Written By February/March 2011 : Page 40
Written by Paul Brownfield POrtrAitS by ilona lieBerman Are America We In the bunker with The Colbert Report writers fighting for truth, justice, and the Right way. A t around 9:45 on the morning of the last show before Thanksgiving break, the writ-ers of The Colbert Report gathered as usual in Barry Julien’s office. There were 13 of them pressed together in the head writers’ room, with iPads in their laps or stacks of the morning papers; most everyone looked to be between 28 and 40. I counted six beards. Only one of the writers, Opus Mores-chi, wore a hard shoe. Meredith Scardino, the show’s only female writer, sat sandwiched on a couch like an Elaine in an extended brood of Jerrys and Georges and Kramers. “We could use a little meat today,” Julian said. It was the end of a particularly grueling stretch of work for everyone, 13 straight weeks of shows, four nights a week, on top of various extracurricular events in which Colbert, as he is wont to do, injected himself directly into the bloodstream of the body politic. There was, in chronological order, the pair of shows in which The Colbert Report ’s studio audience was composed entirely of troops re-turning from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Colbert gave job-seeking tips, like putting in a cover letter: “Before I flew halfway around the world to live on rations and take enemy fire to pro-tect you and your family’s freedom, I worked at Written By FEBRUARY/MARCH 2011 Meineke”— Your one-stop shop for automotive repair .) There was Colbert’s testimony in late Sep-tember before a congressional subcommit-tee examining immigrant farm workers do-ing “American” jobs. (“I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican,” Colbert, who on his show had spent part of a day as a migrant farm worker, told the Congressional panel. “I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Gua-temalan, and served by a Venezuelan, in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”) There was October’s much-ballyhooed po-litical rally “To Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Washington Mall, a joint production with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, followed soon after by live coverage of the midterm elec-tions on November 2. Throughout The Colbert Report offices, the mantra is, “Everybody writes every part of the show,” and this includes those parts of the show that take place in the halls of government or on the Capitol Mall. In some ways, Colbert 40 • WGA W
We Are America
At around 9:45 on the morning of the last show before Thanksgiving break, the writers of The Colbert Report gathered as usual in Barry Julien’s office.<br /> <br /> There were 13 of them pressed together in the head writers’ room, with iPads in their laps or stacks of the morning papers; most everyone looked to be between 28 and 40. I counted six beards. Only one of the writers, Opus Moreschi, wore a hard shoe. Meredith Scardino, the show’s only female writer, sat sandwiched on a couch like an Elaine in an extended brood of Jerrys and Georges and Kramers.<br /> <br /> “We could use a little meat today,” Julian said. <br /> <br /> It was the end of a particularly grueling stretch of work for everyone, 13 straight weeks of shows, four nights a week, on top of various extracurricular events in which Colbert, as he is wont to do, injected himself directly into the bloodstream of the body politic.<br /> <br /> There was, in chronological order, the pair of shows in which The Colbert Report’s studio audience was composed entirely of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Colbert gave job-seeking tips, like putting in a cover letter: “Before I flew halfway around the world to live on rations and take enemy fire to protect you and your family’s freedom, I worked at Meineke”—Your one-stop shop for automotive repair.)<br /> <br /> There was Colbert’s testimony in late September before a congressional subcommittee examining immigrant farm workers doing “American” jobs. (“I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican,” Colbert, who on his show had spent part of a day as a migrant farm worker, told the Congressional panel. “I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan, in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”)<br /> <br /> There was October’s much-ballyhooed political rally “To Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Washington Mall, a joint production with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, followed soon after by live coverage of the midterm elections on November 2.<br /> <br /> Throughout The Colbert Report offices, the mantra is, “Everybody writes every part of the show,” and this includes those parts of the show that take place in the halls of government or on the Capitol Mall. In some ways, Colbert Is still an extension of the hard-nosed moron correspondent he played for years on The Daily Show. But a new found antihero status has also built up around his emergence as “Stephen Colbert,” thrill-seeking satirist, defender of God and nation and everything that tilts hard to the right.