To Get Its Message to Advertisers, Comedy Central Let Its Stars Crack Jokes

Laughs prove more effective than speeches about data

Comedy Central set expectations high for Thursday's upfront presentation by adopting a Donald Trumpesque slogan: "Making upfronts great again." Then the network did just that.

Its secret weapon? The execs took a backseat to the channel's biggest stars—like Amy Schumer, Trevor Noah, Chris Hardwick, Jason Sudeikis (who executive produces the upcoming series Detroiters) and Broad City's Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—who kept  advertisers and buyers in hysterics at New York's Town Hall.

Schumer kicked off the event by yelling, "Get your dicks out, advertisers!" And Noah served as host. "I come from a third world country; that's where you guys are heading," the South African said of this year's election.

"We have a deeper bench, a greater breadth and depth of content than we've ever had before," Michele Ganeless, Comedy Central's president, told Adweek. "And the best way to tell that story is to give them a stage and just get out of the way." 

Unlike last year's upfront, when the network was preparing to lose some of its biggest shows including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Key & Peele, the network has locked in its biggest series—Inside Amy Schumer, South Park and Broad City—through at least 2017.

"That's one of the reasons we wanted to do a presentation upfront this year," said Ganeless. "To be able to get them all on stage and let the advertisers experience the breadth and quality of that content that's not going anywhere is critical for us."

Even without Ganeless and her fellow execs on stage, the network's upfront message was clear: "We're still the No. 1 brand in comedy, and we're still able to say that now with a proliferation of platforms and the number of entities getting into the comedy business," Ganeless said.

Even its somewhat beleaguered late-night lineup—which has weathered the departures of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—is a point of pride for the network. While The Daily Show's ratings have declined since Trevor Noah stepped in for Stewart last fall, Ganeless said the show has remained No. 1 in the 18-34 and the 18-24 male demos and has increased its digital streams under Noah. "The young millennial audience is coming to him in greater numbers every month," Ganeless said.

The network is making an even great effort to lure those millennials to other platforms by expanding its Snapchat Discover channel with nine new original series, including one that looks at what happens during commercial breaks between late-night talk show interview segments. It also renewed Quickie with Nikki, Nikki Glaser's companion to Not Safe with Nikki Glaser, its most popular Snapchat series.

"We don't just talk about being multiplatform, we actually are everywhere our fans are," said Ganeless. "We want to be where they are, and they are voracious users of Snapchat. And we're one of the first Discover channels. We have a robust following, and it's monetizable. So our advertising partners are anxious to use our comedy currency, if you will, to help reach their constituents."

On the linear side, the network has ordered two stand-up themed series featuring and executive produced by Kevin Hart. In Kevin Hart Presents: Hart of the City, Hart will explore the local comedy scenes in various cities. And in another series, he'll feature a new stand-up talent in each episode. "We've been waiting for him to emerge as a major force in comedy, and he's finally done that," joked Kent Alterman, president, original programming.

After watching John Oliver and Samantha Bee depart the network for what turned out to be greener pastures, Comedy Central has struck development deals with two current correspondents, Jordan Klepper and Jessica Williams, to keep them on the network. Williams will co-write, produce and star in a scripted series, while Klepper will produce and star in what the network calls "a late-night show talk presentation." (Klepper will also appear on his own special.)

Between The Daily Show, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Midnight, Comedy Central would seem to have no room for another late-night show, but the network said it has many options for Klepper. "We're in the early stages, but it could be a 12:30 strip show—but it could also be a weekly show," said Alterman. "We're flexible to see what's going to be the best for him."

Similarly, if Williams' series goes forward, it's unclear whether she'll do both shows or leave The Daily Show. "We'll really take it as it comes, and we'll see how it evolves," Alterman said. "For now, Jessica and Jordan are both vital parts and contributors on The Daily Show, and as we develop, we'll see how it plays out."

In other series orders, the network will expand its Comedy Central Roast franchise with two new specials featuring "roast master" Jeff Ross: Roast Battle in which comedians engage in insult battles, and Jeff Ross Roasts the Police in which Ross turns his roasting abilities on cops.

The company also picked up a series of comedy documentaries and will employ an approach similar to that of ESPN's 30 for 30 series: Filmmakers will be able to focus on the topics and stories they love most.

The network also announced a slew of development deals, including Germany, an animated series executive produced by and starring Channing Tatum about germs living in a petri dish at the University of Berlin; Legal-ish, executive produced by Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone, about a slacker serving on the jury of a long-running trial; and Tijuana Beach from Eva Longoria's production company about a Mexican-American who relocates his family to Mexico after inheriting a dilapidated resort from his uncle.

"One of the things that's been gratifying is how much significant, established talent has been approaching us about developing with us, both in terms of pure ideas that they have and as a way of nurturing emerging talent that they believe in," said Alterman.

Two days before its upfront presentation, the network renewed four linear series—Tosh.0, Drunk History, This is Not Happening and Review, which is coming back for a third and final season—and three digital series: Alternatino, Nothin's Easy and Questionable Science. It's also extending Not Safe with Nikki Glaser's first season by 10 episodes.