On many days, wringing humor out of the current news cycle seems a fruitless task. CNN is going to give it a try.
On Monday at 9 p.m. – in the last hours of Memorial Day – the cable-news outlet will air an hour-long show featuring comedian Colin Quinn, who will perform a version of his recent Off-Broadway show, “Red State Blue State,” with limited commercials. CNN viewers may laugh occasionally with Wolf Blitzer, Brooke Baldwin or Don Lemon (or even at them when they are lampooned on “Saturday Night Live”), but comedy on the AT&T-owned cable-news outlet has typically not been a staple.
Could CNN’s future offer more laughs? “This is our first comedy special. We are really eager to see how the audience responds to this format, at which point we will decide about the future,” says Jon Adler, senior director of development for CNN Original Series, who adds: ”I definitely think it’s different.”
CNN has tested the fusion of news and humor in the recent past. In 2008 and 2009, CNN ran a program led by comedian D.L. Hughley. The network’s “United Shades of America,” currently in its fourth cycle, is hosted by W. Kamau Bell, the comedian and activist who did a prior stint at FX and FXX hosting a weekly comedy series. “I would point to that as a good example of mixing comedy with social commentary and current events,” says Adler. “We are always trying to take a look at how we mix documentary and something that speaks to what is shaping the world today.”
Younger viewers have long embraced comedic forms of news, whether it be “Saturday Night Live’s” regular “Weekend Update” segment or Comedy Central’s nightly headlines lampoon, “The Daily Show.” Bill Maher has acknowledged that some portion of the audience for his HBO show, “Real Time,” likely gets their news from watching the program. And John Oliver has broken down the lines of comedy and journalism further with his “Last Week Tonight,” another HBO program that investigates topics ranging from net neutrality to how professional wrestlers are treated.
Quinn fits CNN’s broader editorial mandate, says Adler. “He’s definitely an equal opportunity offender,” the executive says. “He makes observations about liberals, conservatives and everyone in between.”
Quinn has a long history of offering his take on the world at large. A former “Weekend Update” anchor on “SNL,” he spent two years at Comedy Central leading “Tough Crowd” a Monday-through-Thursday discussion of current events with other comedians that aired after Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.” “Red State Blue State” is the latest in a series of one-man shows featuring him talking about everything from growing up in New York to the national state of affairs.
CNN’s decision to turn Quinn’s most recent show into a special program was sparked after Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide (and recently elevated to chairman of WarnerMedia’s news and sports operations), saw it at New York’s Minetta Lane Theater. He sent a note to Adler and Amy Entelis, CNN’s executive vice president for talent and content, asking them if they thought putting the show on CNN would be worthwhile. “It speaks, I would say, directly to what’s happening in the country and what we think viewers are talking about,” says Adler.
CNN enlisted Jax Media, the Imagine Entertainment-controlled comedy studio, to help produce Quinn’s program for broadcast. Jax has been involved in “Broad City” and “Inside Amy Schumer, for example, and is one of the entities behind TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” Quinn had to whittle what was a 70-minute program to about 49 for a TV hour, Adler says. “Creatively, there wasn’t much to edit or take out,” he explains. “Everything he says is right in line with what our viewers are thinking and talking about.”
The network has worked to gain attention for the show by dispatching Quinn to appear during several of its regular programs, including Don Lemon’s primetime hour. Quinn “has this show all about ‘the conversation,’ and we are trying to capitalize on that and fold it in where it makes sense on CNN,” says Adler. Quinn was said to be attracted to CNN because the network would be able to give the project a healthy amount of promotion, according to a person familiar with the matter.
CNN is running the show during its most-watched hour, the one typically held down by Chris Cuomo. The network will likely be watching to see whether Quinn’s observations leave viewers wanting more.
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