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Colbert Show' Back From Iraq

Allison Silverman, the executive producer and head writer of The Colbert Report, discusses the show's recent broadcasts from the combat zone in Iraq.

44:34

Other segments from the episode on June 22, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 22, 2009: Interview with Allison Silverman; Review of "Wussy", the new self-titled album from the Cincinnati, Ohio quartet.

Transcript

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'Colbert Show' Back From Iraq

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Stephen Colbert is a fearless comic, but he
took fearless to a new level when he brought “The Colbert Report” to Iraq
earlier this month and did a week of programs there. Colbert’s theater was one
of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, which is now in Camp Victory. His theater
audience was made up of American troops serving in Iraq.

(Soundbite of television program, “The Colbert Report”)

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, “The Colbert Report”): It must be nice here in Iraq
because I understand some of you keep coming back again and again and again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COLBERT: The nice thing – yeah, give it up for yourself. The good news is
you’ve earned enough frequent flyer miles for a free ticket to Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” became the first USO-sponsored
comedy show recorded and broadcast entirely from a war zone. To tell us what it

was like to do the show from Iraq is “Colbert Report” executive producer,
Allison Silverman. She’s a former head writer for the report and has been with
the show since it debuted in the fall of 2005. She previously wrote for “The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Allison Silverman, welcome to FRESH AIR, and bravo. What an incredible week of
shows you did. It was just so exciting to watch it. Whose idea was it to take
the show to Iraq?

Ms. ALLISON SILVERMAN (Executive Producer, “The Colbert Report”): Well, you
know, about a year ago, Bing West(ph), the former assistant secretary of
defense was on our show, and after the show ended, he gave Stephen a photograph
that some troops had given him. And it’s about 10 guys over in Iraq, and it
says, Stephen, come on over. And that really got the idea in our minds, and we
started working to make it happen.

GROSS: You know, I remember, I saw the show, the Stephen Colbert show, live
when it was in Philadelphia during the presidential primaries last year. And
there were so many technical difficulties because there was a live satellite
feed with presidential candidate at the time, Obama. And so things were – it
was a fabulous show, but the audience knew that there were all kinds of delays
and things were going wrong behind the scenes. You’d never know it watching the
show, but when the show was over, I remember Stephen Colbert saying, I’m never
taking the show on the road again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then like, okay, you’re never taking the show on the road again, and
now you’re taking it to Iraq.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well right now, he has on his door, on his notepad, Stephen has
written: This is the last impossible thing we will ever do.

GROSS: Was it important to you personally to do this?

Ms. SILVERMAN: It was. It became more so as we got closer to the date. And we
had spoken to - many times to Paul Reikoff, who founded the Iraq and
Afghanistan Veterans Association. He was giving us a real sense of how people
feel over there, and their, you know, how tough it is to be there, how lonely
and how abandoned one sometimes feels.

So we became very excited about putting on a show for those guys, and that
actually became something that editorially was sometimes hard to figure out.
You know, usually we have an audience in our studio that we assume and think is
pretty much like our audience at home and is made up of people of many
different career paths, but they’re all here in the U.S. And this was very
different. We had a studio audience that was quite different from our audience
at home, and it became sometimes difficult to figure out, well, who are we
pitching this show to? And does this joke go to the people in the room, or does
it go to the people who are watching at home?

GROSS: You probably didn’t know if they were fans of the show. When somebody
comes to see your show in New York at Comedy Central, they’re coming because
they’re a fan. They want to be there. But in the military audience in Iraq,
like, you probably had no idea whether they even knew who Stephen Colbert was
and if they knew about the persona that he portrays on the air and if they’d be
in on the jokes.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Right. We definitely had been told by folks that the show was
popular over there, but at the same time, I’m certain there were plenty of
troops in the audience who hadn’t seen it before, and that was interesting,
yeah. We also had some concerns or challenges in Stephen’s voice as the
character Stephen Colbert and Stephen as a person. You know, it becomes tough
sometimes when their feelings, their points of view overlap.

A lot of times on the show, probably, you know, well into 80 percent of the
time, Stephen Colbert the character’s view is different than the view of
Stephen Colbert the person. But when you’re doing something like doing a show
for the troops and being happy to be there and having words of support for
them, then both the character and the person think that, and it actually can
become a little bit difficult because sometimes I think the audience, certainly
me as a reader of scripts assumes that what the script is saying is not what
the voice of the show is really saying. And finding moment of earnestness and
making clear that you’re being earnest is surprisingly challenging sometimes.

