Have you ever wondered what it would be like to build a career in comedy – and an entire TV station dedicated to comedy 24/7? Meet the legend, Art Bell, author of Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor. We get a peek behind the curtain of what it was like in the early days of Comedy Central. You’ll hear stories about comedic icons from Bill Maher to Jon Stewart, Al Franken, Chris Rock, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman and Dennis Miller. We talk about the power of comedy to push boundaries, and how hard it is to work in comedy today as the present culture is sometimes too easily offended.
04:12 Has Art Bell ever been star struck?
06:30 Art’s non-traditional path to working in entertainment and comedy
11:45 The Wharton Follies – creatives in business school at Wharton
13:20 HBO & their failed plan to create a family friendly TV channel “Festival”
15:00 Disney, Netflix, HBO and “The Streaming Wars”
17:27 Working with Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and other A-listers
19:15 Why did Bill Maher try to get Art Bell fired from HBO?
23:15 “Weird asks” in entertainment
24:45 1992 State of the union address: Comedy central’s coverage and Al Franken’s walk-off & walk-back
27:15 “The Slap” of Chris Rock by Will Smith – And the perils of live TV
29:53 The comedian’s job and Gilbert Gottfried’s near career-ending joke as he starts to tell a joke about 9/11 and pivots to The Aristocrats
31:50 The comedic realm of satire and pushing cultural boundaries of what’s acceptable
35:40 “Shtick” around minority cultures – something that (sadly?) simply “doesn’t work” anymore
38:00 Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and reshaping news in America
39:48 The most outrageous thing that ever happened to Art Bell – another “State Of The Union” story, featuring Dennis Miller
42:00 Corinna’s favorite comedy show & meeting the cast! It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
About Our Guest, Art Bell:
Art Bell is the author of the memoir: “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor”. He earned his MBA at Wharton in Finance & Economics, and started his career in entertainment first in economics in Washington – then pivoted to his love of entertainment, first at CBS, then at HBO where he was directly responsible for the creation of The Comedy Channel (Comedy Central). He then continued his television career as president of CourtTV before shifting his focus to writing.
Art Bell’s links:
Max Brooks, author of World War Z: https://www.maxbrooks.com/
Nancy Geller, Talent Producer: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nancy-geller-4933323a/
Gilbert Gottfried’s The Aristocrats joke (Rated R): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGA0dIz9-Wk
History of The Aristocrats joke: https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/the-aristocrats/
Join Our Community Of “Dragonflies” And Reach For Your Dreams
Follow us on all social spaces @themediacasters
Network website, with all our community shows: https://podpage.com/themediacasters
Constant Comedy, Pushing Boundaries & Starting Comedy Central with Art Bell
What we’re going to do is we’re going to laugh today and we’re going to learn a story about.
One of the most endearing and ingenious forefathers in broadcast media. Do you have any idea who I’m talking about? Corinna Bellizzi? I might have a clue. Yeah, let’s meet Art Bell. Our friend art took a simple concept of 24 hour comedy programming. It into something so stratospheric that it’s, well, I don’t know if it’s blown his mind, but it’s blown my mind.
And by 2018 47.8% of American households were consumers of his deliciously hilarious network comedy central today on the media casters, we are going to give you a little glimpse into the funny and maybe not so funny. Uh, this little known cable channel comedy central, of course, I’m trying to be funny and I think it may backfire on me today, but we’ll see what happens.
Art is the author of constant comedy, how I started comedy central and lost my sense of humor, an amazing book. I recommend everyone go out and buy it today. And by all counts, I think he’s a really nice guy. We had a little chance to just chat with him before we started recording. We’re super excited. Art is the purveyor of all things.
Funny, featuring shows such as Reno 9 1, 1, the daily show and the infamous animated cartoon South Park. So Corinna, this is going to be a big show. I’m so happy that we have. Our guy art bell here. Let’s kick it. Art. Welcome to the show.
Thanks guys. Great to be here.
So our there’s a rabbi, a priest, and a monk, and they walk into a bar.
Can you, you want me to finish? Finish it? That’s all I got to make it funny. That’s funny. Not so funny.
I have preached and now I’m not going to finish it. I do know a finish to that joke, but it’s really not broadcast worthy, so we’ll skip it. I demur.
So you’re an author. I mean, you have such a rich history going back to 87. I don’t even know. When did you start working at HBO and how did this all about.
I started working at HBO about 80 in 1985. And I went there as a financial analyst, which is about the last thing I wanted to do in the television business. But got your foot in the door. That was my foot in the door. Yeah, it was my way in.
