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August 2014
Issue: September 1, 2009

SPECIAL REPORT: STEPHEN COLBERT REPORTS ON IRAQ

By: Randi Altman
NEW YORK — The task was rewarding, but daunting. Doing four Colbert Report shows live from Iraq in front of an audience of soldiers. The gear was PAL, so conversions to NTSC were necessary, there was no technical support and they were using one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, Al-Faw, as a set, control room and broadcast facility.
Did they have to scale down the show due to the shooting conditions? No, says Stephen Colbert. "We just did our show… over there. I thought I would have to, but in fact one of the most difficult things we do technically is Formidable Opponent, and we managed to tear one of those off." (See story on page 16 for technical details.)
In fact, everything Colbert asked of his staff was accomplished. "They said, 'We'll figure out a way to do it,' and they did. I also said, 'Let me know when it becomes too much trouble.' For instance, Formidable Opponent is a huge trouble, but they pulled it off. Technical director Jon Pretnar, who has a big mustache, was operating the board, and my joke is that he used both hands and his mustache to push buttons."
It was important to Colbert and crew to give the soldiers what they had requested. "We had been invited to go over there from General Petraeus's office, but the invitation really comes from the troops. And we thought it would be patronizing not to do everything we normally do content-wise; there is really only one way to write the show and that is write the show."
Colbert didn't want a watered down version of the The Report just because it was taking place on the road, so each night the show featured segments they would normally do back in New York. "Whether it was a Word or Formidable Opponent or Better Know Your District — or in this case Better Know A Coalition Partner or Better Know a Cradle of Civilization — and a Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger, because every night we wanted to do something that was signature to the show," he says. "So it felt like we were really doing our home show over there."
The one thing that was different was the placement of Colbert's over-the-shoulders and lower-thirds. "We performed for the soldiers in a way that plays best for a 500-seat house, and then we broadcasted in a way that looked best for a home audience," explains Colbert. "So you are seeing the same show but there were different graphical presentations. My graphics were happening in the wings on big projection screens." So the soldiers got to see things on the big screens and the television audience saw what it usually sees.

NO REGRETS

The Sunday after he returned from Baghdad, Colbert sat down with his wife and watched the shows. Looking back, there wasn't anything he would have done differently. "I was perfectly happy," he says. "I mean, I wish we had more time because there were parts of interviews we had to cut, even though the network gave us a little extra time for first broadcast, if needed — we couldn't take advantage of it because we didn't have time to majorly cut the show twice."
The seven-day trip was a bit of a blur for Colbert, who admits to getting little sleep, but he says the most memorable moment of the journey was when his staff joined him on stage. "After the last show was over and the camera was off, I stood on my desk,  thanked the audience, and tried to explain what my staff had done — that no one would know how difficult it had been because they pulled it off flawlessly." The audience applauded the staff and the staff and Colbert applauded the audience for their service to the country. "That was the sweetest moment of the trip, how genuine their gratitude was to how hard my staff worked and how grateful I was to the soldiers for having invited us and for what they were doing for our country."
All in all, a very positive experience, one that co-executive producer Meredith Bennett, supervising producer Tanya Bracco and production manager Jeremy Tchaban say they would do again in a minute. "That's great to hear and, yes, I would too," says Colbert, "but I wouldn't necessarily do it to my staff again. It was absolutely worth doing, but you can't always ask all of your staff, 'What is the most you are capable of?'" He doesn't want them to lose their joy, and "it was a great and joyful experience for us.