Behind Comedy Central is One Laughing Woman

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Comedy Central is the irreverent, raunchy network that focuses on the humor preferences of young men and boys. But the network's executive vice president for original programming and development is a woman — Lauren Corrao – who has a degree in semiotics, no less.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Comedy Central is one of the most watched cable channels, home to the likes of "South Park," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Sarah Silverman." The audience is predominantly male and young.

But as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, many of the programming decisions are made by a woman.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Lauren Corrao is Comedy Central's executive vice president for original programming and development. On this particular day, a group of young staffers are assembled in her spacious corner office in Los Angeles, watching a rough cut of one of the new Sarah Silverman episodes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM "THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM")

M: (As Herself) Excuse me, God(ph)? Hey, it's Sarah Silverman. I don't know if you remember me from the sex we had.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: When she's not laughing for a living, Lauren Corrao is a wife and mother of two who lives in Pasadena. She comes from a middleclass family in Rhode Island, received a B.A. in Semiotics from Brown University and went on to work for MTV networks, where she helped develop "The Real World." Comedy Central is a boy's club, known for some pretty raunchy stuff. So how did this seemingly normal woman end up in this powerful position? Corrao thinks it's her male sense of humor.

M: I actually joke about the fact that I, sort of, stopped maturing when I became a 19-year-old boy. It's always that thing that just catches me completely off guard that makes me laugh the hardest.

U: You talk - white people talk amongst each other. When they see a black person in a job in a company, they say, he is an affirmative action higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

U: Hey is an affirmative action higher. That's a lot better than saying, hey, that (bleep) is homeless.

BLAIR: Among the programs Corrao has been instrumental in bringing to Comedy Central are "Dave Chappelle's Show" and the animated "Li'l Bush." She's developing shows with comedians Lewis Black and Demetri Martin. As far as finding new talent for Comedy Central, Corrao says she's constantly on the lookout.

M: There's never a time where I don't have a script to read or a DVD to watch. I feel like sometimes I look at things that people have sent me from prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Lauren Corrao first saw Sarah Silverman years ago doing standup at The Improv and is still a big fan of her provocative and often obscene sense of humor. In this episode of her show, the naive Silverman has joined a group of pro-life activists, not understanding that means anti-abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM "THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM")

U: Sarah, do you know him?

M: (As Herself) Oh, yeah. Well, Dr. Lynch is my abortion doctor.

U: You had an abortion?

M: (As Herself) Well, I've had abortions.

U: Sarah, how many have you had?

M: (As Herself) Three.

U: Three?

M: (As Herself) Well, the first time I was a kid. And then, the second time was just not a good time for me, a lot going on. And then, the third time I was just like, what?

BLAIR: Silverman makes some people squirm, even at Comedy Central.

M: And so there was a lot of discussion about the things that she said and could she get away with it. One of the things that I think the younger male demographic, and maybe even just the younger demographic, is more comfortable with than people in an older demographic are things that make them feel uncomfortable.

BLAIR: For its timeslot, the very first episode of "The Sarah Silverman Program" was watched by more men ages 18 to 24 than any other network, broadcast or cable. Another show Corrao is proud of is "Reno 911!" - the oddball spoof of the show "COPS."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM "RENO 911!")

M: (As Deputy Travis Junior) You know, I thought about joining the FBI for about 20 minutes after I saw that movie with Jodie Foster and the guy who was eating people in his basement.

BLAIR: Ben Garant plays Deputy Travis Junior. He's also one of the creators of "Reno 911!" He says Lauren Corrao is one of the easiest executives he's ever dealt with because she doesn't get overly involved in the creative process, and she laughs.

M: It's shocking how rare it is to pitch jokes to people who laugh at jokes. You've just, you're doing characters, pitching slapstick and, like, going all out and you're pitching to people who are staring at you as though you're talking about astrophysics. And Lauren laughs.

M: I'm probably the loudest laugher in the room.

BLAIR: Even with a winning track record, Lauren Corrao admits what she finds funny doesn't always translate into a hit TV show.

M: You know, somewhere in the ether, it becomes a hit or it doesn't become a hit. If anyone tells you that they know, they don't know.

BLAIR: In other words, you've got to trust your gut.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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