Comedy Central's Kent Alterman on Leno, Rape Jokes and a Jon Stewart-Free 'Daily Show' (Q&A)
The programming chief tells THR about Jon Stewart's upcoming hiatus -- "We're interested in him being fulfilled and happy here" -- and the downside of being politically correct.
This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Spend time with Kent Alterman, and one can forget that he is not a comedian who appears on Comedy Central shows but rather the executive who programs them. And in a bid to stay at once competitive and differentiated in an increasingly fractured comedy landscape -- on TV and online -- Alterman, 56, is lining his male-skewing network with significantly more originals than ever before, including new offerings from Anthony Jeselnik (The Jeselnik Offensive), Nathan Fielder (Nathan for You), Ben Hoffman (The Ben Show) and Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer). They join other popular efforts Key & Peele, Workaholics and the network's top-rated series, Tosh.0.
Earlier this year, Alterman also launched CC: Studios, where his team is developing content for all digital platforms. The recent push comes three years after Alterman returned to one of Viacom's most stable cable networks -- where he previously led the New York office's development group -- after having spent the better part of a decade working in film. He directed the Will Ferrell-Woody Harrelson comedy Semi-Pro and, as executive VP development at New Line, oversaw a slate that included A History of Violence and Elf. The Santa Monica-based exec, who is married with two young children, recently opened up about Jon Stewart's looming hiatus, Jay Leno's availability and the future of South Park.
The Hollywood Reporter: One of Comedy Central's biggest stars, Daniel Tosh, found himself in hot water last year because of controversial rape jokes. Where is the line for you?
Kent Alterman: If a joke is really rooted in a strong point of view that has some thought to it, then I think that nothing is off-limits. But it's a very subjective thing to contemplate. Look, you can take almost anything out of context and make it seem like it's gone out of bounds. It's a shame that we live in a world where there's so much social media sharing of everything that a comedian can't go into a club anymore -- a club is really a gym for a comedian to go work out material. When people take that process out of context, it does a disservice to comedy. I've said this before, but if people take offense, a practical approach to dealing with it is just to leave.
THR: Who is your target viewer today?
Alterman: He's about 6 feet tall, strapping good looks. (Laughs.) We sell 18-to-49, but our core audience is really young guys. I hesitate to say that they look like the Workaholics cast, but there's probably a reason that show resonates for people. That show is a good reflection of our audience.
THR: The order for Broad City, about two girlfriends navigating life in New York, would imply that the network also is courting a female demographic. How much of a priority are women viewers?
Alterman: We did research, and it turns out that young guys actually have interest in young women. No, we picked it up because it was really funny, and if more women come to Comedy Central who aren't watching it now, that's great too. But it wasn't a concerted effort to target women; it represents a commitment to have more scripted narrative shows on our air.
THR: What's that one show you wish was on your air but isn't?
Alterman: Louie [on FX]. It's such an incredible beacon of a show. And a lot of the shows that we do and that succeed are shows that are an expression of someone's creative vision and point of view. For a narrative show, Louie is the show that really exemplifies that.
THR: Any hesitation about letting Jon Stewart take a leave from The Daily Show this summer to make his feature directorial debut?
Alterman: It's something that he's been interested in for a while. When he did his new deal, that was something that was important to him, and we worked out a way to accommodate it. We're interested in him being fulfilled and happy here. So nobody ever told him, "You can't do this," and we know he takes the show very seriously.
THR: If John Oliver does well as his replacement, is there a late-night show opportunity for him?
Alterman: There was a shared feeling between Jon and us that John Oliver made the most sense to fill in. In terms of a late-show opportunity, maybe. We're taking it one step at a time, but we're definitely big believers in John Oliver.
THR: You’re finally launching a show at midnight, a slot you’ve acknowledged was appealing but tough to make work financially. Tell us more about the Chris Hardwick late night show and how you’re making it work?
