Behind the Scenes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report with Writer Eric Drysdale
Eric Drysdale wrote for The Daily Show for six years before helping to develop and then writing for The Colbert Report, where he currently works. You may recognize him as Colbert’s stage manager “Bobby,” although that character hasn’t been seen since April of 2008, when Colbert ate him. Naturally.
In addition to his work for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, he’s also created a 3-D ViewMaster show, “The Man with F.E.E.E.T,” which recently premiered in NYC and is now available for order online. He talked to me about breaking into the comedy writing game, his experience at The Daily Show, what it was like to develop The Colbert Report, and bringing comedy to the exciting field of ViewMasters.
Rachael Mason: What led you to comedy writing?
Eric Drysdale: I don’t know. It was something I always wanted to do. I don’t remember not wanting to do it. I think it came from moving around a lot. When I was a kid, we moved from place to place and I always had to make new friends. My sense of humor was the way in, because I wasn’t going to do it by being the star athlete or the star academic or anything like that. So class clown worked. It didn’t necessarily get me in with the most popular group of people, but it was a way to get to know people, or for people to get to know me.
RM: Do you remember the first comedy-related thing you did?
ED: I would get together with friends and do skits from SNL from the night before for family and friends. And at summer camp I did musicals and the drama program. I did standup for the first time at summer camp when I was 12, and it was terrible.
RM: When did it dawn on you that you could do it for a living?
ED: I don’t know if I looked at it that way. I think I just did it. And then assumed that I could make a living. Which turned out to be wrong, because it certainly didn’t happen right away, or as fast as I wanted it to.
RM: So what was your path then? What was your progression that led you to where you are now?
ED: I was in a community college in Vancouver, and a couple of friends who I had made a couple of short films in high school with, we saw an ad in a local paper, and they were looking for teens for a teen sketch comedy show. And we didn’t have interest in being on camera so we went to the audition and brought writing packets and they hired us. I was 19 at the time. We worked for 7 or 8 months on this Canadian sketch show. And it was an education, for sure. We thought we were the greatest thing in the world, nineteen-year-old kids, getting hired and making a living doing that. And I think we were a little naïve and we were not quite ready. Of course we thought we were, because they said that we were, because they hired us. But we weren’t. So there was a lot of “Why aren’t you putting this thing that I wrote on TV?” Well, because it wasn’t right, of course. And the show wasn’t good.
RM: So that ended, and then what happened after that?
ED: Then I didn’t work for 12 years.
RM: What did you do during that lean 12-year period?
ED: I ended up at Emerson [College] after that, I did a sketch group there, and I did standup. And after that, I meant to move to New York immediately, but I ended up sidetracked to Montreal for a year. And while I was there I didn’t have anything to do. I was working weird little day jobs here and there. And just because I needed something to do, I would go and do standup at a couple of the clubs there. There were two English-speaking clubs. And I guess I did pretty well, because within 6 or 8 months I was middling for road comics, and I wasn’t getting paid a fortune, but I couldn’t believe that someone would pay me $50 to tell jokes. It was very exciting. So I thought “Oh, this is easy, so I’ll go to New York and be a standup comic there.”
And I came to New York and moved in with a friend in the Village and started going to comedy clubs, and because I had had this experience in Montreal, I thought that was what you do. But it doesn’t work that way in New York –- there are a lot of comics and they are not necessarily looking for something different and I was doing some weird character-y or high concept stuff. I was poor –- I was a PA at an industrial film house, and all my friends were poor. And you’d have these bringer shows where you had to bring 10 people, and after a two or three times of asking my friends to spend $50, I just sort of gave up. I just thought, “This is not worth it, I’m not getting anywhere, I am not feeling good about the kind of company I’m in.” Like I didn’t feel like I was in the right place and I didn’t know there was another place where I should have been instead.
I stopped in ‘95 and started again in late ‘97, so there was about three years where I didn’t do any comedy. Which was fine, because I had a lot to learn about just having a job and being an adult. And then I started doing standup again, and I found the alternative scene, which I hadn’t known about, and I found like-minded people –- I performed at Luna Lounge, and then UCB opened up. I ended up there because of standup shows and some people would see me and bring me into their shows. Louis C.K. had seen me at Luna and put me up at UCB in his “Filthy Stupid Comedy Show,” and that was a big boost. That was in ’98 or ’99. From there I got invited to do Comedy Central’s Premium Blend [standup showcase] –- my first TV thing. And by that point I had become kind of a known quantity in the standup world and managed to get someone at The Daily Show to pay attention to me.