<br /> <br /> When The Colbert Report debuted, on October 17, 2005, most everybody figured he was doing a spoof of Bill O’Reilly specifically and Fox News demagoguery in general. Five years on, O’Reilly has given way to Glenn Beck as the poster boy of right-wing paranoia-as-entertainment, while Colbert has only become more ineffable as “Colbert.”<br /> <br /> With a 2008 Emmy for writing on its trophy shelf, The Colbert Report is much more than a riff on a conservative cable news blowhard. In turn, Colbert no longer seems based on anyone, the star and his writers having fully earned their faux world—and in the process deepening the dream (and/or nightmare) that an entertainment-driven news culture dominated by the loud and the certain would actually produce a fulminating, nationalistic dunderhead like Colbert.<br /> <br /> The character, said writer and co-executive producer Rich Dahm, who has been with the show since the beginning, “is still a blowhard right-wing pundit.” But: “I don’t know how I would characterize who he’s modeled after now.”<br /> <br /> In this, Colbert’s skills both as an improviser (he comes from Chicago’s famed Second City improv group) and a broadcaster make him a unique talent to write for. For all the plaudits Colbert has received, diction and elocution might be his most underrated weapons, because they free the writers to push the linguistic boundaries of his rhetoric. As Julien noted, Colbert is a master at “taking dense text and making it sound easy to hear.” For instance, during the so-called “war on Christmas,” a Fox News evergreen of Judeo-Christian outrage, Colbert satirized coverage of a billboard on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln tunnel that showed the three wise men and a nativity scene under the message, “You know it’s a myth.”<br /> <br /> “A myth?” Colbert said, nonplussed. “What part of three kings following a star through a desert to bring presents to an immaculately conceived baby god they dreamt about sounds like a myth to you?”<br /> <br /> “That’s kind of a fugue-like hunk of text,” Julien said of the line. “And he’s very good at those things. Like I say, we take it for granted. But yeah, it’s pretty great to be able to just write something like that and not even give a second thought to whether it’s going to be difficult” [for the host to recite].<br /> <br /> inside the Bunker<br /> <br /> The construction of Colbert’s rantings takes place in a brick complex on West 54th Street in Manhattan, the former headquarters of The Daily Show. Inside, cereal—Costco-size boxes sitting atop the fridge in the downstairs kitchenette—is a leitmotif. So are likenesses of Colbert: Dolls, caricatures, and paintings festoon the first-floor den where the interns hang out. Several floors up, the writers’ digs resemble the shambling offices of a free alternative weekly.<br /> <br /> The workday begins in Julien’s office and doesn’t end until the show tapes that evening, ideally by 7, although it can depend on how much is still being tweaked after rehearsal.<br /> <br /> Because the news on The Colbert Report is based on how Colbert’s character “feels” about the news, the show is not As aggressively topical as its late-night companion The Daily Show. Still, as the meeting in Julien’s office sprawled over the hour, the script for the November 18 episode seemed certain to include one or more of the day’s following news items:<br /> <br /> • A jury had returned one guilty verdict but more than 280 acquittals for the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in a civilian court. The result in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, charged in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, is renewed criticism of the Obama Administration’s move to try terror suspects in civilian courts.<br /> <br /> • Stock in General Motors, post-government bailout, reopened at $33 a share.<br /> <br /> • The Alaska GOP is asking Joe Miller, the Tea Party– backed Congressional candidate, to concede defeat in his race with Independent write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski.<br /> <br /> • A Pew Research Center poll, written up in USA Today, has found that nearly 40 percent of adults view marriage as “obsolete.”<br /> <br /> The loose purpose of this first writers meeting of the day is to compile a dozen or so pitches that can be brought to the next meeting with Colbert, Dahm, and executive producer Tom Purcell. As a result, Julien is a bit like an editor gathering page-one possibilities for the mercurial publisher of a rabidly populist newspaper. Soon enough the writers’ pitches moved from the serious to the bizarro.<br /> <br /> Scardino brought up a ruling by a German court that a man could not, in fact, tattoo the Rolling Stones lips logo on his pony.