Though Allison Silverman briefly considering becoming a scientist, she eventually ended up majoring in humanities at Yale University. After graduating in 1994, she moved to Chicago to study with such comedy institutions as ImprovOlympic and the Second City Conservatory, the alma mater of future employer Stephen Colbert. During her graduation show at the Second City in 1996, she performed an original song called “These Are My Gandhi Years,” in which she sang about the trials of being poor and underfed as a struggling artist.
A year spent improvising with the Boom Chicago comedy troupe in Amsterdam was enough to convince her that she preferred the desktop to the stage. She wrote trivia—cooking up amusing minutiae for the ABC quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (1999) and the computer game You Don’t Know Jack! (2000)—before finally mustering the courage to cold-call Daily Show head writer Ben Karlin and ask for a job.
Her groundbreaking year at The Daily Show led to a four-year run writing for Late Night With Conan O’Brien, for which she won three Writers Guild awards.
Then she made a major career gamble, leaving a dependable writing post at Late Night to write for The Colbert Report, hosted by her one-time Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert. As co-head writer with Richard Dahm since 2005 and a co-executive producer since September 2007, Silverman is largely responsible for much of Colbert’s fictional persona—including the idea for Colbert to strut around his desk as guests make their entrance over to the desk.
“That was my idea,” Silverman said. “For me, it felt like a strong statement of ego: that Stephen would be jealous of even that tiniest moment when his guests would be in the spotlight. So he diverts all of the attention—to himself.”
How did the Exit Players [at Yale] differ from the other groups?
I thought they were the flat-out funniest. There was another group that performed long-form material, but I didn’t really understand that method until after I graduated.
What’s the difference between short- and long-form?
Long-form improv was most famously taught by Del Close through his “Harold” method. Essentially, a group of performers receive one suggestion from the audience and then create a whole piece around that subject. There are three acts, each with three scenes. This method teaches that you shouldn’t go for the immediate and easy punchlines. Short-form, on the other hand, consists of more gags.
Is this something you’d recommend for humor writers—to start with improv comedy?
Absolutely. I think there are a few reasons why it’s a great idea. One is simply that you learn timing—what does and doesn’t work with audiences. If you’ve never experienced an audience in this specific way, it’s more difficult to learn later on.
It also helps—if you are going to write for somebody else, like I have for Conan, Jon, and Stephen—to understand the needs of a performer. Sometimes writers become very enamored with their own material—especially those who write for print. But what is very, very funny on the page might not work before an audience.
Third, I think it’s vital that comedy writers don’t hole themselves up and work alone. They need to meet and have a community of like-minded people—some of whom might hire you down the line. It is much easier to create this community if you’re performing.
Did you receive a drama degree from Yale?
I was a humanities major, but it’s been mentioned by a few journalists that I was a molecular biology major—which I definitely was not. I do love science, though.
Did you approach humor with a scientific eye?
Actually, I did. When I lived in Chicago after college, I would watch the Second City performances, and I would take notes on the performers and on their individual moves.
What sort of moves?
I’d make notes about how each performer responded to their onstage partner. Status informs all humor. Specifically, a lot of comedy is about status shifts, and I would mark down whenever a shift would occur.
A “status shift” is about who controls the power in a scene. You see this in real life all the time. You see it with parents and kids; the parents are obviously in control, because they’re older and bigger, but when the kid throws a tantrum, the parents try to placate the child by giving them something. Now the kid is in control. That’s a status shift.
So what does that mean within the context of a sketch?
I’ll give you an example: John Cleese would often play characters who were in charge but shouldn’t have been. A lot of what makes his characters so funny is that they are completely unfit to lead. In the Monty Python “Kilimanjaro Expedition” sketch, he’s leading an expedition to climb Kilimanjaro, but he has double vision and thinks Kilimanjaro has two peaks.
It’s not funny to see someone powerless being mocked. I think most people react against that, actually—unless they are a particularly cruel audience. What’s much more fun is to see someone who does have power, and is in the dominant position, become exposed.
Can you give me a specific example of how status came into play with any of the television shows you’ve written for?
I once wrote a sketch on Late Night With Conan O’Brien that I liked because it dealt with some issues that were on my mind at the time.
The sketch started with Conan returning from a commercial break and saying something to the effect of, “I’ve got to tell you, sometimes being a talk show host makes me feel a little guilty. I could have been a lawyer or a doctor—that would have been way more valuable to society.”
There was an actor in the audience who piped up, “Excuse me, Conan. I am a doctor, and I just wanted to let you know that you couldn’t have become a doctor, so just stop worrying about it. You just don’t have the skills to be a doctor—or the intellect!” The “doctor” then injures an audience member and demands that Conan prove that he actually could have been a physician. Conan manages to treat this “patient” brilliantly.
It starts with a switch: At first, Conan is in charge and says, “I could have been a doctor.” The doctor says, “No, actually, I am in charge, and you couldn’t have become a doctor even if you’d wanted to.” And then it switches once again.
The character of Stephen Colbert is very much about status.
Oh, absolutely. Stephen is all about status and the trappings of power. This is a character who looks to be in charge, and he constantly feels threatened by people who have much less than he has. There’s a real vulnerability buried deep within that character. His ego is a high-wire act.
One important thing about Stephen’s character is that while he’s a moron, he’s not an asshole. There is an essential innocence to his character. He’s well intentioned, but poorly informed. And because of this vulnerability, the audience comes to accept him.
It also helps that the real Stephen is a genuinely kind person. Even when he plays this character, the audience still detects that Stephen’s a good-hearted guy. That’s a major factor with our show: if Stephen couldn’t pull that off, the show wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is.
He’s not the brightest chap, this “Stephen Colbert” character.
That’s one of the fun things about him. He is stupid, and yet, every once in a while, he will express some sort of minute knowledge that impresses everyone. He knows exactly how and why car engines work.
But the character is a complete moron when it comes to other matters. For instance, he thought Watership Down, the book about a society of rabbits, was nonfiction. And it very much bothered him that the rabbits were at war. v