RM: Were you constantly sending stuff out around that time? Did you have an agent?
ED: I was doing it on my own. Some people had shown interest in representing me, but I was working a day job and it was decent and –- I didn’t want to do something that I didn’t want to do just because it was comedy and I didn’t want to go to LA. And one person asked me if I wanted to submit to the Man Show and there are like eleven reasons why I don’t want to submit a packet for the Man Show. It’s not my voice, I didn’t want to move to LA and I said “No” and he said “Do you want to be a comedy writer or not?” which struck me as so wrong.
RM: Do you remember what your Daily Show packet was at that time?
ED: The show was very different back then. But the packet was three headlines. It was a much more regimented show then, so they had “This Just In” which had like six jokes in it. Almost magazine style. I remember I wrote one story about the Vatican having a phone card, because that was big news, I guess, at the time, and I wrote something on the Golan Heights, but I don’t know why that was funny. But I guess it worked.
RM: So you started at the Daily Show. What was the job like when you got hired?
ED: I started in January 2000. And Jon Stewart had just started the July before. It was not a political show. So it was in that transition period. It was very different from what it is now. I was absolutely scared shitless at first. It took years to become comfortable doing what I was doing there. And also the job changed, because the show changed so quickly. I mean I remember my first couple of weeks there, we did a story about a guy with the longest fingernails in the world, and a model living in a glass house and really important things like that. But once the 2000 recount started, Jon [Stewart] began to see this other side of the show, bringing it out, which was very exciting to be a part of. I mean when Steve Carell got on John McCain’s bus, we felt like we had crashed the gates in such a huge way. That was really super exciting, and then we did the midterm elections, and just the reputation of the show kept growing and growing.
When Stephen [Colbert] was asked to do this spin off [The Colbert Report], they asked me to go almost as a consultant, because I had worked with Stephen at The Daily Show, and he said I should bring my voice, meaning Stephen’s voice, over to the new show. He used the words “to infect the staff with my –- Stephen’s — voice.” And the idea always was I would go back, because nobody knew, I mean it could have been a huge failure. So I had promised to go back, and then it worked out that I got to stay. I think that saved me from burning out in a huge way and I credit my bosses for understanding that. It was really fun to be part of creating that and being there at the beginning of something.
RM: Can you talk about the process of that?
ED: There was a small group of five of us [writers] – Allison [Silverman], the head writer, the [executive producer] Rich Dahm, and Stephen, of course. It’s amazing how dead on Stephen got it right away. I mean there are definitely things from those first couple shows that don’t exist on the show anymore, but, for instance, the “Word” on the first show, it’s very much like the “Word” now, to a degree– the format is the same. It happened really, really fast. And I give a lot of credit to Stephen and Allison –- they just knew what they wanted and made it happen.
And everybody was worried, “Is it too much Stephen?” and that was the reason I ended up on the show at first [as the character, Bobby, the stage manager]. We were doing these test shows, before the set was even built. We sat in the head writer’s office and the graphics guys came in with a computer with the graphics ready to go, and the videotape guys would come in with a videotape, and press the button when it was time to introduce a clip. So while that was going on, and because I was the only person in the room that he knew, he would turn to me and say “What do you think, Bobby?” and I would be forced to come up with something. So that became part of the show. Of course, as it turns out Stephen is perfectly capable of carrying a show, which I guess in hindsight nobody should be surprised by, but at the time…
We had this plan where we were going to have this backstage element to the show. And it sort of existed in the beginning but it became clear we didn’t need it, because Stephen is really good and people don’t mind watching him for half an hour.
RM: What is the difference between the day-to-day on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report?
ED: They are fairly similar. I think that the Daily Show is a little more day-to-day reactive than Colbert Report is. In terms of the process, I will explain it for Colbert since they are more or less the same. We have a writer’s meeting or two in the morning and pitch ideas for the show or come in with a story we think is interesting but that we don’t have a particular take on yet, and everyone throws in jokes. The head writer culls those down. Then we meet with Stephen and then he picks the ones he likes. We break off into groups of two and then write for the morning. Those assignments are due around one o’clock so we usually have two hours to write a piece. Usually the morning is for something that day –- something more reactive to that day’s news. Then in the afternoon we do longer term segments that aren’t as timely, like “Cheating Death,” or field segments. The “Word” is the toughest part and it’s gotten tougher because it’s become more structured in a way — the way we structure an argument has become more set. If we’re pitching something and we find it has enough of a shape to it and can sustain an argument for that long, we’ll turn it into a “Word.”