Yeah. And I just want to point out that in those days, HBO was kind of like the Netflix of today, you know, I mean, it was the coolest place in television to work because they were doing all the new. You had the three networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and then HBO is putting on movies and also uncut comedy. You know, Robin Williams special will be Colbert special.
You couldn’t see that stuff anywhere else on television because they were not censoring it or editing it. So HBO was really a cool place to work.
Yeah, it became, I think the place where I got to know George Carlin and fall in love with his work Berlin personally,
You know, I will say that George Carlin was an early, you know, he, his albums were huge when I was about, I would say 13 or 14 years old and we used to listen to them over and over in my house.
Have you ever been star struck?
Let’s see, uh, you know, typically, no, because after a while, you know, you just kind of seeing people, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I was totally bowled over by someone. I will tell you, there was one occasion. My, uh, I was after comedy and my boss called me and he said, Hey, come on in to my office because I want you to meet somebody.
I said, sure. So I didn’t know who it was. I walked in and sitting on the couch was Mel Brooks Oh, wow. You know, one of the great all time comedy guys in the whole world and one of the funniest guys, and he said, he said to me, he says, does your mother know you dress like that? And I laughed. And I said, yeah, I think so.
She dressed me this morning and he laughed and I thought, great. I got Mel Brooks to laugh. My life is complete. Anyways, that was, I wouldn’t say star struck, but I was that’s as close as I come to being like, wow, I’m in the same room as Mel Brooks. And he asked me for a favor too. And I gave it to him.
Well, I bet you give him just about anything at that moment, right?
The house the kids take it off. No, no. He asked me for favor. It’s a story. I didn’t tell him the book, but I’ll tell it cause it’s a funny story. Interesting story. He said my son wants to get into the television business. Hmm, would you have lunch with him? And I said, yeah, great. So it sounds like 24, 25 years old, and we have lunch and we’re talking about television and then he starts talking to me about his writing and I said, listen, max, his name’s max Brooks.
I said, It sounds like you’re a writer. I don’t think you want to go into television. I think you won’t write books. So the next thing I know, the guy writes a book that becomes a huge best seller it’s. Um, the book about, um, zombies. What was it called? Zombie. Zombie revolution or something like that. Zombie wars, something like that.
He didn’t write World War Z — did he?
Yeah, I think that’s right. Anyway, he writes it. The biggest thing becomes a movie, becomes everything else and you think the guy would write, Hey, thanks art. You know, it’s five years later. I’m a, world-class not never heard from him, started him on his career.
And max, if you’re listening, you need to write a thank you note to Uncle Art.
If you’re listening, we’ll all be surprised. Actually. That’ll be nice.
So your path to working in entertainment was a little different than that of most, I mean, first your undergrad, you said you’re going to be an economist, right. Studying economics, and then going to Wharton to get your MBA and then working finance track to CBS.
And creating an opportunity for yourself there. That was a little different because you saw a hole in the marketplace where comedy wasn’t being served, the way that HBO could have. Right. And so that’s essentially what, when you came to them and said, Hey, you know, we should really have a comedy show that we’re, you know, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Let’s take Dr. Demento and put it on steroids. Right, exactly. Do something different than had been done today right now. Why do you think you encountered so much resistance initially to that idea?
I think for two reasons, one people did think it was a stupid idea. I mean, they just thought, you know, seriously, 24 hours of comedy.
And I would say, well, 24 hours of news, 24 hours of sports. And they said, no, that’s all different. They’d say there’s plenty of comedy on television where HBO were putting comedy on there. The second reason is it’s expensive in those days. You know, these days you can put a. Television channel out of your garage.
If you want to, you know, have you have a computer, uh, and that’s what Tik TOK and YouTube actually ended up doing. Um, but in those days you needed a lot of infrastructure. You needed satellite equipment and I’m not talking little sad. I’m talking like giant satellite equipment, uplink facilities, studio facilities, you need to know all this stuff.
And they said, And given that we think it’s a stupid idea. Why would we take a risk like that? So, yeah, that’s, that’s why people didn’t want to do it. Wow.
Well, I’m sure. Now looking back hindsight is 2020, right? How many different channels are there that really focus in some way on comedy at this time?
Well, uh, not too many, but you know, it’s interesting you say that because one of the other objections was at the time. There’s too many check cable channels already. Now this was 19 88, 89, and there were about 20 cable channels. Anyways, things were just getting started. Of course, now we have 200 or 300 or 600 or whatever, whatever the number is in streaming as a factor now.
So things have come a long way since that first.
How do you keep up with all those changes? I mean, everything is live streaming at this point.
I retired. That’s how I keep up. Wow. And I started writing and I thought this is much more. I was right when I told Max writing was fun because I became a writer and it is.
