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No joke: Comedy Central wants you to watch its new shows on cable, not online

The veteran network that’s been a go-to for South Park and Tosh 2.0 is pursuing a 3.0 strategy that veers away from chasing online views and embraces the strengths of both digital and linear video.

No joke: Comedy Central wants you to watch its new shows on cable, not online
[Photos: (L-R) Broad City: courtesy of Comedy Central; The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Brad Barket/Comedy Central; The Other Two: Jon Pack/Comedy Central; Chris Distefano: Size 38 Waist: Mindy Tucker/Comedy Central; Corporate: courtesy of Comedy Central]

Comedy Central’s new half-hour comedy The Other Two, from ex-head SNL writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, has all of the provocative trappings that the cable channel is generally known for. There’s bawdy language, awkward sex, and zany characters (including a spacey mom played by Molly Shannon and a creepy manager embodied by Ken Marino). All of whom spin around the show’s leads–a pair of struggling, twentysomething siblings who watch in green-tinged disbelief as their tweenage brother Chase (or “Chase Dreams”) morphs into the next Justin Bieber. 

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Yet there is also something, dare we say, heartwarming about the series. In the pilot episode’s final scene, the three siblings cuddle in bed, exchanging sweet niceties in a Times Square hotel room stuffed to the gills with gifts sent to Chase from fans (one basket is from Debra Messing). In that moment, at least, the show feels more like an NBC comedy–albeit one with an R-rating–than the latest offering from a channel known for boundary-pushing comedy shows like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and, of course, Broad City.

But with Broad City about to come to an end–the fifth and last season premiered last Thursday as a lead-in to The Other Two–Comedy Central is at a crossroads, or at least in the midst of a regeneration phase as it seeks to fill in the hole that will be created when its Yas Queen!-meme-generating tentpole is gone. This generational shift has happened several times in the last 15 years, but never before in the face of such fevered digital competition. So many of the talents whose careers were incubated on Comedy Central–not only Amy Schumer and Jordan Peele but also Nick Kroll, Jim Gaffigan, and Dave Chappelle–are now working for Netflix (which has not been shy about doling out multimillion-dollar deals), Amazon, or Hulu. Netflix has even encroached upon Comedy Central’s turf as a breeding ground to break comedians, making dozens of half-hour and even 15-minute stand-up specials.

Drew Tarver, Case Walker, and Heléne Yorke in The Other Two [Photo: courtesy of Comedy Central]
Given this cluttered marketplace, Comedy Central is doubling down on what it sees as its competitive advantage: its wide-ranging non-TV platforms, including podcasts, festivals and digital properties, which it taps into to create a fusillade of awareness around its shows. It’s also taken a new approach to those shows, leaning more deeply into series that are less episodic, less about the YouTube clip and bite-sized laughs but rather have narrative arcs and storylines. “We’ve refined our creative filters a little bit,” says Sarah Babineau, co-head of talent and development at Comedy Central. “‘Super funny’ is obviously the primary one and the first thing we think about. But then the second is ‘personally relatable’ and ‘storytelling.’ That’s just the evolution of TV right now, and that’s what audiences are craving.”

The network is betting-slash-praying that The Other Two validates this strategy–and that it will be the next Broad City. Reviews thus far have been stellar, and the premiere last week attracted 2.25 million viewers including on streaming and replays, which the network was very happy with. The show averaged 849,000 viewers across three telecasts; Broad City averaged 734,000 across two plays.

The question is, by delivering what is at heart a feel-good family comedy, is Comedy Central risking pulling back too much on its core identity at a time when companies like Netflix are striving to be all things to all people?

Babineau insists that Comedy Central shows still must meet two creative touchpoints: culturally relevant and provocative. In The Other Two, for example, the older brother Cary (Drew Tarver) is gay, and there’s a scene where he and his straight, male roommate steamily make out while watching a reality TV show. “The show is much more provocative in many ways than anything a broadcast network could get away with,” she says. “But there’s that family element, that sort of familiar trope of a family show. We just want to turn it on its head, hopefully.”

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Aparna Nancherla and Anna Akana in Corporate [Photo: courtesy of Comedy Central]

New shows for a new era

On its face, luring viewers–especially younger ones–back to traditional television in a world where people want to consume content on their phones or computers feels daunting, if not Sisyphean.