GROSS: So give us an example of how that was handled, the earnestness.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well, I think that was part of our decision to do a number of
jokes that were sort of an homage to Bob Hope in a sense, jokes that weren’t as
much coming from the view of a right-wing blowhard and more as, frankly, the

Bob Hope character, kind of cowardly. You know, both Stephen the character and
Stephen the person could feel that way. We did a number of pieces where Stephen
was working to do things that the military generally does and failing.

GROSS: Let me play an example of that. There was a really funny sketch where,
you know, Stephen Colbert goes into basic training so that he can, you know, be
prepared for Iraq. And there’s a really funny sketch with a drill sergeant, and
let’s play an excerpt of it. This is just like a few excerpts of that sketch.
And so Stephen Colbert, like, shows up to report for basic training, and he’s
wearing sunglasses, he’s carrying a duffel bag, and he meets the drill
sergeant, and here’s what happens.

(Soundbite of television program, “The Colbert Report”)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible). Take those
glasses off. Who the hell do you think you are? Take those glasses off?

Mr. COLBERT: Um, okay, I’m here for the Army. Is this the Army?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) This is the Army. I’m your drill sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: Okay, you’re the guy in charge?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) I am in charge. You follow me. I lead, you
follow.

Mr. COLBERT: Okay, I’ll need a bellman because I have a couple more bags in the
car.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Pick it up, follow me.

Mr. COLBERT: Okay. I’m just going to grab my Chapstick. I’ll be right back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Let’s go.

Mr. COLBERT: So there’s Chapstick inside?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) There is Chapstick waiting inside. You will
get out of that uniform and into this uniform.

Mr. COLBERT: Okay, thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Five, four…

Mr. COLBERT: Um, do you have this in the next size up?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Put it on.

Mr. COLBERT: These are just a little snug in the crotch.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Now you are a private. Right now, you
address me as Drill Sergeant. You understand?

Mr. COLBERT: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Drill Sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: I understand.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Drill Sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: I heard you the first time.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Drill Sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Drill Sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: Am I the Drill Sergeant? I thought I was the Private.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) I’m the Drill Sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Drill Sergeant.

Mr. COLBERT: I agree.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Get down and knock out 10 push-ups.

Mr. COLBERT: You get more flies with honey than you…

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Get down and knock out 10 push-ups

GROSS: That’s Stephen Colbert in Iraq. My guest is Allison Silverman, who is an
executive producer of the show. That’s such a funny sketch, and was that a real
drill sergeant? And if so, how did you find, like, the right drill sergeant for
your sketch?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well, I have to give a lot of credit to our field team there,
who did work and you know, we thought we had a good guy, and then we went down
there and discovered he was just perfect. I mean, one of the lines you just
played is my favorite, which is that, yes, there is Chapstick inside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that improvised?

Ms. SILVERMAN: That was improvised, yeah, absolutely. We definitely needed to
have a number of roll-ins(ph), we call them, available to put in the show. Each
of the shows had a weighty chunk that was pre-recorded because we couldn’t
bring many people over to Iraq. We were working with, you know, about a third
of our general crew. And there was just no way to produce a lot of material
there.

GROSS: You know, you talked earlier about having the Colbert character be like
Bob Hope because Bob Hope did so many USO tours during the course of his
career. And you know, a couple of the most obvious similarities is Colbert had,
you know, a golf club slung across his shoulder, Bob Hope style. But I was
wondering, you know, would the troops even get the reference because they’re
too young to have watched the Bob Hope USO shows?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know, when we said on our fourth show, we called out that it
was an homage to Bob Hope, the audience went crazy. I think that they did know.
A large portion of them knew. I mean, he did those shows for I think about 50
years. So I also anticipated that it might not be something that people would
get, but hopefully the material made them laugh if they didn’t get it, and a
fair number of them did.

GROSS: And Colbert was wearing, you know, a suit and tie, but the suit was
camouflage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, that in itself was really funny. Who made it for him?

Ms. SILVERMAN: The suit, the digicam suit was made by Brooks Brothers.

GROSS: That’s great. Maybe they’ll start making it available to everybody.

Ms. SILVERMAN: I thought it was very smart.

GROSS: Very smart. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Allison Silverman.
She’s an executive producer of “The Colbert Report,” which just got back from a
week of shows in Iraq. She’s the former head writer of the show. She’s also
written for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and for Conan O’Brien.

