Cable net increases programming, gives auds something to laugh about

Once regarded as a stomping ground for standup comics, a haven for other network’s syndicated successes and the cable network that bought “Absolutely Fabulous” to the United States and launched “Politically Incorrect,” Gotham-based Comedy Central has of late taken on a New York-styled identity all its own. And that identity has been etched from a group of shows that are clever and wisecracking in the manner of Gotham’s great cab drivers, bartenders and, well, standup comics.

The network’s lineup over the past two years is rightfully looked upon as one of cable TV’s most varied: Its most popular programs include “The Daily Show,” a five-days-a-week satirical news broadcast; the animated triumvirate of “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist,” British series “Bob and Margaret” and the already classic “South Park”; gameshow “Win Ben Stein’s Money”; standup showcase “Pulp Comics”; and the new Monty Python-esque sketch compilation “The Upright Citizens Brigade.” All of which are the kind of programs that Comedy Central president Doug Herzog proudly says proves that the network is “original, intelligent, daring and, most important, funny.”

The laughs appear to be translating into numbers. And even though Comedy Central has never been one to deliver its goods “by the numbers” so to speak, it’s the Nielsens numbers that everyone has been noticing lately.

An April episode of “South Park” scored an 8.2 households HH rating last April (breaking its own record of 6.9 HH set two months earlier), making it the highest-rated series episode in basic cable history.

The station also continues to enlarge its viewer base, and is now available in over 53 million homes, an increase of better than 8 million from a year ago. Comedy Central, in fact, has added more subscribers since April 1998 than any other ad-supported network, amounting to 4.7 million new subscribers.

On a more mantle-worthy note, “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” now in its second season, won two Daytime Emmy Awards this past spring, for both outstanding writing and direction.

“We’re getting there, but this making-comedy thing isn’t easy,” says Herzog. “I hope people see us pushing the envelope and trying something new. Again, though, it all comes down to being funny. That’s our job.”

The fun takes on a slightly more corrosive air on “The Daily Show,” the network’s flagship show, which is produced in New York and which Herzog feels “continues the evolution of groundbreaking in New York that began with the original “Tonight Show” and includes “Saturday Night Live,” “Letterman” and “Conan.”

Known for its pushy approach and distinctly non-fawning treatment of celebrity guests by its host-anchor Craig Kilborn, “The Daily Show” has an undeniably New York feel. Executive producer Madeleine Smithberg grins at the suggestion that the show’s in-your-face attitude is often mistaken for time-honored New York rudeness.

“We’re not trying to be rude. We’re just telling you what we think,” says Smithberg. “We’re in a rush here and if you’re in the way, well …”

Smithberg “couldn’t imagine” producing “The Daily Show” anywhere outside of New York, where “we can get eight Tickle Me Elmos or a picture of an iguana from ‘The Simpsons,’ if need be.

“If someone said we had to move the show to Omaha, we could make it work,” she continues. “But we have a special energy here in New York. A lot of it comes from take-out food and sitting in the back of a taxi and watching your money tick away.”

Not that Smithberg has to worry. “The show isn’t going anywhere while I’m here,” says Herzog.

Kilborn, however, is going somewhere — to CBS, in fact, where he will soon begin host-ing his own late-night talk show. Comedian Jon Stewart has been signed to replace Kilborn beginning in January. Herzog thinks that New York held a “great lure” for Stewart, who was born and raised in the metropolitan area.

“Producing here gives us a distinctive feel and a competitive advantage,” Herzog says. “Even though we produce a decent amount of programming in L.A., we’re based in New York and we feel strongly about what New York brings to our programs.”

Beginning with its July 1991 launch in New York City — which was celebrated with the lowering of comedienne Judy Tenuta from a flag pole in Times Square — Comedy Central has always taken clever advantage of its Gotham home. Among other things, it co-produced Denis Leary’s 1991 one-man off-Broadway show, “No Cure for Cancer,” and covered such news- and comedy-worthy New York events as the 1992 Democratic National Convention and Fashion Week in Bryant Park.

More events are planned for the fall, led by the taping of the New York Friar’s Club annual Celebrity Roast. A condensed one-hour version of the Friars’ Oct. 2 roast of comedian Drew Carey is set to air on Oct. 28 following the “South Park” Halloween episode. The telecast is a first for the Friars Club and a high-profile coup for Comedy Central.

“New York is the city that fostered the Friars Club, and this arrangement is like a coming together of the old and new,” beams Eileen Katz, Comedy Central’s senior VP of program-ming. “It’s the handing of the baton, if you will. They have a phenomenal tradition, and this is the perfect partnership.”

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