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December 1st, 2008
Cable Television

The cable that revolutionized television had nothing to do with getting 500-plus channels.

In the early days of television, nearly all of the major broadcasting came out of New York and most of the comedy and variety shows—Admiral Broadway Revue, Texaco Star Theater, Colgate Comedy Hour—were performed live in front of the cameras from different studios throughout the city’s Theater District. Then, these signals were sent over telephone wires to Chicago, which was as far west as they could be transmitted. In Chicago, a tape would be made of these broadcasts, then sent on the West Coast, which would broadcast the show anywhere from four days to a week after its initial broadcast on the East Coast. Not an efficient way to bring the whole country together around a new entertainment medium.

All that changed in the fall of 1951, when the first transcontinental coaxial cable was laid (no jokes, please) by AT&T. Coaxial cable—a method of sending signals through cable, rather than through the ether—had been around since the late 1930s and had been in use among some rural communities that could not receive broadcast signals, but the transcontinental coaxial allowed for live broadcasts to originate from either coast. On September 4, 1951, President Truman gave a speech in San Francisco that was broadcast on both coasts simultaneously and by the end of the month, The Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Eddie Cantor, became the first network series to originate from the West Coast. The next month, I Love Lucy was able to transmit its half-hour filmed episodes via the coaxial cable from its Hollywood studio to homes across the country.

The cable created an enormous change in doing business. As Bud Yorkin, one of the original producers of Colgate observed, performers such as Martin and Lewis saw the cable as a lifeline to their California lifestyles. “So the minute that [the cable] happened, all these performers that were complaining that they didn’t want to leave their swimming pools and their golf courses and everything and come to New York to rehearse [could now stay in Los Angeles]. All of us that were involved in television in New York, we had to move too, because everything was coming out here.” Carl Reiner suggested that the coaxial cable, and its nation-wide access, was the beginning of “dumbing down” the programming that came out of New York, a change that was crucial to his program, Your Show of Shows.

Flash forward nearly a quarter of a century: after battling the FCC and the broadcast network on the numerous legal technicalities for decades, a pay cable network makes its debut in 1972. Home Box Office, based out of New York, feeds a live NHL game to its East Coast subscribers. By 1975, HBO is able to access satellite technology and spread its reach nationwide—via an improved network of coaxial cables—with a live broadcast of the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla from Manila.” What HBO was able to offer—at a time when there were only three major networks and, at best, an additional six or seven local stations in most urban markets—was what all broadcast competition wants: unique access. With Home Box Office, as its name suggests, audiences at home were allowed direct, unfiltered access to what audiences “on the town” could get: sports events, movies, music concerts—and comedy concerts. As Carolyn Strauss, the current president of HBO Entertainment put it: “Comedy was something that we could do in a way that followed in the footsteps of showing uncensored movies–programming that could exist in its pristine form.”

For its 1977 program On Location, HBO went after the best possible uncensored comedian they could find, the man who defined “censored,” George Carlin. For Carlin, the new venue couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

You’re never the fastest gun in town forever. [In 1977], I did not have a place because my albums were cooling down, and the heat and the fire were off, you know. I didn’t have a focal point for who I was anymore. And then cable came along in 1977. Now, it didn’t happen instantly for me. I more or less recycled things from the previous four years, but what cable did for me, it replaced recordings as a way for me to reach a mass audience and [still do my act the way it was.] They didn’t have the number of subscribers then, but you knew this idea would grow.

Carlin’s first HBO concert, On Location: George Carlin at USC even used an opening disclaimer about the language he used, “which of course is kind of quaint now when you look at it,” Carlin reflected. When he was showcased in On Location: George Carlin at Phoenix a year later, he cemented his reputation as cable’s signature comic; he’s gone on to do a dozen concerts for HBO since.

On Location allowed television audiences access to something they never had before—a front-seat view of what comics really do in front of real people. Said Strauss, “While it’s great to watch somebody on Johnny Carson, you hear that sort of disembodied laughter. We were able to bring the television audience into the seat of theater audience, and you could watch the comic and respond to the comic in concert with everybody else who was sitting in the audience.” The show wound up turning the spotlight on hot new comics, like Steve Martin, Robert Klein, Billy Crystal, and Roseanne Barr, while providing unadulterated versions of old-timers who had been forced to screen out some of the best stuff for Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin: Phyllis Diller, Redd Foxx—even Borscht Belt pioneer Myron Cohen.

