Published on November 9th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson


The Colbert Report: a Paley Panel Pointform

The writing staff of the Colbert Report, with moderator Zachary Kanin (center).  Photo by Sharilyn Johnson

The writing staff of the Colbert Report, with moderator Zachary Kanin (center). Photo by Sharilyn Johnson

What: The writing staff of The Colbert Report
Who: Barry Julien (Head Writer), Peter Grosz, Max Werner, Peter Gwinn, Glenn Eichler, Jay Katsir,
Rob Dubbin, Michael Brumm, Frank Lesser, Opus Moreschi, Meredith Scardino, Eric Drysdale, Zachary Kanin (moderator)
Where: Paley Center for Media, New York
When: November 7, 2009, part of the New York Comedy Festival

So yes: I have reported on panels featuring Colbert Report writers. Many times. Whether or not it’s new information to me, or to you, I’m going to run through everything I could scribble down regardless. And pretty soon, me and all my readers will be well-versed enough in the world of TCR that we can sit on one of these panels if they need an alternate.

Moderator Zachary Kanin did a killer job, starting with some softball roundtable questions to get things going, like “who is the hunkiest man alive?” Barry Julien answered “Stephen Colbert”, Peter Gwinn said “Thor”, and Eric Drysdale “Beast, from Beauty and the Beast”. Most of the remaining answers involved the father of the writer who had answered previously.

Typical Day:
9:30 – Barry arrives
9:45 – meeting in Barry’s office
10:30 – longer production meeting with Stephen
Writers go off and write in pairs.
1:00 – Writing deadline
Afternoon – Prewriting for upcoming days, or rewriting for that night. 2 people work on writing the questions for Stephen to ask the guest.
7:00 – Taping

Kanin asked “what is the atmosphere like?”. Meredith Scardino, currently the only female writer, didn’t hesitate: “really sexist”. The first of many huge laughs throughout the afternoon.

Peter Gwinn characterized the writers’ relationship as very collaborative and not competitive at all. Barry Julien, who prior to working for Colbert had not worked in such a collaborative environment, and found that the improv philosophy of “yes and” has really filtered down from Stephen and the other improvisors on staff.

Continuing the principles of improv train of thought and discussing the games they play with the audience, Peter Gwinn noted that the first thing that really took off was naming the Hungarian bridge after Stephen. The fans found that game first. The staff lost track of all the things fans have tried to get named after Stephen.

Zachary Kanin earned his keep with this inspired question: “Meredith, I’m sure everyone is curious what it’s like to be working at the show being the only person on staff who has appeared on Cash Cab?” (even those of us who can spot a bait-and-switch a mile away sincerely thought he was going to ask about gender). As a textbook example of the “yes anding” mentioned previously, the writers treated the question as if it really was about women in comedy. Barry Julien: “There’s a real glass ceiling for writers who’ve been on Cash Cab.” Eric Drysdale: “In all fairness, we get fewer applications from people who’ve been on Cash Cab.” Etc, etc.

Crazy guests or guests they’ve enjoyed: Jane Fonda, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Penn Jillette (he tore up Stephen’s interview cards). Peter Grosz says that guests are the most fun when they really passionately argue their point.

Who would be their dream guest? Meredith Scardino: “Elvis.” Opus Moreschi: “my old gym teacher, naked.”

Has anything been too racy to get on the air? Consensus was that if it’s too racy, it would never get written in the first place. Something is less likely to make it to air simply for being too difficult to produce. Frank Lesser wrote a famously production-heavy bit. Barry Julien: “I think it involved getting Van Halen on the moon.” Eric Drysdale: “And Stephen was rescuing children and animals from an actual burning building.”

How much communication is there between the Daily Show and the Colbert Report? Barry says they don’t consult each other at all re: which stories they’re doing. Peter Gwinn cited the 4-block distance between studios as being slightly too far to “run over and screw with them”, however there is a regular intern softball game that the Daily Show brings in ringers for.

After the Daily Show won the Emmy this year, the Colbert Report sent them over $200 in Nerf guns. Daily Show head writer Steve Bodow sent an email to Barry Julien afterward confirming that all work over there had ground to a halt.

The writers are frequently used on-air, and are selected simply because they look the part. They recalled a recent bit where three of the writers had to hide under Stephen’s desk, where there isn’t even really room for one person. “It was like Tetris,” said Rob Dubbin. Because they didn’t want the studio audience to know anyone was under there, they had to go under before the audience was loaded into the studio. All told, they suffered for about an hour before the bit happened.

The genesis of “Truthiness”: Peter Gwinn says he very clearly remembers standing in the hallway outside of (ex-Executive Producer) Allison Silverman’s office, when the original Word was “Truth”. Stephen said “it’s not really truth. It’s more like… truth…i…ness?”

Re: audience reactions, they try to anticipate the studio audience’s cheering, but can’t always. Peter Grosz did recently get to write the stage direction “Al Gore enters. Audience loses minds.”

Re: Stephen’s 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Rob Dubbin noted that there’s a great cutaway to Lawrence Fishburn laughing uproariously, and Peter Gwinn said the same is true for Justice Scalia.

The most difficult piece Peter Gwinn had to write was about the elections in Afghanistan. He had to explain who all the candidates were and what they stood for before going into the bit, which is “heavy lifting, from a comedic standpoint.”

Rob Dubbin said it’s “easier and more fun” to focus on trying to make your writing partner laugh than it is to think about writing for the teleprompter.

One of the rare times the writers will gather and collaborate on ideas is when pitching ideas for the Prescott Pharmaceuticals side effects in the Cheating Death segments. One favorite, “hump front”, was Peter Gwinn’s idea.

Further discussing their backgrounds and how they ended up as comedy writers, Peter Gwinn said he could look back at instances like his high school drama class, where instead of picking a real play to do a scene from, he chose a Monty Python sketch. And even further back, in boy scouts, he always enjoyed the campfire skits. “It’s exactly like being gay,” he joked. “Yeah, your parents don’t want to hear about it,” Peter Grosz added.

There will be two new Better Know a District segments airing in the next few weeks.

In the early days, even when the critics questioned the show’s longevity, the writers never did. They knew they’d always have something fresh to work with. Barry Julien said it best: “If you spend 10 minutes around Stephen, you’ll realize you’ll never run out of ideas.”

Stephen Colbert at the New Yorker Festival (2008)
Late Night Writers’ Panel at Just For Laughs (2009)

(thank you to alert reader Dannie for the name correction)


About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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