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How Comedy Central became one of TV's best networks in just under two years

John Lithgow plays George Washington in an episode of Drunk History.
John Lithgow plays George Washington in an episode of Drunk History.
Comedy Central
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Comedy Central is on one hell of a hot streak.

Since it debuted Key & Peele, TV's best sketch show, in 2012, the network has reeled off must-watch series after must-watch series. One of those shows, Nathan For You, ends its second season tonight, which makes this as good a time as any to note just how strong Comedy Central's original programming has been for the last couple of years. These nine shows mean the channel always has something worth watching.

Key & Peele (debuted 2012)

Key & Peele isn't just TV's funniest sketch show; it's also one of the most incisive and best-filmed. Director Peter Atencio has been responsible for the look and feel of every episode, and he's created something incredibly rare: a sketch series that also holds up on the level of filmmaking. But Key & Peele's sketches are also perfect examples of how to construct these miniature comic morsels. The duo may have become famous at first for their sketches featuring Obama's "anger translator," Luther, and they continue to do political work. But they're also fond of dips into outright weirdness, as in the famous continental breakfast sketch. Season four debuts September 24.

Kroll Show (2013)

Nick Kroll's brand of comedy can be an acquired taste, but for those who've acquired it, Kroll Show offers a steady stream of his absurdist, over-the-top parody. Structured as an elaborate takeoff on TV in all its forms (but mostly reality TV), Kroll Show allows the comedian and his band of players — which has included the likes of comedians Jenny Slate and John Mulaney — to create bizarre characters who aren't all that far removed from reality. Kroll Show completed its second season in the spring and will return for a third early next year.

Nathan For You (2013)

We've already written about how this is one of TV's funniest shows, but it's worth repeating: there's really nothing else like Nathan For You on television right now, and it's been a huge relief to see the show find an audience in its second season after struggling to do so in its first. (One secret of Comedy Central's recent success: it renews excellent programs that struggle in the ratings, trusting they will find viewers eventually.) Nathan Fielder and his ever-escalating series of stunts had an even better season in year two, and the "Dumb Starbucks" episode was an instant classic. Nathan For You ends season two tonight, and season three will debut in 2015.

Inside Amy Schumer (2013)

Comedy Central's amazing 2013 continued with Inside Amy Schumer, which took the Key & Peele formula — biting sketch comedy built around a central visionary comedian — and applied it liberally to a long series of funny, deeply feminist comedic bits. Not every single sketch on Inside Amy Schumer is feminist in nature, but Schumer pokes at the patriarchy at least a few times in every episode, and the show's best moments (like the sketch below) tackle multiple targets without breaking a sweat. The show's third season will debut next year.

Drunk History (2013)

Is Drunk History deep, complex television? Not like some of the shows listed here, no. But what it does is one thing, and it does that one thing really, really well. When you want to watch people get drunk and relate historical anecdotes and facts, then have those things recreated by major stars, where else are you going to turn? The show's second season is currently airing Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern, and it has been renewed for a third.

@midnight (2013)

For years, TV personalities have been talking about changing the late-night talk show format, but few have actually done anything about that. Comedy Central was a pioneer in this territory with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and @midnight has only increased its presence in the "weird, innovative late-night show" space. Hosted by Chris Hardwick, @midnight can be hard to take if it doesn't have the right mix of panelists, but when it gets three comedians who click together for its weird combination of talk show and Internet-inspired game show, it's the perfect way to let your brain relax before bed. The series airs Monday through Thursday at midnight Eastern, though it's currently on a short hiatus.

Broad City (2014)

A serious contender for best new show of the year, Broad City came on strong when it debuted in January and just kept getting better. A celebration of being young and stoned in the big city, the series stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, who also created the show (and the web series it was based on). The fictional Ilana and Abbi are among TV's best characters, and the show's vibe is low-key while somehow simultaneously being wildly over the top. If you've always been curious about watching Girls but aren't sure what to make of the show's deliberately off-putting vibe, then Broad City's more open and welcoming universe might be for you. The show will return in 2015.

Review (2014)

Andy Daly's Forrest MacNeil is a man who will do anything to experience — and review — life itself. And in the series Review, another serious contender for best new show of the year, he turns that desire into his very own TV show within the show, a show that comes to consume and devour his previously peaceful, blissful life whole. Review has big laughs, but it's also got moments of surprising pathos and moving stories. In its larger serialized story about the state of Forrest's marriage, it found some of the biggest laughs and biggest gut-punches of the year. Though the show was low-rated in its first season, it's been renewed and will return next year. Make sure to watch it then.

The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail (2014)

There's not as much to this one as some of the shows above. Mostly, it's just two funny comedians (Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani) doing stand-up, with some of their famous, funny friends dropping by to join in. But the show's unusual setting — in the back room of a comic book store — and sketch-lite vibe in the sequences between the stand-up bits makes for another winning series that's ridiculously fun to watch. The series will return Thurs., Aug. 28 at 12:30 a.m. Eastern.

All of these shows are available on Comedy Central's website and streaming app, and sketches from them are available on YouTube as well.

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