December 13, 2006

an evening with the colbert report

Last night Rachel and I went to a panel here in Manhattan with Stephen Colbert (or, as he was billed, “Dr. Stephen Colbert, DFA”), his senior producers and writers Richard Dahm, Allison Silverman, and Jeff Cooperman, and writer Eric Drysdale (who often appears on the show as a target of abuse). There’s almost no trace of the event online yet, but they’re planning to put up a webcast in a week or so at - will add a link here if we see it.

The panel was a treat for any number of reasons — hearing how they think about and put together the show each day, watching Colbert play off the moderator, Stone Phillips (his original on-air delivery inspiration, and first guest on the show), and most of all seeing genuine nice guy Stephen Colbert out of character — but it was especially interesting to hear Colbert and the writers refer consistently to the Colbert we see on the show as “The Character,” and how much that well-developed character and point of view informs their writing of the show each day.

For a while now, I’ve also been holding up The Colbert Report as one of the few shows on television that’s really involving itself in a regular conversation with its viewers and challenging them to get involved — the way that some of the best online shows, like Ze Frank’s, do. This was a centerpiece of the evening’s conversation, which they kicked off by playing a compilation reel of the Green Screen Challenge that turned out so brilliantly. As it turned out, the whole interaction evolved fairly naturally: they had shot the green screen segment as a joke when they were profiling a congressperson from Marin County, where Lucasfilm is located. The day after it aired, one of their writers suggested in the morning meeting that they actually post the greenscreen segment online to see if Lucasfilm might do something with it, and another writer casually checked out YouTube to see if any of their viewers had. When they saw that two viewers had already posted mashups of the segment with CGI graphics, they decided to roll with it, and before long, things were pretty out of control.

Interestingly, Dr. Stephen mentioned that at this point, the audience has become another character on the show — the Colbert Nation — with a voice that they write for as well. That’s a pretty stunning concept when you think about it (not unlike The League of Awesomeness), and as the writers were discussing it up on stage, it was clear they had no idea where things were going. Drysdale, who worked previously with Colbert and Silverman for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, said that Stewart always says that the Colbert Report is in “open field running” right now, and he’s encouraging them daily to take it as far as they can possibly go.

You can argue that this sort of thing is nothing new — talk shows in particular on the radio and daytime and late night TV have been bringing the audience into the show since the beginning of broadcasting — but the internet, and the ability for the audience to more easily create and send in artwork, video, and music, is causing an acceleration that’s pretty incredible. Right now, it’s most often a gimmick, but the networks are learning. The Late Show recently launched the absurd, which according to Conan on last night’s show received over three million hits last week, and he’s now regularly featuring fan art that people are posting to the site in the show. For all that Conan’s pushed the envelope playing against the late night format, his first steps at playing with the audience online look a bit simplistic compared to the mastery Colbert’s starting to develop, but you have to imagine that in a pretty short time, it’s going to all be very weird, and very fun. Today also marked the launch of Amanda Congdon’s new show on ABC, and for anyone hoping she’d push the envelope more, I’d just say be patient. In just one episode, she’s already dissed her own employer’s Javascript-based video player and closed with the bizarro video stylings of William Hung Cooking Show (whom she also featured on Amanda Across America and Rocketboom). She’s asked the audience straight out to send in videos and hometown pics, and assuming she integrates them next week, this will be a first for any show featuring a shiny abcnews logo. Out of the Rocketboom playbook? Sure, but Amanda co-wrote that playbook, and thanks to them, Ze, and more and more good shows, that playbook’s all of ours now, too.

update: The New York Times devotes over 800 words to the Horny Manatee story (continuing to further the tradition and legacy of journalism).