In 1992, HBO opened a window—or pulled back a rope line—onto an entirely different kind of comedy with Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam, which lasted five seasons in its original incarnation. It was a breakout show, introducing both white audiences and, not incidentally, white producers into the raucous world of a black comedy club. Although as Strauss admits, “there were some people who were better than others,” the hip-hop atmosphere brought artists like Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, and D.L. Hughley to a mass audience and to massive film and concert careers.

Such success spawns eager imitation and the proliferation of basic cable networks in the late 1980s made imitation easy to come by. By the end of the decade, it seemed as though every other cable network was putting a comedian against a brick wall; given only a few minutes to score, the talent would often rely on material that was raunchy only for raunchy’s sake, hoping to make either an impact or a deal for a sitcom or feature film. As Tommy Davidson put it: “I’ve seen a lot of comics resort to that because it’s just quicker, cheaper laughs, sort of like McDonald’s food compared to Ruth’s Chris steak restaurant. You know it’s faster food, but it’s not as good for you, you see.”

In 1991, two rival cable channels—The Comedy Channel and HA!—merged to become Comedy Central on, aptly, April Fool’s Day. Originally, its dance card was filled with recycled movies, British comedies (Absolutely Fabulous) and bargain basement shows (Mystery Science Theater), but it quickly became a media powerhouse when it was able to turn to original programming. Now, it houses some of the pioneers of the field: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Chapelle’s Show, Reno 911!, The Sarah Silverman Show, as well as numerous roasts, tributes, and documentaries. The crown jewel of their programming, if that’s the right phrase to use for a show that raises a piece of poop to glorified heights, is South Park, which debuted in 1997. South Park, a kind of vile version of Peanuts with the most rudimentary animation (part of its charm, partisans would claim), has become not only Comedy Central’s most popular show, but one of cable’s most reliable lightening rods for controversy. Still, its filth has a disarming disingenuousness; at the opening of each episode, a disclaimer reads, in part: “the following program contains coarse language and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone.” Considering that, in one episode, South Park used the word “shit” 162 times and, in another, the word “nigger” 42 times, the disclaimer seems, if anything, to be an understatement.

What cable has clearly given the world is a verbal (and visual) freedom for comedy; the FCC still does not regulate cable programs, although considering the fact that more and more homes will acquire basic and/or pay cable programming, the kind of censorship endured by the broadcast networks seems inevitable. Whether such freedom is a good or bad thing remains a constant source of debate. Max Mutchnick, one of the cocreators of Will & Grace, praises cable “because I feel like they are able to write like people talk.” For Jim Burrows, the comic genius behind many network sitcoms, that’s precisely why cable is less interesting: “You’re talking to Mr. Euphemism here who firmly believes that finding a euphemism for penis is funnier then saying the word penis. So, God love cable for saying all the curse words they want. I love having to be able to come up with a euphemism because there’s still shock in saying those words.”

Largely through shows like South Park, cable has taken a lot of heat for the kind of material that now reaches audiences in every hamlet in America. For connoisseurs of comedy, it largely boils down to a matter of taste. As Laugh-In’s producer George Schlatter says, “The minute you drop the f-bomb in the middle of a show, you can’t be funny after that because you’ve already gone as far as you can go.” Strauss defends the kinds of programs made accessible by cable: “Certainly cable didn’t invent the blue comic. The blue comic has been around forever. So it certainly allowed a little more expression for people than it would have on network television.”

For Budd Friedman, the founder of the Improv Comedy Club, it’s not a matter of taste, tone, or material, it’s a matter of ubiquity—an unexpected consequence of unique access:

Somebody just asked me the other day, “Does doing The Tonight Show with Jay Leno get [comics] the same respect that it used to when they did Johnny?” I say, “Absolutely not.” Nothing to take away from Jay, but when The Tonight Show was on, there was no cable. Now, Leno, or the comic on Leno, has so much competition from cable and other shows that it’s impossible to make the impact that they did back then. Because, now, people see comics every minute of the day.

— Excerpt from Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor. Copyright 2008 courtesy of Hachette Book Group.

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