When Bill Maher Wanted Me Fired From Comedy Central: Art Bell
My guest for Episode #57 is Art Bell, the creator of The Comedy Channel (which later became Comedy Central). He's also the author of the book Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor, and co-host of the podcast “Constant Comedy.”
Today, we talk about Art's “favorite mistake” (it involves the comedian and talk show host Bill Maher) and topics and questions including:
- The ad campaign for “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” and how that ended up leading to an award
- Why it's bad to surprise the talent
- Did Al Franken walk out on “State of the Union: Undressed” because he didn’t know it was going to be live??
- Was that show a better fit, the next year, for Dennis Miller?
- Having to often talk Nancy Grace into going on the air on Court TV
- Is it risky to write a memoir like this? Did you need lawyers involved to make sure you weren’t making a mistake?
- Jon Stewart – on “Short Attention Span Theater, was it a mistake to fire his co host Patty Rosborough without taking to him? – telling or asking? He was surprised…
- Mistake for them to not make him the original host of The Daily Show?
- Mistake for Michael Fuchs to say the programming quality was a 2 or 3 out of 10?
- You decided quickly it was a mistake to say you were quitting?
- New York mag called the channel “the biggest flop in years”
- Making adjustments?? PIVOTED and made changes as quickly as we could
- Getting fired from Comedy Central and lessons learned
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- Full transcript
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Automated Transcript (Likely Contains Mistakes)
Mark Graban (0s):
Episode 57, Art Bell, creator of Comedy Central and author of the book, “Constant Comedy.”
Art Bell (9s):
So you can see how I considered that a mistake.
Mark Graban (18s):
I'm Mark Graban. This is My Favorite Mistake. In this podcast, you'll hear business leaders and other really interesting people talking about their favorite mistakes because we all make mistakes, but what matters is learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. So this is the place for honest reflection and conversation, personal growth and professional success. Visit our website at myfavoritemistake,podcast.com for show notes, links, and a chance to enter, to win a signed copy of Art's book. Constant Comedy, go to MarkGraban/mistake57, please subscribe, rate, and review.
Mark Graban (1m 1s):
And if you liked the podcast, tell a friend or a colleague about it. Thanks. Hi everybody. Welcome to My Favorite Mistake. I'm Mark Graban. Our guest today is Art Bell. He's the author of the memoir it's available. Now you can go and buy it and read it, read it like I did. It's called Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. So as the title implies, Art had the idea for The Comedy Channel. It was launched by HBO and Time Warner, where he worked. And we're going to hear some stories from that today. So Art, thank you so much for joining us. How are you?
Art Bell (1m 40s):
I'm good, Mark. Thanks for having me.
Mark Graban (1m 43s):
So, you know, there's, there's so many interesting stories from your history and involvement with Comedy Central and precursors and everything. So thinking back to your career and all the things you've done, or what would you say is your favorite mistake?
Art Bell (1m 59s):
My favorite mistake, my favorite mistake, I would have to say happened in around 1992 at Comedy Central a few months before we had met with Bill Maher, he pitched us a show called Politically Incorrect and he wanted to make that show a talk show where people actually talked. That's what he said. We were really excited about it. So we launched the show, got off to a pretty good start and I was responsible for marketing at that point. So I decided I was going to market Bill's show because I thought it was a great show and a great representation of the channel. So I did a campaign with our new advertising agency, Korey Kay.
Art Bell (2m 46s):
And it was, I thought, terrific. I showed it to everybody in programming, in marketing, showed it to my boss, the president, I showed it to the director and producer of Bill Maher's show. I did not show it to Bill Maher. Now, why do you think I didn't show it to Bill Maher?
Mark Graban (3m 6s):
Art Bell (3m 7s):
Because he would have said, I hate it. Don't run it. And then we would have been, you know, and just sort of up against the wall, right? I mean, I knew Bill well enough by that, by then that he was, you know, he was a great television host, but he was sometimes very difficult to deal with and I didn't want to risk it.
Mark Graban (3m 26s):
Did, did you figure, he would just thinking back to the old Life cereal commercial, he would have hated anything. He doesn't like anything.
