A few thoughts about Comedy Central in light of the Ren & Stimpy reboot announced last week. The beloved cartoon will return without its creator, a confessed predator, which many have aptly suggested is perhaps the sort of baggage that’s too heavy to discard. What interests me about the reboot is its broader context, the grand reimagining of Comedy Central by its new boss, Chris McCarthy, formerly of fellow ViacomCBS network MTV. Or, no, sorry, he actually doesn’t like to call them “networks”:
As part of this evolution, McCarthy has all but eliminated the word “network” from the company’s internal vocabulary. Instead, Comedy Central and the other services within his portfolio are now thought of as “brands” that manifest themselves through different “expressions”: traditional cable channels; streaming services such as Pluto or CBS All Access; and shows made by branded studios (say, Comedy Central Productions) for competing services. Nielsen numbers still matter, but it no longer makes sense to simply develop shows for specific time slots in order to grow linear ratings, McCarthy says.
“The reality is we’re not channels. We’re content,” he explains. “What represents us is the content that we create, the talent we work with. So the whole idea of what we’ve been doing has been about shifting the entire paradigm so that we take the best out of the groups [and] really liberate the brand.”
Per that Vulture article, McCarthy’s strategy is to “transform Comedy Central from a linear-focused cable network to a multi-platform content machine, one with programming targeted at the hard-to-reach demographic of viewers under the age of 25.” Every prong of this strategy is geared toward winning over Gen Z, even, apparently, the reboots of shows that premiered before Gen Z could read: not just Ren & Stimpy but also Beavis & Butthead, Clone High, and the Daria spinoff Jodie. Another prong is the extension of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show from 30 minutes to an hour; a third is to deemphasize scripted series in favor of movies.
Despite rumors and reports to the contrary, Comedy Central isn’t getting out of the business of making scripted entertainment. It is, however, changing the way it develops it and what form it takes. “We’re making a real big shift and reimagining the role of scripted, and no longer thinking about it as just sitcoms and 30-minute series,” McCarthy explains. Instead, the company will focus on producing anywhere from ten to 20 movies for Comedy Central every year, using a mix of established and up-and-coming talent both in front of and behind the camera. Some of the movies could be used as part of themed stunts — think Hallmark and Lifetime’s hugely popular holiday lineups — while others could be stand-alone events. Meghan Hooper White, a former A+E Networks exec recently recruited by ViacomCBS, will oversee production of the movies (as well as similar slates for four other brands in the Entertainment & Youth group).
Beyond providing Comedy Central with a steady supply of new content, McCarthy thinks movies can also serve as an incubator for new talent and new franchises more quickly and effectively than traditional scripted series. “The idea behind it is to really turn upside down the concept of how you make a comedy pilot now,” he says. “That traditional process would take nine months to well over a year to find out if a show’s going to get made. The movie model allows us to go straight to air.” [Ed. note: is film development not a famously long and unpleasant process anymore?]
McCarthy told Vulture that the focus on movies will allow Comedy Central to develop new franchises “without the risk that comes with spending $20 million or more for a ten-episode series.” (Translation: “I do not want to pay so many people’s salaries.”) He also said that Comedy Central may spin off successful movies into TV series, but probably not on Comedy Central: “Instead, a spinoff could end up on a sister streaming platform (such as the soon-to-be-remodeled CBS All Access) or even on an outside streamer such as Netflix or Peacock, with Comedy Central Productions serving as the studio.” Not exactly a vote of confidence in scripted TV series, huh?
McCarthy took over Comedy Central late last year, in the wake of the ViacomCBS merger. With his arrival came the departure of longtime president Kent McCarthy. This was shortly followed by a series of staffing shuffles that ended with the exit of about 20 development executives, per the New York Times, including Head of Content and Creative Enterprises Sarah Babineau, “a champion of risky shows who had assumed many of Mr. Alterman’s duties.” Deadline describes Babineau as the creative force behind Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, The Other Two, and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show.
