In 1990, the number of cable channels was exploding, and programmers were looking for a way to stand out among the crowd. At the same time, stand-up comedy was surging, with clubs replacing live music with live comedians. And The Comedy Channel was born -later to become Comedy Central. The creators, comedians, and participants got together for to talk about the creation of the channel, its shows, and the people who put it together. Here’s a snippet about Mystery Science Theater 3000.
[Joel] Hodgson: We had done I think 22 shows locally, so once it appeared that the Comedy Channel was going to get going, we cut together a sell tape. That was important, because when I started, it wasn’t clear to me how much we should be riffing. How much people could dual-task—watching a movie and hearing commentary—wasn’t really clear. When we made that eight-minute tape, it was basically a highlights reel. When I saw that, suddenly it made all the sense in the world to me: “Oh, this is how the show has to be. We have to have jokes all the time.”
[Stu] Smiley: Somebody sent it to us in the mail. We opened this package and saw it, and said, “Gee, this is kind of cool!” We were not so dumb as to not see something in it.
[Art] Bell: It was the two puppets and Joel Hodgson sitting in front of the movie and commenting… I think they actually used The Godfather. They were literally using movies they’d just pulled off the shelf. No rights involved, no licensing fees, none of that. Why complicate life? When they put that in front of us, it looked great; our challenge was to turn it into something you could put on television legally. We had to find really crummy, often public-domain movies or movies that could be licensed for almost nothing.
Hodgson: It registered with them right away. It was so ambitious to try and do an all-comedy channel: They needed a show like ours that was 90 minutes long and filled a lot of time.
The story of Comedy Central is a long one, divided into sections by years. You can skip back and forth if you want to, but you’ll end up enjoying it all.
(Image credit: Nick Wanserski)