Comedy Central is hoping it’s whipped up the recipe for a daily dose of digital comedy, patterned on the success of its long-running TV mainstay, “The Daily Show.”
The Viacom-owned cable programmer is unveiling a new project called “The Creators Program”: a team of five stand-up comedians, writers and improv performers who will produce a short weekday take on pop culture and entertainment, as well as a weekly scripted workplace comedy — about working at Comedy Central.
The Creators Program crew was picked through an open casting call, and Comedy Central is aiming to launch the first fruits of their labor the last week of May on its YouTube channel (6.3 million subscribers) and Facebook page (6.3 million followers).
“This is Comedy Central’s biggest investment ever in digital and social content,” said Jennifer Danielson, Comedy Central’s senior VP of digital, although she declined to put a dollar figure on the initiative.
To lead the team, Comedy Central hired Nate Dern, an alum of Funny Or Die and Upright Citizens Brigade, as creative head of The Creator Program. He’s moving to New York from L.A. on April 30.
The Creators Program, originally called “The Creators Room” internally, is the brainchild of Danielson, who joined Comedy Central last November after exiting Lorne Michael’s Broadway Video, where she had led the Above Average digital comedy network.
Until now, most of Comedy Central’s social and online-video content has been promotional clips from its linear TV shows, including “The Daily Show.” Danielson’s marching orders, when she started, were to flip the ratio — to produce mostly original content for digital audiences.
How to do that? Danielson’s idea was, “Let’s do a ‘Daily Show’ for the internet.” But whereas the TV show focuses on politics and harder news, The Creators Program series will riff on pop culture and trending topics, designed to interact with the audience through comments and hashtags.
“When [Jordan] Peele won the Oscar [for the ‘Get Out’ screenplay], the best we could do was release a congratulatory video,” Danielson said. “Now we have a show where we can talk about it.”
The genesis of “The Daily Show” was similar. In 1996, then-president Doug Herzog wanted a show like ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” something that would bring people back every day. The hope for Comedy Central execs is that The Creators Program will work the same way in the digital space.
Comedy Central will introduce the concept and the five writer-performers at Viacom’s first-ever Digital Content NewFronts presentation for Madison Avenue types next Monday, April 30. That speaks to the business strategy for The Creators Program: The idea is that the project will generate hard-dollar revenue through branded content.
“This is very much like the comedic brain trust that can be utilized by brands — or other Viacom brands — to amplify stories,” Danielson said. That said, it’s also intended to be a hype vehicle for Comedy Central’s core TV biz, with plugs for the network’s on-air franchises.
The five members of The Creators Program are:
- Ryan Beck, a stand-up comedian originally from St. Louis who has appeared on MTV’s “Girl Code” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and has written, produced and starred in his own web series “#RyanBeckShow” and the interactive short film “We Need To Talk.”
- Chris Cotton, a native of Philadelphia who’s been a regular on the stand-up comedy scene in the City of Brotherly Love.
- Hanna Dickinson, a New York-based comedian and USC graduate who recently wrote for season 3 of truTV’s “Comedy Knockout” and performs regularly in clubs and bars around New York City. She’s best known “for her appearance in a Korean weight-loss supplement commercial as the role of “before,'” per her bio.
- Jordan Mendoza, a writer, comedian, and video creator in NYC who co-hosts the live show “Drunk Science” and was a finalist in the truTV Comedy Breakout Initiative.
- Natasha Vaynblat, a stand-up comedian and performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and creator of the fashion parody Instagram @natashawearsclothes.
The five were selected out of 1,026 initial submissions responding to Comedy Central’s casting call on social media in February. From that batch, 120 candidates were selected and asked to send a sketch pack, an idea for a branded integration and a one-minute monologue (shot on their phone).
Two weeks ago, Comedy Central brought in the top 15 to New York, putting them through additional paces. From there, the top 10 auditioned in front of all department heads including Comedy Central president Kent Alterman, before the final members were cast. “We wanted to find fans of Comedy Central, people who know the content here and want to be here,” said Danielson. “It wasn’t, ‘I want to grow up to be a comedian.'”
Comedy Central also surveyed 2,000 YouTube fans, showing them clips of the auditions, to collect feedback. “That didn’t impact our choices but it made us look at how we would pair them together,” Danielson said.
Technically, the members of The Creators Program are contractors. Just as with “The Daily Show,” Danielson expects the crew to potentially cycle out into other projects but said “these will be long, long relationships for them.” She added that people who auditioned for The Creators Program but weren’t cast could be called back for other Comedy Central projects.
Currently, Comedy Central is building a room for The Creators Program on the ninth floor of its building at 345 Hudson St. in Manhattan. “We are knocking down walls right now,” Danielson said. It’s also building out a mock version of the creators room in the studio downstairs, where the segments will be shot.
The weekday show, with a format akin to “TMZ Live,” is as yet untitled — the creators will come up with a name, according to Danielson. Each segment will run about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, the weekly scripted series “Comedy Central Central” is a meta-concept featuring the quintet of creators as themselves working on the daily show. That’s going to be 4-6 minutes per episode.
The programmer is betting The Creators Program will build on Comedy Central’s already hefty digital footprint. Last year, its generated over 2 billion online video views and counted 178 million fans across platforms.
Danielson said Comedy Central will continue to develop and produce original web series, although the CC:Studios name might go away. Her group also plans to double down on “shoulder content” for the TV franchises like “Daily Show,” and the programmer will continue migrating digital show concepts to linear.
But for digital, The Creators Program will now be central focus. “This will be the anchor of the Comedy Central brand on social,” Danielson said. “It will help unify the voice.”
Pictured above (l. to r.): Ryan Beck, Natasha Vaynblat, creative head Nate Dern, Hanna Dickinson, Chris Cotton and Jordan Mendoza