I love that transition of you being a financier to being a writer, because I see the left brain, right brain.
I got the whole thing. I have the entire brain crew to mentioned that I started in economics and I have to say, I, you know, people say, oh my gosh, you were an economist. I was in cannabis in Washington for three years, right out of college.
And they say that must’ve been horrible for, you know, I liked being an economist. I thought economics was fascinating. I still do. And it was a. Smart time in my life. I was very smart then. And it’s been downhill pretty much since then, but
I’m just going to say, as opposed to now…
You know what, I think people are at their smartest and most creative. Well, I won’t say most creative, but I think people are really kind of at the top of their game, in their twenties and early thirties. And that’s where I was working with really smart people. And it didn’t occur to me until sort of the end of that three years working as an economist that maybe I should do something different because I was facing.
Grad school and economics and becoming a professor. And I didn’t think that was the life for me. So I changed it up to went to business school.
Yeah. And business school for finance. To then work in the world of finance is not funny to me actually. It’s very, there’s nothing funny about finance.
It is a little depressing, uh, less interesting, I think to me anyway, then economics, but, you know, I went there and I wish somebody had told me this, but I went there thinking that, okay, here’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to go get my degree, my MBA. And then I will get a job until the. Piece of cake, right? It turns out that you don’t, you know, even in those days, especially you don’t really need an MBA to work in television. As a matter of fact, that wasn’t really a great calling card for me when I got. Um, and I had a tough time getting a job out of business school.
My, you know, listen, most of my friends in business school were going to wall street and consulting firms. And, you know, that’s where they wanted consulting firms. I had worked in one and so they came to me and said, come on and work with us. And I said, no, no, no, I’m going to the entertainment business. So I did finally get a job at CBS in finance for about half the money I’d been making as an economist in, in Washington DC.
And I remember my father calling me and said, Now, how’s this working out. You’re, you’re taking a job, that’s paying you a lot less and you just spent two years in lots of money in grad school. I said, dad, trust me. This is what I want to do. This is where I want to be. And that’s what, um, that’s how it’s working out.
So that’s where your passion was. I mean, I loved reading the first section of your book, where you even talk about while you were at Wharton, what do they call them? The Wharton Follies.
Yup. You know what I did was I walked into Wharton and I said, You know, I want to get into television entertainment, where do the people like me at Wharton hangout thinking there was a Clover or something.
And they said, well, interesting. There’s not a lot of those people, but they put on the Wharton fallings every year, I went to a meeting with the Wharton Follies guys, and I found that they were like professionals from Broadway, you know, professional musicians and wanted to get out of that business. Get to wall street, you know, but then we were a bunch of people who, you know, wanted to put on a show and that’s what I did for two years.
And the second year I wrote, I wrote the show and it reminded me how much I loved writing comedy. I’d I’d done some comedy writing in college and, and there I was writing comedy and that’s when I thought, man, I’d really love to work at a comedy channel, but there isn’t one. So that’s what, that’s how that got stuck.
So you just pitched it to HBO.
Well, it’s not as simple as that. Uh, I spent a couple of years doing my job because I figured, all right, look, I’m going to get the HBO. They don’t know me. They want me to do, actually, they wanted me to do econometric forecasting, if you can believe that. And I did, I did that for them.
What kind of forecasting econometrics? It’s a mathematical economics, which I happen to know something about, because that’s what I was doing in Washington. Anyway. I figured if I did a really great job there and you know, in the forecasting, then they would consider me for other stuff. And that was my whole plan.
And that’s pretty much what, what would happen? Transferred to a, an area called new business development. And they were trying to develop other pay television channels. They’re actually just one. They were trying to develop a channel called festival, which was supposed to be like HBO, but no sex violence or bad language.
Some people weren’t taking HBO because they thought it was too high, too much sex violence and bad language. So they put together festival, which had no sex violence had bad language. And the first day I walked into my new job and I said, now, how are we going to sell this? By saying it doesn’t have this stuff.
Isn’t this what entertainment usually sells itself. If I say they do have an, um, Everyone said, shh, don’t say that
They wanted to create the Hallmark Channel — or Lifetime essentially.
Yeah, but it was a page, a page on lifetime was not like that actually, but you know what, you know, it was a big competition and they just, that was my first lesson in competition.
We were putting together this festival thing and we were testing it and it had, you know, stuff for adult, for grownups. We said television for grass Disney, which was showing. Kids movies said, Hey, we could show some grownup movies that kids and grownups like, and we can basically take festival right out of the picture.
And that’s what they did.
