Exclusive Interview: Comedy Central’s Doug Herzog


PREMIUM: Doug Herzog, the president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group who oversees Comedy Central, talks to World Screen about some of the original programming that has breathed new life into the comedy landscape.


WS: What has been Comedy Central’s strategy in attracting the elusive young male viewer?
HERZOG: Our focus is on funny stuff for young men. We were very fortunate early on to land on South Park and then on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. That provided a tremendous foundation that has really served to guide Comedy Central in how we look at the world and what we look for.
WS: What have you found to be the best ways to manage talent like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and more recently Daniel Tosh?
HERZOG: We let them do what they need to do and pursue their point of view. Mostly we stay out of their way.
WS: This is an election year. Many people go to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, even though they are comedians, for their news and current affairs. What does this say about their credibility among their fans and the role of satire? 
HERZOG: There’s no question that they have established a very unique place for themselves—not only in the world of comedy—but in the world of media overall. They are on a comedy network. Their first instinct is to always make their audience laugh. They are in a unique place and have carved out a unique position for themselves. It’s the cross section of where comedy, current events, satire and politics meet. And not everyone can do what they do—in fact, they may be the only ones. Their goal every night is to entertain and to make people laugh and if they can do that in a way that is smart and informational, that’s just an added bonus.
WS: Where does Comedy Central look for new talent?
HERZOG: Everywhere. Online is a great source just because it is available to everybody and the barrier for entry is low. We still spend a lot of time in the clubs and not just in New York and Los Angeles; we are out in the hinterland as well. It’s our business to find the next great voice and the next comedic talent. The days are long over when talent is going to show up on your doorstep. And, by the way, not only are the days over when they are going to show up on your doorstep, we’re not the only doorstep in town anymore—that has changed dramatically. So we really have to be aggressive about it and find interesting people who we think have a voice and a chance to break through.
WS: Is there a certain irreverence that you look for in potential talent?
HERZOG: We know who the audience is—it’s dominated by young men, so the voices we look for [should ultimately] strike a chord with young men. That being said, you’ve got to be careful not to get so narrow that you cut yourself off from new opportunities. As we like to say, funny is funny. So we try to keep an open mind and we’re always looking to grow and expand our talent base. We’d like to see more women on Comedy Central, we’d like more people of color on Comedy Central. We believe a diverse group of voices going forward is going to be good for business.
WS: What elements do you need to get a show like The Daily Show right compared to getting a scripted comedy right?
HERZOG: They are different things. You need great talent; The Daily Show has that. You need great writing; The Daily Show has that. The big difference is, in scripted comedy you’ve got to create a world of fictional characters that people want to hang out with every week, hopefully for several years. So you’ve got to create a world that doesn’t really exist and you’ve got to have great storytelling.
The Daily Show does a lot of things well, but they’re not storytellers, they’re joke tellers. Those are some of differences and none of it is easy; all of it is hard.
WS: How has TV Land evolved from running reruns to premiering successful original shows?
HERZOG: TV Land’s original recipe was classic TV sitcoms. In a media landscape that has evolved tremendously in the last couple of years, the idea of a channel devoted solely to classic TV reruns was not going to endure indefinitely. So in order to grow the audience and grow the business, we needed to do original programming. We first started out doing reality programming and that turned out to be a mistake. Reality programming is one of the reasons TV Land is actually as successful as it is. The amount of reality on network television has alienated a big audience that is looking for traditional sitcoms. We weren’t really making any progress with the reality stuff. So we thought we should make sitcoms. They are more expensive but that’s what the audience wants and that’s why they come to us in the first place. If we do sitcoms we have to do them well because we don’t think they will show up for cheap knock-off versions. We were able to get out of the gate with Hot in Cleveland, which is a great show and has a great cast and fills the need of the audience out there that really wants traditional sitcoms.
WS: That is a multi-camera show?
HERZOG: To date all the TV Land sitcoms are multi-cam shows.
WS: Are they somewhat easier to do or are they more efficient or faster to shoot than single-camera comedies?
HERZOG: Yes, on a certain level, but we’re actually doing our first single-camera pilot right now because, while we are big fans of the multi-cams, we don’t want to just get stuck in one place. We want to be relevant and continue to evolve and grow, so we are shooting our first single-camera and will see how that goes.
WS: A lot of the comedies in recent years are single-camera shows.
HERZOG: The interesting thing about that is there have been a lot of single-camera sitcoms, but now there has also been a big increase in the amount of multi-cam comedies in the last couple of years. They had fallen out of fashion. That was one of the reasons we were excited to get into that business, because nobody else was doing it.
We feel we were partly responsible for bringing that trend back because of the success of Hot in Cleveland. We think all the other networks were thinking, “What? How did they do that? We fell asleep at the wheel here and let TV Land steal some of our thunder!”
WS: A lot of people are saying there has been a renaissance in comedy lately.
HERZOG: I think that’s right. You’re seeing the networks really begin to embrace comedy hits. They had gone through a period where dramas were dominating and then reality. Now comedy is coming back. Millennials look at comedy in a completely different way than you or I did growing up. They are passionate about it, they talk about shows and comedians and movies like they’re rock bands and music artists. And they are able to access comedy in ways that past generations weren’t and it’s a very important part of their lifestyle. You’ve got networks like TBS that is into comedy and FX that is getting into the comedy business and so is IFC. And comedy in the digital world is really successful.
WS: How important are your channels’ websites and social media in maintaining a strong connection between your brands and your viewers?
HERZOG: Very important, especially social media. It is becoming such a big part of how we talk to the audience, how we market to the audience. The script has been flipped completely. We used to tell the audience when to show up, when to watch and there was no conversation back and forth. It was all a one-way communication relationship and the entire script has been switched in every possible way. Social media is a great tool to get people excited about your content, talking about your content, passing around your content. It’s all really exciting and it’s all really good.
WS: Is comedy harder to get right than drama?
HERZOG: You know the saying, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard”? Comedy is hard! When I first took over Comedy Central I had come from MTV. The pressure to make everything funny can be unbearable. A lot of MTV in the post-music-video days was based on style. I had that down; I could do the MTV style. At the end of the day, style doesn’t cut it in comedy—it’s got to be funny. That is hard work. That is why all these guys are so tortured!
WS: I’ve always wondered, do comedy writers have to be in a great mood every day when they come to work?
HERZOG: Have you spent time with a lot of comedy writers or comedians? They are a very particular lot. They are not exactly court jesters. They can be very tortured souls and this is very, very hard work.