'Unexpected, original, funny:' Greenwich author looks back on the founding of Comedy Central

Author Art Bell of Greenwich has penned a memoir about the founding of Comedy Central.

Author Art Bell of Greenwich has penned a memoir about the founding of Comedy Central.

Contributed / Art Bell /

GREENWICH — In the 1980s, Art Bell was a mid-level marketing analyst at HBO, putting his economics know-how to use by predicting how many people would subscribe to the fledgling cable channel.

But he had a notion that transcended his day job: What about an all-comedy channel for cable?

Bell’s tale of how that kernel of an idea turned into the wildly successful Comedy Central is the basis of his new book, “Constant Comedy: How I Started Comedy Central and Lost My Sense of Humor,” which will be published by Ulysses Press on Tuesday.

Looking at the rise of MTV for music buffs and ESPN for sports fans, Bell, who sharpened his own comedy chops for the Wharton Follies as a Wharton Business School grad student, thought his idea was an obvious one.

“There should be a place for comedy and comedians,” said the Greenwich father of two.

'Constant Comedy' is a memoir on the founding of Comedy Central by Art Bell of Greenwich.

'Constant Comedy' is a memoir on the founding of Comedy Central by Art Bell of Greenwich.

Contributed / Art Bell

The stage was certainly set. At the time, comedy clubs such as the popular Caroline’s in New York City were popping up across the country. HBO had a winner with uncut, uncensored televised sets of laugh luminaries Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams.

Comedians were itching for a place to get some long-overdue credit for their craft, Bell said.

He understood. As a child, Bell was fascinated by the comedy he experienced growing up in a “funny family” in Lakewood, N.J.

“It was just part of the environment,” he said.

As he grew older, Bell subscribed to Mad Magazine and National Lampoon and spent quality time listening to hit records featuring the comic stylings of Bill Cosby and George Carlin.

“A lot of kids try to be funny as a way of defining themselves,” he said of his youth.

Bell’s book chronicles the burgeoning years of The Comedy Channel and Comedy Central, recounting the team’s early efforts at stringing together whole shows of giggle-inducing clips from popular films, while discovering the likes of breakout talents Bill Maher and Jon Stewart.

One of the team’s most enduring contributions to comedy culture basically fell in its collective lap. Bell and fellow HBO alums Stu Smiley and Eddie Gorogetsky were considering the merits of the “watch-us-watch” concept, in which comedians watch a movie or show, adding wry commentary along the way. It seemed like an idea with some promise, Bell said.

It seemed even more promising when they received an unsolicited videocassette from a Minnesota comedian who had created just such a format for himself and two oddball puppets he had fashioned as his snarky cohorts.

The comedian was Joel Hodgson and the show, which had debuted in Minneapolis in 1988, was “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” an Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award winner now considered one of the top cult TV shows of all time.

“Our watch-us-watch show had miraculously arrived in the mail,” Bell wrote. “None of us had seen anything like it, but there it was - unexpected, original, and most importantly, funny.”

Bell also correctly pegged Stewart, who would go on to change the nature of TV news with “The Daily Show,” as an early standout. Bright, funny and likable, Stewart managed to combine laughs with an ethical, empathetic look at the issues of the day, Bell said.

While some have worried that more people get their news from Comedy Central than news outlets, Bell said he believes the channel often makes staying informed more palatable for a younger generation.

“Jon Stewart reflecting on events through his comedic lens doesn’t make it less interesting than a commentator on CNN,” he said.

Bell eventually left Comedy Central, later becoming president of Court TV and working as a consultant. The co-author of “Web Sightings: A Collection of Websites We’d Like to See,” he devotes much of his work time now to writing both fiction and non-fiction.

In a memoir-writing course at Sarah Lawrence College, when classmates suggested that Bell put some of his TV exploits down on paper.

“I was writing about my childhood,” he said. “One day I wrote about comedy and my friends liked it.”

The real work came in the endless drafts, honing his memories into an entertaining story he hopes others will find both inspiring and funny.

“It was a lot of work — many, many drafts,” he said with a laugh. “Someone once told me you know you’re done with a book when you’re sick of reading it.

“I was tired of reading it, but I would like people to appreciate it.”