Art Bell (3m 33s):
I, I'm not sure what I thought. I, I, again, I think I was just erring on the side of caution because so many people had put so much work into this campaign and it was an outdoor campaign that was going to show up on bus sides and, and phone kiosks billboards in a number of cities across America. I mean, it was a big gamble on my part and it's not like I, I could have him say, I don't like it. We'll do it over. And then start from scratch at that point, then you're showing Bill Maher, several iterations. You know, you like this, you like that. You like the other thing, then he's in charge of marketing and I really didn't want that. So I went ahead with the campaign, cause everybody said, Oh, that's great.
Art Bell (4m 17s):
Yeah. We like it went ahead with the campaign and it went up all over New York city. And a day later, my assistant said, Bill Maher's on the phone. Now. That was fairly unusual. Not crazy unusual, but bill didn't call me for very many things at that point. Yeah.
Mark Graban (4m 36s):
Head of programming. I haven't had a program.
Art Bell (4m 40s):
I was now head of marketing. So I said, okay, took the call. Hey Bill, how you doing? I said, and he said, Art. I just saw that outdoor campaign you did for my show. And I have to say, I hate it. It's terrible. You said, if you know, if I did my job badly, you would cancel my show. Right. I'd be fired. I said, yeah. And he said, well, I think you did. You're doing your job very, very badly. And I think you should be fired. And I said, well, wait a second Bill, I'm sorry. And he cut me off. And he said, I've made several phone calls. I am having you fired.
Art Bell (5m 21s):
And he hung up. Wow. So you can see how only that can I considered that a mistake. And as a matter of fact, almost immediately after I hung up, I got a call from someone who, at HBO who was not really that involved with the show, but knew Bill and everything else. And she had heard from Bll and she said, are, you really should have showed Bill that, that campaign. And she was in charge of talent at HBO. So she knew what she was talking about. And I said, yeah, I know I probably made a mistake, but he's going to get me fired. And she said, really? I said, yeah. I said, would you get me fired? If it was you? She said, no, honey, I'd never get you fired.
Art Bell (6m 2s):
I said, okay. Anyway, As it out, I told my boss, the president what happened? Cause he was basically the only one that could really fire me except for the board. And he said, yeah, bill did call me, but no, I'm not going to fire you. I told them I liked the campaign and you're not going to be fired. So that is a story of the mistake. Now I can tell you the story of why it's my favorite mistake. Okay. A few months later the campaign had run. We've gotten some press on it to some attention for, and believe me, when you run a marketing campaign, the best thing you can get is press because that's free advertising of your advertising.
Art Bell (6m 41s):
Okay? So we thought we were doing pretty well with it, but then I got a call from Allen Kay, who's the head of our agency. And he said, Hey, good news Art. We just got nominated for an award. I said, you're getting for what he goes for Bill Maher's advertising campaign. I said, Oh my gosh, anything, but now we're going to have to deal with that all over again. He said, don't worry. So just, you know what? Come to the awards dinner. It's really fun. All the attic ed guys from all over in New York are there. It's a very prestigious award. So I said, fine. A few weeks later, we're getting into the car. And Alan says, you're never going to guess who's hosting the award show.
Art Bell (7m 26s):
I said, I don't know, who's hosting the award show. He says, Bill Maher. I said, you are kidding me. I said, you know what? If I wrote this in a novel, people would say, that's ridiculous. Right? So now we're going to the awards ceremony. Bill Maher is hosting. I'm sitting in the audience. It comes to the point where he's announcing the award for best outdoor campaign. And he says the nominees are, and he takes a look and he gets to the second or third nominee and it's Comedy Central. And they're projecting the awards behind him. And he takes a look at the award, turns around and takes a look at the campaign.
Art Bell (8m 6s):
Rather that's being projected. And he says, you know, that great advertising. And I just rolled my eyes, reads the thing, the envelope, please. We win the award. We won the gold award for best advertising campaign in New York, best outdoor advertising campaign that year. And I just couldn't stop laughing to myself. And you know, at the end of the night, we're high fiving. We sit around and we're talking about everything. Bill Maher walks by our table. And I said, Hey Bill. And he didn't say anything, just walked by. That's why it's my favorite mistake.
Mark Graban (8m 43s):
Wow. I mean, that, that is, I mean, I believe you, but it's a, it's an unbelievable story, but yeah. So I mean, many of the favorite mistakes stories in this podcast series are of the category of like, Oh, here's a mistake. I wouldn't want to repeat that. I learned from it. This is in the category of a quote unquote mistake that actually turned into something very positive. Do you still have, do you have the, the trophy or the award or the office?