RM: How does rewriting work there?
ED: There is a lot of rewriting that happens during the course of the day. When you’re working in the morning you are putting together your best shot at getting a skeleton down, making sure you hit all the issues, and, if you’re lucky, three or four blockbuster jokes that will make it in. So in the afternoon, the head writers and Stephen will go through and say, there is a missing piece of information that will make the story make sense, or more often, that’s a really good piece of information, we need a different joke off of it. We write a lot of jokes every day. Especially if you look at the shows early on in the run, there are fewer jokes. It was more about Stephen’s attitude and character. But at a certain point it became too easy to have him say something that a guy like him would say, and the focus became more and more about jokes, which is great because I think the show is really funny. But it’s also a lot of work.
RM: You have also done your own projects, including standup, while you were working on both the Daily Show and Colbert Report.
ED: I think I did it for a while because I had this leftover worry about my career. It didn’t matter that I had an Emmy at this point. If I wasn’t out there being “Eric Drysdale” and telling everyone who Eric Drysdale was, I would disappear and nobody would ever hire me again. I honestly didn’t have any idea what I would do after Colbert, and I still don’t. And that was the reason I kept performing for all those years, doing standup. I never loved doing standup which took me a long time to realize. I really just stopped a couple of years ago.
RM: What led you to doing those other shows [at UCB] that are more sketch-oriented? [“The Drysdales Present: A Comedy Show,” “The Daryl Hall and John Oates Mumbo Jumbo Hour” and “The Chipperton Family Vocal-Tainers’ Shooby-Dooby-Dooby Hour.” ]
ED: The political aspect of The Daily Show crept up on us and I happen to give a shit about politics. And because it was such a big part of my job, I became very invested in having a point of view on the news. And my job still today is “find the worst news and try to make it funny.” And after six or seven years it really started to get to me. It was an antidote to that. I wanted to do something silly. The things I did outside ended up being a vent for my sillier side. And I did The Chippertons show absolutely just for the fun of it. I loved the source material, the 70’s variety show stuff, and I always wanted to do it and so I did it. And I got to take it to Aspen [comedy festival] and it was really fun and rewarding.
RM: What is your upcoming project, “The Man With F.E.E.E.T: about? How did it evolve?
ED: I took up 3D photography as a hobby in 1995. I found, in my wife’s grandmother’s closet, a 3D camera and just started shooting with it for fun and I always thought I would do something funny with it, but I never really figured out what that would be. It’s just something I’ve been doing on the side for a long time. And shooting on slide film, it’s very arcane technology from the 50’s. It’s this very clunky analog, time consuming process. But when you see the results of it, it’s very striking. So I really enjoyed the process. What really attracted me to the medium was looking at these analog slides on a viewer, instead of on a screen, because it is a different thing. So I went back to the View-Master. And I wrote an original story, kind of a spoof of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I wrote a three-reel View-Master set with a little story booklet, and I premiered it with a staged reading. People will click through viewers along with it.
RM: Do you have any advice for people who want to get into comedy writing?
ED: I get asked this question all the time. And what it really comes down to is: Be really good. The only time that anything ever happened was when I did something that somebody noticed and asked me about it. And when nobody’s noticing, work on being better. And at this point, there is really no excuse, there are so many outlets. You can get together with friends and put a sketch on YouTube. There are no barriers to entry. That’s nice in some ways and it’s also terrifying in some ways, because it’s harder and harder to distinguish yourself and anyone can be funny for five minutes on YouTube and how do you make a career out of that? So, I guess, be really funny. A lot.
RM: Any comedy you recommend?
ED: It’s very easy to get caught up in “What comedy should I see?” and I think you can learn as much by seeing things that are not comedy. Reading things. I go to museums a lot. You have to know something about the world that you are making fun of, so the more experience you have with things other than comedy the better. Also, many skills are hugely transferable to comedy. I always recommend that people find and nurture passions for other things, too.
Rachael Mason is an actress and writer living in Brooklyn. She teaches sketch writing at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She also performs regularly with her improv group, Rockhammer and writes for the house UCB sketch team, Gramps.