So let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Allison Silverman. She’s an
executive producer of “The Colbert Report,” which just did a week of shows in
Iraq. And then they came back and did a week of shows without missing a beat
from New York. The first night from Iraq, General Ray Odierno was the guest.
And President Obama made a surprise visit via video, and I just want to play an
excerpt of that bit. So this is from the first night that “The Colbert Report”
was in Iraq, and it starts with General Odierno speaking.

(Soundbite of television program, “The Colbert Report”)

(Soundbite of applause)

General RAY ODIERNO (United States Army): Stephen, if you want to do this
right, you’re going to have to get your hair cut.

Mr. COLBERT: But without my hair…

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COLBERT: Wait a second. Without my hair, what would I blow dry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

General ODIERNO: Stephen, you got to cut it off.

Mr. COLBERT: With all due respect, Sir, you’re not the best advertisement for a
haircut. And frankly, frankly, Sir, it is going to take more than a four-star
general to get me to cut my hair. Jimmy(ph), Jimmy what’s going on?

President BARACK OBAMA: Excuse me, General?

(Soundbite of applause)

General ODIERNO: Mr. President, welcome, Sir.

President OBAMA: Thank you, General. First, I want to send my greetings to the
men and women of our armed forces in Iraq. I and all of America thank you for
your service.

Mr. COLBERT: You’re welcome, Mr. President.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: I wasn’t talking to you. General, I overheard your
conversation about Stephen’s hair.

Mr. COLBERT: Wait a second. You overheard? Are your spy satellites really that
good?

President OBAMA: No, but my ears are really that big.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: Now, as a man who understands the appeal of a full crop, I say
if Stephen Colbert wants to play soldier, it’s time to cut that man’s hair.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COLBERT: Wait a second, wait a second.

General ODIERNO: Sir, is that an order?

President OBAMA: General, as the commander in chief, I hereby order you to
shave that man’s head.

General ODIERNO: Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: Thank you, General, and once again, my thanks to everybody
over there.

General ODIERNO: Thank you, Mr. President.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay, that’s from the first night that “The Colbert Report” was in
Baghdad. And my guest, Allison Silverman, is an executive producer of the show,
and I know that you were in the White House when that sketch was recorded
because there’s a clip circulating of the sketch being recorded on the
Internet. It must have been just kind of amazing to be in the Oval Office with
the president shooting a comedy sketch.

Ms. SILVERMAN: It was actually in the library.

GROSS: Oh excuse me, okay.

Ms. SILVERMAN: So yeah, it was wonderfully strange, you know. There were a
couple copies around, someone on the crew had brought a copy of our book, “I’m
American, So Can You,” which we snuck onto the bookshelf before we left. And
always I have scripts in hand, and I’m scribbling all over them, and shortly
before the president came in, I was scribbling on his desk, and someone very
politely came over to me and told me that that desk was probably not the best
place to be making my mark. I’m sure it was used in all kinds of historic
occasions.

GROSS: So did Obama get it in one take?

Ms. SILVERMAN: He did. He – we asked for two, mainly because one thing that was
certainly hard, and we wound up cleaning it up in edit, was timing, you know,
trying to figure out how we do this without having to cut away from the
president more than necessary and yet allowing for the cheers of the troops.

So the double takes were mostly just to change the amount of time in between
his lines. And it was at 6:30, and one of things I love actually is that we got
some pictures from Pete Souza, the White House photographer, and they’re all
tagged with what happened that day. So there’s a picture of me shaking hands
with President Obama. At the bottom, it says President Barack Obama meets with
Mahmoud Abbas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So Stephen Colbert got his hair shaved to a crew cut, and General
Odierno looks like he’s shaving his head, Colbert’s head, but you see no hair
is really coming off. So I assume like a genuine barber or stylist actually
shaved it in the break.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well you know, he actually did shave Stephen’s head.

GROSS: The general?

Ms. SILVERMAN: That first swipe is absolutely for real. Now Stephen not only
has a very lush head of hair, but it is well shellacked for those shows. So it
was just very difficult to get it to really be coming off. We’d actually
practiced in the writers’ office earlier with one of our writers, Barry Julien,
who sat down, and we had the general shave his head. And then general gave him
an award of excellence for volunteering, and Barry is Canadian.

