Everyone has a jumping off point. It could have been Dr. Katz. Maybe it was a rerun of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Perhaps it was the Mitch Hedberg or Lewis Black comedy specials. Hell, for people of a certain age, their first experience was South Park and Crank Yankers. No matter how you discovered it, Comedy Central has acted as a comedy gateway for multiple generations of people.
Last week, Comedy Central celebrated it’s 30th birthday. Seen today as a cable stalwart, it’s beginnings were much more humble, but no less important. Started as the Comedy Channel, an HBO vertical dedicated exclusively to comedy, it would air comedy programming exclusively, with it’s programming backbone being HBO comedy specials, which were, at the time, considered to be the highest honor bestowed upon a comic. At various points during it’s early days, it gave television spots to Jon Stewart and Marc Maron, and played host to off kilter and niche sketch comedy and standup.
Eventually, it merged with startup network Ha! To form the Comedy Network, before finally renaming itself Comedy Central. In the early days, the entire network was anchored around Mystery Science Theater 3000, the iconic show that spoofed and joked it’s way through terrible movies of yesteryear. Over the early years, other shows such as Dr. Katz, Win Ben Stein’s Money, the Daily Show, and Politically Incorrect would use the station as an incubator before evolving into bigger, better things. While finding it’s footing in the mid 90’s, two shows that would debut in 1997 would turn Comedy Central from a niche cable network to a king making centerpiece station.
The first was Comedy Central Presents, which was a half hour aired standup comedy set by the best up and coming comedians in the country. The first episode ever was by some nobody named Wanda Sykes, who would go on to little acclaim. Check that, Sykes would go on to be one of the best known comedians of the era, who transitioned into writing and television while continuing to carry elder statesman status in comedy. After her in the second episode was none other than Mark Maron, who at this point was still a decade away from making everyone think they could have their own podcast
Great comedians Lewis Black, Greg Fitzsimons, and Kevin Brennan were also in the first season, but all would pale in comparison to what could still be considered one of the most important standup comedy sets every televised.
Many people didn’t see it live. The
internet was around, but not as widely as it could be imagined to be
two decades later. What happened on January 5th, 1999
could only be described as a viral video coming to life organically
and acting as an ear worm for an entire generation of comedy fans.
That was the night that Mitch Hedberg’s Comedy Central special
debuted. Mitch’s comedy was easily accessible and infinitely
understandable in its simplicity. His demeanor was easy going, and
his jokes flowed like the stoner friend everyone knew growing up.
What he was actually doing was brilliant and stripped down to the
point of being meta before that word had been used to death to
describe things. Teenagers thought it was funny. Their parents
thought it was funny. “I just want to be a Nascar passenger” was
such an easy punchline to nail, that everyone could do their version
of his jokes in a way that nobody since the early days of Saturday
Night Live was able to project through a television. Subsequent
re-airings of the special became must watch television. After Mitch,
it wasn’t, “oh man, what if I’m not good on my special”
anymore, it was “oh man, I’m going to be compared to Mitch.”
That Hedberg died so young is both a tragedy and incredibly fitting for his comedy. That he became the gateway comedian to so many people who would go on to pick up a mic meant that his trajectory could be nowhere other than tragic. All of our idols die, eventually. Whether it be in real life, or when real life spills out into TMZ, nobody is meant to be an icon forever. Mitch Hedberg died with his place in the comedy pantheon firmly entrenched, and because of that Comedy Central special, that will always be our memory of him. Not something sordid, not something that depressingly plays out in a blog or in meltdowns at the Comedy Cellar. Just the words of his jokes, rattling around in our memories.
After Hedberg, the floodgates opened up, and everyone who was in the who’s who of comedy wanted their own half hour special. Seasons two and three were the seasons two and three of the Simpsons in terms of comedy star power. Kevin Nealon, Greg Proops, Dave Attell, Todd Barry, Patton Oswalt, Margaret Smith, Dane Cook, Kathleen Madigan, Jim Gaffigan, Stephen Lynch, Greg Giraldo, Judy Gold, Brian Regan, and a returning Lewis Black all had remarkable specials during those two seasons. Season five gave everyone their first chances to see Maria Bamford, Louis CK, and Zach Galifianakis. Season seven gave specials to Gabriel Iglesias, Bill Burr, Jackie Kashian, Paul F Tompkins, Patrice O’Neal, Ron White, and Daniel Tosh.
