Raiders of the Lost Art: Why Comedy Central’s Online Archive Purge Matters

Maybe it is understandable that the repeats of old late-night shows are a diminishing asset, as the jokes get older and the references more obscure with each passing year.

But cash value is not the same thing as significance. Though the former would appear to outweigh the latter in the corporate strategizing at Paramount Global, the recently sold-not sold-sold again and who-knows-what-tomorrow-may-bring media company, which owns the archives of some of the most memorable comedy material of the current century and beyond. 

Last week this site broke the news that Paramount had decided to remove the extensive archive of shows its Comedy Central channel had produced throughout its 33-year history. In one stroke, shows as fabled as South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report became unavailable for easy access. Or, more accurately, less available.

It was not a story that stirred immediate marching in the streets with pitchforks, for obvious reasons. (Beyond the lack of easy availability to good pitchforks, that is.)

Very few people were flocking to the Comedy Central site to peruse episodes from the third season of Reno 911!—though to be fair, that series surely has more ongoing sales value than complete episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which won enough Emmy awards to sink a respectable dinghy.

That’s because The Daily Show, like other late-night shows, is among the most disposal entertainment ever produced for television.

So who cares if you can’t go on the archive anymore if you want to see Stewart go nuts because Donald Trump ate a slice of pizza with a fork?

Well, that’s a bad example because it took me four seconds to find that one on You Tube. But it’s famous, and it was made after 2015, which is the cutoff for TDS clips on You Tube.

Multiple other moments—including the first performances of later major stars like Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee—will surely be harder to find/access.

And you know who cares? Many of the people who worked on the late-night shows that became destinations for TV viewers beginning in the aughts. 

Like Madeleine Smithberg who, with Lizz Winstead, created The Daily Show.

“I feel like my legacy is an iceberg in the Arctic,” Smithberg told me.

Or Doug Herzog, the Comedy Central CEO who was the major advocate and permanent cheerleader for TDS. Herzog said of the news of the abandonment of the Comedy Central archive: “The headline is, ‘It’s kind of depressing.’”

Herzog understands the completely reshaped landscape of television—maybe leaning toward misshaped—where shared live viewing of brilliant content like TDS and The Colbert Report is something of an archaic concept.

“Jokes are not necessarily timely,” Herzog tells LateNighter of the topical nature of late night, as opposed to the perpetually relatable character comedy in The Office, which now runs pretty close to perpetually on Comedy Central. 

“I understand the move is about the money,” Herzog said, referring to Paramount Global’s apparent intent to relocate the archive to its Paramount+ streaming service, where they can create a joke museum and charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.

“So it’s an effort to drive traffic to Paramount+,” Herzog said. “But really, how much can it be?”

For Smithberg, who said she received “no residuals, zero,” for her work on TDS, her disappointment really is about “the lack of respect.”

She, too, acknowledged that the work is not exactly disappearing from human consciousness: an array of clips will still be on You Tube. Of the archive, Smithberg said: “They didn’t erase it. They didn’t destroy it. They just removed it from easy public access.”

The picture the situation suggests, she acknowledged, was the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the Ark is crated up and shoved somewhere in a basement in Washington, amid hundreds of other crates. 

This, to her, is the equivalent of “taking the Smithsonian, filling it with dynamite, and blowing it up.”

It is not that Smithberg disagrees about the ephemeral nature of most of what is produced by week-nightly late-night comedy shows.

“We live in an absolutely disposable field,” Smithberg said. “It is a double-edged sword, because your victories are fleeting and so are your travails.” But, she added, “You always want to know it’s sort of there, existing.”

It’s just that even ephemera in comedy has its own merit, its own beauty, according to Smithberg.

“Whoever made this decision is someone who never created anything. Because if you were, you would know that every joke is magical… [It’s] like art. Why would you hold that away from its audience? You’re forsaking your responsibility as a guardian of this art, and it’s really, really wrong.”

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