Kent Alterman, BFA '81

Kent Alterman, BFA ’81, is Comedy Central.

Turn on the network at any hour of the day, and he’s there. He’s there when you’re laughing along with the antics of Amy Schumer, the diatribes on The Daily Show, or the brashness of Broad City.

He’s everywhere you turn, and yet you won’t see his face on any of the shows—he isn’t sitting next to Eric Cartman in Mr. Garrison’s class in South Park, engaging with the latest #HashtagWar on @midnight, helping Nathan Fielder come up with small business schemes in Nathan For You, or reciting a story on Drunk History. But he’s there nonetheless—or, appropriately enough, evidence of him is.

San Antonio native, Alterman, the president of original programming at Comedy Central, originally enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, but transferred to the University of Oregon after two years, following the advice of a friend who had studied in Eugene.

Living in Lawrence Hall and studying under the tutelage of Ken O’Connell, LaVerne Krause, and Hal Halberstadt in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Alterman studied photography. It wasn’t until he was working on his thesis project under the watchful eye of legendary commercial photographer Halberstadt that the significance of his work became apparent.

“I’d walk around Eugene at night and photograph things,” Alterman said. “Long exposures where you could see echoes of people who had been there. I remember a basketball court under a freeway and the long exposures would define everything except the players who would be blurs.  I would take pictures of empty, old auditoriums and lecture halls on campus that had these worn, wooden seats. You could see evidence of people having been there without them being present in the moment. Or at the beach on a foggy day, I’d photograph people just emerging out of the fog where you could barely make them out.

“In my thesis review with Hal, he asked what I thought the photos were about. I said I didn’t know—they were just random things I was drawn to. He asked whether they might be about my father, who had just died at the beginning of that year.”

“At first it still didn’t register. Then it hit me,” he said. “The long exposures at night showed people as ghosts; the rows of worn down wooden chairs were like tombstones in a cemetery; the vague figures emerging from fog were ethereal.”

“I had been completely unaware, but then it became very obvious they were all completely about my father’s death.”

After graduating, Alterman worked in restaurants in Eugene and Portland, and then headed to Europe to travel. Upon his return to the United States he stayed with his sister in New York, and was hired by Frankfurt Gips Balkind (FGB), a leading graphic design firm.

FGB did a lot of corporate work as well as entertainment-based projects. Alterman gravitated to the entertainment side of the business, working on image campaigns and series promotion for HBO, Comedy Central, Lifetime, and film posters for the movie studios.

But Alterman had bigger goals than simply promoting other peoples’ work—he wanted to create his own.

“I started collaborating with some writer friends, coming up with ideas that we would pitch to television development people I’d made contact with through the years,” he said. “I started doing freelance projects here and there. Comedy Central hired me to do some interstitial content around the election in ’92, which got my foot in the door and became part of what would become Comedy Central’s ‘Indecision’ election coverage.”

Alterman then spent two years working with Michael Moore on Moore’s TV Nation, an Emmy Award-winning satirical newsmagazine that aired on NBC and Fox and was named one of the 10 best shows in 1995 by TV Guide. After writing, directing, and producing pieces for the show, Alterman pitched his own concept for a show to Comedy Central. Comedy Central passed on the show but didn’t pass on Alterman, hiring him to work for their development office.

Now working for Comedy Central instead of just promoting it, Alterman developed a pair of shows well known to comedy fans, and helped launch the careers of two of the industry’s biggest names. First up was Upright Citizens Brigade, a sketch comedy show that premiered in 1998. The show included co-creator/co-star, Amy Poehler—six years before she joined Tina Fey as co-anchor of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and 10 years before ‘Leslie Knope’ became the fictitious deputy director of Pawnee, Indiana’s Parks and Recreation department. Debuting one year later was Strangers With Candy, written by and co-starring 35-year-old Second City alumnus Stephen Colbert—who was a correspondent with The Daily Show, then the host of The Colbert Report, and now the host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

In 2000, Alterman left Comedy Central and moved back to the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles to recharge in the California sunshine. He did not sit idle for long though, and was hired soon after by New Line Cinema to help produce comedies. The first film he was responsible for? The modern Christmas classic Elf, starring Will Ferrell as a human raised among elves at the North Pole who leaves to find his father in New York City.