I recently did a MBA project. I finished my MBA last June. And, uh, so when I read your section on, you know, covering finance, I’m like, well, these were my least favorite classes. So you spent your time diving right into the stuff that I didn’t love quite as much at any rate, we did this analysis on what we call the streaming wars.
Specifically HBO / AT&T Time Warner and thinking also about things like Disney and who’s pricing their product. And I have to say value for dollar spent Disney is slam dunking it still today. I mean, they’ve got the whole star wars franchise. Now they have, of course, all the Marvel comics related movies.
And also of course, the Disney arsenal, which is quite vast, deep and broad, right. And so they’re charging what, $6 a month for this service that everybody else is charging and the realm of 15 and 20. It’s, it’s pretty incredible. What they’ve been able to do over the course of this last few years. And I mean, I just see them continuing to rise.
So I’m just curious where you see things in this new world.
It’s an interesting thing that you point out that Disney is doing so well. And they have a huge library and they’re charging less because I think those things all go together. I am not an expert on the streaming industry. As I said, I, I got out of the.
Several years ago, but from what I can see, Netflix, for example, is paying a huge amount of money. They’re starting from scratch. They don’t have any back catalog. Uh, HBO is in a better position, but HBO has always seen itself as the premier television providers. So they’re not going to go low Disney just has all that stuff in the, in the basement that they can play.
That is to. And that is a huge advantage. So they don’t have to put as much money. For example, as Netflix has to put in to keep their, to keep themselves going. And that’s, I think why they can charge a little bit less. Plus as brand names go, you can’t be too. I
I know it’s a tough one. Right. And they also own ESPN and Hulu’s so it’s like, what are you going to do?
It’s they’ve cornered the market and a few arenas. I just wonder, you know, there’s a couple of things that you mentioned in your book. And also in, in another podcast I listened to, as I prepared for today’s session about interfacing with celebrities. And working to ensure that we come to a space of success in collaboration.
So I wonder if you could just offer your perspective of what it’s like to, or how even you work to collaborate with some of these A-listers and, you know, really support their growth and ensure that they’re bringing the best to you too, as a part of comedy central or whatever it is that you’re working.
Well, there is one story. I don’t know if you read the entire book, but there was one story I tell about working with bill Maher from the very beginning, by the way, I think he exemplifies one kind of talent. He made himself very hard to work with. And I don’t know if that was just the way he is or the way he wanted to be.
I always wonder about that. You know, because like, for example, John Stewart, who I worked with at the very beginning of his career, we had them, we had them on at the comedy channel. We call it a comedy channel before we changed the name of the comedy. And almost instantly, first of all, we saw he was great television.
Second of all, we saw, he was a very passionate and, and thoughtful and intelligent guy, and he brought that to whatever he was doing. And third, he was just a nice guy. He’s was fun to hang around. Didn’t, you know, make too much trouble and throw the furniture around as opposed to Bill Maher, who did throw the furniture around.
And, and it was, you know, again, it just makes it a little harder to work with people like that. What happens in cases where, you know, where someone is extremely talented, but more difficult to work with. And that happens a lot. As it was explained to me early on, and I think this is right. It’s the talent.
At the end of the day, he was getting in front of the camera. He’s putting himself or herself in front of millions of people, putting their reputation on the line every minute of that time that they’re on television. And it’s a lot of. And it’s a little scary. And so when the talent wants specific things and things done specific ways, and whether it’s wardrobe or lighting or, you know, whatever the story is, you hear about talent wanting things.
They have a point and I’ve always taken that to heart since it was explained to me. But, uh, we still got into a bit of a tussle over, uh, an ad campaign that we did for his show. And I thought, man, wouldn’t it be great. For bill Maher to do an ad campaign about a show, you know, get him out there. Nobody really knew him.
It wasn’t that famous in those days, but he didn’t like the ad campaign. And he made it very clear to me that he didn’t like the ad campaign by calling me up and telling me I don’t like the ad campaign and I’m having you fired. And that, that, you know, that was a pretty bracing moment for me. And I really tried to apologize and explain why we were doing it that way.
And also looking back on it, I thought, okay, maybe I did something wrong. We showed this campaign to a lot of people, including his producers, but we didn’t show it to bill now, do you know why we didn’t show it to bill? Because bill would say, go ahead. I’m going to guess
That he would just dismiss it automatically.
Okay. And then we do another ed campaign and any guesses on what would happen to that one. He was not going to like it.
Something would always be wrong. You’d relinquish creative control.
What I was faced with, and I did check with some people on this, what I was faced with was making bill Maher, the head of marketing for Comedy Central.
