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Now a senior producer at The Colbert Report, Nicole Savini was a student at BU when she had a watershed moment. Working on a project for the student-run, client-driven production company Hothouse Productions, Savini (COM’99) was producing a public service announcement for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. As happens “on even the most well-oiled show,” Savini says, things started to fall apart—the editing software stopped working the day before the group’s deadline, making it impossible to finish the project.
The next morning, in a panic, she called Garland Waller, a College of Communication assistant professor of film and television, who was, and still is, in charge of Hothouse. “She calmly said, ‘Nicole, now you’re a producer,’” Savini recalls. “It was a subtle way of telling me that it was my responsibility; that being the producer means dealing with everything that goes wrong. I’ve learned that that’s the hardest part of being a producer, but also the most rewarding.”
Savini has worked for the Peabody- and Emmy-winning Colbert Report, the nightly satirical news program airing on Comedy Central, since it debuted in 2005. She began her television career as a page at NBC before landing a job as an assistant on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
Tonight, she will be on campus to talk about what it’s like to work on The Colbert Report and to screen clips from the show as part of the Cinematheque series, a COM program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.
Bostonia spoke with Savini about working for funnyman Stephen Colbert, the challenges of filming a satirical news segment about tracking down missing scallop guts in Maine, and how tough—and rewarding—her profession can be.
Savini: I’d say from birth, because of my dad. He’s hilarious. We had a neighborhood talent show, and we’d write sketches. In high school I did shows for the school TV station and was always trying to do comedy pieces, with questionable success. I thought I wanted to be a writer and write for sitcoms when I left BU. But my parents really pushed me to stay in New York and on the East Coast, because they live in the Boston area. They told me if I stayed on the East Coast for a year and still wanted to go to Los Angeles, they’d buy me a car. But I’m still here 15 years later and didn’t get my car. When I came to New York to work as an NBC page there were no sitcoms filmed here, so there was no opportunity to work on a sitcom.
When I got the opportunity to work at Late Night with Conan O’Brien as a page, I fell in love, and then I got a full-time job at Late Night. After five years of working there, I wanted to try something new. So I thought, I’m a lady, I would like to work on a morning show. I realized I preferred comedy, so my goal became to get back to comedy.
Well I can’t speak for America, and I can’t speak for Stephen. I remember early on, before the show started taping, having read-throughs and thinking, this is hilarious, this is going to be so good. I wasn’t surprised when the show became popular, because I was already in awe of Stephen and how funny he is. But it was just so exciting to see that there was an immediate response and that people seemed to immediately get it.
There are three field producers on the show. It’s mostly a studio-based show, and most of the time Stephen is in the studio behind the desk, but we get to bring him out in the world and let him interact with people, which gives everybody some variety and is a lot of fun.
We do field pieces that have Stephen in them—examples of that would be the “Better Know a District” congressional interviews and “Fall Back Positions,” where he learns to do another job in case this pundit job of his doesn’t work out. Or sometimes it’s a case of, this is happening, and Stephen should be there.
There are other pieces we do that are news magazine profile–type pieces. Stephen voices them, so it’s still very much in the voice of Stephen and the show, but those feature average Americans (and sometimes a Canadian or two) as the star of the story. One example was a guy who was taking photos of Amtrak trains and got arrested for it by Amtrak police, presumably as part of antiterrorism efforts. The problem was that he was taking those photos because Amtrak was having a “Picture Our Trains” photography contest. That’s an example of one of our “Nailed ’Em” segments, when bureaucracy rules and people either get arrested or in serious trouble for a reason that is questionable.
So I pitch an idea to my boss, who gives me some feedback, and then I’ll go out and interview everyone involved in the story and put together a five- to seven-minute piece that profiles this person or their situation and is hopefully funny as well.
My coworkers and I say all the time that we don’t really know how we would do this job without the internet. There are lots of great sites that cull news and put it in one place. I spend a lot of time reading local news sites that focus on offbeat news. Sometimes my family will call with a good idea. I’m always telling people that if they read a story that’s weird, silly, infuriating, or just plain interesting, to call me, because I’m willing to look into anything to see if it would make a great story.