<br /> <br /> Scott Sherman offered up an evangelical group in South America prohibiting its followers from using USB connections due to the Satanic-like shape of the technology’s threepronged logo.<br /> <br /> Michael Brumm pitched the story of Lou Ferrigno, of TV’s The Hulk fame, joining Steven Seagal in an Arizona sheriff’s “posse” going after illegal immigrants on the border with Mexico.“It’s an interesting citizenship, constitutional problem,” Sherman noted dryly of the potential for Ferrigno to get mad and turn green. “If you turn into the Hulk, is your citizenship still valid?”<br /> <br /> Sometime after this, Julien’s phone rang, and the writers trooped downstairs to Dahm’s office. This space was infinitely plusher and more spacious, as though the writers had all been bumped up to Business Class. Dahm sat behind his desk, staring at his wide screen Mac.<br /> <br /> Purcell, another early Colbert Report hire who has risen to a top position, resumed the meeting. “We got ‘Tip-Wags,’ we got the turkey pardon—we need to do some work on it, some thinking about that,” Purcell told the writers, going over the outlines of the night’s show. “Then we’re kind of up in the air as far as what we’re doing in the second act. Some pieces are floating about. But we would love to hear your pitches. And then we got a lot of stuff that we’re gonna need for the Monday back. So, unfortunately this is not a Dave and Buster’s day,” Purcell concluded, a reference to arcade games at a local bar. <br /> <br /> Purcell’s mention of “turkey pardon” referred to a bit in Which Colbert would pardon a turkey (mayhem would ensue, the turkey realizing it was now immune from prosecution). “Tip-Wags” meant “Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger,” one of the show’s regular segments, in which Colbert praises and/or scolds news makers.<br /> <br /> With the Thanksgiving break, planning in general was a bit off-kilter—extra stuff couldn’t hold until Monday as it normally might, because next week was a holiday. Meanwhile, the guest tonight did not exactly suggest “funny”— Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, who two days earlier had received the Medal of Honor from President Obama for his service in Afghanistan.<br /> <br /> The Colbert Report, lacking a cast of characters, has come up with ingenious segments in which to package the host’s quixotic views. The most famous remains “The Word,” a riff on O’Reilly’s brass-tacks-themed “Talking Points,” but there is also “Tip-Wags,” “The Threat Down” (homeland security topics), “Cheating Death” (medical news), and “Formidable Opponent,” in which Colbert argues with the only other expert he knows—himself—about a hot-button issue.<br /> <br /> “Everything we do on the show, they’re all arguments,” Dahm would say later, referring to these segments. “We don’t just do monologue jokes obviously. We’re hashing out an argument.”<br /> <br /> A report Card<br /> <br /> Midway through the meeting in Dahm’s office, Colbert arrived. He was eating eggs and toast out of a take-out container. He was not in character, although he looked like “Colbert,” if a little paler and preppier in street clothes.<br /> <br /> As the pitches continued, Colbert tried to build on each one, as though nudging his TV character awake. He thought the story about the German court prohibiting a man from tattooing his horse might be a “Formidable Opponent” because “a reasonable person can see both sides of that.” When writer Jay Katsir proposed his solution to the decline in heterosexual marriage—abandon the institution to the gay community, so that they “move in, fix it up, make it look really good again, and then straight people want to move back in”—Colbert pounced.<br /> <br /> “Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s the way for years I got women,” he said, deadpan. “I called it the gay backlash effect. What I would do is, I would spend several weeks being gay. And then all the women around me would go, ‘God, what a waste. If only you were straight.’ And then—bang, surprise, I would be straight.”<br /> <br /> “You were surprise straight man,” Purcell joined in.<br /> <br /> “I was a surprise straight, exactly,” Colbert said. “We’ve gotta do the same thing with marriage. We’ve gotta give it to gay people. Spruce it up—that’s a different thing, that’s a different thing. But I like ‘gentrify’ marriage. Spruce it up, make it better [so that] straight people want to move back in. And then the gay people will have to move on to something else. They’ll have to move on to, like, celibacy, spruce that up. Some other form of human relationship.” <br /> <br /> “That’s like a Word,” Purcell said.<br /> <br /> “It’s Word-y or top of show-y,” Colbert sing-songed. <br /> <br /> By the time the meeting broke up, the pitches were coalescing around Joe Miller, gentrifying marriage, and the Guantanamo Bay detainee verdicts.