And I thought, well, that’s not such a great idea because we have to get something out the door. You have to keep moving when you’re making television. Anyway, I did try and explain that to him. I’m trying to apologize to him, but he was not having any of it. And, uh, he did try and get me fire as it happened.
I did not get fired. You had a benevolent boss. Well, it was just a non-starter. I mean, you know, talents is fire this guy, they said, no, we’re not firing this guy. And that was kind of the worst, the worst I’ve seen in my career. As I said, I worked with, with John Stewart at the other end of the spectrum. And we had, you know, and lots of people, we had great collaborations with.
I can go through the list and say, this guy was hard. This guy was difficult. This guy was easy. Uh, you know, it’s just, it’s like anything else. It’s like executives, you know, some of them are easy to work with and some of them are, you know, narcissistic, psychopaths.
Well, he’d have to have a say in every single thing that happens underneath them.
Right. So there’s that?
Oh my gosh. There’s no shortage of them in the entertainment industry either. So I had to work with them. So if you’re in the business, you’re getting it sometimes from post.
How would you describe yourself as an executive?
Not a narcissistic psychopath. I am not in that group.
I, I, you know what? I came out of economics. Then I went to business school on Korean and you know, this, if you study in business school, they put some emphasis on organization and structure and management skills and things like that. When I got the entertainment business, I saw that there was less emphasis on organization and management skills.
And it was mostly because, and I say this without any malice, there’s a guy or a gal at the top who, as Julie said, wants to do, you know, thinks they can call the shots on everything. There is one. Anecdote, I’ll tell you that was not in the book where the head of HBO, the chairman and I were talking and believe me, that was always a fraught experience for me because he was a very powerful man
The most powerful person in Hollywood – right?
According to the New York times at the time.
And I was the least according to everybody. And, um, and so I was talking to him about something about management and structure, and he said, aren’t, you don’t have to worry about that because I am managing. The comedy channel. And I, I said to myself, no, you’re not. You’re managing HBO, which is this giant successful monolithic company that needs a lot of attention all the time.
And we are a startup on the side and we need good managers and good people and good structure and all the stuff, all that. And so that was, we had to work around that, you know, we had to work around that and it was.
Wow. Well, I w I have a curious question. Go ahead. And because you’re curious, we always come back to this, but I’ve heard over the years about some very strange, weird asks by.
You know, people working in Hollywood, it’s almost as if they have to have a weird ask in order to be taken seriously. What is the weirdest ask you’ve ever had?
Well, this happened after I was at comedy central. I became president of court TV.
And I don’t know if you may not remember that whole experience, but it was live court trials in the daytime. And then we put mysteries and crime traumas on at night at five o’clock. We had Nancy grace. Going on doing a lot of show. I think she’s still doing shows, but I, I th I would say two or three times a week, I would be called up now.
I was the boss, you know, but they would call me up and say, it’s 20 minutes to five. Nancy’s says she’s not going on. Hmm. Now, I don’t know if you consider that a weird ask, but I had to go up there and I have to say, okay, Nancy, what’s up. She goes, I don’t, you know, the director wants to do this and I don’t want to do that.
And I said, well, what does the director want to do? And she’d explain it. And the director would come over and we’d have a conversation. And somehow I’d work it out. Usually by telling the director we’re going to do it Nancy’s way. So she gets on the air at five o’clock and that’s, you know, it was like that.
Yeah. People throwing their weight around. That’s a lot of power.
She had. I’ll tell you something you’re doing live television, which is the most fun you can have in Intel. Oh yeah. Crazy.
I, I told some stories in the book about live television. Anything can happen and probably will. I mean, one of our big successes at comedy central, this was in 1992 is we covered the state of the union address law. And we had comedians commenting on the state of the union address as the president was talking now, it was a very audacious stunt.
And I tell the whole story about how it was hard for us to put together. And we got Al Franken. Do you remember Al Franken? He was on Saturday night, Senator Franklin, who was no longer Senator Franklin. We can get into that after the show. He was going to do, we, we got him and we’re very proud of that. He was a big name and he did live television.
So we said, perfect. He knows live television. So. We’re at rehearsal before. And they did a lot of rehearsal that week because they didn’t know how they were going to do this. Right. So we were at rehearsal and it was about an hour until the president say the inner dress. So the director, his name was Billy Kimball.
He says, okay, everybody get ready. We’ve got an hour before we go live. And Al looks up and he says, what do you mean before we go live? We’re doing this live. I thought this was live to tape. I’m not doing this live. I hadn’t walked out. Well, of course, Rankin that was…
Did you ask Nancy grace to fill his place?