We spend some time trying to think what Stephen’s point of view would be, what side he would take. Each producer has a different style, which is why I think our department works. For me, I really love finding a character, someone who I am fascinated to talk to. If I find a great story and then call someone and they have me really excited and I don’t want to stop talking to them, then I know it will work. I’ll type up an outline of how I think it will go, but I like to leave room for discovery out in the field. We usually shoot in a day or two, and use a locally hired crew. That’s cool because it means we have different cameramen, and cameramen also bring something to a piece. Along with an associate producer, usually we’ll get all of the interviews done and shoot some b-roll. Then we get back to New York, get in the editing room with about 5 to 10 hours of footage, and figure how to make it about 6 to 7 minutes long.
It really depends on the news. If I go shoot something about drones, and the next week the president is making a speech about drones, then I’ll have a week to turn it around. But if I go shoot something about missing scallop guts, then it’s probably not so time-sensitive, and I will have more time. So it depends, but it’s usually not less than a week.
I find it easier to turn a piece around quickly when it stars Stephen because he is hilarious, so there is plenty of funny and it’s easy to create a great piece in little time. There’s no searching for jokes—it’s more about figuring out which ones you (sadly) have to cut out.
I won’t shoot with them unless they are clear about who I am and where I come from. Usually I’ll say, “I’m with The Colbert Report and we’re a satirical news program. Do you know it?” At this point, most people know it. They either know of it or they watch it. I’ll send examples of what we’ve done before. So I can’t say that everyone I interview watches the show, but I always tell them who I am and where I am from.
I’ll be bringing one about the strange disappearance of five gallons of scallop guts to the Cinematheque. That one has a place in my heart because I’m from New England. The news magazine–style ones are harder to do in my opinion, so I am proud of them because they really show our department’s creativity.
I did one called “Too Hot to Fish” that came from an Athens, Ga., headline: “Man Says It’s Too Hot to Fish.” So we went down to do an investigative report, asking the question, “Was it too hot to fish?” I just loved the characters in that. We were in Georgia, and the journalist who wrote the story was such a wonderful man and a great example of an old-school journalist.
I’m also going to show clips from a three-part piece called “Stephen Colbert’s Raging Art-On.” It was so fun, because I think a lot of people don’t know much about the art world and they might feel intimidated by it. So it was fun to let Stephen go in there and ask the questions that people might be too afraid to ask. We had a great time sitting down with the art auctioneer; we looked at art, learned how to talk about it, and went to a fancy art party. And then Stephen auctioned off his portrait for $26,000, with the proceeds going to benefit childhood education. I learned so much in the process of that piece, so it’s one of my favorites.
It is, but at the end of the day it is a job. That’s what I always tell our interns; we have a great intern program here. I am so lucky in this job, and it is very interesting, but it is superhard and I’m challenged every day. I’ve been here almost nine years now, and I still find it hard. I think that’s good. It would be terribly boring if that weren’t the case.
I think all people who work in creative fields go through this; there’s that moment when I come back into the edit room with 10 hours of footage, and I almost always think that it’s not going to work. My friends and family always remind me that I tell them that every time. I think a lot of writers feel that way—you hit that creative block, sometimes before you even start. Part of the joy is when you make it work.
Seeing my work on TV is definitely my favorite part. I love when my pieces air, and I can stand off to the side backstage and watch the audience and Stephen. It’s really fun to see people laugh at your jokes and clap for your work.
I think television can be a really tough field, especially if you’re not sure it is what you want to be doing. I’ve had so many fun experiences and met so many cool people in my line of work, but I would caution anyone who thinks that’s all it is. My first few years I was making so little money and trying to live in New York City. I would babysit the writers’ kids at Late Night because I just wanted to be around everything and everyone having to do with the show. I was willing to do anything, within reason of course. I was always game. If they were doing a shoot that weekend and asked me if I wanted to help, even if I wasn’t getting paid, I would always say yes. That would be my biggest piece of advice: to always be willing to help whenever and wherever. Eventually you don’t have to do that anymore, but in the beginning, you have to be willing to do the unglamorous things—to get coffee, to watch a door for six hours. I kept doing it because I knew for sure it’s where I wanted to be.
Nicole Savini speaks tonight, Friday, March 21, at 7 p.m., at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.