The one of us agreed to be the example is actually Canadian. So he is
absolutely really shaving it, it’s just, it takes a lot to get that hair off of
Stephen. So during the break between what was call Acts 3 and Acts 4, we had
the job finished by Carrie Plant Price(ph), who works with the show, and we did
it in front of the troops, which was a lot of fun.

GROSS: What are some of the things the show had to deal with in moving for a
week to a combat zone?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well to begin with, there were only a certain number of people
who could come. We have kind of a tough enough time getting the show up at a
reasonable hour every day with a full staff. And we could only bring about a
third of our people over.

So for instance, from a writing standpoint, while we were in Iraq, me and a
number of folks and about four of our writers, the other writers were here in
New York working the night shift. They came in around 3 a.m., worked until 11
a.m. so we could get in contact with them and be asking for various content,
jokes to be generated.

There was all kinds of issues, of course, with this space. We were in the Al
Faw Palace. If you’ve seen it, it’s just an enormous, enormous space where
everything is marble. I went around a little bit on my own, and I found air-
conditioner vents that were marble, just two-inch slats of marble. It’s, you
know, as one would expect, insane. And for me, I thought that our sound guys
had perhaps the most difficult job.

They’re working in a circular space with pillars that is, gosh, I don’t know,
150-feet – I mean, that’s ridiculous. I have no idea how tall it was, but it
was plenty tall and all marble. So we were struggling with various, like,
materials what we were draping in places so that the sound would stay in one
place and not bounce all over the place. And that was sometimes difficult. I
think that we achieved all that we could hope for, but there were things that
were tough.

You know, one of the things that you may see when you’re watching the shows at
home is that things that are visual in terms of those roll-in pieces, things
that are visual are getting the biggest laughs, I think often because it was
just super-hard to work against the space in terms of hearing things.

There were also things like just in terms of infrastructure. For instance in
the writers’ rooms, our normal software that we use for writing scripts, we
couldn’t network together over there. So it was sort of pointless to be using
the software that depends on networking. And we were just running around with
one another, just giving each other scripts on little USB sticks, memory
sticks, and you know, all hooked up to one single printer, one tiny little
printer and one person who could print.

And the first night of the show, of course everything is going surprisingly
well, 20 minutes to air and that printer dies, and the whole show went up, you
know, quite a bit late. And the scripts that we wound up with were hand-
written, the changes from the rehearsal script to the final script because one
little port to one little printer wasn’t working.

One of the things that was both enjoyable and a challenge was the – we were
working, Stephen and I and the writers, in the television studio, which is in a
trailer at the Al Faw Palace, and there were lots of guys in there and women,
military folks working and doing their various jobs, and but the phone for the
television studio was programmed to ring with the “Batman” theme from the ‘60s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: So you’d be trying to work on a joke, and then all of a sudden,
you would hear…

(Soundbite of humming)

Ms. SILVERMAN: And I can’t imagine a melody that will wipe your slate clean
faster than that. It was very, very hard. I’m surprised we didn’t have more
Adam West jokes in the show, considering.

GROSS: Allison Silverman will be back in the second half of the show. She’s an
executive producer of “The Colbert Report” and a former head writer. I’m Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Allison Silverman, an
executive producer of "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert's satirical
punditry show on Comedy Central. Earlier this month, "The Colbert Report" did a
week of shows from Iraq, becoming the first comedy show in USO history to
record and broadcast from a war zone.

Silverman has been with "The Colbert Report" since it debuted in the fall of
2005 and is a former head writer. She previously wrote for "The Daily Show with
Jon Stewart," and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

You were talking before about the difficulty of coming up with sketches where
the Colbert character and Stephen Colbert himself would agree on something?

Ms. SILVERMAN (Executive producer, "The Colbert Report"): Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And here’s an example of a sketch where they kind of did and kind of
didn't agree. Colbert does this like, one of his recurring sketches is called
"Formidable Opponent" in which there's two Stephen Colbert's on camera and they
debate each other because only Stephen Colbert is good enough to be a
formidable opponent to Stephen Colbert. So he did a "Formidable Opponent"
debate on gays in the military in Don't Ask, Don’t Tell, and you know I think
viewers of the show would assume that Stephen Colbert is solidly behind gay
equality.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But his character is not. But since it was a debate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...both sides are represented. I thought it was really interesting that
you would choose that subject for a sketch. And did you have any idea how it
would go over? And do you have any idea how people in the audience would feel
about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well, that's absolutely the question that was going through our
minds. And we, you know, we’ve wanted to do a "Formidable Opponent" on Don't
Ask, Don’t Tell for a while. This is one of the things when we went to Iraq we
said this, you know, this piece has got to happen. We really, really want it to
happen. You know we had a hunch, and certainly from talking again to Paul
Rykoff and various other members, former members of the military that the
troops would laugh at this. That they would be behind it, and that they'd see
the humor in the policy.

