Remember when Comedy Central was a joke? When the cable channel's biggest draws -- its only draws, really -- were ''Benny Hill'' reruns and stand-up comics making airplane-food jokes in front of the Improv's redbrick wall?
Look who's laughing now. Nearly 14 years after the inauspicious merger of HBO's Comedy Channel and Viacom's HA!, Comedy Central has the hottest profile of any network on cable. In a universe that measures audiences in hundreds of thousands rather than the networks' tens of millions, it has launched more careers than any of its basic-cable neighbors, providing the most nurturing environment for comedy's most daring minds. Earlier this month, Comedy Central made headlines by signing Dave Chappelle to two more years in an astonishing deal potentially worth upwards of $50 million. Last week, a fellow named Bill Clinton guested on ''The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,'' a faux newscast that's must-do TV for politicians of every party. And, oh yes, it got higher ratings than all the real cable news channels during the Democratic convention.
Maturity was a long time coming. In 2002, the network lost ''Saturday Night Live rerunsits biggest draw for years'' to E! And up until ''Chappelle's Show'' began in 2003, the net seemed incapable of developing a companion for its highest-rated original series, ''South Park'' the groundbreaking 'toon that put Comedy Central on the map in 1997 (not to mention in the green, with toy tie-ins, DVDs, a feature film, and a syndication deal).
But these days, this channel rules at least with young men (''Chappelle's Show'' is the top-rated program in its time slot for men 18 -- 34), and that makes for an attractive bottom line. ''Comedy Central is an alternative for us to reach young males outside of sports,'' says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP for Starcom Entertainment. And even when the net doesn't pull in more viewers than, say, ''Saturday Night Live'' (which averages 3.7 million), it beats its competitors with buzz though sometimes the payoff can take a while: ''There were advertisers who felt Chappelle's wasn't right for them,'' admits Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's senior VP of original programming. ''But when they saw the ratings[Chappelle's averages 3.1 million viewers], they came around. It's more difficult when you're starting up a show with that brand of comedy. But we'd do it again.''
Which is why the talent sticks around. Viacom-owned Comedy Central may be the last bastion of subversive -- or just tasteless -- humor left on TV. ''We're doing things the networks aren't,'' says Comedy Central president Doug Herzog. ''Everything that has succeeded came from a distinctive point of view. It's not watered down by network development people. Our approach is to break rules.''
Breaking rules can take many forms, including, well, incest. The recently canceled ''Man Show'' had a bit called ''Oedipal Fun,'' based on the notion that every guy wants a girl like Mom, so...Adam Carolla dated his mom and they ended up kissing in bed. ''It was an appalling piece,'' says ''Man Show'' exec producer Daniel Kellison. ''Even Jimmy [Kimmel] wasn't sure we should do it, but they let us.''