I didn’t know Nancy at the time, nor I, nor what I have asked her, but anyway, we all stood there with stunned, looks on our face, as you can imagine. Uh, and luckily we had a brilliant talent vice-president and her name was Lori Zacks and, uh, she became a very famous producer in Hollywood. She ran after him.
I know what she said to him or how she did it, but you got him back in the room and he said, And he put on a great show. Really funny, really good. And we got great reviews. And I think that was one of the things that put comedy central on the map early on, because that’s when the press kind of looked up and said, Hey, these guys are comedy central.
They got something going over there. You know, they’re doing some stuff you can’t do anywhere else.
Yeah, That was cutting edge. It really was. Now speaking of live TV, if you watch the Oscars last night, there was quite a moment that I think none of us can kind of fathom even just happened.
Bananas, bananas, right? Like I don’t typically watch the Oscars and I happened to turn it on live and see something I never expected, which was what Chris rock getting smacked for. I don’t know, touching on something sensitive. I mean, would you protect your wife’s honor like that?
Or would your husband do that?
Not in front of a live worldwide television. I might get into it at the after party, but I don’t think, or I might, I might have a bad look on my face when the cameras showed up the. And w listen, we’re not the first ones to parse this. We’re not going to be the last ones this’ll be. And I just read, by the way, before we got on that, the academy is opening a formal, I’m sorry to left a formal investigation into what happened.
What are they going to find out? What are they looking at?
Well, I mean, we all witnessed what happened.
What is this like? Is this like the January 6th committee? What are they going to do called testimony testimony from witnesses? Um, so to me, that’s comedy, that’s comedy. Academy’s opening. Yeah. We’re going to look into this and see what really happened.
I think we saw what really happened. That is funny. Oh, yeah, I have.
That list of witnesses would be stellar. And the camera’s from every which angle,
A billion subpoenas.
We do not condone violence here on the media casters. Oh my. That was funny too, because the academy issue. The statement almost directly on the heels of the slap. They do not condone violence.
I do not know Chris Rock personally. I never worked with them, but Nancy Geller, who was very instrumental in putting comedy channel and comedy central together, she worked with him extensively throughout the nineties and beyond, and they are close friends. I haven’t talked to her about what she thinks, but she all, she loves Chris rock.
She says he is the greatest guy in the world. He’s the nicest guy in the world. And. I don’t know if it was at a CA you know, listen. Okay, let’s go through the list of jokes that have killed careers. And there have been, you know, there have been jokes that have killed careers. But Gilbert Gottfried told a joke, uh, and that, that got him kicked off the Aflac account and all that kind of stuff.
Uh, and he famously, almost told a nine 11 joke two weeks after nine 11 to a crowd of comedians at, at, uh, I’m laughing. Cause it’s not funny at, um, uh, one of the comedy central roast, which I just happened to be at where they were roasting Q1. And, and you know, it, I don’t know if you meant to bring this up, but comedians and comedy writers, their job is to walk up to the line and step over the line once in a while, and then step back.
And that is what makes live comedy, especially as exciting as it is because you get to see the world through their eyes and you get to hear them say things that you wouldn’t. They should say the quick story about Cobra Godfrey is he, we were at this roast and. Place was packed with comedy people, uh, and big, you know, big executives, two weeks after nine 11, and Gilbert gets up there and he says, yeah, I’m the same with nine 11.
And everybody went no too soon. You saw 500 people put their arms up in the air saying, don’t do this. Whatever the joke is. I don’t want to tell him. And he switched gears like that and got out of it and told a very famous joke, which became a very famous telling of the joke called the aristocrats, which is a joke that comedians tell each other to make each other laugh.
Uh, and he told it, and it was extremely funny. Everybody’s on the floor laughing. It was interesting, you know, thinking back on it, you really set the room up by going into that nine 11 thing, because how, how much more uncomfortable can you make a rule than that? Right. Everybody was like
Exactly anything he said after that was going to be brilliant.
And it was so good, you know,
Thinking to south park and its involvement on comedy central. I relation to South Park.
And I felt like, okay, they’re, they’re touching on the wire here. And they were doing that relatively early by reference to when nine 11 occurred. Uh, again, just pushing boundaries and really seeing what can be done.
It gets into the realm of satire and, you know, also a true confessions. I left shortly after south park came on the air.
So I was not, you know, part of the, you’re not claiming the South Park. I was there when it came in and was part of the group that left like crazy, uh, and said, if we get this on the air, it’ll be terrific. It will also be dangerous anyway. Um, but what they do is as you know, they’ve, they do satire, you know, and they do it very well.
And satire through the years, starting with Jonathan swift, a modest proposal where he suggested that in order to be. The famine people eat their children, which was, you know, which was notably outrageous at the time. So that’s how I gets outrageous. And, and maybe it was a little more latitude for, for something that’s considered satirical.