Between the Vulture and Times pieces about the new Comedy Central—the first sourced almost entirely to McCarthy, the second sourced mostly to people skeptical of McCarthy—it sure looks like the network—sorry, BRAND MANIFESTING THROUGH EXPRESSIONS—is doomed to get a lot less interesting and a lot less original. While I’ll admit I think he made the right call canceling Lights Out With David Spade, I cannot say the same for the very funny Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik, which added genuine depth to Comedy Central’s lineup of mostly fluffy talk programming. (I say “mostly” because once in a blue moon Trevor Noah comes out with actually challenging longform material that briefly makes you forget his terrible Trump impression.) Given his focus on reboots, unscripted shows, and movies, it’s hard to imagine we’re going to get, say, the next Detroiters anytime soon. On a more basic level, the guy just seems like an empty suit spawned from other empty suits who pushed out anyone vaguely creative. Here’s the Vulture profile again:
None of this is to suggest cable is somehow “dead,” at least at ViacomCBS. McCarthy’s boss, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish, says the company does not have to choose one form of distribution over the other. “The mission is maximizing linear while simultaneously building out these other expressions,” Bakish explains. Indeed, McCarthy says he’s still very interested in the performance of his linear channels, making sure to point out recent Nielsen gains across his portfolio. “Believe it or not, we believe there is growth on cable,” he says. “But cable’s no longer the end. It’s really just the beginning … To keep all of our brands contained on one particular platform, in a world where everybody’s consuming more content than ever on more platforms than ever, just feels, quite honestly, constraining.”
Blah blah blah blah blah bLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. How weird is it to live in TV’s most decadent era and still hear the people who run TV talk about TV as if they’ve never watched TV? A few questions McCarthy doesn’t speak to: What does he think is funny? Who are his favorite comedians? What are his favorite Comedy Central shows? How will Comedy Central continue to incubate emerging TV writers? What room is there in his strategy for shows like Strangers With Candy, cult favorites that may not find an audience in their own time but still serve as a sandbox for the next generation of star talent? Maybe the most revealing part of the profile is its opening anecdote, when (alleged rapist) Charlamagne Tha God describes pitching Comedy Central a talk show last year. The execs he spoke to turned him down because they didn’t think it was funny. Then McCarthy took over and “jumped right on” the idea without any study. This might seem like a risky move for someone so averse to risk, but it makes more sense when you realize they’ve been old pals since McCarthy was at MTV:
The duo first worked together nearly a decade ago, when the exec ran MTV2 and Charlamagne was a regular on the network’s breakout hit Guy Code. Charlamagne later went on to host two talk shows for the network, Charlamagne & Friends and Uncommon Sense. McCarthy, who revealed his deal with Charlamagne Tuesday in a story about his larger effort to reinvent Comedy Central as a multiplatform brand, said he was glad to be back in business with his longtime friend. “Charlamagne’s voice is very right for today,” he said. “It’s fresh and real and resonating in a way that very few can do.”
Charlamagne told Vulture he and McCarthy started talking about doing a show together late last year, right around the time McCarthy was given oversight of Comedy Central. Given the past history and close relationship between the two men — “Chris was at my wedding,” he says — getting to an agreement was a quick process. Charlamagne was already hosting Breakfast Club on New York radio when he landed at MTV, but he says McCarthy saw the TV potential in him long before he was a national success. “Giving me a TV deal, almost ten years ago, didn’t really make any sense,” Charlamagne says. “I was a radio guy. It’s easy to say, ‘You know what? I think Charlamagne Tha God needs a talk show’ now. But almost ten years ago for him to have that vision, that did a lot for me. A lot of my success right now is because of those looks that I got on MTV2 and Viacom at the time. And none of that would’ve happened if it wasn’t for Chris.”
I guess the old axiom is true: Multi-platform content expressions may come and go, but nepotism never changes.
And now some other comedy news of note.