Art Bell (9m 12s):
I do, but I don't know exactly where it is, but yeah, it's one I cherish for a long time. You know, you, you, you mentioned the fact that we learned from our mistakes and it's a little bit of a head-scratcher to figure out what I learned from that mistake. I mean, if you ask me, would I do it over again exactly the same way. I'm not sure. I wouldn't say no. I mean, say yes rather I, because I was really concerned that it would, he would shut down the campaign. On the other hand, let's have a conversation. What, what would have been the right way to do it?
Mark Graban (9m 44s):
Well, I mean, you, you brought up, the one thing that sort of occurred to me is like, well, you, you said once the campaign had been developed, you didn't want to run it past him because then he could shoot it down at, like you said, bringing them in early on and running a couple of concepts by him. Now, like you said, is Bill Maher, running Comedy Central marketing. That, that that's, that's tough. I mean, maybe that is a situation where you need to just roll with the punches and maybe, I mean, you know, did you have future ad campaigns for politically incorrect? Did you do, do you go to the boss and say, Hey, Bill Maher might be really upset about this. Do you have my back?
Mark Graban (10m 24s):
Like maybe you need to cover your bases that way
Art Bell (10m 28s):
That's listen. I figured my boss had my back anyway. Cause that's what your boss was supposed to do. I think what I learned is you have to make sure that the first time the talent sees a campaign for his or her show is not when it's being shown or exhibited or run on the radio or run on television. It's it's, it's like anything else? I mean, it's got no context, you know, you can't answer the question, why this campaign and not something else, you can't answer the question. Why did you use that picture? And not another one. You can't answer the question, you know, what do you hope to achieve by the campaign and all those things? Now I was, I was new to marketing and I did not know much about marketing.
Art Bell (11m 16s):
I was sort of learning on the job, even though I was a fairly seasoned executive at that point. But since then, and throughout my career, from that point in television, I made sure that I gave what I, what I called a heads up, look to the talent, you know? And I usually started by going to either the producer of the show or somebody close to them, possibly the head of the programming department and said, look, we've got to get this in front of so-and-so. How do you want to do it?
Mark Graban (11m 47s):
Well, I was going to ask one other, you know, kind of groundbreaking program that Comedy Central did was the live commentary of the state of the union address, address State of the Union Undressed. And so, you know, Al Franken did that the first year and then Dennis Miller. Did you follow that approach of, of sharing any of the advertising with them or was that different? Because this was more of a one-off special.
Art Bell (12m 13s):
It was a little different because it was a one-off special. And on top of that, it was not so personal to the hosts. You know what I mean? It wasn't Al Franken Presents the State of the Union Undressed for Comedy Central with a picture of Al and you know, or, or something like that. Al Franken was almost, and I don't mean to say it like this, Al Franklin was a feature of the broadcast that year, but Al Franken was not the focus of the campaign, the focus of the campaign the first year, as you can imagine was the fact that we were, as on day-shift, as we were to actually comment live during the state of the union address on what the president was saying.
Art Bell (13m 0s):
So that was the focus. So that's it that said, I always worried about what the talent was going to say about anything that we were doing. That wasn't just what the talent was doing on the talent show. You know, anything could, could set some of these people off. It was really quite something.
Mark Graban (13m 16s):
Now, one thing, and I thought this was a funny story from the book with Al Franken, that he almost, that he did stomp off the set a couple hours before that first state of the union undressed, because he apparently didn't realize it was going to be live.
Art Bell (13m 29s):
That was, yeah, that is the story. I mean, we, we had hired Al Franken and we were all excited about it. Al Franken at the time was pretty big deal because he was working on, he was writing and performing on Saturday Night Live, which as you know is live. So it's not like she had no concept of what, you know, working live was all about. So we brought them in the, the director of the show and a guy named Billy Kimball, who was also on the show was terrific. And he, you know, he rehearsed for a week and everybody knew what they were doing.
Art Bell (14m 10s):
And it was really, you know, more planned than just, you know, going out there and throwing yourself at it. But, and it wasn't, it wasn't ours. It was more like an hour before the show, they had finished rehearsing and Billy announced, Hey, everybody take, you know, take half an hour, relax, get yourself ready. We are going live in one hour and now looked over and said, we are going live. He said, wait a second. We're doing this live. I thought this was going to be live to tape. I didn't know this was going to be live. I'm not doing this live.
