For our final segment on our Colbert Countdown, we wanted to go back to the origins of the show and talk with someone who was there at the start. Allison Silverman was a writer on "The Daily Show" and Conan O'Brien before she got the call to be one of Stephen Colbert's first head writers.
The challenge of writing a character who was a parody of other talk show hosts proved exciting to Silverman, and she ended up being co-head writer for "The Colbert Report" from 2005-09. Along the way, she became the show's executive producer as well.
We asked Silverman about the challenges the team faced at the start of "The Colbert Report," how they convinced guests to come on the show, and that icy reception to Colbert's presentation at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006.
When the show was just getting started, how did people react to Stephen Colbert's character?
I remember that [Congressman] Barney Frank, who we'd interviewed for the "Better Know a District" series before the show even went on the air, was completely confused and baffled by what was going on. The fact was, though, that we kind of enjoyed that. We didn't always feel like we had to be completely clear, and Stephen especially didn't feel like he had to be completely clear. I tended to want to be more clear than he did, but the mystery of it was very fun.
Do you remember what it was like getting guests on at the beginning of the show? And are the people who said "no" repeatedly now knocking down Stephen's door to get on?
[laughs] Well, the show has an amazing booker who's also a great producer on the show, Emily Lazar, and she comes from the news world. At first, we really needed to use the contacts that she had gathered over her years in the business, so I think she was a real conduit. She could talk to these people and they really trusted her and understood that she was not leading them astray. And then people who have a lot of power — Hilary Clinton, all these political leaders who would go on "The Daily Show" — originally were giving us the cold shoulder, and it definitely was satisfying once the tide turned.
One of the signature elements of the show is that, unlike other talk shows where people come up to the desk, Stephen runs from behind his desk and does his unusual greeting. Did you guys come up with that from the beginning?
I'm excited that you mention it because that was one of my particular contributions to the show, and it came as a result of talking about how self-centered this character could be — he would even steal the one moment that's given to his guests. It was also based on trying to figure out how our set was going to work and the practicalities of that.
I also wanted to mention one last thing about guests, specifically guests that came on the show where it was surprising that they came on. For a long time, when we got a big guest, someone who was maybe older and not in our wheelhouse, it was often because they had a kid that loved the show, or they would say, Oh, my grandson told me I had to be on the show. So we had a great debt to pay to young people who were convincing their very distinguished uncles to give us a shot.
I can just imagine those conversations: "Mom, Dad, you've gotta go on this and make all my high-school friends happy!"
Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
You were also with Stephen when he emceed the White House Correspondents Dinner. I think it holds up beautifully in retrospect, but at the moment it must have been excruciating. Were you in the room with him?
I was in the room! We had gone down [from New York to Washington] on the train that day, and I'd written the speech onto little index cards so it would be easier for him to read at the podium. We practiced it in front of the hotel workers in the afternoon and they loved it. And then, in the evening, I was sitting with Stephen's family at a big circular table. There were a lot of folks who came over and greeted the family, and then once the speech actually started things seemed to get quite tense in there. It did not feel good at all.
One of the things I actually love about the C-Span coverage that I remember is that there are just a lot of very awkward cutaways to people. There's a table where Larry Fishburne and Jeffrey Wright are sitting and they're just having a wonderful time. [laughs] God bless them, because no one else [would] crack a smile. It was quite awkward, and tough!
I remember afterwards, [Colbert] asked me what I thought, and the first thing out of my mouth was, "I thought it was an incredibly brave performance." And I don't even mean politically; I just mean from the standpoint of being a performer and continuing, having that commitment and powering through this devastating energy.
The show is about to go off the air. What's it been like to watch it as a viewer, now that you're no longer with the show?
At first it was hard, because I feel...well, I'm actually about to have a baby any moment. But I've been thinking about this show ending, and while I have a daughter who's three now, that show was the biggest experience until I had a child. And the two actually share a lot in common, in terms of the joy and the frustration and everything. So when I decided to leave — and Stephen was wonderful and accepting of that — it still was very hard to watch it for a while, because, of course, I missed it. But now it's lovely.