Alterman: Our plan is to put this show with Chris on the air in the latter part of the fall, and we’re exploring a lot of potentially creative ways of working it out financially. We haven’t settled on anything specific yet, but the main point is that it falls into next year’s fiscal budget. I really can’t get into that stuff yet. What I can tell you is that we’re planning to launch with 16 episodes, so it will be a four-week run that’s stripped Monday through Thursday. We basically found ourselves with this irresistible combination of elements, starting with Chris as talent and then his whole Nerdist empire, Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Grant as creative showrunners and Funny or Die as our producing partners. We’re looking to tap into social media as an entre into a comedy show with lots of jokes about pop culture and celebrity culture. It will be a comedic panel that utilizes elements of game show conventions --though it’s not technically a game show-- with Chris as the host and sole judge and three comedians on a panel.
THR: Jay Leno soon will be available. Would you consider him for Comedy Central?
Alterman: I think what we would pay him probably would be so shocking to him; he wouldn't know what to do with that much money. (Laughs.) If he had interest here, we'd be interested in talking to him.
THR: Stephen Colbert's and Stewart's names have come up in many recent late-night stories, most often as potential David Letterman replacements. How concerning is that for you?
Alterman: They have not approached us about wanting to do that. The great thing for us right now is that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are beating every one of those other late-night shows in our demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds, and I haven't heard anything that indicates that they're about to jump ship.
THR: The South Park producers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, have had huge success with The Book of Mormon musical. Any talks about a TV version?
Alterman: There are certain people who have a stature with us where what they do has more to do with them and their desires than it does ours. We would be happy to foster anything that Matt and Trey would want to do.
THR; With the decreased episode count for South Park and the fact that they're doing all of these other things, how long do you see the series continuing?
Alterman: That's totally up to them. As long as they continue to make that show fresh, original and relevant, there's no reason they can't just keep going with it.
THR: Dave Chappelle is dipping his toe back into stand-up. Any discussions with him about returning to Comedy Central?
Alterman: I think I can say in good faith that he knows that we would do a show with him in a heartbeat. I see him every now and again, but the last thing that I'd do is start pressuring him to come do a show.
THR: How do you secure -- or persuade -- your roast subjects?
Alterman: More often than not, we approach people. Someone has to have the right makeup to want to do it. Most people who have done it come away with really good feelings about it. Nothing endears you more to people than showing them that you have a sense of humor about yourself. And if there are elephants in the room, that's a great tool for defusing whatever situations might be swirling around.
THR: What's the worst part of your job?
Alterman: Telling people "no" 95 percent of the time, especially when so many are friends of mine. I know that there's only one answer worse than "no," and that's "maybe." There are often so many factors that keep decisions from being made quickly, but I try not to keep people hanging. I know what it's like on the other side.
THR: Ever miss the feature world?
Alterman: Only the part where you're making a film. That happens to be a very small percentage of your time and energy.
THR: What's your biggest disappointment?
Alterman: That we haven't put more scripted narrative shows on the air. When I arrived, there was a batch of pilots just completed. We picked up Workaholics out of that batch, and I figured that would be the first of many. It's been more difficult than I anticipated.
THR: How come?
Alterman: I'm not as smart as I appear to be.
How to Make Fart Jokes Twice in One Interview
Dave Chappelle, Bill Cosby and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre are on Alterman’s mind.
My first stand-up show: Bill Cosby. My parents took me to see him when I was 11. It was a revelation. My second was much later: I’d discovered weed, and I saw George Carlin. Another revelation.
My favorite stand-up show: Dave Chappelle, about 15 years ago. I had the impression that not only had he not done any of the material before, but also that he had never had any of those thoughts before. It was unfiltered brilliance.
The funniest comedian not on my air: Wayne LaPierre. His positions on gun control are probably the most inventive, committed performance art since Andy Kaufman.
What’s always funny: Someone saying something that is true that also makes people uncomfortable. That, and farts.
What’s never funny: Someone who’s not funny always trying to be.
The last time i laughed out loud: I was just riding in a crowded yet totally silent elevator at a Ritz-Carlton, and someone farted — in a not- silent way.