Art Bell (14m 52s):
I'm going to go talk, call my agent right now. Oh my gosh. And he stormed out and we spent about 10 seconds looking at each other saying, where's where's plan B. Was there a mistake? I, if it was a mistake, it wasn't my mistake. At that point, I mean, we had a vice president of talent and development. Her name was Laurie Zaks and she was as buttoned up on executive, as I've ever seen in the entertainment industry. She's very successful today. She's produced a lot of shows. She ended up running after him and she went out the door and we all wondered what she was going to say to them and say to him, and whether it was going to work five minutes later, Al Franken walked back in and said, okay, we're good.
Art Bell (15m 39s):
That was it.
Mark Graban (15m 39s):
You know, w was Dennis Miller a better fit for that sort of ad-lib show that was live?
Art Bell (15m 45s):
Well? I think he certainly acknowledged the fact that he was going to be ad-libbing as he went into it, but like most comedians and stand-up comedians, Dennis, his act was, was written. You know, he, he knew what he was going to say most of the time in his act, we really required Al and Dennis and the other people who did this to improvise. Some people are great at it. Some people are terrible at it. You know, Bob Hope famously said, you wouldn't say that if my writers were here and Al did a fantastic job.
Art Bell (16m 25s):
So whether he had faith in his ability or not, he did a beautiful job of, of reacting to what was going on. So did Dennis, so it wasn't that owl was not capable of doing it. He probably even knew it in his head. He could probably pull it off. He was just by his own account. Surprised once again, do not surprise the talent.
Mark Graban (16m 48s):
Yeah. I mean, there's that expression, it's impossible to over-communicate and making sure that we're on the same page that I think is a lesson that applies in a lot of corporate settings for, for the listener.
Art Bell (17m 4s):
Well, yes. Although I will make a distinction when you're telling your boss bad news, for example, and that's, that's the common, you know, that's a common example of like, okay, so what do you tell when, when there's a really bad piece of information and the answer is by everyone's standard, you tell bad news early, as early as possible to the people, to, you know, for whom it's going to make a difference, especially your boss. And if your boss gets mad, your boss gets mad. I mean, again, well, you don't want as your boss to stumble on the information, here's the difference. Talent is not your boss talent.
Art Bell (17m 44s):
As it was explained to me early in my television career talent, they're the guys who get out on stage in front of the camera with the lights on them, putting their themself on the line in a peripheral, in a performance. So it doesn't matter. All the people that are behind them, the writers and the producers and the me and everybody else doesn't matter. We're not there anymore. Now it's them. And it's up to them to make it work. So when they get cranky and they say, I want blue M&Ms in my, in my dressing room. You say, okay, we'll get your blue M&M's. Now that can go too far as, as you can imagine.
Art Bell (18m 24s):
I mean, talent does, does take advantage. I worked with famously with Nancy Grace who was on CourtTV. When I was running CourtTV, she, I would have to talk her into going on the air. Now she had a five day a week show at five o'clock. I would have to talk her into going on the air lots, you know, like it seemed like three out of five days. I'm not sure it was that much, but you know, I get a call from the booth. Nancy's upset about something. She doesn't like the wardrobe. She doesn't like this, you know, she's refusing to go on and we've got 10 minutes there. So, you know, this is, this is talent is sometimes very difficult to handle. And that's why we had at Comedy Central and most places have a vice president of talent because the people who are good at this are brilliant at it.
Art Bell (19m 12s):
And Laurie Zaks when I mentioned, she said that she's become known in Hollywood as the talent whisperer, which cracked me up because, but I say in my book, I even say in my book, she was spectacular at it. I don't know how she pulled it off, but I would not have been spectacular.
Mark Graban (19m 25s):
Yeah. Yeah. I'm sure some people, you know, there's, it's just the, they, they have a way they have a knack for it, or maybe they have a background in psychology or who knows. So, you know, with the book and again, our guest is Art Bell author of the memoir Constant Comedy, How I Started Comedy Central and Lost my Sense of Humor. Is it risky to write a memoir? Because there is some very detailed retellings of, of meetings and things that were happening at, at HBO and, and through the comedy channel and evolution of the Comedy Central, like, do you have to get lawyers involved to make sure that you're not saying the wrong thing or making a mistake and
Art Bell (20m 10s):
Well, you can get lawyers involved. I did check with some lawyers about whether I should get lawyers involved, as it turns out you're right. Memoir writing comes with a certain degree of risk, partly because a memoir is not an autobiography or a history, a memoir is based on your memory. In this case, my memory of what happened. There's a lot of dialogue in this book. I remembered specific lines from specific meetings and usually the important people were there, but I was, you know, I was recreating dialogue based on my recollection and a few important lines.
