The Man Who Saved Comedy Central

How Kent Alterman took the post-'Chappelle's Show' cable channel and helped put it back on top

Kent Alterman on August 6th, 2014. "I was interested in aiming in all kinds of directions," he says of his goals for Comedy Central. Credit: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty

When Kent Alterman, Comedy Central's president of original programming, joined the network, in January 2010, he says, the place was a) overly dependent on a small handful of long-running flagships and b) still reeling from the traumatic loss it had suffered five years before, when its hottest star abruptly called it quits. "When I took the job, the network was The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park – and the ghost of Dave Chappelle," Alterman says. "It was in a bit of a funk. Any time you have something that explicitly fantastic, and it goes away, your first impulse it to try to re-create it. But I was interested in aiming in all kinds of directions."

Flash forward to 2014, and Comedy Central's diverse murderers' row of shows — Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Broad City, Nathan for You, Drunk History, Review and Workaholics — are among the adored, idiosyncratic series that Alterman has helped usher to air. His secret, as he describes it, has been to get out of the way, undoing the stereotype of the stodgy, obstructionist "suit": "My philosophy is to make bets on really talented people," he says. "If we can provide guidance, or ask questions that help stimulate them, we'll do that, but we're never about dictating something: We don't dictate notes or try to have things fit into a certain cookie-cutter formula."

Alterman's own career hews to no clear formula. He started out as a graphic designer, then talked his way into a directing gig on the short-lived Michael Moore series TV Nation, in 1994. Alterman proved himself a deft talent scout, plugging himself into the Nineties-era "alt-comedy" movement and developing off-kilter series like Strangers With Candy, featuring a young Stephen Colbert, and Upright Citizens Brigade, featuring a young Amy Poehler. "The alt-comedy scene encouraged comedians to be less polished, and to be more personal," he says. "A lot of good stuff comes from that."

In 2001 he switched over to moviemaking, accepting an executive role at New Line, where he helped oversee Elf, A History of Violence, and Little Children as a producer; he also directed the Will Ferrell basketball farce Semi-Pro. "I was brought on to do comedy, but my tastes are eclectic," Alterman says. He made a rep as a talent-friendly exec, to the extent that, when Ferrell was considering whether or not to do an Elf sequel, one of his conditions was that Alterman direct it.

Comedy Central lured him back to television, where Alterman recognized, and happily exploited, comedy's natural affinity with the Internet, using the web as both a talent pool (Broad City, Workaholics, and Drunk History began as web series) and a way to stoke fandom. "I think comedy particularly lends itself to the technologically changing world, because it's so relatable and so sharable," he says. If there's a unifying sensibility to his choices, though, it connects back to his work with left-leaning Michael Moore: Many of Alterman's shows, particularly Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, explore progressive ideas about race and gender in sly, subversive, lightly worn ways. "There's all kinds of multicultural diversity in the world, and so we need to reflect that," Alterman explains. But he believes that comedy is, at bottom, universal: "We're just trying to alleviate human despair," he says, "one laugh at a time."