And it felt exciting to us to actually have people in America see the troops
laughing at the inconsistencies of the policy. That is definitely something
where the idea of our audience there and our audience in America I felt like
worked really to our advantage. In our minds it felt special to show that the
military or certainly certain members of the military can laugh at the
rationale for this policy.

GROSS: So you thought the audience was behind you.

Ms. SILVERMAN: I did. I mean I do think that we presented two sides to the
argument and I certainly am sure that there were some members of the audience
who saw the other side. But we got plenty of laughs off of the idea that people
have been discharged from the military who are decorated men and women, got all
their medals before they were gay. And they became gay officially when they
announced that they were gay. And who knows how, who knows how they would
perform after it was announced that they were gay? Obviously they wouldn’t be
a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: They wouldn't be so decorated.

GROSS: Why don't we hear an excerpt of the "Formidable Opponent," Don’t Ask,
Don't Tell sketch? And this is from the "Colbert Report in Iraq."

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Are you nervous about
visiting Iraq?

Mr. COLBERT: Nope, I feel perfectly safe. I actually bought a gun from a local.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: That’s a muffler.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, a little mix-up there. My Arabic translator was kicked out
under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Another Arabic translator? That makes 59 in the last five years.

Mr. COLBERT: Hey, that's the way the military career crumbles. I'm not happy
about it but it’s not my responsibility and it’s not the military's
responsibility. It is Washington's responsibility. This is a political
decision.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, but in the meantime people like Lieutenant Colonel Victor
Fehrenbach are being discharged after serving 18 years in the Air Force, even
though he has nine Air Medals including one for valor.

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, but he got those medals before he was gay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: We have no idea how he would fly now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Well the idea that openly gay service members hurts moral makes no
sense to me.

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, it makes no sense to you. I'm sorry. Have you served in the
military?

Mr. COLBERT: No. But I've been to Camp Victory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Hey, I've been to the circus but I don’t tell bears how to ride
bikes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: The military depends on unit cohesiveness and maintaining focus on
the mission.

Mr. COLBERT: But how would someone being gay affect that?

Mr. COLBERT: Like this, imagine one of us is gay.

Mr. COLBERT: Which one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: It doesn’t matter.

Mr. COLBERT: It matters to my wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, how is your wife?

Mr. COLBERT: I’m sure she’s fine. I asked a friend of mine to look after her.
Do you know Jody?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: Oh yeah. He's a great guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of shouting)

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. COLBERT: Anyway, the point is one of us is gay and problem solved.

Mr. COLBERT: What problem?

Mr. COLBERT: I don’t know. You have a problem?

Mr. COLBERT: What are you asking me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: I’m not asking you anything. Are you telling me something?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: No.

Mr. COLBERT: Good.

Mr. COLBERT: Good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: See how cohesive we are now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: All because I don’t know that you’re gay.  

Mr. COLBERT: I'm not gay.

(Soundbite of lolololololololo)

Mr. COLBERT: Don’t tell me.

(Soundbite of clapping)

GROSS: That's Stephen Colbert versus Stephen Colbert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: On an edition of "The Colbert Report from Iraq." My guest, Allison
Silverman is an executive producer of the show. Another sketch I want to ask
you about, you know you were talking earlier about how one of the things that
Colbert, you know, that you figured Colbert would do would be to kind of play
the Bob Hope cowardly fish out of water kind of character. And so one of the
things Colbert did was like go up with one of the Thunderbirds. Those planes
that do, jets, that do the fancy aerobic air shows...

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and they, you know they twirl around and do these incredible things
in the air. And, of course, you know Colbert goes in looking like real macho
and then he's like throwing up...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...on a plane and looks really shaken when he gets off. What really
happened during that flight?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know I believe that that is a fairly accurate document of
what happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: He definitely threw up. He definitely felt pretty sick
afterwards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: And, you know, knew that that would probably be the case. I mean
before he goes up you see him chugging a big gulp and eating chili.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: So we definitely had in our mind that vomit might be the natural
extension of his game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So had you planned out that when he kind of gets out of the jet he'd be
holding up one, and then a second bag of you know vomit?