But anyway, you know, now we’re getting into the finer, the final points. I think that what, what the south park guys do and what they’ve done in all their endeavors is brilliant. I mean, it’s just, you know, talent like that comes along once in a general. Very impressive.
Is there anything that you’ve said no to, we can’t cross that line or are you open to all things?
Okay, so here’s the thing. I mean, this came up recently, um, it comes up all the time now because of the so-called woke audience where people are going to get up and walk out before you actually. Uh, before the comedian tells the joke or people will not watch the movie, if they don’t like the direction it’s going in.
And man, that is very hard on comedy comedians and comedy writers. Because as we said before, they, you know, their whole job is to push the boundaries and.
You mentioned career before, before we got on the podcast here, that you, you saw some of the podcasts that I did with my friend Vinny Favalli and we interviewed some comedians from the nineties who were working and are working now about this. And they’re scared of. They are scared to death. I mean, Jerry Seinfeld famously said, I’m not going to work colleges anymore because they, the audience takes offense at my act.
And I’m thinking, man, Jerry Seinfeld, that he’s the least offensive comedian I can think of. And so that’s a problem and I hope it swings back. I do hope it swings back.
It’s a different generation.
Serious it is, but you know what let’s think about all the great things that the outrageous comics in the nineties did.
And I’m thinking of women comics, Sarah, Sarah Silverman, right? I mean, they were really kind of talking about what it was like to be a woman in the 1990s in America and what a great way. Get that, that point across to men who otherwise wouldn’t be listening to any of this. Right. I thought it was just, you know, if you look at the sum total of their, of, of their acts and their however else, they were communicating, they were doing the world of service by saying, look, this is what it’s like, and this is how we feel and get used to it.
You know? So comedy inadvertently serves that purpose. And if you say you can’t do that anymore, what’d you just say. What did you just do?
So what do you think it’s going to take and this era to be successful as a new comic or someone who’s trying to break free?
Uh, listen, six, and now we’re on a slightly different topic because you know, there’s, there’s been over the years.
Lots of comics. We don’t touch on. Anything that’s the least bit controversial, although things that weren’t considered controversial then, I mean, all the comics, all the Borshbelt comics did Jewish comedy and Italian comedy and Puerto Rican. I mean, they were just, you know, that was their shtick, that we are, you know, a minority and there’s other minorities.
And we’re going to talk about all the other minorities. You can’t do that anymore. So in those days it was very acceptable and these days not so much. But what it takes to be a great comedian or a great comedy writer is a lot of work. It’s the same thing. It takes to be a great anything. It takes a lot of work and a lot of practice.
For a comedian to get a good five minutes, a good solid five minutes to go on to do showcases takes, you know, months and months of writing and rewriting and thinking and trying and all that stuff. Listen, all the comedians, most of the comedians, I would say, but you know, if you go into the comedy business, you’re considered funny and you consider yourself funny.
That’s not the issue. The issue is can you. Make it work. Can you do it on, on command? And can you, can you relate to an audience?
Corinna Bellizzi: Yeah. What was it?
Julie Lokun: Janessa quad or something special that you saw in comedians that you’re, you just had to have.
Art Bell: Well, you know, again, something they should not be doing. So now you’re making a, you’re making an interesting, uh, leap my French.
No, no, that wasn’t a leap. I speak that much French after, after six years of a French junior high and high school. But I was not the talent court. I was not the talent person. I mean, I worked with the talent people and you know, when we made decisions, like, like the one I talked about on Al Franken or Bill Maher, I’ve worked with Belmore and Jon Stewart, but you know, we had people going to clubs every night who way past my bedtime looking at new talent.
So it would be a better question for them, but I will say that, you know, again, I, I mentioned John Stewart, there, there are, there are certain people who. I felt were extremely funny and could make me laugh no matter what they were doing or saying those are the ones that I kinda picked off, uh, as the ones who would be successful when I saw John Stewart, I said, man, this guy is great television and he’s going to be brilliantly successful.
And, uh, I was right.
Yeah. Well, good bet on that one, I personally I’ve loved a lot of what he’s done and just so impressed.
The Daily Show, reshaped news in America.
That was where I got my news for awhile. Right. I mean, that’s a reality for a lot of people.
Right. And that is a very impressive feat, you know, not since Walter Cronkite, I would say, as somebody really kind of wrestled the news to the ground the way, the way John did.
Hmm. Wow. Well, art, I, I want to finish your reading, your book, and then invite you back to asking more questions.
The book is a memoir. I will mention that you didn’t mention that. And as a memoir, It’s a real personal kind of telling of that.