Comedy Central Presents became the show that launched numerous comedy careers. On the other end, South Park showed up to debase the careers of everyone they set their targets on. Originated as a short film used as a Christmas card by a studio exec, South Park was the foul mouthed cartoon that an entire generation of kids raised on the Simpsons were ready to evolve to. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, either. As the Simpsons began their long, sloooooow slide towards irrelevance, South Park was finding it’s footing in the television universe. Helmed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the whip smart show would constantly tweak and reinvent itself to carry its relevance well into its second decade on television.
In the late 90’s into the early 2000’s, South Park was a show that wielded amazing power where networks most craved: the 18-49 male demographic. This is considered the sweet spot of viewership because that demographic is considered to have the most amount of frivolous spending money, meaning that advertisers want their product on those shows, and networks are able to, in turn, charge premiums. More eyeballs = more $$$. South Park was one of the undisputed kings at the turn of the millennium at this.
Putting a premium on being a sly satire with razor sharp jokes that feel cutting, more so too because of their timeliness, South Park was able to stand above all other shows that stepped up to it by being funnier and more relevant than their competition. To this day, their existence still draws eyeballs onto a network that has largely moved away from some of the things that have made it successful.
Comedy Central is very different today, but in some ways, it’s very much the same as it was when it first started. Relying more heavily now than they did in the past on shows in syndication like The Office and King of the Hill, they still have tent poles for the network, such as South Park and the Daily Show. They have also gone back to their niche comedy ways of the past to find comedy gold from people that might not otherwise get opportunities to get their shows produced.
Over the past decade, Reno 911, Drunk History, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Keye and Peele, and Workaholics all found dedicated fan bases and lasted longer than they ever could have on nearly any other network. One show, though, shone brightly through the night sky. Rarely has a show hit quite as perfectly and at the exact moment in time that it was needed in the sphere of American television. The show sprang out more than a few catch phrases, skits that would go down in history, and would eventually break the man who was behind it all.
Chappelle’s Show debuted in 2003, and only really lasted two seasons, though a third was pushed through with material that had been produced before host Dave Chappelle ripped up his contract and went to Africa. The show was an immediate hit, giving comedy fans the ability to laugh at edgy, race filled comedy done to such perfection that there was no question whether it was funny in the first place. Everybody had their own favorite bit, and could recite it word for word. Charlie Murphy’s True Holywood Stories were great even if they weren’t true, but the fact that members of Prince’s band and Rick James corroborated the stories makes them the story of legend.
Paul Mooney was always sharp and funny and crisp in his criticisms. Wu Tang Clan relished in their ability to play outsized (maybe) versions of themselves. Musical performances from some of the best hip hop acts of the day closed out shows. The show felt timely and relevant. It reveled in making people uncomfortable while still finding the humor in those situations. The show could never last long term, but for the time it did, it was one of the most important shows on television.
Ultimately, the legacy of Comedy Central in its first three decades was what it created. Comedy was, in large part, a craft that was dedicated to the coasts. While Chicago and Toronto had improv, New York and Los Angeles was where you went if you wanted to be a standup comedian. You had to go and grind at the bottom and pray to learn bits and pieces from grizzled veterans who weren’t always patient with their time or thoughts, because of how small a piece of the scene pie there was to eat, any new faces were considered competition.
Comedy Central made it seem and feel like comedy could be done anywhere. It wasn’t confined to smoke filled basements in New York. Comedy could be found everywhere. Comedians could come from anywhere. Comedy scenes were born by entire generations of kids who grew up watching Comedy Central and realizing that comedians could be weird, strange, gay, straight, male, female, suburban, city dwelling, it didn’t matter. All you had to do was be funny, and you could find your place in society.
Comedy Central brought an entire world that previous generations could only dream of or glean from the occasional HBO special or spot on Johnny Carson, and made it feel attainable. It’s impossible to know where comedy would be if the network had never existed, or if they had never taken a chance on an unknown comic from Minnesota with a slow, easy drawl to his comedy, or if they hadn’t given shows to people who were completely unmarketable on larger networks. Nobody knows what comedy would be like without Comedy Central, but for the past 30 years, we have been better off for having it.