<br /> <br /> “Oh my God, that seems like the meat story to end all meat stories in terms of the war on terror,” Colbert, now seeming to speak as himself, had said of the acquittals. “This is a knife in the hands of anybody who doesn’t want to give due process to anybody at Guantanamo. That seems like the meatiest story.<br /> <br /> “I’d like to try to do something on that,” he added. “Especially if we’re going into the strawberry patch with ‘Tip-Wag’ right after it, it seems like some meat off the top would be nice.”<br /> <br /> yes Man<br /> <br /> “Stephen ‘Yes, ands’ a lot of things,” Dahm said two weeks later, referring to the improv maxim of accepting whatever your sketch partner says in order to build on the improvisation within a scene. “He gives a lot of the stories a chance, and then at the end decides what works.”<br /> <br /> It was the afternoon of the first Friday in December. On Fridays The Colbert Report is dark, but the writers still come in to get a jump on the following week’s shows.<br /> <br /> After that second writers meeting of the morning, the writers get their assignments—everything from a “Word” that will air later in the week to questions for the guest that night. The writers work in pairs and have roughly 90 minutes to turn around their daily assignments, which they file into computer baskets that everyone can access.<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, all the various production needs—a rundown that begins to circulate called “the elements list”—become an abiding concern, and the show runners meet with co-executive producer Meredith Bennett.<br /> <br /> At 1:30 or thereabouts, Dahm, Purcell, Julien, consulting producer Paul Dinello and senior producer Matt Lapp in reconvene, and Colbert does a “read-down” of the script. From there, things get increasingly pressurized heading into rehearsal around 5. The day I sat in, a prepared Thanksgiving turkey was needed. Also a prop gun. Also a “bag of something That looks like crystalmeth (might need to go in turkey claw)” was on the elements list.<br /> <br /> In addition to several researchers and fact-checkers, The Colbert Report has four guys mashing up graphics in a room next door to the control room. To watch Colbert go through an on-camera rehearsal, partly in character but also giving notes, is to see how many things his mind can juggle at once. “We always go into the show heavy,” Dahm said. <br /> <br /> “We never go through a rehearsal where we don’t cut anything.”<br /> <br /> For Dahm, 43, a native of Wisconsin, the process of throwing the show together is a super-size, higher-stakes game than the one he was playing in his early 20s at the satirical weekly newspaper The Onion, in Madison, Wisconsin. A sort of Midwestern cousin to the Harvard Lampoon, The Onion, now based in New York, has for two decades been a breeding ground of TV comedy writing, especially for the news-parodying Daily Show and Colbert.<br /> <br /> One of those early Onion editors, Ben Karlin, was an executive producer of The Daily Show when he, Colbert, and Jon Stewart co-created The Colbert Report. After Comedy Central picked up the show, Dahm came on board along with Allison Silver man, who rose to executive producer before she left the show in August 2009 (though the banner for god for country and for yale remains over her former office door).<br /> <br /> Karlin, who remained a consultant for a while, left his full time role at The Colbert Report at the end of 2006 and signed an overall deal with HBO.<br /> <br /> “Most of what’s up there will end up happening,” Dahm said, gazing at all the multicolored index cards on a wall that block out upcoming shows. Dahm said he comes in early, around 7:30 in the morning, to read papers, surf blogs, and look over material generated the day before; he goes home around nine that night.<br /> <br /> Chatting in his office, Dahm stopped himself while dissecting the component parts of “The Word,” lest he kill the comedic mystery (Purcell, for his part, declined to be interviewed). The show, perhaps understandably given the workload, seems to exist in its own bubble. Ratings—on a cable show whose level of “cool” overrides its niche audience, around 1.5 million viewers—are not an abiding concern.<br /> <br /> Nor does duplication with what The Daily Show is lampooning that night alter their approach, Dahm said. Anyway, The Colbert Report has a distinctive entry point—its deeply in-character host.<br /> <br /> Brilliant as The Daily Show can be, the jokes often exist in themselves because Stewart is a longtime stand up comedian and unabashed at times about letting his true outrage show right through the script. Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, is an invention—not just a less affable personality than Stewart but, in some sense, not meant to be known at all.