It‘s all your opinion for legal legalities, right?
It’s, it’s my opinion, but it’s not only my opinion.
It’s kind of how I felt at the time, whether it was good, bad, or sad or happy or, uh, laughing or not laughing. And it, you know, it’s, it’s quite a story and, uh, I’m glad I told it. I’m glad I, yeah.
Well, I’m just speaking from the heart here. When I say, you know, just page Turner from page one, I just wasn’t able to complete it before this particular interview.
And I mean, I, I’m just looking forward to having the opportunity to finish it. Cause it’s, it’s an incredible read. You did a very good job of putting us right in your shoes. And I feel like I’m learning something from that as I contemplate writing. Um, it is kind of in a ideation phase at the present time.
So thank you for your work — both the book and the audiobook which you narrate — and is available on Audible.
It’s on a lot of bull it’s on, it’s not paperback yet. Paperbacks coming out according to what in, uh, December. Why December? I don’t know, but that’s that’s history time for Christmas,
Man. It’s a good season to release a paperback book. We’ll have you back before the holidays, but funniest, funniest, funniest, funniest thing that’s ever happened to in your whole entire life.
The most outrageous thing that ever happened to me is a story I tell on the book is when Dennis Miller was doing the state of the union address live, and I was sitting there watching from the green room or whatever, and the speech went long and Dennis had to go to the bathroom. That is funny. But it gets better.
He, he kept his mic on, he kept his mic on stage and didn’t know where the bathroom was, but there was a garbage can there. And so he went to the bathroom and the garbage cans outside. And while we were out there, actually, Laurie Zacks, who was the talent person, she said, oh, And I said, what? And she goes, I think we got a big problem here.
And we ran out and he finished and he went back in and he completed the broadcast terrific live. But the funny part is he came running out and he said, oh my God, I killed my career. I killed it. It’s dead. Of course he didn’t, but he thought he did. And he ran down the hall and around the corner to where there was a men’s bathroom and he went into the men’s bathroom and I went down there with Laurie and I said, uh, okay, Lori, you’re going to have to go into the bathroom and talk the guy off the ledge.
She goes, no. I draw the line there. I don’t go into a men’s bathroom for anyone. I go into the men’s bathroom and talking them off the list. I talk them off the ledge and that’s what I did. I went in there and…
You were a talent manager. You said you’ve never been one, but you were that day
When you’re in television, you get called on to do everything short of going on the air, which I would have probably run the other way.
But you get called on to do everything. It’s fun. That’s why television. Wow.
What an amazing tenure, what an amazing, amazing life you’ve led.
Yeah, it’s been, I looked back, it’s been a great career and I’m very happy to be writing now. I’m more, I you’re gonna like it. It’s a lie. If, if you end up liking, it’s a lot of fun.
There’s a lot of fun.
Yeah. Well, I have to say. And the current world of comedy, some of my favorite shows are It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. Yeah. I had the pleasure of meeting the cast aside from Danny DeVito. He wasn’t there at Sundance one year and just great cast, great people, really funny, innovative shows and you know, on FX, not comedy central.
Right. But, um, they’re, they’re just doing incredible stuff. And I like to see that I like to see the irreverence and the fact that they’re continuing to be brave in this current. Climate today. So, um, my hope is that we’ll see more innovative comedy coming out that will push the envelope without fear. And that will be entertained for the next few decades.
Some of these people are coming out of the work that you initially got started. So thank you for that. You’re welcome.
So, besides being on our podcast, what else are you doing for fun these days?
Let’s see, I play the piano. I play jazz piano. I’m taking lessons. Yeah, I’ve done that since I was. Play piano since I was a kid and I’m playing jazz drums because I played for about 10 years.
I used to listen to jazz and think, what the heck is that drummer do it. I can’t even figure it out. So I thought, all right, I’ll try playing drums. And I took lessons in. Playing jazz forums is hard, but it’s really fun. So that’s what I do, drums and piano. And I’m out here in Utah. So I ski and I hike and I used to travel, but this COVID things cut that down to, uh, you know, down substantially.
And we took up scuba diving, my wife and I a few years ago. And that’s as much fun as you can have. Yeah.
Oh, when you come out to the Monterey bay, you can come dive with me.
So take pictures, take pictures. Before we get in and we’re underwater.
We have underwater cameras too. I’m heading to Hawaii next week. So I’ll do some warm water diving, but the cold water stuff is really where a lot of the life is
So should we do it? Yes we should.. We have all of our guests say 2 words before we sign off, and that’s “Kick It!”
Let’s kick it. Wait, wait, wait, wait. You’re good at this one more time.