Ms. SILVERMAN: No. No. We, not only, not even we had those high expectations.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So that was improvised. Very clever.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yes. Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Making the best out of the worst.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Allison Silverman, an executive producer and former head
writer with "The Colbert Report." We'll talk more about taking the show to Iraq
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Allison Silverman, an executive producer and former head
writer for "The Colbert Report." Earlier this month "The Report" did a week of
shows from Baghdad. One of the things that amaze me is that after doing a week
of shows in Iraq, which had to be nerve-racking and exhausting, you came back
and, with new shows the following week. I was expecting a week of reruns. Why
didn't you take a few days off?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know that's just the way the schedule was and had been
worked out to be. You know we do get a number of weeks off over the course of
the year and this just wasn't one of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: It's been, I won’t hedge, it was very hard last week, but you
know we just, it was fun to be home. I have to tell you that that's been a lot
of fun as well.

GROSS: Well it sounds like doing "The Colbert Report" has always been
difficult. When I interviewed Stephen Colbert back in December of 2005 and this
was just like a couple of months after the show got started...

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...he was talking about; we were talking about how hard it is to keep
the show going. And I just want to play an excerpt of that for you. Here it is.
So this is...

Ms. SILVERMAN: Sure.

GROSS: ...Stephen Colbert on FRESH AIR in December 2005.

GROSS: You seem to be enjoying the show so much. But stepping back from that I
think it must be really like a lot of work to carry that.

Mr. COLBERT: It is a lot of work but I'm not complaining because you know all a
performer wants is to perform more. Now we need to figure out a way to do it
that's humane for the people who work on the show. I mean right now I mean I
have two wonderful head writers, Rich Dahm and Allison Silverman, and Allison
stayed up till four o'clock last night working on tonight's show.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. COLBERT: And, actually working on tomorrow show. And so right now it’s a
little bit like a forced march to get the show done everyday because we’re
essentially writing a you know we have a guest are there for maybe five or six
minutes. But even that is a prepared moment. Not for the guest, but for me
because I have to establish what my character's take is on that person's work
or on their writing or what they represent. You know if I have somebody like
iconic on, like Leslie Stahl from the like the mainstream media. But so it ends
up being like a 22-minute monolog we’re writing every night. And I think
probably that's an unsustainable level of script output. And you know we’re
finding different ways to you know push away from me. And, but it's a slow
process.

GROSS: So that's Stephen Colbert in December of 2005 and here we are in June of
2005, and Allison Silverman, it seems to me like you're still putting out an
unsustainable...

GROSS: ...level of writing. You know Stephen Colbert made it seem like you were
going to try to find ways of working in things that didn't depend so much on
writing.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But the show is still so writing heavy and incredibly funny. So what
have you done to keep up what is an unsustainable level of work?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well you know I'm so glad you played that clip because I did not
stay up till 4 Am this morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: And I have very, a quantitative progress now I can tell. You
know what Stephen said there is in many ways remains the case. There is this
added angle to our jokes obviously of what does Stephen's character think? And
that makes things, you know, it’s an extra level and I often sort of think of
it in terms of driving on the highway in reverse by looking in your rearview
mirror. Because determine what you want to say and then back into how the
character then his view on it, or the opposite. You know, sometimes we find out
what the character wants to say and discover what we want to say through is
very hard. In terms of making it more sustainable, we do have a bigger team
than we did back in 2005, considerably bigger, and some really, really really
talented people have joined up and have really helped us along.

It still remains a challenge. It'll always be a challenge. But I also think
that what Stephen said in that clip, that he's not complaining is also very
true. I think that part of what inspires us to an extent is the difficulty of
it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: And that may make us very sick people. But we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: ...we enjoy the challenge I think to a pathological extent.

GROSS: Now before you worked on "The Colbert Report" you worked "Jon Stewart
Show."

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And how does writing for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert compare?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Well, writing for "The Daily Show," it was you know almost 10
years ago that I was doing it and the show has you know changed a lot since I
was there. I found it really just fantastic in terms of finding point of view.
That was always what was requested of us. Figure out what you think about a
story. What is, you know, what is at the heart of a story and find your joke
off of that, which was just you know, helped my writing tremendously and is
obviously what's, probably what's made that show so successful.

