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Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

The Origin and Early Programs of Comedy Central

TV is usually a tightly-controlled, highly-regulated corporate appendage, except during the loose, early days of a new network, when everybody involved is still trying to find both and audience and an identity, and are left largely or somewhat to their own devices, to experiment on air, to throw stuff to the wall and see what sticks. For example, Nickelodeon. Now a perpetual glitter lip gloss commercial, the channel began in the late ‘70s as an extension of, and at first consisted primarily of, an Ohio-based puppet show called Pinwheel, along with a lot of weird European cartoons and Canadian short films.

And then there’s Comedy Central, the comedy nerd’s favorite, because it has the word comedy right there in its name. Today, it’s a multimedia, highly-influential, highly-profitable international entertainment behemoth due to The Daily Show, South Park, Chappelle’s Show, Reno 911, Tosh.0, and Jeff, the Non-Ironically Racist Puppetmaster, and other stuff that likely wouldn’t have found a home on TV in another era. But, like Nickelodeon, Comedy Central’s beginnings were auspicious and inventive, which led to some programming that was transcendent and before its time, as well as some in the school of awkward, wacky, telling you its comedy as relentlessly as a Fozzie Bear routine.

Getting a network launched and distributed is hard and expensive, which is how a huge company like Time Warner, whose biggest success in TV at the time was as the corporate parent of HBO, could launch The Comedy Channel, as it did in November 1989, and have the actual programming look so cheap and amateurish (for better or for worse). An all-comedy channel was a simple if obvious idea in the rapidly expanding and nichifying world of cable TV, and Time Warner filled a lot of the network’s schedule with airings of the many comedies we all saw many times on HBO in the late ‘80s, such as Amazon Women on the Moon and Better Off Dead. But also, there were shows, many with obviously low budgets, shot from the hip, from budget-rate New York TV studio facilities.

The Sweet Life. Before the name was taken by a show about poorly-mothered tow-headed tweens left to fend for themselves in a fancy hotel, The Sweet Life was a loosely structured variety show on The Comedy Channel, hosted by Rachel Sweet, best known at the time for singing the title song of John Waters’ camptastic Hairspray, a gig she got because she appealed to Waters sensibilities having been a failed pop sensation with a jailbait angle in the very early ‘80s, long before Britney Spears made it cool. Remember Just Say Julie, on MTV, from around the same time (note to self: I should write an article on Just Say Julie)? It was a lot like that.

Night After Night With Allen Havey. A late-night talk show in the smarmy-goofy vein of Letterman, workhorse comedian (and Letterman favorite) Havey hosted with sidekick Nick Bakay (later a writer for many comedy entities, including The King of Queens, and also the voice of the cat on Sabrina the Teenage Witch), but satirized the format while perpetuating it. Night After Night's most memorable feature was its single-person studio audience. Havey liked to interview guests in a one-on-one audience-free format. Well not entirely audience-free — a running joke was that the show literally had an “Audience of One.”

The Higgins Boys and Gruber. This was a large block of weekday afternoon filler hosted by the expert three-man stand-up and sketch team of the same name. (Dave “Gruber” Allen is best known as the cool hippie teacher on Freaks and Geeks; Dave Higgins co-starred on Malcolm in the Middle; Steve Higgins is a producer at Saturday Night Live and is the announcer on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon). Usually the show was about the trio riffing between and about stuff taken from Time Warner’s massive vault of stand-up comedy bits, movie clips, and old cartoons, particularly Clutch Cargo. Other times they did weird and silly sketches, like this one.

Mystery Science Theater 3000. Ultimately the channel’s signature show, this import from Minneapolis local television, created by comedian Joel Hodgson, embraced and celebrated its low-budgetness and scattershot approach while also mocking low-budget, scattershot sci-fi movies of the ‘50s. Creator Hodgson arguably introduced sophisticated snark to television, but balanced it out with the rest of the MST3K universe, which included running jokes, nostalgia, robots, and lightning-fast jokes. One of the biggest comedy cult programs of all time, it ran until 1999, spawned a big-screen movie, and you already love it and know about it.

Sports Monster. On this program, Bakay, Joe Bolster, and Jon Hayman played sportscasters with the same names as themselves, but which were outsized characters. They delivered joked-up sports highlights. So exactly like The Colbert Report, but with sports. So then sort of like Sportsdome.

Onion World. Satirical commentary, man-on-the-street, guerilla comedy, sketches, music, and characters from alt-comedian-before-that-term-existed Rich Hall, late of HBO’s Not Necessarily the news.

Short Attention Span Theater. Another variation on the cheap but effective snarking-on-clips format, clips from comedians and movies were shown, and then a host would make fun of them. Unknown comics lost to time who had a spell hosting this include people named Jon Stewart, Laura Kightlinger, Brian Regan, and Marc Maron.

The Comedy Channel did well enough showing well-known movies and fresh-faced programming that other media conglomerates wanted to steal the idea. Viacom, corporate parent of MTV and VH1, launched the horrendously-named-and-punctuated Ha!: The TV Comedy Network on April 1, 1990, which is April Fool’s Day, because comedy.

Ha! struggled, finding it difficult to get placement on crowded cable systems, especially on ones that already carried The Comedy Channel. While The Comedy Channel bolstered its lineup with movies, Ha! relied more on old, Viacom-controlled sitcoms from the ‘70s, which were still in wide rotation on local channels and other cable channels like TBS and USA. Ha! was, however, the only place where you could find full, 90-minute reruns of Saturday Night Live, not those 30- or 60-minute truncated abominations. Among Ha!’s original shows:

Afterdrive. A Denis Leary-hosted talk show, early in his career, just after Remote Control on MTV, and just before returning to MTV to make cranky promos.