Art Bell (20m 54s):
That's not really the problem. The problem is w when people think they've been libeled and libel is a very specific law in the U.S. And it's, it's pretty easy going on, guys like me, libel requires you to not only say something nasty about the person, but you have to say something nasty knowing it's not true. And with the intention of slamming the person and have the person not be able to get work again in that person's field. So that's a pretty high bar all in. So when I started looking at, you know, researching it, I found that there are very few lawsuits against memoir memoirs.
Art Bell (21m 39s):
There's very few challenges to memoirists in this case. This stuff happened 30 years ago, basically it's Comedy Central's 30th anniversary. If you can believe that on April 1st coming up. Yeah, it's really, it's really incredible. So, you know, I, and most of the people were treated pretty nicely, but I will say this, all of the people were treated fairly, you know, there's a saying among memoirists, if you don't want me to depict you badly in your memoir, then don't be a jerk in real life. And I think that applies, you know, I, I did not go out of my way to make someone look bad. I did describe the situation. And if your conclusion is that person was a jerk there, you have it.
Art Bell (22m 22s):
Mark Graban (22m 22s):
No. I think somebody who comes across very well in the book when it comes to, you know, telling stories about talent is Jon Stewart. And as much as I loved his work on The Daily Show, when he started that in '99, I didn't know because frankly, I didn't have cable television until 1995. So I didn't even know of the show, Short Attention Span Theater that he was a co-host of. I was wondering if he could tell the story from the book. I think there was something that might've been, you were kind of reflecting, was that a mistake to make a decision about that show? That surprised him?
Art Bell (23m 2s):
Well, that was another case where the talent was surprised, and I don't even know the extent to which he was surprised. I heard that from him and, and the, the setup is Jon Stewart was hosting Short Attention Span Theater with a cohost named Patty Rosborough, another comedian. And they'd been on the air for a few months. And mind you, this was Jon's first job in television. And it was not quite as first job, but he was really a baby comic. I mean, he, you know, he didn't have a whole lot of experience. As soon as I saw him on television, I knew he was great. You know, everybody like everybody, you know, you're watching the talent on Comedy Channel at that point, trying to figure out who's good and who's not great.
Art Bell (23m 48s):
And he immediately connected. Patty. It wasn't that she was bad, but Jon was doing so much of the talking and she was just doing much of the laughing that she became kind of the audience. Now, I thought that was a good thing, because you know, when you and I laugh on the podcast and people listening or watching we'll laugh too, but I wasn't in charge of that show. And people said, you know what? I think Jon would do better by himself. So they let Patty go. Now, I don't know, to what extent he got a heads up. All I know is I got a phone call saying, listen, we told Jon that Patty was leaving and he is fit to be tied. I mean, he is, he's threatening to quit.
Art Bell (24m 28s):
He wants, you know, he's really upset. You gotta come down here and talk them off the ledge. Now, I think I mentioned earlier, I'm not so great at this. That's why I'm not a talent, you know, talent person, nor was I ever. But I said, okay, I'll come down and talk to Jon. And I did. I walked in and I said, Hey, Jon, listen, we just thought it was really important. And given that you were doing so well, we just thought this show would really benefit. And the channel would benefit and it was best for everyone. Patty's going to be fine. And he just said, look, you can't do that. You cannot fire someone like that. At which point I really almost wanted to just laugh because we're in a corporation, right?
Art Bell (25m 14s):
This is a business. The whole idea that you can't fire someone like that,
Mark Graban (25m 20s):
Maybe that's his inexperience. I think that was his experience.
Art Bell (25m 23s):
So it was more than that though. It was his empathy. I mean, he really cared about Patty. It's not like they were pals from way back or anything, but she was his co-host and they got along and he was looking out for her. And he really felt that we had crossed the line by, by, by letting her go, especially without consulting with him about whether we should let her go. So that was, that was a moment. But, you know, at that point, I really realized that not only was Jon great on television, not only was he smart and funny, but he had a lot of empathy and he was principled and was willing to take a stand for his principles. Now, all of that showed up as America knows on The Daily Show.
Art Bell (26m 6s):
No surprise to me after that. And by the way, I, I got to know Jon, after that, he was a terrific guy, easy to work with for the most part and fun to hang out with. So that was Jon Stewart.
