South Park and The Daily Show made them number one with the PlayStation generation. But seriously, how do you top Jon Stewart? Inside Comedy Central's R&D lab.
Wired 13.02 ⎢ February 2005
LAST MAY, shortly after being named president of Comedy Central, Doug Herzog spent a day at a Santa Monica luxury hotel called Shutters on the Beach. Gathered around him were the channel's 15 or so programming execs. They were there to talk about the big stuff: the brand, the zeitgeist, and where to go from here.
With hits like South Park and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Comedy Central is scoring big with its bull's-eye target—white, college-educated, post-frat-boy males. The channel's snarky humor has made it second only to ESPN among men 18 to 34. The success it's had with Chappelle's Show—big ratings, three Emmy nominations—proved that a black, hip hop comic could hold the core audience and pull in new viewers as well. But where will the next big comedy hit come from? Some people might think to look for the answer at the annual comedy festival in Aspen, Colorado, but not Herzog. "Don't ever try to sell me a show by saying, 'They killed in Aspen,'" he told his team at the retreat, because that just means a bunch of comedy snobs loved it.
Shutters is a sprawling, comfy place that suits Herzog's California-casual style. This is a guy who likes to say he learned everything he knows about management from his summers as a camp counselor: Get a bunch of 10-year-olds moving in the same direction and you can do anything. He threw out several ideas for new shows that day—sports, redneck humor, videogames—all of them subjects with proven guy appeal. But while it doesn't take a programming genius to see that a gaming show on Comedy Central is probably a good idea, it might take one to figure out how to make that show work.
Young men continue to desert the broadcast networks to watch cable, yet Comedy Central has to compete for their attention not just with every other channel on TV but with video, MP3s, Internet porn, and whatever else guys do in their spare time. "This is an on-demand generation," says Herzog. "They're bombarded with media and information. In order to matter to them, you've got to have the new new thing, and it better be good."
The task of developing the videogame show fell to 31-year-old Dave Koga, whose first day on the job happened to coincide with the session at Shutters. Koga had been head of late night at Fox, until Fox stopped programming late night. He loves comedy, but even when he was looking for a job, he couldn't bring himself to watch much of it on TV. "I was pretty much playing videogames the whole time," he admits. Halo. Tiger Woods Golf. A lot of Tom Clancy Xbox titles. "I was definitely one of those guys."
WHAT MAKES A COMEDY CENTRAL SHOW? "Funny," snaps Herzog, sitting in his wedge-shaped corner office atop a West LA office tower. He pauses. "With a distinctive point of view. But they're not all the same. The Daily Show is very different from South Park is very different from Reno 911!," a Cops spoof featuring a gay officer named Lieutenant Dangle. "It's hard to say. If I could bottle it, there'd be a lot more of it."
There'll soon be more of it anyway. Comedy Central plans to shell out more money than ever to buy shows this year—some $200 million, up nearly 10 percent from last year. This is hardly the low-budget operation Herzog headed back in 1995, when he began his first stint running the channel. In three years, he turned a dumping ground for old sitcoms into the launchpad of South Park and Jon Stewart, a run that made him one of the most successful programmers in cable. Next came a brief and unhappy reign as entertainment chief at Fox and a more successful tour at the helm of USA. Now he's back at Comedy Central, but the landscape could not be more different.
Cable programming today is as competitive as the network business, and far more profitable. Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and MTV are all owned by Viacom, as are CBS, Infinity Radio, Paramount Pictures, and Simon & Schuster. But while Viacom's cable channels accounted for only a fifth of its $27 billion in revenue in 2003, they yielded two-thirds of its pretax profits. They're the engine that powers Viacom, and right now they're feeling the pressure.
Kings of Comedy Central: Honcho Doug Herzog (center), flanked by development troupers Jim Sharp, Angela Howard, Lauren Corrao, Rob Cohen, and Dave Koga.