Part of Comedy Central’s answer is that it can put more faces on the network that look like the viewers it wants to attract. “It’s about diversity,” says Jonas Larsen, Babineau’s counterpart as co-head of talent and development at Comedy Central, when asked about the talent the network is recruiting to make shows for it. “It’s about women and bringing in a much more gender-balanced audience that’s more reflective of the diversity in our country. And also tapping into that Southern and Midwestern kind of audience that can sometimes look at the coastal sense of humor as sort of off-putting or maybe not representative,” he adds as we speak one recent morning from a sunlit room in Viacom’s sleek Hollywood headquarters.

Among the projects that will soon roll out are Alternatino, starring Broad City cast member Arturo Castro as a millennial Latino under the grip of a traditional family; South Side, an urban comedy set in the rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhood; and Robbie, starring Rory Scovel (I Feel Pretty) as the coach of a Southern church basketball league.

Rapper and comedian Awkwafina is also developing a scripted show at the network, as is Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr., whose stand-up special debuted on Comedy Central earlier in January. (The network’s stand-up side is also going in a more diverse direction.)

Even existing shows like Corporate are widening their lens. In the series’ second season, which launched earlier this month, more attention is being given to developing the back stories and personal lives of the show’s pale-faced, office cogs. And women on the show–such as Grace, the HR head played by Aparna Nancherla–are getting more of the spotlight.

The second part of Comedy Central’s bet is that it can create more of an “experience” on the channel. What its executives mean by this is trying to air a set of original shows that feel different from the universe of digital content. Babineau argues that “audience’s tastes have evolved and have gotten more sophisticated in terms of needing some element of real storytelling or a narrative or a character that they become invested in.” That then necessitates that the programming must change with them.

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Even though “sketch is everywhere on the internet,” as Babineau acknowledges, Comedy Central still sees an opportunity to create sketch shows that make sense being watched in their entirety and not one Facebook share at a time. “In Alternatino, the interstitial–the runner throughout the episode–is a narrative element where you’re following basically a heightened version of Arturo Castro, in between sketches. It’s an evolution.”

Comedy Central is also hoping that it can offer viewers curated evenings rather than forcing them to scroll through endless tiles on a streaming service. “We’re not filling shelves,” says Larsen. “On Netflix, you go in to open the interface and there’s just so much. How do I find what I really want? Something that’s really for me. Do I trust that the algorithm is going to find that for me?”

“Our Friday night stand-up block is an example of that,” says Babineau. “We do this interstitial program with Chris Distefano called Stupid Questions. So when you’re watching stand-up throughout the night on Friday, it’s an experience. You have these short blocks with Chris where he’s hanging out with comedians. So it does feel like a hangout. So you just turn it on Friday night, and if you’re a stand-up fan, you want to stay for a few hours–which is very strategic on our part in terms of what you need to do in order to keep people engaged on TV now.”

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in Broad City [Photo: courtesy of Comedy Central]

Digital darling

Castro’s Alternatino began as a web series, as did Broad City–and Workaholics (2011-2017) before that. Comedy Central has long been known for being forward-thinking when it comes to digital. Its content is all over social media, and it was an early adopter of platforms like Giphy (Broad City was one of the first shows to have a Giphy keyboard) and IGTV. When Instagram’s video network debuted last summer, it was awash in Daily Show clips.

Historically Comedy Central has struggled (along with most traditional players) in figuring how to use digital content to drive viewership to linear TV where the advertising dollars are. “Online, when you look at the economics,” Larsen says, “it’s obviously a whole different landscape than the linear channel. That’s still the economic driver of most cable channels.” With more inherently shareable content in the form of sketches and segments, Comedy Central has suffered from people satisfying themselves with digital content alone. When Key & Peele was on the air (2012-2015), so many of its sketches were being consumed on YouTube that Comedy Central began restricting how many it posted. Shows like South Park, meanwhile, have a huge audience on Hulu.

To navigate this disconnect and to drive success where it matters, Comedy Central has made subtle, but important shifts in its digital strategy. The impetus for these changes emanated from the transition from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah as the host of The Daily Show.

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When Stewart handed over the reins to Noah in 2015, the show’s ratings initially tanked. Noah was a relative unknown from South Africa who was taking over for an icon who’d dominated late-night TV–and the liberal political conversation–for well over a decade. But Comedy Central stuck with Noah, building up a robust digital pipeline that allowed him to connect with his largely millennial fan base. “Trevor has a very different relationship with the internet and digital and social than Jon did,” Babineau says. “From the moment he came onto The Daily Show, this was something that was super important to him, and he leaned into it and was like, ‘How can we be a presence out in the world, not just every night at 11 p.m.?” 