<br /> <br /> “Stephen likes to keep it unclear which parts of the character are him and which parts of the character are not,” Dahm said, before allowing: “I think a regular viewer can probably figure it out.” <br /> <br /> in the Beginning Was the…<br /> <br /> Of all the character’s fatuous-if-well-constructed arguments, “The Word,” Dahm said, is the hardest to write. “We have two levels of jokes going on there,” he explained. “The jokes [Colbert is] saying, [and] the subtext that’s happening,” meaning the elliptical commentary appearing onscreen as Colbert hammers at his argument.<br /> <br /> Truthiness was the very first “Word,” and it quickly became popular lexicon. For the first year and a half of the show, “The Word” was a nightly staple; more recently, The Colbert Report will put an extra guest in Act One—a shotgun appearance by some public official or news media member, both to provide contextual weight at the top of the show and “to take the burden off of writing four ‘Words’ a week,” Dahm said. They’re “Stephen’s thesis statements,” he added of “The Word.” “That’s why they take a while to craft.”<br /> <br /> Working at The Onion got Dahm an agent when he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, where he wrote for the Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast and later HBO’s Dennis Miller Live. Other writers on Colbert have a similar trajectory, including Julien, who contributed headlines to The Onion before getting his first jobs writing for TV, on a show called This Hour Has 22 Minutes on the CBC and Fox’s former late-night series Talk Show With Spike Feresten.<br /> <br /> Julien, who started going stand up comedy at 17 in his native Montreal, has risen to head writer on Colbert even as he awaits his green card, a funny little footnote on a show whose host is often faux-outraged about immigration and American jobs leaving the country. In June 2009, the show itself left the country—a week of extraordinary programs in a war zone, dubbed “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando.”<br /> <br /> The show moved to Camp Victory in Baghdad, using one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces as a TV studio, something that provided serious challenges to The Colbert Report’s technical crew. Half the writers stayed in New York that week, coming into the office at two in the morning to stay on pace with the time difference in the Middle East.<br /> <br /> “It was very heady and bizarre,” said Julien, among the writers who made the trip. “Saddam’s palace is the creepiest place I’ve ever been, by far. As Stephen said, ‘It was a place built by bad people, for bad people to go and do bad things.’ And you felt it.”<br /> <br /> The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen Colbert, the person and public supporter of organizations benefiting soldiers and their families, come out from behind his comedic mask to an unprecedented degree. The shows in Iraq were much more than a stunt—they were part of Colbert’s ongoing use of his fame to point, satirically, at the chasm that exists between the civilian and military cultures in an America still at war.<br /> <br /> So while Colbert mockingly declared “victory” in Baghdad, and Commanding General Ray Odierno helped give him a military-issue buzz cut, the overall effect of the Iraq shows was that Colbert “felt” the military world at us with the kind of immediacy that the actual news rarely will.<br /> <br /> On that last broadcast before Thanksgiving, Colbert did his trademark obnoxious victory lap in front of the studio audience after introducing his guest, Staff Sgt. Giunta. Earlier in the day, there had been some discussion about how Colbert and Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, might team up to do something funny. But that evening the sarcasm and quick retorts were ultimately put away, Colbert listening with more deference than usual as a soldier described combat.<br /> <br /> But then the whole episode that night was a tad unusual. In the end, almost none of the pitches from the morning meetings made it to air. Not the Gitmo detainee story, or the Hulk patrolling the border, or the German pony tattoo verdict. The poll on the decline in adults marrying did wind up on a “Tip-Wags” the week after the break, though not as a riff on giving the institution over to gays to gentrify<br /> <br /> In Act One, Colbert pardoned an actual, live turkey, whom the writers dubbed Joseph Gobbles. But the bit didn’t End there, it kept coming back—the pardoned turkey selling drugs to an intern (actually Katsir, one of the writers), then shooting the intern in a drug deal gone bad, whereupon Colbert quickly drew up a turkey sketch for the police by tracing the outline of his hand with a Sharpie.<br /> <br /> It all played like one of those loopy running gags you’d see on an old episode of SCTV. Of course, if everything on The Colbert Report is supposed to be an argument, the show also falls in the tradition of the deliciously silly. And on this last night before the holiday, the writers seemed to be voting for comedy poultry instead of red meat.