For Comedy Central, that means never playing it safe. Unlike the broadcast networks, the channel doesn't pretend to deal in family entertainment; its peak audience doesn't tune in until 10 pm. So Dave Chappelle can deliver a Rick James impersonation that has people across the country screaming, "I'm Rick James, bitch!" He can do sketches like "The Niggar Family," a sitcom spoof in which he plays milkman to a white family named Niggar: "I hate to bother you about this, but you didn't pay your bill last week—and I know how forgetful you Niggars are when it comes to paying bills!" South Park offers up episodes like "The Passion of the Jew," which portrays Mel Gibson as a lunatic who sparks a holy war in the little Colorado town. Drawn Together, the channel's latest hit, is an animated "reality" series about eight cartoon characters sharing a house; by the end of the first episode, the fairy princess is tongue-kissing a foxy babe in a hot tub.
This is not stuff to please the Christian right, but at a time when broadcast stations are afraid to air Saving Private Ryan because it has GIs screaming obscenities on the beaches of Normandy, Comedy Central has so far managed to draw relatively few viewer complaints. "We're an adult network," Herzog says unapologetically. "We reserve the right to program our network for adults. In a universe of 500 channels, we beg you—watch something else. Please." Or, as the South Park poster in the main conference room declares:
& FLAMING FARTS
WHY THEY INVENTED THE V-CHIP
"Look," Herzog continues, "there's no question that this generation is stretching the boundaries. The Simpsons begot Ren & Stimpy which begot Beavis and Butt-Head which begot South Park which begot Family Guy, and it just keeps on going. It's an evolution in what people are looking for to make them laugh. They clearly have grown tired of sitcoms. They speak a different language. It's a different world out there."
It's a world Herzog helped create. Today, at 45, Herzog has graying hair and dresses like a suburban dad—khaki pants, checked shirts, buck shoes. But both he and his development chief, Lauren Corrao, came out of MTV; so did their bosses, Viacom copresident Tom Freston and cable chief Judy McGrath. At MTV they were part of a group that pioneered the concept of ambient television—of TV as wallpaper, as one more layer in the multitasking web of life. Herzog launched MTV News in the mid-'80s and pushed to move beyond music videos with even more original programming. Corrao developed The Real World, the landmark proto-reality series, because she wanted to do an updated soap but couldn't afford actors or writers. By the time they left, MTV was the channel that defined a generation. Comedy Central isn't trying to brand a lifestyle. But it is, essentially, comedy for the MTV generation, grown-up.
DAVE KOGA WEARS DESIGNER COKE-BOTTLE GLASSES and rumpled, untucked shirts. His hair sticks out in every direction. Right now he's on the phone with Rob Cohen, a 40-year-old comedy writer and Halo fanatic they've hired to produce the as-yet-untitled videogame show. A couple of days ago, Cohen had emailed in his script for several segments of the pilot. Now he's calling from the backstreet Hollywood bungalow that serves as his office to get notes from Koga.
They're still a month away from shooting the episode. Herzog won't weigh in until a month after that. Meanwhile, Koga is supervising the show's progress under the direction of Corrao and her West Coast development VP, Jim Sharp. They like what they've seen so far, including scripts for a Gadget Guy segment and a celebrity videogame review. But Sharp is dubious about the plan to bring in a Playboy playmate to riff on games.
"He needs to get over that," Cohen tells Koga.
"What's she going to be doing, though?" Koga asks.
"She's going to be talking about videogames!" Cohen cries. "Like her true, actual knowledge about videogames. The way the porn star was going to offer computer tips." They'd been planning to have a porn star riff on computers, until she got pregnant. "We've got this iconic thing that's every nerd's dream, but she happens to actually love playing Halo." He pauses to gauge the effectiveness of his pitch. "It could be them interviewing her in a hot tub," he adds hopefully.