Trevor Noah in The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. [Photo: Brad Barket/Comedy Central]
“So we built out a team on the show that didn’t exist really before, and their job was to just create the social digital content that is as good as what’s going out on TV every night. Between the Scenes–an online series where Noah casually chats with his audience after a taping–does super well online and that was Trevor saying, ‘This is something I do every day. Let’s just film it and put it out.'” The episode of Between the Scenes in which Anna Kendrick surprises Noah by coming out from backstage and hijacks the show was viewed over 25 million times. This and the rest of the online deluge of Daily Show content, including the show’s podcast, Ears Edition, and The Daily Show Flash Briefing on Amazon Alexa devices, have helped Noah gain his footing in the ratings. Ratings so far in 2019 are up 15% from last quarter, and Comedy Central claims that Noah’s show is the number-one show in late-night for 18- to 34-year-olds, especially men that age, the most desirable demographic for advertisers to reach. The Daily Show may not have the same sense of zeitgeisty urgency as it did in Stewart’s prime (in part because the media elites who were Stewart’s contemporaries helped amplify the show’s impact), but it’s more than holding its own on the late shift.

When I ask how soon executives now start thinking about digital content, Babineau says, “When we green-light a show. We have meetings before we go into production. We have a social team embedded on all of our shows.” Their mission is not merely to generate buzz, retweets, or views but rather to engage audiences between episodes that air on the channel or to generate awareness and excitement for a show’s debut or return. In the lead up to each Broad City season, Comedy Central produced Hack into Broad City, a series of short sketches for YouTube featuring stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. The most recent series racked up over 7 million followers.

Meanwhile, Comedy Central has approached The Other Two like other cable networks have elevated signature shows, from Billions to The Walking Dead. Its first episode was available to stream on the Comedy Central website over the Christmas holiday–weeks before its network premiere–as well as YouTube, where it’s been viewed more than 1.4 million times. Each new episode will be followed by an after show, The Other Show, featuring writer-creators Kelly and Schneider, that will live on YouTube. (The first episode, though, has only garnered about 4,000 views in its first week.)

“We try to really make the presence of our shows online feel like an extension of the show,” Babineau says. “So it’s content. It’s not promotion.”

The vertically integrated comedy network

But is turning Comedy Central into more of an experience enough to help it compete with the likes of Netflix, which not only shells out more money to talent, but also orders projects straight-to-series and promises total creative freedom? Comedy Central, by contrast, has long been known for paying talent “way less money” than its rivals, including networks like HBO, says one agent. “A lot of times they just pay a script fee. Viacom, in general, pays less.”

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Babineau says that Comedy Central “is aggressive in competing with our cable counterparts in regards to compensation.”

In lieu of big paychecks, the network is working to nurture talent more (as with Noah), which is appealing for up-and-coming performers, and bringing them into the Comedy Central fold. This includes the brand’s network of podcasts (which include shows from comedians Nikki Glaser and Anthony Jeselnik), digital platforms, its channel on Sirius satellite radio, and festivals. For the last two years, the company has put on Clusterfest, a three-day comedy festival in San Francisco that Larsen says “is an opportunity for us to engage with the fans directly on the ground.”  

Comedy Central is also trying to use the fact that it’s both a linear network and all of these other things to woo the next generation of performers who already realize that they can’t necessarily rely on just having a show to build a lasting career. They need a podcast and a Patreon and live performances and merchandise and more. Increasingly, Comedy Central is trying to create more opportunities for performers and creators who start at Comedy Central, so the next Amy Schumer or Jordan Peele doesn’t really break through for a rival company.

Execs think they have that kind of talent in the comedian Chris Distefano, and he thinks Comedy Central is the place for him, having recently signed an overall deal with the network that includes a new, hour-long stand-up special, an animated series, an unscripted series, and several other projects. “It gives me so many opportunities to be on their network,” he says of his deal. “Now you have to have multiple streams of revenue and multiple ways people can see you and find you. Because people have so many options when it comes to entertainment. You can’t just give them one opportunity for them to see you to really have a chance to stick in someone’s life.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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