Mark Graban (26m 18s):
Yeah. Cause you know, he comes across very favorably in that story because I think as you pointed out in the book, a lot of people would kill to now have a solo show. Exactly what, sorry, I feel bad for you Patty. But like, and, and for him to react that way, I think shows a certain character that comes through very strongly. So I admire him for that.
Art Bell (26m 43s):
I'll go you one better. A lot of people who co-host are constantly whispering to the producer's ear, you know, I could do this on my own. I don't need, I don't need that person schlepping along, but that was not Jon.
Mark Graban (26m 58s):
So at that point you were still a head of programming. And then later on, I mean, I think you might have, even as you write about in the book already was I was going to say, well, do I say depart? If I know you, I mean, you were fired as you talked about in the book and maybe we'll come back to that
Art Bell (27m 19s):
Eight years at Comedy Central.
Mark Graban (27m 20s):
But you know, it's a surprise that, so I know that Jon Stewart had left, he was doing a show on MTV. Was it, you know, you might be speculating because this wasn't your decision and you might not have even been around it. But gosh, it seems like in hindsight, a mistake to not hire him to be the original host. I mean, I remember watching Craig Kilborn and he was fine, but Jon Stewart took that to a whole new level. Three years later when he was hired,
Art Bell (27m 47s):
I, I was around when, when The Daily Show was being produced, I was not producing it. The producers were not happy with Craig. They were not happy with Craig. He just wasn't putting it over the top, according to them. Now I remember Craig, I'm not even going to comment. I just don't remember what was going on with his performance or what was, you know, for all we know it was something else that was going on on the set that they didn't, they didn't like they got Jon Stewart back from MTV and you know, sometimes in television and in movies, because it's a collaborative effort, magic happens.
Art Bell (28m 28s):
And this was one of those cases. You had the right producers, you had the right format and the right host and all became spectacular.
Mark Graban (28m 34s):
Yeah. Yeah. That's true. One of the things I want to ask you about maybe, you know, not even getting into the story of, of being fired, but there was a story you told in the book where I think this was earlier in this might've been comedy channel days still where one of the executives, Michael Fuchs was asked about the programming quality on a scale of one to 10. And he said, Oh, it was a two or a three. You, you quit. And then you, you said you were quitting. Can you tell the story about like rethinking that was, that was that a mistake that you're you were able to walk back?
Art Bell (29m 12s):
I did. There was an instance around that time that I did threatened to quit, it wasn't in front of Michael Fuchs. Michael Fuchs was the most powerful man in Hollywood. At the time he was proclaimed the most powerful men in Hollywood, by New York Times Magazine, they had a cover story on if I was in Michael's office, I would not have quit. You do what you're told when you're in Michael's office, you don't grandstand, you know, and all of you, none of that, none of that, certainly in my case, I was actually talking to somebody else who was at that time, the president of Comedy Channel. Remember I was a junior, very junior person when I started this whole thing. I didn't know anything about programming.
Art Bell (29m 53s):
The fact that they gave me a job on this channel, that I recommended that they start and showed them how to start. I was enthusiastic. But when we got into it, I realized that everybody had to be focused on making sure that it survived and survival was the issue. Don't misunderstand. I went to work every day, wondering if they were going to pull the plug on the comedy channel, because that's how much incoming bed press we were getting. That's how much anxiety was going on on the part of Michael Fuchs and the other people at HBO who had taken a risk with this thing.
Art Bell (30m 33s):
So my boss at the time was the president of this channel, The Comedy Channel. And he was having a moment of crisis. It was late, it was after work and he was hanging his head and he said, I, you know, art, do you really think this thing can make it? I don't know everything's going wrong. I don't know if this person knows what they're doing. I don't know if that person's, those are doing. And that made me incredibly mad. And I snapped. I really did. And I don't usually raise my voice. I don't know if you can tell from my demeanor, I'm pretty calm and you have to be pretty common that in that business. But I really snapped because I said, look, Dick, if this is the way you feel, then maybe I'm working for the wrong channel, because this is not about wondering whether we're going to be successful.
Art Bell (31m 18s):
This is about making sure that we're going to be successful up until the moment when someone says, we're shutting you down and they haven't done that. And until then we have to project to the 400 people who are now working on this baby confidence. And we have to keep figuring out how to make it better. And I stood up and I started to walk out and he called me back and slap me around. No, he didn't slap me. He calmed me down. And he said, I'm sorry, art. You're absolutely right. And I did not quit.