Koga is noncommittal. "Moving on to Gadget Guy," he says, flipping through a thick loose-leaf binder. "Um … I know you can use the TravelPower backpack to recharge your laptop or your PDA or whatever. But can we have an actual videogame gadget?"
"Yeah. We found an ergonomically correct chair that you can recline in, and it's got a holder for your controller and a holder for your drink and your chips, and it's got a stereo in the headrest. I think it has a massager or something, too."
"That's great," Koga says. But he's still concerned about how many laughs they'll get out of the Gadget Guy bit. This goes to their big issue for the entire show: How hard should they try to make it funny? And how can they make it funny if they're trying too hard?
With Gadget Guy, Cohen argues, they shouldn't try too hard. "It's not the most exciting thing," he admits, "but it's hopefully, like, informative, and you want to give it a breather instead of making it supercrazy. A guy with stuff on a table and us trying to amp it up and make it nutty would be schizophrenic."
"Totally agree," Koga says. "Totally agree. And to that end, I think the grilled sausages thing—"
They'd been talking about having a troupe of dancers grill sausages on the set and feed them to the Gadget Guy during his spiel. For about a nanosecond, it seemed like a good idea. "That'll be gone," Cohen promises. "No more sausages."
"Awesome," Koga says. "Even though I like sausages personally."
IF KOGA WERE BACK AT FOX, or at one of the other big networks, that phone call would have played out quite differently. In the first place, it wouldn't have been a phone call. Instead of kicking back in his office, feet up on his desk, Cohen would be pulled into an overheated conference room with a dozen, maybe two dozen suits, each with his own idea about how to rewrite the script. The pressure in broadcasting is to smooth out any rough edges, to stick with what's worked in the past. At Comedy Central the idea is to take a chance on something fresh. This explains why comics and writers often prefer to work there, even though the audiences and the paychecks are smaller. It also explains why guys are tuning in here and tuning out network sitcoms.
The pattern was set with South Park, which Herzog snapped up in 1997 during his first Comedy Central stint. The discovery of the show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, is the stuff of Hollywood legend: how Brian Graden, then at Fox and now head of entertainment for MTV and VH1, saw their college reel; how he hired them to do a video Christmas card, "The Spirit of Christmas," which showed Jesus and Santa Claus brawling over whose holiday it is. Other execs passed it around and howled behind closed doors; Herzog brought them in to make a deal. When South Park first aired, he says, "I was very nervous. I remember thinking, 'Can I go to jail for this?' There was a lot of stuff that was enormously troublesome to me as a whatever—as a network executive, as a parent, as a human being. But I think Comedy Central's success has come from letting people like Matt and Trey pursue their vision and not getting in the way."
When Herzog tried that at Fox, however, the experience was traumatic. Two of the three shows he got on the air during his 14-month tenure flopped; the third—the family comedy Malcolm in the Middle—became a huge hit. "Nobody at Fox wanted to do that show," he says. "People gave me a thousand reasons why it wouldn't work—'Oh God, it doesn't have a laugh track!' 'It's only going to appeal to kids!' 'It looks like a Nickelodeon show!' All I knew was, it was the only thing that made me laugh." Along the way, he learned why network television sucks. "Being at Fox was like taking Latin," he concludes. "It was like learning the language on which all the other languages are based but no one uses anymore."
Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser, cocreators of Drawn Together, pitched their idea to several networks. At Fox they were told it was great except for one thing: It shouldn't be a reality show. "That's like saying, 'I love Star Wars, but I think it should be set on Earth,'" Silverstein quips. At Comedy Central, he adds, "they got it."
"Comedy shouldn't be fucked with," says Bernie Brillstein of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, the management-and-production firm behind Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central's Primetime Glick. "At a network, you have a meeting with 30 people giving notes. It's insane. But we love Doug. He gets comedy, he's an honest guy, and he gives you a quick answer. What more could you want?"
