Breaking Ground

When Stephen Colbert Needed Me To Get It Done

David Stone

The location for our meeting could not have been less auspicious. When I got a call from Busboy Productions, Jon Stewart's production company, I had no inkling I was walking in on the ground floor of a structure he and Stephen Colbert would build that led to Colbert’s replacing David Letterman as host of the Late Show on CBS. I don't think they did either.

Setting the Stage for the Next Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert by David Shankbone
Stephen Colbert by David Shankbone
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

It was a hot morning in the summer of 2005.

I'd been working with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Comedy Central for a few years when I got the call.

“Working with” is a bit of an exaggeration. I was senior sales executive for a computer networking services company and had brought both in as new accounts. I did the selling. A talented team of techs did all the meaningful work.

But things were about to get a lot more interesting.

All fantasies of glamour dissolve when you meet the reality of basic cable TV production.

For my meeting with Meredith Bennett, executive producer of the yet to be launched Colbert Report, I was invited to climb three flights of stairs to the former apartment where she'd set up (let’s call it) an office in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood whisking away conditions that earned it its name.

Bennett, who was to shoulder a number of titles, all of which had “producer” in it, for The Colbert Report (and on to The Late Show), worked for Busboy Productions, the company Stewart started when he was a rising star on MTV, ten years before.

They were embarking on a different kind of show, she told me, featuring Stephen Colbert, to follow The Daily Show at 11:30 on Comedy Central.

I was excited for several reasons, one of which I admit were commission checks materializing in my head. Another was the bragging right to work with another of the quirkiest of up and coming comedy all-stars, this time on something original and groundbreaking.

Along with Steve Carrell and Lewis Black, Colbert gave The Daily Show some of the funniest antics ever on American TV. His manic segment, This Week In God, knocked me out, pulling off the seemingly impossible task of making religion funny as well as topical.

Imagining what Colbert might do with expanded air time was worth a laugh, just to consider.

This was also one of those New York only experiences I loved about my job, you know, sweating through my suit in a third floor walkup while considering a role in tipping the entertainment world on its ear.

(Little things matter. I also got a bang out of the South Park pinball machine Comedy Central kept in their lobby.)

All I imagined that day came to pass, although less on the money side than the others, but the uniqueness of the situation soon had me awake in the middle of the night, coming up with solutions to get my part of launching The Colbert Report off the digital ground.

Oh, yeah, the claim in the title of this page, that isn't 100% true. Sorry. I could not resist. If I hadn't pulled it off, someone else would have. The Colbert Report was destiny in the making. I was just the lucky stiff who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

When Stephen Colbert Needed Me To Get It Done

Up and Stumbling

The thing that vanished first was my dream of making a lot of money, and the second was the cozy feeling I expected in working with Meredith Bennett like the one I had working The Daily Show's Georgia Pappas.

Working with The Daily Show, I'd found a comfortable groove with line producer Pappas and her assistant Pam DePace. Effective while maintaining an illusion of being laid back, Pappas kept The Daily Show running on a tight budget, sometimes tying things together, from my point of view, with digital baling wire and paper clips.

Bennett was different.

With a huge assignment in her lap and no room for error, always respectfully but firmly, she let me know that she expected results quickly and on budget. Especially on budget.

Budget is the key word to keep in mind here.

When I gave her a rough budget of what it'd take to set up the client-server network she required, the shades of color in Bennett's face intensifed with every dollar sign.

It might be what they needed, but The Colbert Report had only a three month contract with Comedy Central, enough time to prove their value or strangle themselves, and there just wasn’t enough cash for what I came up with.

Bennett left no doubt that she expected something better. Soon.

On the other hand, the details she gave me about Stephen Colbert’s new show were inspiring.

He was going to assume a whole new persona in a satirical send up of conservative TV hosts. A major factor in what became nine years of great shows were the months they had to hone Colbert’s new, assumed personality, injected into fake news, before they went live.

The change was remarkable. Colbert evolved on screen from a spontaneous, whimsical, witty nice guy into a rigid, inflexible crank who figured out how to leak impressive, original humor through the cracks.

Does Complexity Motivate or Crush You?