One of the things I definitely remember from there is that as I say, I started
in early 2000 and we went through the crazy election of 2000. And then I
remember people saying to me how are you, how is this show and how are you ever
going to find presidential humor now that Bill Clinton is out of office?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: How will anyone ever have something funny to say about President
Bush? I remember that being asked all the time, which I try to remember
whenever people say to me how does, how do you find humor in Obama
administration?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny. Some people think that it’s rare to have women
writers in comedy. Was that ever an obstacle for you? I mean obviously you’ve
done great.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I think certainly the people who you’ve written for, Conan O'Brien,
John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, these are people who do not strike me as being
sexist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So, you know, if anybody is going to have, you know, a really, like,
open and enlightened writers’ room you think it would be them. So, did it ever,
was is it ever an obstacle?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I've not found it to be an obstacle. You know, now that I'm in a
position where I look at submissions, I would definitely say that there are
very few women who submit to these shows. And they actually, they have as good
a percentage of people who get hired I think as our male submissions. So, I
would really like more women to apply for them. And I think perhaps part of
that lack of submissions is due to this general feel that writers’ rooms are
very sexist that you're going to be harassed, that it's, you know, an old boy's
network of it's own sorts. And that, yeah, generally they’re going to be
treated hostilely.

So, I always wanted to get out there that I haven't had that experience at all
because, you know, maybe we can – maybe that’s the way to solve whatever
problem there is here. Just get more women to write. I don't think – I haven't
found anyone in my comedy travels who honestly thinks that women are not as
capable of this as men are. I really don't think I have.

GROSS: Let me get back to a recent show. Last Thursday's show continued a
sketch that was started earlier in the week about Obama swatting the fly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MS. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

GROSS: And, you know, so this was about how like Obama had been talking about
how there’s one network that's completely devoted to like, criticizing him, so
it's hard for him to understand that people think he’s getting like an easy
ride…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: … in the media. So, Colbert did this whole sketch for two days,
exclusive coverage of murder in the White House, like, the story of Obama
killing an innocent fly. And the repercussions on the fly's family. And there's
many people in the fly's family of course because fly's reproduce so quickly.

GROSS: Can you talk about, like, generating that idea and how that idea kind of
evolved to the point were like Jeff Goldblum who starred in the remake of “The
Fly” was on talking about flies.

MS. SILVERMAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Well the generation of that idea I think goes
back - we've got a lot of people on our staff who have an improv background and
sort of famously - a famous phrase of improv is: yes, and - that you agree to
something that's been initiated and you take the next step. And I think that
that played a big part. You know, we in our pitch session that morning, we both
had stories pitched about the president saying that there was a network that
was devoted exclusively to his demise and the story about the fly swatting. And
we started to realize that they could be one and the same. If we kind of had
two turns in the piece, if we first had Stephen upset with the president for
saying this and deciding that he was going to give the president some positive
coverage, and then a turn where he discovers the positive coverage is the fact
that the president swatted a fly with such skill. The only thing positive that
Steven can possibly say about him is that he managed to swat this fly so
masterfully. And then to turn again back in to extraordinarily negative
coverage by talking about the fly family and mourning. And then of course we
had to get a wrangler to bring us a jar full of flies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MS. SILVERMAN: It's very – you have to be very careful. So, we had these flies
and we couldn't let them out. Certainly we couldn't spray anything around them
that could possibly injure the flies. And then Jeff Goldblum - that became
again sort of a yes and moment like, well, where else does a fly story go? Who
else feel strongly about the rights of flies? That, obliviously, takes you to
Mr. Goldblum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That’s great.

GROSS: Allison Silverman thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Allison Silverman is an executive producer of "The Colbert Report" and a
former head writer. “The Colbert” show broadcast from Iraq the week of June
8th. You can still see the shows on the Comedy Central Web site.