HERZOG'S NUMBER‑ONE PRIORITY—so big it's being double-tracked, with two teams shooting two different pilots—is a Daily Show-type program about Hollywood, like Entertainment Tonight but with a satirical edge. He's also very big on the idea of scripted comedy, though his version of the sitcom would hardly hew to the daffy wife, baffled dad, wacky neighbors formula laid down a half century ago by I Love Lucy. So they have a pilot called Stella, starring three guys from the State, the same New York comedy troupe that created Reno 911! There's also a quiz show called Have You Got Balls?, which pits guys against gals in sports trivia. But one of the most intriguing prospects came from left field.
Last spring, a talent agent brought in a 25-year-old actor named Skyler Stone whose specialty is pulling cons. Stone came to LA four years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and when movie roles and commercial gigs weren't enough to support him, he started cadging free Cokes out of McDonald's and talking his way onto airline flights. Then he decided his con artistry was marketable. "Something about this felt different," says Jim Sharp, who took the initial pitch. "For us it's like, he's fearless, he's funny, let's try it. And if it doesn't work, you know what? We don't keep score."
For the pilot, Stone devised a telescoping series of cons so complex that instead of stitching two or three together to make up an episode, as planned, he talked them into devoting the entire half hour to one long, beautiful, ornate, many-featured con. He ended up with two pilots, one in which he lands a free ticket to a pro ballgame and another a free makeover at a Beverly Hills spa. "What's cool about this," Stone says, twirling round and round in an office chair in the studio Comedy Central rented for him, "is it's not just a prank show, it's a how-to prank show. The theme is to eat, sleep, and live for free." He stops swiveling in front of Chris Cox, one of the writers Comedy Central hired for him. "I haven't paid for anything since I met you, have I, Chris?"
"No," Cox retorts. "You haven't paid for me."
Meanwhile, the sports show that Herzog suggested at the Shutters retreat has yet to materialize. "We're having a tough time nailing it," Koga admits while taking a break with Angela Howard, the exec who's developing Con. "It's hard to make sports funny without making fun of athletes." The redneck comedy idea hasn't gone very far either. Herzog is hot for it, because Jeff Foxworthy's Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie was the channel's highest-rated movie to date, but nobody on the premises is a redneck or even knows one. Koga, for example, is a Japanese-Hawaiian who grew up in Orange County. "That show is out there — we just don't know what it is yet," he says. Then he admits, "I don't know if I can speak for everybody, but that humor is a stretch for me."
Howard, who's African-American, shoots him a look. "Oh yeah," she says, "you can speak for me on that."
As for the videogame show, Rob Cohen has been beavering away in his bungalow for weeks. He has a script. He has hosts—Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, two standups who are also longtime gamers. He has his Playboy playmate. He even has a title: Happy Game Fun Bomb.
The format is one of the oldest in the biz: the variety show. "Every week it's something different," Cohen explains, "and if a segment doesn't work, you get rid of it. If the spinning-plate guy's a hit he comes back—if not, you get the dancing bear." Every few minutes, the hosts will check in on an ongoing tournament that will serve as the spine of the show. For the home team—the "amazing super videogame players," in Cohen's words, who'll take on all challengers—he drew on his pals in the Hollywood Halo crowd, a group of comedy writers who get together at a sprawling house in the Hollywood Hills to spend the night playing videogames while their wives and girlfriends lounge around the pool. In the pilot, the players will battle it out with Halo 2.
Essentially, Cohen is putting on a show with his friends. It's a gamble, but for Comedy Central, that's the point. Because Cohen's friends are both gamers and comics, the problem of creating a funny program about videogames may not be as big a problem as they feared—or so Cohen maintains. "It's a goofy world, and our friends are all goofballs," he says, his lanky frame sprawled out across an office chair, a four-day beard on his face. "So, no. I mean, we hope it's funny." Suddenly he seems stricken with self-doubt. "It's funny to us.…" ■
Contributing editor Frank Rose wrote about advertising to 18- to 34-year-old males in Wired 12.08.