Mark Graban (31m 51s):
Well, I mean, you know, Comedy Central now, like you said, are 30 years later has, has been such a phenomenon in different ways, you know, bringing South Park to a mass audience and which I'm forever appreciative of as a huge fan of, of that. But you know, the, the, the early days of The Comedy Channel seem like many startups. There's a great idea. You announce it. And then two days later, Viacom announces a competing channel, do you think, do you think that, did they have that in the works or was that, was that just purely reactive? Like, Oh, we've got to get out in front and we'll figure it out.
Art Bell (32m 28s):
My thought at the time that they did the, they, they announced with a press release a day or two after our, our, our announcement, we had been working on it for four to six months at that point. I think they hadn't been working on it. Remember they w they launched six months after us. And I think you're seeing that it's a six month, you know, all hands on deck. He can get the thing up in six months, they would have launched right against us if they could. I have since talked to people at, at their channel, which was called Ha! The Comedy Network. And they didn't quite cop to it. Like they said, Oh, yeah, we had, you know, it came up at a meeting a few weeks earlier, just by chance.
Art Bell (33m 8s):
Maybe we should do some comedy stuff, you know, but they were, they were not, not really doing what they were doing was Nick at night, which was sitcoms old sitcoms. And that was, that was our head start on that.
Mark Graban (33m 21s):
Yeah. But, you know, as you talk about in the book, I mean, there are the startup challenges of getting up and running, and then you've got the concept, and then you're testing that in the marketplace. You know, it seems like the original concept in a way, was MTV for comedy. You would show clips that were kind of the equivalent of music videos, and you would have a VJ. And that concept was something like the people in startup circles now would say that there was a pivot yes. Or some adjustments in the programming. Right.
Art Bell (33m 53s):
Well, the smart thing was that we pivoted, I mean, we didn't call it pivoting at that point, but we made changes as quickly as we could. One of the reasons that that strategy didn't work was because we had to get the permission of the unions to use the clips. And we did. And we got in writing, however, a few weeks before we launched, we got a call from the directors Guild saying, we changed our mind. Somebody on the board said, I don't like this. And so we are withdrawing our support and suddenly the pile of comedy clips that we had created, we could no longer use.
Art Bell (34m 34s):
So who knows? I mean, short-form comedy is not, you know, it's not an untried concept. I mean, you look at YouTube today. That's how kids absorbed this stuff. And people absorb this stuff. And in that, in those days, there wasn't an outlet for it so much, but people always talk about their favorite scenes and their favorite moments. We cultivated that, but then it didn't work for those re those reasons. And maybe others. I mean, we never really got a chance to explore whether it would have worked, but we had to figure out if we were going to survive as a comedy network, we had to figure out what that network was going to look like.
Mark Graban (35m 8s):
And that's, I think a very general business challenge of do we stick with it and give it more time, or do we pivot? That's a judgment call and you do your best, and I'm glad the comedy channel figured it out. So it could survive and evolve into Comedy Central as, as you write about it in the book, as it merged with ha the comedy network,
Art Bell (35m 28s):
Right? The two channels were merged at the end of a year after we launched. And that was, that was a disappointment to me. Honestly, I felt we had the better concept. We had certainly built an audience by then. We had a mix of clips and up comedy, some movies, we had Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the air. We had some comedy, Kids in the Hall. We were developing some shows. We were off to the races from my point of view, but it was a fight for distribution. It was a fight for advertising and the heads of Viacom and Time Warner were not happy just spending money on this endless fight because nobody was really gonna say uncle.
Art Bell (36m 16s):
And so they decided to merge us. Yeah.
Mark Graban (36m 20s):
So maybe one question for you, art, and again, our guest is Art Bell, not to be confused with the late, late night overnight radio talk show, host Art Bell, because he's no longer with us. Correct. But have you run across that? I guess previously, I forget the episode number, who was Stephen King, not that Stephen.
Art Bell (36m 37s):
Right, right. You know what? I was in the media business, in television, he was in radio. So I go to a media conference of any sort, and they'd say Art Bell, you know, when I'm checking into the hotel, because nobody knew what he looked like. I wasn't, I wouldn't, nobody really knew who I was. So it, it happened quite a bit when I was out and about, but never to anybody's. I mean, never to my detriment. I mean, it, wasn't a confusion that caused some kind of horrifying story of some sorts.
