Stephen Colbert Explains How The Colbert Report Is Made in a New Podcast


“I do the show in char­ac­ter, he’s an idiot, he’s will­ful­ly igno­rant of what you know and care about, please hon­est­ly dis­abuse me of my igno­rance and we’ll have a great time.” 

This secret speaks to the heart of come­di­an and fake-pun­dit Stephen Colbert’s wild­ly pop­u­lar Col­bert Report. But how exact­ly does he man­age to pull this rab­bit from his hat, night after night gru­el­ing night?

The nuts and bolts of Colbert’s work­ing day make for a fas­ci­nat­ing inau­gur­al episode of Work­ing, a new Slate pod­cast host­ed by David Plotz. It shares a title with radio per­son­al­i­ty Studs Terkel’s famous non-fic­tion­al exam­i­na­tion, but Plotz’s project is more process ori­ent­ed. Soup-to-nuts-and-bolts, if you will.

Col­bert is hap­py to oblige with a Lit­tle Red Hen-like corn metaphor in which alco­hol, not bread, is the ulti­mate goal.

His morn­ing begins with a deep rum­mage through the headlines—Google News, Red­dit, Slate, The Drudge Report, Fox News, Buz­zfeed, The Huff­in­g­ton Post… imag­ine if this stack was made of paper. When does he have the time to google ex-girl­friends?

When­ev­er pat­terns and trends emerge, Col­bert and his hard work­ing team fer­ret out ways to impose his char­ac­ter onto them. Occa­sion­al­ly some lucky non-sto­ry will find itself ele­vat­ed to Queen for a Day, if it speaks to some­thing Col­bert-the-char­ac­ter would care about pas­sion­ate­ly. The pro­posed ban on horse car­riages in Cen­tral Park, the Col­orado VA’s mar­i­jua­na stance, and the self-declared les­bian trou­ple are three that have borne fruit of late.

From pitch meet­ing through read-aloud and rewrites, the school hours por­tion of Colbert’s day resem­bles that of oth­er dead­line-dri­ven shows. He’s quick to acknowl­edge the con­tri­bu­tions of a ded­i­cat­ed and like-mind­ed staff, includ­ing exec­u­tive pro­duc­er Tom Pur­cell and head writer Opus—as in Bloom Coun­ty—Moreschi.

As show­time approach­es, Col­bert swaps his jeans for a Brooks Broth­ers suit, and leaves the homey, dog-friend­ly town­house where the bulk of the writ­ing takes place for the stu­dio next door.

There are last minute rewrites, a guest to greet, a Bic pen to be nib­bled

Ide­al­ly, he’ll get at least 10 min­utes of head­space to become the mon­ster of his own mak­ing, lib­er­al America’s favorite will­ful­ly igno­rant idiot. (Most of lib­er­al Amer­i­ca, any­way. My late-moth­er-in-law refused to believe it was an act, but it is.)

A bit of schtick with the make­up artist serves as a lit­mus test for audi­ence respon­sive­ness.

When the cam­eras roll, Col­bert sticks close to his prompter, fur­ther proof that the char­ac­ter is a con­struct. Any impro­vi­sa­tion­al impuls­es are unleashed dur­ing one-on-one inter­ac­tions with the guest. With some 10,000 hours of com­e­dy under his belt, his instincts tend toward the unerr­ing.

At days end, he thanks the audi­ence, the guest and every­one back­stage except for one guy who gets a mere wave. The show is then edit­ed at a zip squeal pace, and will hope­ful­ly fall into the “yay!” cat­e­go­ry. (The oth­er choic­es are “sol­id” or “wrench to the head.”)

Col­bert will only watch the show if there was a prob­lem.

And then? The day begins again.

After peer­ing through this win­dow onto Colbert’s world, we’re stoked for future episodes of Work­ing, when guests as var­ied as a rock musi­cian, a hos­pice nurse, and porn star Jes­si­ca Drake walk Plotz through a typ­i­cal day.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Col­bert & Louis CK Recite The Get­tys­burg Address, With Some Help from Jer­ry Sein­feld

Stephen Col­bert Tries to Make Sense of MOOCs with the Head of edX

A Seri­ous Stephen Col­bert Gives Advice on Love & Life to Teenage Girls

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the cre­ator of The Mermaid’s Legs, a trau­ma-filled Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen reboot pre­mier­ing this week in NYC. See it! And fol­low her @AyunHalliday

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.