“The Div” we called him in ‘61 at Notre Dame when he was a gawky 18-year-old fresh from Hartsdale, New York. A notable slacker before slacking, Larry Divney ’65 was also a universal solvent, dissolving everyone’s barriers, effortlessly making friends. He had a sly, counterpunching urban wit that scored points. In retrospect, easy to imagine him putting on the right threads, flapping that Irish tongue and wending his way through the electronic labyrinth they started calling The Media about the time we were clutching our diplomas. Still, CEO of a TV network that pulled in $340 million in revenue in 2000? Not the first guy you’d pick.
Larry says ambition arrived before he left Notre Dame and that a taste for creativity came along. Post-1965 he became general manager of Chicago’s WLS-AM, which rocked ND in those days, but ad sales was his own true path, and he proved as good as he had been at hanging easy with the boys freshman year in Breen-Phillips. A cable sales pioneer, he peddled TV time like it was in short supply and the clients bought the message.
Fourteen jobs in 35 years, marriage, adopted twins, divorce, marriage, a Soho loft, long hours in jazz clubs, a lasting love affair with his 300-acre Hudson River farm and its 1683 farmhouse, ad sales chief at the kingdom of the wise guys — Comedy Central (C.C.) — and then two years ago they said, “It’s yours; go for it.”
Did. Became the eminence behind South Park, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick, Win Ben Stein’s Money and The Man Show, a brazen display of testosterone-induced dementia.
Comedy and good taste have a tempestuous relationship. Divney says he’s intent on elevating quality without losing audience and that he believes in the First Amendment, as well in the inalienable right of everyone to change channels. His new contract attests to his success in keeping many of his 70 million subscribers locked in. C.C. is hot, and notable mainstream comedy figures such as Bill Murray have been begging to join the fun. In recent months, Chairman Divney turned up in the The New York Times as both an Op-Ed commentator and a profile.
In a phone call before September 11, Divney talked about his world:
“I’m a pure manager; I’m not really an expert at anything. Ad sales is what people recognize me for. I’m well known on Madison Ave., well-liked, respected and trusted, but my passion is the creative side, and I’m not known for that. I always liked being number two and under the radar. But then I thought I ought to see if I could run it. What it’s about is empowering your people. I’m a good leader. I’m honest with them; they talk to me. . . . People will say, ‘I can’t find anybody who doesn’t like Divney.’ Well I know who they are, but it’s not a popular view.”
His slacker days, Divney says, are now history.
“I’m an average guy, but I had to learn how to play the role of a non-average guy, and present to the board and challenge them, and these are big guys. The chairman of the board of HBO is my boss and the chairman of MTV networks worldwide is my other boss. . . . I was, as you may recall, ‘Oh, a test tomorrow. I’ll study when I wake up.’ I had to manage that attitude out of my software because you will get run over in this business if you behave like that.
“I’m a real arbitrator. Sometimes we have huge fights — the kids from South Park, for example [Trey Parker and Matt Stone]. When I took over, their contract was up and they were looking at other networks. I sat down with them and their lawyers for five months. I’m talking about screaming matches, but I had to be an arbiter, and I never had anything that big thrown at me, and I’ll tell you it was stressful as hell.”
Life isn’t always so stressful, he’s happy to say.
“I’ve written a script; it’s about a homeless guy. This weekend my buddy and I are going to work on it on the farm. We’ll also take my 1948 Cadillac out for a ride and take the tractor out in the woods, have a little wine and spin yarn. Alicia is up there already. She’s one of three daughters of a Mexican cattle rancher, born in Laredo, raised along the Rio Grande. Beautiful, sweet and tough, a lot tougher than I am. . . . I say, ‘Why am I so blessed to have you?’ and she says, ‘Larry, you’re the best man I know; you deserve me.’”
It’s too early to tell what wide-ranging changes we may see in comedy since the events of September 11. Divney, like the rest of a stunned nation, will listen and learn.
Jerry Pockar is the editor of John Carroll magazine in Cleveland. He was Larry Divney’s roommate in 235 Breen-Phillips.