Mark Graban (37m 4s):
Sure. So maybe a final question for your Art and I'll tease, you know, if people want to hear and they can read all of these stories about the idea of a launch, the merger, there's a lot of great stuff in the book. So I hope people will check it out, but there was one reflection that you shared in the book after you retold your story of, of being fired. I forget if you use the word mistake, but you sort of came to understand when people were fired to look at, I guess, those folks diff erently than in the past, you had made assumptions. If somebody got fired, they in some way sort of deserved it.
Mark Graban (37m 45s):
Am I recounting that accurately?
Art Bell (37m 47s):
I spend a lot of time hiring people and occasionally firing people. But my understanding of people who got fired was that they did something horribly wrong or didn't show up for work or, you know, messed up. And suddenly I was fired, not for messing up, but for having been so completely involved in the launch and the formation and the, and the direction of the comedy network, the comedy channel, and then Comedy Central, that when they brought in new management, because they fired my boss, the president, the new management basically fired everybody.
Art Bell (38m 28s):
And, and when he fired me, he said, look, you got your fingerprints all over this network. I can't keep you here because I got to go my own way. And that's, that was a lesson for me. That was a lesson for me. It didn't make it sting any less, I have say. But from that point on when I was considering hiring somebody, if they had been fired, I'd say, okay, they're still worth considering they're not just a complete screw up of some sort. And that was a big lesson for me.
Mark Graban (38m 58s):
Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing that lesson in the book and thank you for sharing that lesson and others here today. So Art Bell is our guest. You can find the book on Amazon and other resellers retailers on his website. If you want to go check it out, is ArtBellWriter.com. And there's a lot of other great stories from the book, kind of Art writing about things he did after Comedy Central kind of early days of comedy on the internet. And then I'm going to Court TV, and really, really enjoyed reading that. So Art, like, even though I didn't have a chance to watch Comedy Central in the early days, it's really interesting to go back and hear more about how it came to be and what those early days were.
Art Bell (39m 46s):
Thank, you know, speaking of that, I just want to mention one more thing. And that is that since April 1st is the 30th anniversary of Comedy Central, a friend of mine who was there, Vinnie Favalli and I are doing a series of 12 podcasts where we are interviewing people from the early days of comedy who have since gone on to brilliant careers in the entertainment business. And we are launching that on April 1st. And it's a really fun podcast. And I, I encourage everybody to check it out if they want to hear some stories from the real, the people who lived it.
Mark Graban (40m 20s):
Yeah. I will check that out and subscribe, and I'll put a link to that in the show notes. So thank you. Thank you very much. Yeah. Awesome. So again, our guest has been Art bell. His book is Constant Comedy: How I started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. I didn't get a chance to ask you about that. Part of the subtitle
Art Bell (40m 41s):
Is actually something that Michael Fuchs said three months into it. He said it took a comedy channel to make me lose my sense of humor. And I had momentarily lost mine when he said that,
Mark Graban (40m 51s):
Well, I'm glad you found it again. I'm glad you've got it back. Where as you said in the book, the other comedians, maybe this is part of it too. Honestly, I'm laughing, which shows I'm not a comedian. You said the comedians would have just sat there and said, that's funny.
Art Bell (41m 7s):
That's right. No, laughter involved. That's funny or that's not funny.
Mark Graban (41m 10s):
Well, Art, thank you. I've enjoyed this. This has been fun and really interesting. So really appreciate it. Thanks again for being a guest.
Art Bell (41m 17s):
Thank you for having me.
Mark Graban (41m 19s):
Thanks again to Art Bell for being such a fantastic guest. And don't forget if you want to enter to win a signed copy of Art's book, Constant Comedy. You can go to MarkGraban.com/mistake57. Coming up on Thursday's episode is the legendary management consultants, speaker, author, Tom Peters. You'll hear his favorite mistake. You'll hear about some surprisingly long hair that he had at one point and more. And I hope this podcast inspires you to reflect on your own mistakes, how you can learn from them or turn them into a positive I've had listeners tell me they've started being more open and honest about mistakes and their work.
Mark Graban (42m 3s):
And they're trying to create a workplace culture where it's safe to speak up about problems, cause that leads to more improvement and better business results. If you have feedback or a story to share, you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org. And again, our website is myfavoritemistakepodcast.com