Art Bell, Comedy Central Founder, The One Belief That Changed Comedy
It is very likely that today’s guest has made you laugh and may have even changed your life. He brought us South Park and Dave Chapelle, but most notably he brought us Comedy Central.
Today we have many all-comedy channels on TV. This wasn’t the case before the 90s. For years, our guest, Art Bell wondered when we’d have an all-comedy channel. Everyday, he woke up scouring the news. Every morning, he was on the lookout to find out if someone had announced an all-comedy channel. Yet, that day never seemed to come.
Art had a passion for comedy since he was 8. Eventually, he decided to bring his vision to life. It wasn’t smooth sailing. He had to work in jobs that he didn’t particularly enjoy, he had to persevere when people didn’t believe in him.
Today, Comedy Central celebrates its 30th year on cable. In this episode, Art Bell shares his journey with us from majoring in economics, working in consulting firms to establishing one of the most successful TV and comedy projects ever.
Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:
- How you can work in your dream job even if you are working in a completely different industry right now.
- Insights about what corporate jobs teach you
- How to bring your vision to life from developing the idea, pitching it and dealing with the speed bumps.
What drew Art Bell to comedy
- Became a comedy fan at 8 years old.
- Taken by the power of its ability to get people to laugh.
- Comes from a funny family.
- He got his initial taste of professional comedy from the Ed Sullivan show and from there went on to listen to Woody Allen, George Carlin, and Robert Klein albums.
- He wrote satire too and was initially attracted to it. He started an underground satire newspaper in school called The Tongue to point out things that were wrong.
Art Bell’s life as an economist
- Studied hard for an economics test but ended up failing, this motivated him to focus more on his studies and ended up enjoying it.
- Double majored in Economics and English.
- Was offered a job as an economist in a consulting firm in Washington DC.
- He was working with people who are older and smarter than him.
- One day, he was reading Coal Weekly and felt that he can’t do this for the next 35 years so he decided to go back to school to find out what else is out there.
- In his mind, he was hoping he could find a way to get into the entertainment industry.
- He got an MBA from Wharton.
- He considers this journey a big win and big comeback in his life.
The thought process that lead to Art Bell’s career shift
- He wanted a change from consulting. Decided to go into the entertainment industry because he thought it would be interesting.
- Wharton had an entertainment club called the Wharton Follies, a satirical musical comedy review that was put on by the students every year.
- He joined the club and in his second year, he wrote the show. This is when he realized he was skillful at comedy.
- He wondered why there wasn’t an all comedy network but told himself that eventually someone would make one.
- He accepted a job offer at CBS as a financial analyst. This was a compromise for him as he did not want to be a financial analyst.
- He took the job because he wanted to be an industry insider.
How developing his people skills developed Art Bell’s career
- Visicalc changed the world before excel
- He spent hours in front of these spreadsheets analysing how CBS should spend its money.
- He realized that people who were successful in corporations are those who are able to get up and talk to large groups of their colleagues compellingly – so he made that an object of his, this is how he started getting noticed.
- He practiced how to talk to people.
What made Art Bell leave CBS
- One day, he asked his boss how he could improve the report he spends hours working on every week.
- Shockingly for him, his boss told him that they don’t read the report and that she doesn’t want him to change anything in the report.
- As a person who always comes up with ideas and enjoys being creative, he decided this wasn’t for him.
- He had a friend who worked at HBO and HBO was about to change television at the time.
- HBO was a small company, especially relative to CBS. For Art, this was a perk. He wanted to get as close as possible to the product.
- Art accepted a job at HBO where he would work on economic modeling.
Taking the leap from convention to experimentation
- Doing a great job in his economic position got him noticed around the company.
- They moved him to a department called new business development. In that department, they were testing a new channel idea.
- HBO decided to shift to a subscription model to exclude sex and violence from their programming. This project failed because you can’t do well in the entertainment industry by focusing on what you don’t have.
- He was in charge of how people use television and travelled around the country to explore that.
- On his trips, he slipped an extra question when interviewing people: “what if there were an all-comedy channel, is that something you would like?” and he noted the responses.
- All along, he still believed that one day he would wake up and find out that an all comedy network would finally be announced but it never happened.
