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Founder of Comedy Central says the best ideas don’t happen working from home

A general view of the atmosphere during Comedy Central's Emmy Party at Dream Hotel on Sept. 21, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

More than 30 years after starting Comedy Central, founder Art Bell wrote a book about it called, Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor.

Despite being a lifelong fan of comedy, he wasn’t exactly working in entertainment when he came up with the idea for the channel.

“Eight years old, I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show, listening to George Carlin’s albums, Robert Klein’s albums, everything I could get my hands on,” Bell said. “I was a real comedy nerd. When I got to college, I was studying economics. My first job out of college was as an economist in Washington, D.C., I spent three years there. Then I went to business school, and when I came out I got a job at CBS for pretty much half of what I was making as a consultant in Washington. And I remember my father saying, ‘Seriously? What’s the plan here?’ But I wanted to be in the entertainment business. Then I went to HBO, and that’s where comedy happened.”

Bell had the idea in his pocket for years, and worked on it constantly in his spare time, but even when he was working at HBO it was in economics, not programming.

“It was the ’80s, ESPN had just started, MTV, all music, and I thought, why can’t there be an all comedy channel? It seemed ridiculous that there’s not an all comedy network,” he said. “By the time I got to HBO, I had a very good idea of what the channel looked like, how it would work, what it would cost. I’d really been envisioning this channel for a really long time.”

“When I finally decided to get serious and go to the head of HBO programming, she was definitive about the fact that she hated the idea,” Bell continued. “‘Nobody is going to watch a 24-hour comedy network. Why would HBO risk their reputation?’ And then she said some things about how I wasn’t very knowledgeable about television, just in case I hadn’t gotten the message.”

Bell left that meeting defeated.

“But by the time I got back to my office, I said to myself, ‘She’s wrong.'”

Bell says he’s worried that our current culture of working from home is going to squash the brilliant ideas and innovations that can only happen in an office full of people, while spontaneously striking up a conversation with a colleague in a hallway, or while walking by someone’s desk, which is exactly how Comedy Central was born.

Bell was at his desk when a colleague popped his head in, asked what he was working on, and immediately whisked him into a boss’ office, unannounced, to pitch the idea of an all comedy channel. This time, there was interest. And in 1989, the new network launched as The Comedy Channel.

At the beginning, the channel was 24/7 comedy clips from movies, TV shows, and standup specials, and it was not well received by critics or subscribers. But the channel started to thrive when they launched original programming.

“I think one of the things that people most associate with Comedy Central these days is comedy coverage of the news,” Bell said. “That’s something we actually started in 1992, the idea of covering live news, as it happened, with comedians commenting on it. There was a presidential State of the Union address, as there is every year, and somebody suggested, ‘Why don’t we do a ‘watch us, watch the president’ State of the Union address?’ We got Al Franken to be the comedian who was going to sit there for an hour and make jokes about what was going on.”

“Now, Al Franken was certainly the right choice,’ Bell added. “He knew a lot about politics, very smart, very funny and it turned out to be kind of a huge event for us. It was really noticed by the critics, so we realized we were on to something.”

From there, Comedy Central launched hits like The Daily Show and Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was pitched to them via a VHS tape in the mail. They plucked the show from the cable access channel it was airing on.

Several years later, Bell was fired. The company hired new management and they wanted to clear out the old and bring in the new, even though Bell had done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, he had no ownership of the channel.

“People who work for corporations, their work is called ‘work for hire.’ So if I wrote something for HBO that they took and published and made a million dollars on, it would be theirs,” Bell explained. “It wouldn’t be mine. Unless you strike an arrangement with the company, you do not own it and you have no say about it at all.”

Bell went on to become president of Court TV and now works as a writer. Click here to buy his new book, Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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