His job is a joke
From school to VH1, Michael Colton has been the good humor man
NEW YORK -- His writing partner moved to Los Angeles and won't be on hand for the taping, Michael Colton explains on a recent Tuesday while preparing to shoot a segment for "Best Week Ever," the satirical news show airing Fridays on VH1.
Holding pages of jokes he's written for the cable show, a weekly skewering of celebrity news performed by a large cast of writers and comedians, Colton warns darkly, "So I'll only be half as funny as normal today."
Okaaay. With that, the 28-year-old Newton
native and Harvard graduate strides down the hallway with producer Colby Hall and into a small room at Paramount Studios' midtown headquarters, where Colton plops himself in front of a bright orange backdrop and gets serious about being funny. Hall takes a seat a few feet from Colton and starts feeding him topics in rapid-fire fashion. Most are grounded in the pop-culture news of the moment, from reality-TV wars to celebrity scandals. At times Colton ignores his notes and simply wings it, counting on Hall to judge whether an ad-libbed punchline connects or not.
Boom. Bam. Wham. Once Colton gets rolling,
the hits just keep on coming. On the proliferation of "CSI" dramas on CBS this season: "Every one of these shows has a gimmick. On the original `CSI,' William Petersen is losing his hearing. On `CSI: Miami,' David Caruso is losing his hair. And on `CSI: NY,' Gary Sinese is losing his dignity of being an Oscar nominee."
On the recent surfacing of a second X-rated Paris Hilton videotape: "Is anyone surprised? I mean, I bet if I look in my garage right now, I'll find another Paris Hilton sex tape."
On Courtney Love facing her fourth court appearance this year: "One more" -- Colton holds up a well-punched meal card and waves it at the camera -- "and she gets a free tuna sandwich!"
The taping lasts about an hour, though Colton will get only a few minutes' air time after the show is edited. Other topics getting the business include Star Jones seeking corporate sponsorship for her wedding ("Campbell's Chunky Soup would be a natural"), Sinead O'Connor campaigning to fight head lice in children ("Why is no one fighting head lice in adults?" Colton moans, scratching his head), and NBC announcing Conan O'Brien will replace Jay Leno in 2009 ("Only 1,150 shows to go!").
Like a pro tennis coach, Hall keeps pounding setup lines at Colton. And Colton keeps volleying them back. With authority. Boom. Bam. Wham.
"The kid's got skills, all right," Hall says after one hilarious flurry. Colton leans back, takes a sip of water, and shrugs as if to say: Four years of Harvard, and I'm making a living telling Paris Hilton jokes? Pinch me.
The taping finished, Colton strolls a few blocks to a midtown restaurant and takes a seat. Slightly built and boyishly handsome, he could pass for a law clerk or junior ad executive. Over a salad and pan-seared salmon, Colton spends the next hour talking about his budding career as a comedy writer and the state of comedy writing in general, his own move to LA this month ("My wife and I are finally going to buy a car. And get a puppy!"), and how, as a writer first and foremost, he sometimes feels like a fish out of water on a show like "Best Week Ever." "Everybody else in the cast is a standup comedian, and we're not," Colton notes, referring to his on-air partner John Aboud with whom he collaborates on screenplays and television pilots as well.
The show's format and focus on celebrity fluff suits him nicely, Colton continues, brushing breadcrumbs from his blue "Brooklyn" T-shirt. And yet, he says, "I'm not interested in being cast in a sitcom -- although playing an extreme version of myself is fun." He smiles. "If I'm offered something? Yeah, I'd do it."
A student of joke writing -- he counts Woody Allen and "The Simpsons" as influences and credits his father, an MIT math professor, with giving him the analytical tools to deconstruct how a joke actually works -- Colton landed on "Best Week Ever" after he and Aboud pitched VH1 on a similar comedy show last year. The pilot, called "Get Your Geek On," never made it into production. However, producer Fred Graver, a former Letterman show writer who knew Colton and Aboud from their Modern Humorist days (more on that in a moment), invited them to join the cast of another show he was developing. That show, "Best Week Ever," has demonstrated strong appeal to 20-something viewers who like their humor larded with irony and are almost absurdly obessed with pop culture.
Says Graver of Colton and Aboud, "They'd rather be known for being funny than being smart -- and they're both very smart, even though they went to Harvard." The two writers also have terrific chemistry, according to Graver. "Michael will be talking -- he usually starts talking first -- and John will just stare at the camera" before gathering himself and saying "something goofy and stupid" that perfectly complements where Colton has been headed.
Asked to evaluate his own strengths as a writer, Colton is momentarily at a loss for words.