- The new business development unit would close down, so he started preparing his resume. As part of that, he developed his idea for an all comedy channel to pitch it to companies like HBO, CBS and Viacom.
How Art Bell ended up pitching his idea to HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs
- HBO head of programming, and his boss, told him that an all comedy channel is a bad idea and that no one would watch it.
- He felt discouraged for a few minutes but came back to his senses and remembered that he knows that this is a good idea. So, he kept working on the idea.
- He developed a faith in his ability and instincts.
- His boss’s boss walked in on him as he was working on his idea and asked to take a look. The boss loved what he saw and told him that he thought that Michael Fuchs, the chairman of the company, should take a look.
- He was taken to meet the chairman immediately, without any presentation materials. Michael was a great audience because he loved comedy. The chairman was up for trying it out.
The Comedy Central could have never happened: What went wrong
- His programming concept for the channel relied on the usual but also short form programming that HBO was going to get for free from studios who were trying to promote their content.
- Another content strategy was to clip content from movies, sitcoms and stand up comedy shows. To do this, they need the approval of unions (director’s guild)
- Although they got the approval at first, it was eventually revoked.
- This meant that they had a lot less content than they needed for their launch. The launch did not go well.
- The channel was hyped up by the chairman, only to have a rocky launch. This was heavily covered by the press who were excited that one of the most powerful men in television had fallen flat on his face with a new channel.
- It takes time to bring the vision to life.
Comedy Central: Art Bell’s comeback
- They had a plan and it fell apart with the whole world watching.
- The next day after Michael Fuchs’ announcement of HBO’s Comedy Network, MTV announced its own all comedy channel: Ha! The Comedy Network. It launched in 6 months.
- So, they suddenly had competitors and it was a fierce competition. After 6 months of running the MTV channel and the HBO channel were merged.
- They had to come up with a new name for the channel: Comedy Central.
- Art’s Proudest moment: now looking at Comedy Central thrive in the comedy scene. It has made a difference in the world and changed people’s lives.
What Art Bell wants people to know him for
- Being helpful and kind to the people who worked for him
- Being helpful and kind to the people who worked for him
5 Powerful Quotes from this Episode
The job you want vs. the industry you want
13:48 - “And I remember my dad saying “you’re going to work for CBS, you’re making about half as much money as you were making when you got to business school because you were working as a consultant in Washington. How is this going to work again?” And I said, it’s going to work. This is the business I want to be in. It’s not the job I want to be in, but I got to give it a shot.”
What corporate jobs teach you
15:30 - “Corporate jobs teach you a lot of important things. Number one, if you are going to stand out you’re going to have to figure out how to communicate and it’s not just writing emails and it’s standing up and talking to people and I noticed that the people who really did well at corporations were the people who could get up and talk to 300 of their fellow workers in a compelling way and so I made that really an objective of mine and that’s how I got noticed a little bit at CBS.”
Be close to the product, even if you currently don’t like the job
19:49 - "I was at CBS which is a monolithic gigantic company HBO was not a gigantic company. So from my point of view, I was putting myself one step closer to the product and that was my goals: get as close to the product as you can."
How Art Bell pitched his idea successfully
35:06 - “I sold him I think with two other things that I thought a lot about that meeting. One was vision, I said you know Michael in 10 years if this thing works we are going to be the centre of the comedy universe we’re going to be the greatest brand of comedy that America has ever seen and HBO should be able to do that and the other thing was fear…I said if we don’t do this somebody else is going to do it”
A lesson for entrepreneurs
40:28 - “There’s a lesson for entrepreneurs, you know you have to have a certain amount of hubris to do any of this. But, careful what you promise and when because you know you’re never as good as you are the day before you launch your product. You never look that good again until, you know, months, maybe years later, when it all comes together and it took us years.”
- Grab Art’s Book: Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor
- Constant Comedy Podcast
About Art Bell
Art Bell is the founder of Comedy Central. It is thanks to him that all-comedy channels are now a mainstream concept.
His least successful project was trying to commercialize 3D television.
After he left the TV industry, he decided to explore his love for writing. He just published his memoir Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. If you wish to connect with Art, you may visit his website. You may also reach out to him on LinkedIn.
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