All kidding aside, Michele Ganeless is not a funny person. At least, that’s what the executive VP/general manager of Comedy Central would have you believe. “When people hear that I work at Comedy Central, the first thing they say is, 'Tell me a joke,’” she says. “I fail every time. I can’t tell a joke to save my life.”
For someone who claims to lack a funny bone, Ganeless has had a remarkable run in comedy programming. Over her three stints at Comedy Central, she has helped transform the cable network from a repository for established content, including feature-length comedies, off-network sitcoms and standup acts, into a haven for edgy original programming.
Now, with such programs as South Park, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report as much a part of the pop-culture dialogue as anything on television, Ganeless is focusing on ways to extend Comedy’s reach across nonlinear platforms.
Present at Comedy’s Birth
The Brooklyn native admits to having had little interest in television while growing up, characterizing herself as something of a “theater geek” back in high school. “If you told me in high school I’d end up working in television, I would’ve laughed,” she says. “It just wasn’t a big part of my life.”
But after working as a research manager at marketing firm Young & Rubicam, Ganeless landed in the research department at the Viacom-owned comedy channel HA! in 1990. She stayed on the next year when HA! merged with Time Warner’s Comedy Channel to become Comedy Central.
After a stint at MTV, Ganeless rose through the programming ranks at Comedy as the network began to establish itself with shows like South Park and The Daily Show, then hosted by Craig Kilborn. In 2001, she followed her boss Doug Herzog to USA Networks, where she served as executive VP/general manager. She helped launch original dramas like Monk and The Dead Zone, which bolstered USA’s brand as a network with distinctive original fare.
Since returning with Herzog to Comedy in 2004, Ganeless has turned her attention to digital media, including development of the network’s broadband channel, MotherLoad. She sees the channel—along with extensions like interactive games for South Park, Daily Show clips for mobile phones, and ringtones for Mind of Mencia (she calls Carlos Mencia’s sketch show a “sleeper hit”)—as ways to “build a breadth of experience, not just clips, around our content.” She adds, “Part of my job is to make these shows live on every platform.”
Looking for Funny Online
In an effort to tap into the proliferation of user-generated content, Ganeless partnered Comedy with viral-video site iFilm, a recent Viacom acquisition, for an online contest. Test Pilots, which wrapped in October, had viewers vote on more than 2,000 one- to five-minute videos submitted by aspiring filmmakers. The winner snagged a development deal with MotherLoad; another go-round is in the works.
“It’s a window into a great world and another way to interact with our users,” she says, “and hopefully find the next great talent.”
Ganeless, who lives in Manhattan, also trolls sites like break.com, huffingtonpost.com and atomfilms.com, not only looking for promising comedy amateurs but also studying the thinking process of young males. “I’m not an 18- to 34-year-old guy, so I need to know what they’re watching,” she says.
As she continues to look for the latest online obsession among guys, Ganeless is optimistic that Comedy’s linear channel will show how strong a hold the network has on that coveted advertising demographic. Nielsen has started reporting on viewership among college students.
“We hope it validates what we’ve known from our research: that we have the most popular programs on college campuses,” she says. “We know people gather in dorm rooms to watch Daily Show and Colbert and South Park. We’re pretty confident the data will bear that out.”
The “Next Phase”
Although her track record suggests she’d be a strong candidate for an executive post at a bigger network or film studio, Ganeless—an avid marathoner—appears to be committed to Comedy Central for the long run. “You never say never, but it’s not a line to say I think I have the greatest job in television,” she says. “It’s the perfect mix of creative and business, and I get to plan out the [network’s] future and grow the business on different platforms. As [it did] 15 years ago, cable still affords more opportunities than one gets at a [broadcast] network.”
That’s good news for her old boss Herzog, who is now president of MTV Networks Entertainment. He credits Ganeless with guiding Comedy through its maturation from wisecracking upstart to established network. “She’s one of the key architects of Comedy Central,” he says, “and she’s one of the true leaders to take it into its next phase.”
Herzog also is one of many colleagues who dispute Ganeless’ claim that she is humor-challenged.
“I wouldn’t call her the class clown, but Michele’s got a terrific sense of humor,” he says. “She’s a true connoisseur of comedy, and she can sling a funny tale with anybody.”
Jeff Lucas, senior VP of ad sales at Comedy, also worked with Ganeless at USA and calls her a gifted decision-maker, delegator, data-interpreter, problem-solver—and, yes, joke-teller.
Says Lucas, “How can you run such a funny channel and not be funny?”
Ganeless—whose own TV taste tends toward NBC drama Friday Night Lights, Bravo’s Project Runway and surprisingly few sitcoms—doesn’t completely underestimate her comedic instincts. As the volumes of Test Pilots submissions proved, it ain’t easy being funny.
“Comedy is hard,” she says with a laugh. “Some people should leave it to the experts.”