Comedy Central used to matter.

In fact, the network was a comedy hit factory: South Park, Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, Reno 911, Chappelle’s Show, Crank Yankers, Tosh.0, Broad City, Nathan for You and Drunk History all resided there. Comedy Central Presents stand-up specials introduced us to hundreds of comics like Mitch Hedberg, Maria Bamford and Louis Black. Endless, brutal celebrity roasts launched Sarah Silverman, Whitney Cummings and Nikki Glaser into the stratosphere. And by the late 2000s, many young Americans turned to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as their main source of actual news. If you wanted to discover something new in funny, Comedy Central was your destination. 

But now, just a decade later, the network is in a state of ugly disrepair, which isn’t the least bit funny. Original programming has been slashed, replaced with endless reruns of comedy comfort food like The Office and Seinfeld. Trevor Noah has left The Daily Show, and while the show will still exist, its next host, or rotating gang of hosts, will be in for a major pay cut thanks to an audience that’s down 65 percent since 2015. (Don’t blame that on Noah — the decline is hitting late-night talk across the board.) Comedy Central is a dying brand, and it’s been dying for a while,” Matt Belloni recently lamented on his podcast The Town. Meanwhile, Doug Stanhope, who had a stand-up special on Comedy Central as well as a gig cohosting The Man Show, tells me that he hasn’t watched the network in years, “other than recording Tosh.0 for hangover marathons.” 

Like MTV, BET and other declining, basic cable mainstays, Comedy Central seems destined to become a relic of a bygone era.

Comedy Is What We Loved

Comedy Central can still be a place to celebrate great comedy, Art Bell believes. He should know — Bell was the self-proclaimed comedy nerd who pitched the original network to HBO back in the late 1980s. Without much of a budget or even a background in professional comedy, Bell helped launch the Comedy Channel, which soon merged with the also new Ha! to become Comedy Central in 1991.

With the help of a little low-budget show called Mystery Science Theater 3000, Comedy Central took off. Bell and company found a small but loyal audience that skewed young and male. It didn’t make much sense to old network heads used to getting 30 percent of total viewers, but even a fraction of that audience proved extremely profitable.

One of the great innovations of those days, says Bell, was the ability to brand a channel. MTV owned rock music. ESPN had sports. Comedy Central became the de facto home for laughs. And it was more than just programming. “Comedy is what we loved,” says Bell, “and what we stood for.” That passionate commitment to comedy helped grow the network’s small audience into something decidedly more upscale, one that could afford to invest in the South Parks and Daily Shows that transformed Comedy Central into a powerhouse. 

But the media landscape has shifted again. With more viewers tuned into streaming services, Comedy Central management has discovered that old sitcom reruns deliver nearly the same numbers as original programming. It doesn’t help that the network’s parent company spent the last few years investing in streaming services like Paramount+, leaving virtually no dollars to pour into the next Key & Peele. And just like the Big Three networks were blindsided by the little cable channels that could in the early days of Comedy Central, CC now finds its lunch being eaten by social media. “You’ve got YouTube, you’ve got TikTok, you’ve got all the online platforms that allow people to do comedy,” notes Bell. 

And don’t think the comics don’t know it.

Be Willing to Try New Things

Comic Ben Brainard had a full schedule of stand-up gigs lined up when COVID hit in 2020. With live comedy temporarily canceled, he promised himself to tape a comedy sketch every day during his break from stand-up (a commitment he expected to last only two weeks). Those sketches turned into “The Table,” a video series where he played the personification of different states.  

@ben_brainard

Safe to say, the videos blew up. Brainard now has nearly three million TikTok followers, a number of other booming social channels and opportunities he only dreamed of a few years ago. “I've been over to Frank Caliendo's house,” he tells me. “Mike Birbiglia messaged me. Kerry Washington laughed at my joke.” Brushes with celebrity aside, Brainard’s days of hustling to fill comedy clubs are over — his social following means sell-outs in big clubs around the country. 

In another day, maybe this kind of breakthrough would have led to a Comedy Central Presents special. (Or that special would have led to the breakthrough.) But would Brainard even want that chance now? Probably, but times have changed. At one time, “being on Comedy Central was enough to get you into every comedy club in the country,” he says. But with fewer people watching, “just having that Comedy Central credit is not gonna be selling out clubs anymore.”

Comedy Central does have its own TikTok (probably started too late, in Brainard’s opinion), but it exists at least in part to promote clips from old Comedy Central programming. That’s probably not the way forward.

@comedycentral

So instead of comedians looking at how Comedy Central can boost their careers, maybe the network would benefit from a switch in perspective: How can up-and-coming comics on social media boost Comedy Central?

Comedy Central just has to be willing to try new things with these younger people,” especially those with big followings on TikTok, says Brainard. In other words, young fans might not care about Comedy Central, but they may care about a project such as Ben Brainard Presents.

Comedy Central still has a lot to offer burgeoning comics as well — mainly, its connections to all parts of the comedy industry. To Brainard, getting connected to late-night talk shows and comedy producers is as important as the exposure of a 15-minute special. If Comedy Central believes in young comics, then helping them book sets at the Comedy Store and spots on Jimmy Kimmel could be part of a package that benefits everyone. “The Comedy Central credit is great,” says Brainard, “but those connections are invaluable.”

Bell also sees a way forward for the network he started for comedy nerds like himself. The Comedy Central brand still means comedy to people in a way that only a few institutions in pop-culture history — SNL, Mad Magazine, National Lampoon — can claim. But to maintain that brand, he says, you have to keep that commitment to quality. (That’s a problem that plagued the Lampoon as it attached its name to lousy direct-to-video comedies in later years.) Even with reduced audiences and budgets, Comedy Central “can continue to celebrate great comedy and to find great comedy talent.”

“There’s still a place for Comedy Central,” Brainard says. “It just needs to evolve with the times.” 

Top image: Comedy Partners

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