, I’m also on Instagram.

John Corcoran 37:09

I love the appreciation of writing, you know, I since I was age 10, I wanted to be a writer I’ve written in, you know, in the Clinton White House and speechwriter for governor in California, all kinds of writing, and I’m still working on improving writing is this discipline that you never Master? You’re constantly trying to improve, you’re constantly beating yourself up about God, why didn’t I read it the way that that person did? Did you read the New York Times, you’re like, Oh, my God, that’s amazing. And the New Yorker or something like

Art Bell 37:37

that, and many writers to admire, you know, and you read some of their prose. You know, when I’m reading now I say, Wow, that was good. You know, whatever I’m reading that paragraph or that sentence or that phrase, whatever it was. And that’s what we all try to achieve. You know, we’re trying to achieve that moment of transcendence.

John Corcoran 37:56

Right? Absolutely. All right. It’s such a pleasure. Thanks so much for doing this. Thanks for having me, John.

Outro 38:01

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at and while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.