“That came out of a meeting where we were assigned to bring ideas, and talent we potentially could be working with,” Alterman said. “Two people on my list were Will Ferrell and Steve Carrell. Will was a god on SNL and had done a couple of SNL movies, but hadn’t begun his film career yet. Steve I knew from The Daily Show, and he had a scene-stealing appearance in Bruce Almighty.”

Elf was a spec script that had been written several years before, but wasn’t set up at a studio. It felt like the perfect premise for what Will is a genius at—playing a naïve, well intentioned character who inadvertently wreaks havoc around him.”

In 2003, Elf was released, to the obvious delight of cotton headed ninnymuggins worldwide—its total gross was more than $220 million, and Entertainment Weekly named it the fourth-best Christmas movie of all time, bested only by It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Alterman served as executive producer on Elf, and went on to make eight films with New Line, including non-comedies, A History of Violence and Little Children. His last project at New Line was Semi-Pro, the period basketball comedy set in the 1970’s American Basketball Association (ABA). He directed the film, which starred Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, and André 3000 of Outkast fame.

Directing a film is a big undertaking, but for Alterman it was made a little more manageable thanks in part to the skills he had learned as an A&AA student.

“I brought a lot of my photography and design background to the process,” he said. “What I did in school has played a part in everything I’ve done since.”

After Semi-Pro, Alterman had a production and development deal with Fox, but in the midst of that he was approached by Doug Herzog, his former boss at Comedy Central, who had returned to the network himself, and wanted Alterman to join him again.

“Doug made a compelling case why I should come back to Comedy Central,” Alterman said. “I wasn’t necessarily looking for a staff job at the time, but if I had to make one up, I couldn’t have come up with a better job for myself.”

In 2010, a decade after leaving Comedy Central, Alterman returned as the network’s head of development and original programming, bringing new shows to air and overseeing existing ones. While some of the network’s biggest stars have recently moved on—The Daily Show host Jon Stewart retired, and Stephen Colbert became host of The Late Show—Alterman has used the void they left behind to usher in new faces, creating a more diverse network.

The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent, Larry Wilmore, left in 2014 to host The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, replacing The Colbert Report in the coveted post-Daily Show slot. The show he and Stewart left is now hosted by Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, who debuted in 2014 as the show’s Senior International Correspondent. The current cast of correspondents includes African Americans Roy Wood, Jr and Jessica Williams, Indian American Hasan Minhaj, and Chinese comedian Ronny Chiengg.

Key & Peele, hosted by African Americans Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, won a Peabody Award and received 13 Emmy nominations during a five-season run that introduced the world to such characters as Luther, President Obama’s “anger translator.” The Meltdown is co-hosted by Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani.

But the network’s biggest success story under Alterman is likely Amy Schumer. As an up-and-coming comic, Schumer appeared on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham before finishing fourth on the fifth season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Alterman selected her to appear on the Comedy Central Roasts of Charlie Sheen and Roseanne Barr, and in 2013—six years after her Last Comic Standing appearance, and three years after Alterman returned to the network—Inside Amy Schumer premiered. The Comedy Central sketch show has won a Peabody Award and has been nominated for eight Emmys, winning two, including the very first Emmy for “Outstanding Variety Sketch Series,” while Schumer has hosted the MTV Movie Awards and wrote and starred in Trainwreck.

The above is a large part of why a 2014 Rolling Stone profile dubbed Alterman “The man who saved Comedy Central.” But while he is understandably proud of the diversity on his network, if you can’t make him laugh—and think—you won’t cut it.

“Funny is funny,” he said. “Successful comedy talent is a mix of people who are very smart and have very strong points of view. Comedy is subjective, and you experience it on a raw, personal level.”

Alterman has directed a Will Ferrell film, made stars of Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Poehler, and has ushered a new, more diverse, era at Comedy Central. But for all of his success, there is one goal left unfulfilled.

Win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony? Nope. Much like when he left the world of advertising to develop television shows, Texas-born and lifelong sports fan Alterman’s goals are much higher.

Or taller, anyway.

“I’d like to be the shooting guard for the San Antonio Spurs,” he joked.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the decidedly-shorter-than-Manu-Ginobili Kent Alterman, who doesn’t have the four NBA championships or the Olympic gold medal the current Spurs shooting guard has, remains in the background, exerting his influence behind the scenes. As Ferrell, Schumer, Key and Peele, the Broad City girls, Poehler, Colbert, Noah, Chris Hardwick, and others can attest, it’s a role that suits him well.