(Soundbite of the "The Colbert Report" TV show)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Nation, I am back from my
tour in Iraq.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: You know…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: …folks…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COLBERT: I cannot believe…

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. COLBERT: …that I am finally home. That was without a doubt the toughest,
longest five days of my life.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. COLBERT: You know what? Make that seven days. I spent two days on a plane
and the fully reclining 78 inch sleeper seat did not have memory foam.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. COLBERT: Wow, everything seems so different now that I’ve been to war.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. COLBERT: I have witnessed shriveled husks of broken men suffering in
unbelievable heat. I will never forget you staff of Camp Victory Cinnabon.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. COLBERT: Semper frosting, guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: You know, after you’ve been to war the rest of the world seems so

trivial. I mean, who cares that Adam Lambert came out of the closet - oh my
God, no way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: No way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by the band Wussy. This is FRESH
AIR.
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Wussy: Strong Work, And Not Without Pain

TERRY GROSS, host:

The Cincinnati, Ohio, quartet called Wussy has just released it’s third album
called “Wussy.” Comprised of two men and two women, Wussy is led by its singer-
songwriters Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of song, “Little Paper Birds”)

Mr. CHUCK CLEAVER (Musician) and Ms. LISA WALKER (Musician): (Singing) Never
thought it’d come to this, but there you were sleeping in your clothes. In bed
with your arithmetic, your hair had grown so long in your repose.

KEN TUCKER: It’s all right, we’ve got all night - Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker
sing on that song “Little Paper Birds,” the lead-off cut of their album
“Wussy.” And indeed in their measured ways, Wussy’s songs do exude a serene
confidence in the strength of the music. It conveys the delicacy, the
fragility, of the emotions they want to describe. It also helps that "Little
Paper Birds" includes a line that the band must have known would charm anyone
who still uses the postal system, quote "I finally got your letter and your
punctuation hit me like a truck."

(Soundbite of song, “Gone Missing”)

Ms. WALKER: (Singing) We met the other day on the catapult. When they threw us
to the dogs, you were at my throat. It’s funny what you do, do to get my goat.
Well, honey, you’re the pain and the antidote. It always ends, it always ends
like this, ooo-ooo, gone missing. Ooo-ooo, gone missing.

TUCKER: Wussy certainly knows how to turn a phrase. On “Gone Missing,” Lisa
Walker sings: now my heart is on my sleeve, or what’s left of it. What does the
it refer to? Her sleeve? Her heart? The latter is more poetic. On the other
hand, Wussy music strives to avoid easy poetry, going for something more
conversational, yet striving for a quality of open-ended allusiveness that more
difficult poetry achieves. The band is also more than capable of coming up with
a catchy up-tempo chorus, as they do on the otherwise-bleak “Happiness Bleeds.”

(Soundbite of song, “Happiness Bleeds”)

Mr. CLEAVER (Singer): (Singing) I remember puking down the side of the car. The
cost of drinking liquor from the mouth of a jar. Leaning on the fender and
declaring that we’d name a star. Tripping through the brambles till our pants
were all torn. Searching for a paper bag of mildewy porn. Reflecting on the
never ending question - why we been born? Happiness bleeds, happiness bleeds,
happiness bleeds - all over you and me. I remember stumbling down the side of
the road…

TUCKER: You can listen to “Wussy” as a concept album propelled forward by the
band’s buzz saw guitar riffs and tight little rhythm sections. Cleaver and
Walker write most of the songs and either alternate lead vocals or sing them in
harmony. And the album itself becomes a short story about two people in a
complicated relationship.

(Soundbite of song, “Dreadful Sorry”)

Mr. CLEAVER: (Singing) Cut paper snowflakes hang down from the ceiling. The
bathwater ripples, predicting an earthquake. An air bubble surfaces, rising to
heaven. Some call this living, but I call this living a lie.

Mr. CLEAVER and Ms. WALKER: (Singing) Dreadful sorry, dreadful sorry, dreadful
sorry, dreadful sorry.

Mr. CLEAVER: The granddaddy longlegs is climbing the curtain…

TUCKER: If the album begins with the sentiment we’ve got all night, as the
collection progresses, the emotions become more mixed. Well, actually, more
morose and fatalistic. The song I just played, “Dreadful Sorry,” comes about
midway through this lengthy dissection of a couple about to split. Over
increasingly louder, chiming guitars, with Cleaver and Walker raising their
voices to be heard and to convey tension, they sing as one: some call this
living but I call this living alone. Uh oh. By the climax of the album, the
narrator of “Death By Misadventure” finds a note on the door saying: go away,
I’m sleeping.

And so I leave, the lyric goes on, but I believe that you’re entertaining
someone else. It’s an almost elegant way to describe a betrayal, a final
conclusion. It also works as a serious pun. The someone else that music is
entertaining, as morose as it is full of life, is us. The very next song is
called “This Will Not End Well.” Well, maybe not for Wussy, but it does for us.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. You can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I’m Terry Gross.
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