Mitch Semel at “The Intersection of News and Comedy”

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

CNN’s first foray into funny is no joke, Mitch Semel says.

“This is our opportunity to treat news differently,” says Semel, executive producer of “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News.” “It’s just an hour a week. It doesn’t change what the network is.”

“Hughley” debuts at 10pmET Saturday. Produced on the set of “American Morning,” it will feature a monologue, studio audience, newsmaker guests, field pieces and interviews with such CNN correspondents as Ali Velshi (business) and Sanjay Gupta (health.)

No band. No sidekick. No couch.

“Hughley” will be taped Thursday afternoons, but it can accommodate late-breaking news, Semel says. Being weekly will not hurt the show’s topicality, he adds.

“Bill Maher and ‘Saturday Night Live’ have handled it through the years. Obviously, there’s enough material during the course of a week to be funny. It lets you step back and not get caught up in the day-to-day urgency.”

Hughley, 45, a frequent guest on HBO’s “Politically Incorrect,” will surprise many viewers, according to Semel.

“A lot of them know him as a comedian. They may not be aware of him as a smart, serious guy. He’s up on his facts. He’s provocative. He’s also effortlessly funny.”

Semel, 49, has a long history of funny. As the first programming chief at Comedy Central, he launched Maher’s initial version of “Politically Incorrect.” At CBS, he oversaw David Letterman’s “Late Show,” and at NBC, he produced Conan O’Brien.

He joined CNN to launch Campbell Brown’s 8pmET show, which never achieved liftoff. Instead, it morphed into “Campbell Brown Election Center,” and Semel went off to develop other news-driven projects.

“I was brought in to build a show broader than the campaign,” says Semel, a Princeton graduate. “After Iowa and Super Tuesday, it made more sense to make it an election-oriented show.”

With “Hughley,” Semel doesn’t have to choose between news and comedy. Neither do viewers.

“In so many ways, the audience is ahead of us in the way they process news. They don’t care for traditional definitions. My favorite place is the intersection of news and comedy.

“I can’t believe how lucky I am.”