While I had no role in creating the groundbreaking series to come, I had a decent one in making it possible.

My existing business relationships with both Comedy Central and The Daily Show depended on my making it work. If I failed Colbert, I'd be replaced, one, two, three.

It was unknown territory for me as well as for my company, but one of the benefits of working for a small, young and energetic operation is that its arteries had not yet hardened into routines. More than that, our owners were lively guys, even a little crazy, who started the business because they liked taking chances and doing new things.

Yet, they were not reluctant to make clear the importance of profits when it came to paying off mortgages and saving for their kids' educations.

My boss, one of the owners, helped me out with the critical tactic without which I could not have finished my assignment within the budget given me.

He had a contact from whom he'd been able to lease equipment for short terms, although on a much smaller scale. I needed enough computers, servers, firewalls, routers and switches, not to mention all the cabling patching it together, to keep 50 creative people humming on deadline five days a week for at least three months.

The Daily Show, Bennett told me, would be vacating the studio and office spaces they'd originally taken over from public television on the far west side of Manhattan, moving into space a few blocks away vacated by the Food Channel when they moved to Chelsea Piers.

The Colbert Report would slide into The Daily Show’s emptied out space as they migrated to the Food Channel's...

Are you following this?

So, as we helped Jon Stewart’s team relocate their technology backbone, we’d be building out a whole new one for Stephen Colbert’s. With used equipment.

(Surely you didn’t think a leasing company would have affordable new equipment ready to go, did you?)

I didn’t even want to know what the Food Channel was doing. There wasn’t enough money around to create enough room inside my skull for details.

When Stephen Colbert Needed Me To Get It Done

Execution (Fortunately Not Mine)

I got lucky really.

The company my boss gave me for rental equipment was terrific, their rep quick with help, their prices manageable.

Deliveries of equipment and installations, tied in with our tech staff, came off with few hitches.

Another lucky thing, although I'd gotten used to it, was the talent on hand with my company’s team of engineers.

What seemed mind-boggling to me found them undaunted. True, they were dubious about pulling it off with used and leased equipment, but in general, they were accustomed to dealing with the zany zealotry of people on commission. Me, for example.

A few things, software licensing for example, had to be bought outright, but leasing kept us within budget. Setting up the network to hum on the day The Colbert Report staff came in and spun up hard drives on their PCs was the more serious challenge.

Our guys pulled it off, though, and the computers, even those on which a temp worker at God Knows Where, Inc., had recently killed time playing Tic-Tac-Toe, sprung to life when electricity lit up the motherboards.

A legacy we had to deal with was equipment The Daily Show left behind and Colbert needed, some of it with its place at the Smithsonian History Museum already assured.

I remember one feed from a news service, The Associated Press, I think, where the equipment had not been updated since PBS parked it in a dank basement room all too much like a dungeon. How our guy got the magic of virtualization on that dinosaur going, I don’t know, but he pulled it off.

We were kept so busy, we didn't have time to imagine we were, in the background, a crucial link to television's future.

And the Rest Is History

You'd never have guessed what we rigged and patched together by what you saw on TV when The Colbert Report went live that fall.

Stephen Colbert is one of the most brilliant people ever to raise the standards for what we watch on TV. Using my ingenuity,  and my company’s support (and my lust for commissions) to help him get on the air smoothly is an achievement I will always be proud of.

Now that Colbert's taken over the Late Show on CBS from David Letterman and the incredible challenge of joking through Trumpism, I feel a small (well, minuscule really) part of something big.

And one more thing, as I was in the background, so were Meredith Bennett and her team, including Tanya Michnevich Bracco, the assistant with whom I worked most closely. Both were critical to the show’s success. Yet, they found time to be generous, too.

In the early weeks of The Colbert Report’s lifetime, I brought my wife to see a show live.

This was a difficult time for our family, especially my wife.

As we sat in the bleachers, eager to be entertained, Tanya found us and handed my wife a shopping bag. In it was a personal gift from the production team.

(Bracco went on to be the current supervising producer of The Late Show with Steven Colbert.)

I will never forget that. They paid my company a lot of money for our services. Kindness is a whole other category, not one you always expect in the intense, electrified world of live TV production.  

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