“Everything is funny, as long as it happens to somebody else.”
That’s how Art Bell decided to begin his story – with a Will Rogers’ quote. This quote somehow encapsulates all the elusive nature of this book, which is wildly funny – of course – but it also knows how to be intimate and reach the heart of the reader, making them laugh out loud, and causing mixed feelings of fleeting joy and indefinable sadness.
Bell’s new memoir, Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor, doesn’t only take readers behind the scenes of his great comedy endeavor, but also pulls back the curtains of the ruthless side of the funny business. Along the way to becoming one of the most successful and creative factories of popular culture in the United States, Comedy Central had to deal with erratic comedians, disastrous pitch meetings, and the rough-and-tumble world of silliness in tv.
“Ever since the idea had first occurred to me while writing and performing with the Wharton Follies, I kept thinking about how great an all-comedy television channel would be,” Bell writes. “New cable channels were launching all the time and I expected someone would announce an all-comedy channel any minute, but nobody did.”
Art Bell’s Comedy Formula
Despite his interest in comedy throughout his childhood, Art Bell’s parents strongly believed that he should not try to make a career in the American laugh factory. Why throw his life away for something so frivolous when he clearly had the brains to become an economist or more? Initially he followed this path, even getting his degree, but that urge to be in comedy never went away.
So, he decided to get into the entertainment industry and got his first job at CBS as an analyst. It comes without saying that this line of business didn’t fulfill his ambition of making people laugh, and shortly after he moved to HBO… where they put him in another business unit. Again? But HBO wasn’t the same thing as CBS, which was a huge corporation. HBO was a small, relatively new, and lively company at the time, and working for them turned out to be a completely different experience.
Art Bell knew that the time was right for his novel concept to be pitched – a television channel focused on just one thing: comedy
In 1988, Art Bell was a young, mid-level employee who had been at HBO for three years. According to his business analysis, there were over 300 comedy clubs in the country compared to a handful in the early ’70s. Live stand-up comedy was everywhere. He also knew that Discovery Channel was born from a single-subject formula dedicated to documentaries. ESPN was the same, but for sports. People needed comedy, too. Art Bell knew that the time was right for his novel concept to be pitched – a television channel focused on just one thing: comedy. The recipient of such a pitch was none other than the chairman of HBO. This is how the station that would soon become Comedy Central was born. Art then went on to hold senior executive positions in both programming and marketing at Comedy Central. The comedy boom was a reality.
After leaving Comedy Central, Art became president of Court TV, where he was a guiding force behind one of the most successful brand evolutions in cable television. Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor is his first memoir. This is sort of Art’s testament to the TV business, which he left after an unfortunate attempt to sell his new idea about commercializing 3D television. In this regard, he kids himself on his website by saying, “Most interesting project: commercializing 3D television. Least successful project: commercializing 3D television. Too bad. It was really cool.” Nevertheless, the struggles he went through to make his dreams come true are nothing compared to this. He will always be considered someone who reached the cutting edge of show business.
Art Bell’s book combines humor with vivid, fond memories of his peaks and valleys, and presents the sort of insider point of view that makes show biz memoirs so entertaining and exciting. Through the ups and downs of his career, including an abrupt firing at the end of his experience with Comedy Central, Bell offers a detailed account of how fierce and stressing the show business can be. This was an insightful journey that deserved to be told, and the author did it in the most honest and enlightening way. Probably the best way possible.
In contrast with many other show biz accounts, there are no bombastic moments in this book but one enjoyable, funny, down-to-earth story after another. This book is somewhat unaggressive as it deliberately portrays the sense of anxiety that dominates the exec meetings that the protagonist would take part in, but at the same time confirms that the drama behind the scenes in the entertainment industry is often more engrossing than the drama on the screen.
Check out the in-depth, hour and a half live conversation we had with Art, here.