Comedy Central founder and part-time Parkite immerses himself in ‘Constant Comedy’
For information about author Art Bell and his memoir “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor,” visit artbellwriter.com
In his previous life, writer Art Bell made people laugh.
He introduced “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “The Sweet Life” and “Night After Night with Allan Havey” to the world through cable TV’s Comedy Channel, which he created in 1990.
Bell, a part-time Parkite who plans to move to town permanently in June, navigated his fledgling idea for a television network devoted entirely to comedy through its transition to the Comedy Network and then Comedy Central. He recently penned a memoir, “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor,” which is about that bumpy, funny, stressful and successful journey.
The book, which will be released on Sept. 15, is available for preorder in hardback and Kindle at Amazon.
Bell came up with the idea to write the book during a memoir-writing class a few years ago.
“I wanted to get into the habit of writing and understand what the process was, so I took a couple of classes and got into a writing group,” Bell said. “I did all the things that you’re supposed to do to become a writer after all this time, and I began writing a memoir about my childhood, you know, recollections.”
One day he wrote something about Comedy Central and shared it with his writing group.
“They said, ‘Wow. That’s kind of interesting,’” Bell said. “I was slightly taken aback by their response, because I had just written 150,000 words on my childhood, but after I write a couple thousand words about comedy and all of sudden they’re fascinated?”
The group’s feedback focused on the interesting topic and how Bell wrote it.
“Just telling a superficial story about what happened to you when you’re a kid isn’t what memoirs are about,” he said. “Memoirs are about revealing the truth in some way. You want the things you describe to make up a greater story, and in my classes, the stories that stood out were the intimate stories people wrote in an intimate way.”
With that in mind, Bell wrote a few more stories about his Comedy Central “adventure.”
“I found I had a lot of stories, and that it was an adventure,” he said. “That’s when I realized I could write a book.”
Bell looked back and identified the characters.
“I figured out who could be the good guys and bad guys, and what the story arc was,” he said.
“I finally wrote the book, and then I rewrote it 55 times.”
“Constant Comedy” relays how Bell came up with the idea of a 24-hour comedy channel, which spotlighted stand-up comedians and classic comedy features, and started pitching the idea when he began working at HBO in the 1980s.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said. “They thought it was the world’s worst idea, and I had to keep fighting and trying to get this going.”
Finally, HBO decided to give it a shot and threw Bell in with a crew that was familiar with the comedy business.
“These were people who had well over 15 years in a business that I knew nothing about,” he said. “While I was a comedy geek, and loved comedy, I didn’t know a lot about the business. And a lot of my first year was people asking, ‘What do you know about comedy, anyway?’ and ‘What do you think you’re doing here?’”
The book follows Bell’s trajectory from that point to becoming head of programming and marketing for Comedy Central, and recaps the challenges he faced in those early days.
“The first year we were sure they were going to shut it down several times, and part of the struggle for me was keeping the thing alive,” he said. “We didn’t have any advertising. We didn’t have an audience, but I kept looking at the problems and trying to solve them. I knew that every day we did survive we got a little smarter and gained a little bigger audience.”
Thing changed six months after Bell launched the channel.
“MTV Networks started a competing network called Ha!” he said. “We duked it out and it was a head-to-head competition for cable operators and advertising dollars.”
Ha!’s programming included many situation comedies from the 1950s through the 1970s, and the fight continued for six months, and at the end of the year, Bell got a phone call.
“I was told that the powers that be decided to merge the channels into what would become Comedy Central,” he said. “The chairman of Viacom, the late Frank Biondi, Jr., and the chairman of HBO, Michael Fuchs, decided beating each other to death wasn’t going to work.”
Most of the top management on both sides were fired, except for Bell and Michael Klinghoffer, his counterpart at Ha!
“They put us together to figure out what the channel would be and to get it launched,” Bell said. “We had accumulated a pile of programming from each side over the year, and we had to choose our personnel from each side. It made for a very fraught first year.”
Bell’s drive to keep the channel going was personal, he said.
“I felt personal responsibility because I had convinced everyone that this would be a good idea, and I never lost faith in that,” he said. “I thought if I didn’t make it work, someone else would make it work, because there were too many things that were going right from the get go, and contributed to what my vision of what a comedy network would be, which was that the channel would become the center of the comedy universe. I thought it would be a place where innovative comedy would show up. Comedians would find us. Comedy writers would come and hang out.”
Much of that happened with the Comedy Channel’s early years, before Comedy Central, he said.
“The comedy business — comedians, producers and managers — were flattered that we were throwing a channel for them, and that someone was giving them sufficient respect and regard that recognized comedy deserved a whole channel unto itself,” he said.
Bell is proud of his work at Comedy Central, which is still going strong, even though he was let go seven years after its launch.
“I think my accomplishments are getting HBO to launch a comedy network so there would be one in the world, and then putting two networks together to make Comedy Central without having it fall flat on its face,” he said. “We spent the next seven years there finding out what would make it successful. By the time I left, it was well on its way.”
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