Stephen Colbert comes across as so comfortable in the skin of his "Colbert Report" arch-conservative pundit persona that it's easy to forget he's playing a character that has been developed by him and the writer-producers on his Comedy Central skein.
Chief among those "Colbert Report" truthiness-deciders is Allison Silverman, who was upped last month to exec producer of the show along with Colbert and Jon Stewart. Silverman, whose resume includes stints as a writer-producer on "The Daily Show" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," has worked closely with Colbert during the past two years to fine-tune the character that walks a fine line between arrogant jerk and arrogant-but-lovable-jerk. (And arrogant-but-lovable presidential candidate as of Oct. 17, so long as those pesky Federal Election Commission rules don't drum him out of the race.)
"In the beginning we were conscious that he could turn out to be a real jerk of a character, and we still think about it a lot. We've always wanted him to be arrogant and willfully ignorant, but not someone you'd just hate," says Silverman, who joined "Colbert" shortly after it was picked up to series in 2005. "A lot of times it's all about the tone. Sometimes he'll do something that comes off as too repugnant. He'll say the exact same things but change the tone just a little bit and it makes all the difference."
Just like non-faux pundits, the nuances of Colbert's righteous-schtick have come together over time. Silverman cites Colbert (the character's) morbid fear of bears as a kind of personal touch that evolved organically (one bear joke led to another) and helps give viewers "a deeper understanding of his character and his many misguided feelings."
As many TV crix noted when "Colbert Report" debuted in October 2005 (his candidacy was announced on the show's second on-air anniversary), it's been quite a feat for Colbert the comic and the show's staff to keep the program from seeming stale given its tight focus on the solo character.
Scribe Jaime J. Weinman notes in a fantastic article on the show in the Oct. 22 edition of Macleans mag that "Colbert Report" has evolved from its original premise of spoofing "The O'Reilly Factor" and its ilk to something closer to a "wacky sitcom" with a show-within-a-show feel. Colbert has a talent for making headlines, whether he's royally pissing off interview subjects a la Virgin honcho Richard Branson, or boldly skewering President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, with Bush sitting only a few feet away. That Colbert pulls it off so well, even when he's far beyond the confines of his "Colbert Report" set (which took over the old "Daily Show" studio in Manhattan when that show got an upgrade in 2005), is a testament to Colbert the comic's skill and to the team behind "Colbert Report."
Silverman (pictured at right on the set with Stephen Colbert) knew she was taking a bit of a gamble when she gave up a gig on NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" to join the nascent "Colbert Report," which started out with an order of 32 segs, or eight weeks of a Monday-Thursday run. But having worked with Colbert during her stint on "Daily Show," she had faith in his ability to pull it off, and at the very least she knew they'd have fun and do some very experimental comedy. Silverman's background of working in improv comedy, at Chicago's ImprovOlympic and at the famed Boom Chicago Theater in Amsterdam, made her game for the challenge.
"I was extremely confident that whether or not ('Colbert Report') existed past those first 32 episodes, I'd feel we tried our hardest to do a great show," Silverman says.
Although she honed her skills as a performer during her improv days, Silverman grew up in Gainesville, Fla., yearning to be a comedy writer. She also wanted to be a scientist at one point, but writing eventually held sway as she spent many hours watching her home-made tapes of "Saturday Night Live" circa early-to-mid '80s. She wound up at Yale for college, majoring in humanities, and headed for Chicago's fertile comedy scene after graduating in 1994.
After spending a year in Amsterdam, Silverman found a run gig in the heady days of the dot-com era writing one- and two-liners for the vidgame "You Don't Know Jack" for the production shingle Jellyvision. A cold call to former "Daily Show" exec producer Ben Karlin landed her a writing gig on that show, and from there, to a four-year run with "Late Night."
Much as she loved her time on "Daily Show," O'Brien's nightly offering "had an absurdist visual humor that I was really excited to try," Silverman says.
With her success on "Colbert Report," rising from co-head writer and co-exec producer to showrunner, Silverman has become one of the few femme writer-producers to ascend to the top ranks in the world of latenight comedy skeins. That fact is duly noted by Silverman but she doesn't dwell on it.
"I think all (writers) bring different senses of humor to a show," she says. "I don't think mine is particularly based on being a woman. There are definitely topics that I feel like I bring up that possibly wouldn't get brought up by a male executive producer...but I don't see it as my job to add a female slant on things."
What does define her job is how the public relates and reacts to "The Colbert Report." Silverman sez she thanks her lucky stars every day that she's able to work with such a multi-faceted hyphenate as Colbert.
"What has really worked about the show is that somehow people can see through the character to see who Stephen really is, and they laugh with him," she says. "That's what's most exciting to me about this show."