"I've never taken an objective look at that," he answers slowly. Both he and Aboud are "good at pop-culture humor, and interested in big, broad, `Airplane!' style gag humor," he offers. "But that's a hard question."
He scratches his head -- lice-free, presumably -- and says that if he and Aboud had not worked together on the Modern Humorist website, "I probably would have tried standup comedy at some point, because a lot of people do that to get noticed." Colton pauses. "You need a thick skin for that," he acknowledges. "And at Modern Humorist, we developed thick skins."
Laughing his way up
Comedy isn't pretty, as Steve Martin famously observed. However, Colton has made it look pretty easy in establishing himself as a rising star in the mad, mad world of comedy writing.
After Newton North High School, where he wrote a humor column for the school newspaper, he worked for both The Crimson and Lampoon at Harvard (Aboud, two years ahead of him, did similar double-duty) and contributed pieces to The Boston Globe. Bright enough to have scored 1600 on his college boards, Colton was recruited to help write a guidebook titled "Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT," which remains in print in an updated version.
After Harvard, Colton wrote features for The
"I wasn't very good at it," Colton admits, spearing a forkful of salmon. "The writing always interested me more than the reporting."
Moving to New York after leaving the Post, Colton worked at Brill's Content, the now-defunct media magazine. In Manhattan he also reconnected with Aboud, who, according to Colton, had twice turned him down for a Lampoon position. That's not how Aboud remembers things.
"Mike likes to imply there was malice involved, which there was not," says Aboud, speaking by phone from his home in LA. In analyzing their creative chemistry, Aboud cites what he calls his and Colton's "pseudojournalistic backgrounds" and obsessions with pop-culture trivia as being the driving forces.
"We joke that when Mike moves to LA we'll dig a trench between houses and install fiber-optic cables," says Aboud, who sounds as if he's only half joking.
In fact, both say, they work best when working on multiple projects at once, with multiple drafts of various works in progress. Currently they have scripts for two network TV pilots in circulation -- one loosely based on Colton's experiences as a Post reporter -- and are negotiating with Disney to write a screenplay based on a Roald Dahl book. Somewhere in LA also, searching for a producer, is a screenplay of theirs that spoofs feel-good sports films like "Hoosiers" and "Remember the Titans." Says Colton, "I think it's the best thing we've written so far."
Still, it has been a bumpy road to Hollywood for the two writers, who began their partnership when Colton got the notion of writing a web-based parody of Tina Brown's Talk magazine -- before the magazine's first issue came out. The Talk spoof was such a hit that not only did Colton leave his job at Brill's Content, but he and Aboud raised nearly $1 million in venture capital to launch their own website, Modern Humorist.
At its high point in 2001, Modern Humorist had offices in Brooklyn, a 12-person staff, and ambitions to become a comedy-brand franchise rivaling National Lampoon. There were TV shows and books in the pipeline -- three were actually published, including "My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook By George W. Bush" -- and a sideline writing funny ad copy for clients like
ist.com) still links to a library of classic MH features like its "First Aid for the Dying Dot-Com" poster and a parody of the "Encyclopedia Brown" children's story series, including "Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missing WMDs." Says Colton, "We were always writers playing the role of businessmen. In our press kit, we actually promoted our lack of business experience. But eventually John and I concluded, painfully, that we should just be writing for ourselves.
Aboud: "We should have been ready for the meteor to crash to Earth. Instead, like the dinosaurs in `Fantasia,' we roamed around singing `Rites of Spring.' "
A few positives emerged from the MH debacle, both writers admit. They landed gigs on National Public Radio and did a handful of live shows in Manhattan, which helped develop their performing chops. Plus they got some national publicity, strictly unintended, when Al Gore appeared on Letterman's show in 2000 and read a Top Ten List entry that may or may not have been lifted from the MH website. (Colton says it probably wasn't, and doesn't matter anyway.) Also, most importantly, they learned that building a comedy empire is hard work. Harder than pitching a movie to Harvey Weinstein, even, and watching the Miramax mogul's eyes glaze over.
"John and I do our best performing in pitch meetings now," says Colton. "The key is going to
One thing he and Aboud have not reprised is their pranking during the last presidential campaign, during which they distributed fake speeches and campaign stickers at the parties' national conventions.
Happy not to be reporting for duty on Campaign 2004, Colton thinks political humor is growing nastier, not kinder and gentler. "There are jokes to be made about the Swift Boat gang, but they'd be a lot angrier," he says with a trace of humorist's regret. Then he smiles and says, "Though I could see doing a bumper sticker saying, `Vote For Bush: He Would Never Exaggerate His Service in Vietnam.' "
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.