-Louis CK’s been dropping in on of Dave Chappelle’s “Summer Camp” shows in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Chappelle’s series of outdoor performances has also featured Dave Letterman, Jon Stewart, Jon Hamm, John Mayer and Michael Che. You probably saw this photo Sarah Silverman posted of herself, CK, Tiffany Hadish, Michelle Wolf, Mo Amer, and several other performers. I think Night Call host Molly Lambert put it best:
that pic of all the comedians with Louis CK is bad...it’s not enough for this dumdum to work the right wing stand up circuit he wants to be back in the mainstream with his friends— Molly Lambert 🦔 (@mollylambert) August 10, 2020
This is an especially chilling thought in light of the overwhelming silence—in comedy and everywhere else—toward last week’s horrifying revelations about Jeff Ross.
-The People’s Improv Theater announced in an email earlier this month that it is permanently closing Simple Studios, the Manhattan event space where it held classes and rented out rehearsal and audition rooms. In July, the Magnet Theater announced it was closing its training center. Both theaters are offering classes and shows online, and there is no indication they will fold anytime soon. Still, these announcements are a bleak reminder that New York City may well come out of this pandemic with no live comedy theaters.
-The Writer’s Guild of America signed a franchise agreement with ICM Partners. The agency agreed to end packaging—an exploitative practice in which agencies collect backend fees from studios while fucking over their clients—and will resume representing WGA members. ICM is the second Big 4 agency to sign such an agreement, after UTA last month.
-Comedian Andy Dick filed suit against a man who punched him outside a New Orleans nightclub last year. Dick alleges the punch inflicted “serious, permanent and disabling injuries,” while the puncher alleges he was reacting to Dick groping him. Hmmmm, I wonder what the truth could be.
-I enjoyed Miles Klee’s analysis of Sarah Cooper’s Trump lip-sync videos over at MEL. While I’m not terribly persuaded by his sweeping conclusions about generational divides, I do think his critique of the work is on point:
How funny you find this clarifying dissonance depends upon a few variables. Is it still amusing that Trump can barely string a sentence together? Does a black woman flipping the demands of impersonation give us subversive truth, as Packer suggests?
I’d answer “yes” on both counts, with the qualification that I find the novelty of Cooper’s act short-lived: the first clips you see are good for a laugh, then they plateau. At this point, their value to me is informational, not comedic: It is easier to stomach and process Trump’s appalling remarks without looking at his sweaty ham of a face. On the other hand, I’m not the target audience for Cooper’s performance.
I’m also not the target audience for Cooper’s videos, and while I don’t like them, I also find it very easy never to engage with or think about them. That said, a couple readers have asked for my thoughts, so I’ll take a brief stab at something more meaningful. On the one hand, I cannot stand to hear Donald Trump’s voice and am doomed to suffer a viscerally unpleasant reaction to Trump lip-syncs and impressions. I also find the entire school of “owning Trump” comedy to be unbearable for reasons I’ve gotten at elsewhere: It tends to situate his evil in his character rather than his policy. This might offer some viewers needed reassurance that they’re not the crazy ones, but I fear the long-term effect will be complacency in the face of a more civilized fascist. (See: the nostalgia for George W. Bush, who wasn’t even civilized.)
On the other hand, I think this might be one of those cases where the work’s failings aren’t really the work’s fault. It’s just one joke over and over again—either you like it or you don’t, and it turns out a lot of people reeeeaaalllly like it. I might disagree with them, and I might in fact be completely baffled by the hyperbole of it all, but it’s not like some megacorporation is funneling millions of dollars into the cynical manipulation of #resistance liberals. (…Yet.) So I guess my ultimate verdict is: I dunno, whatever, it’s just dumb internet stuff!
-I enjoyed this conversation about An American Pickle in Jewish Currents. (As for the film itself, well, I thought everyone involved did a very good job, but it still sort of felt like a TV-length story stretched into a movie. Too much plot, not enough theme!)
Here is a nice poem by Heather Christle:
Okay, goodbye for now!
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