Clash! A comedy game show, in that people were grouped against each other based on a demographic that sounded funny. The questions were then absurdly hard or absurdly easy. It was hosted by comedian Billy Kimball, who became a Simpsons writer and produced The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn, among other things.

As a way to get Ha! some exposure and win fans, Viacom worked out a deal in some parts of the country where Ha! and VH1 shared a channel: Ha! got the channel for half the day, VH1 the other half. It didn’t work. Exactly one year later, on April 1, 1991 (because comedy), The Comedy Channel and Ha! merged to create CTV: The Comedy Channel. In most locations, CTV took The Comedy Channel’s spot; VH1, free of Ha!, got its full day back, no longer denying the nation’s secretaries their Kenny G and Anita Baker videos. Three months later, CTV changed its name to Comedy Central to avoid confusion with the major Canadian network CTV. (That’s when it picked up its longtime logo and Penn Jillette as its longtime announcer.)

From then the network began to take shape. The Comedy Channel and Ha! shows were both represented on the new channel (Afterdrive, Clash!, Short Attenion Span Theater, and MST3K all made the jump, among others). It was also a welcome dumping ground for reruns of Kids in the Hall, The Critic, Saturday Night Live, and tons of stand-up comedy shoehorned into and presented into 30-minute time chunks with hosts and names like Stand Up Stand Up, Premium Blend, and The A List. There were also plenty of new shows that became modern classics, such as The Daily Show (with Craig Kilborn), Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, Viva Variety, Upright Citizens Brigade, Strangers With Candy, and Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.

The network also routinely ran short films as non-ad filler throughout the decade. The two I remember most vividly are “Tube Tops,” a not-very-funny song about tube tops from a comedy troupe called the Bert Fershners, and “Spunk,” a five-minute, salacious movie-of-the-week style film about the Tonya Harding scandal starring Tina Yothers of Family Ties.

Viacom and Time Warner remained equal partners in Comedy Central until 2003, when Viacom bought out Time Warner’s share for well over a billion dollars, or roughly one day’s worth of sales of Talking Cartman bottle openers.

Brian Boones writes books, websites, and tweets, and misses Bob and Margaret.

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  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I remember Comedy Central promoting "Spunk" as some exclusive world premier movie.

    And Pinwheel on Nickelodeon, I remember that too. The memory of both were very vague and I didn't know if they were things I've seen, or imagined. Thanks for assuring me I'm not crazy, but, thanks for making me feel old too, Mr. Boones.

  • jfruh

    One thing those promos really brought back: the fact that Penn Gillette was for some reason the voiceover guy for every single Comedy Central promo. How did that happen exactly?

    • Emerson Dameron@twitter

      @jfruh The free market demanded it.

  • Emerson Dameron@twitter

    MST aside, things didn't really tip for Comedy Central until about 1997. It's hard to believe they were given so many chances, or to imagine a time when MTV ran Liquid Television and mopped the floor with them.

  • http://michaeljohnbertrand.com/MJB/ MisterComedyGeek

    OK, that Sweet Life thing is downright adorable. She's cute, she's funny, and she has a cartoony voice. Has she done voice work?

    Oh. Dennis Leary being ignorant about Canada. Pass.

    Captain Lucky was sort of fun, but also sort of pointless. Well, this is what happens when you have a lot of time to fill and no budget. You pretty much have to use whatever you come up with, whatever the quality. Sounds like a show I would have enjoyed anyhow, just on weird factor alone.

    What needs to be said about that icon of post-modern comedy, MST3K? Still made of awesome.

    Hmmm. Onion World sounds fun… any show with Dred Zeppelin on it can't be entirely bad… but Rich Hall is kind of a douche. So, I don't know. I would have given in a shot, I guess.

    Now, Short Attention Span Theater I managed to catch, and it was great. Plus, do I ever miss Penn Gilette's voice on everything.

    Dennis Leary had a talk show? Oy. I pity his guests. The mellowed out Dennis Leary of today could do it, but back then? Three oys and a toasted bagel.

  • Dekkoparsnip

    Thank you for this — I obsessively watched pretty much all of The Comedy Channel's early programming, and even sent in a video for their "It's a Wonderful Life" recreation contest demanding more Rachel Sweet. It does not appear to have been heeded. When I saw Gruber open for Cinematic Titanic a few years back, I squeed.

    You should write an article on the underappreciated "Just Say Julie."

    • JenW

      @Dekkoparsnip I also watched The Comedy Channel pretty much exclusively as a teen, and I wholeheartedly second your request for an article on Just Say Julie.

  • Obi-Wan

    Is Leary's epic story of being an altar boy that he told on Afterdrive available online someplace? A few minutes of searching turned up nothing.

  • Rich Drees@facebook

    An "Audience of One" member checking in. (I still have my NIGHT AFTER NIGHT t-shirt around here somewhere…) I'm surprised that you left off a number of the original sketch shows that were Comedy Central through their early years like THE VACANT LOT, EXIT 57 (with Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris) and ALMOST LIVE, which gave us BIll Nye, the Science Guy, the High-Fivin' White Guys and Billy Kwan!

    • Brian Boone