Tom Purcell is currently the executive producer for The Colbert Report. He’s been with the show since 2005, first as a writer, then head-writer, then producer. During his time with the program, he has received a Writer’s Guild Award, and the show’s first Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing For A Variety, Music Or Comedy Program. The series has a combined total of 15 Emmy nominations, and also received the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting.
Before Colbert came along, Purcell wrote for Cosby and Grounded For Life. He is a veteran of the legendary comedy collective, The Second City, where he has also taught or directed countless shows and classes.
Where did you grow up?
In St Joseph, Michigan, just north of South Bend, Indiana, which you might remember from the race riots. It’s an all white city next to an all black city, so there was a lot of racial tension there. I moved there from Oak Park, Illinois. I remember the first day of sixth grade, a kid stopped me on the playground and said, “Don’t worry, if they try to come over the bridge, me and my dad will be there with shotguns.” And I was terrified, I was like, “Who’s coming over the bridge?” And the kid looks at me like I’m a moron and goes, “You know: the n***ers.” Horrible, you know. So that was my introduction to the town. If you weren’t born there, you were never really part of it. I felt like a new kid for nine years.
What was your saving grace?
In St Joe’s, the high school newspaper was basically this comedy newspaper called The Wind Up. This teacher Mr. Holt had made it completely independent. It was all ad revenue and donations, so no high school money went into it. This guy bought it for the independence. I remember as a freshman, there was this kid Will Peyovich. When people say, who is your comedy hero, I say Will Peyovich. His stuff was brilliant, I wanted to be just like him.
So you followed in his footsteps?
Yeah, by senior year I had the main comedy column, I was the features editor. So I basically started writing comedy when I was 15 years old.
Did you know immediately you wanted to do that forever?
Pretty much, I think, looking back. I just gravitated towards the people at that paper. But after high school I went to Loyola for college because my father was a professor there. So I went there for free. And then I spent so much time broke. I don’t understand how people with student loans do comedy, because I was broke for ten years. I couldn’t have imagined throwing an extra five hundred bucks for a loan into that. It would have killed me.
After you got into college, did you jump right into comedy classes? You were already in Chicago, which is kind of the comedy epicenter.
I did, yeah. I started taking classes in the mid 80s. Well, actually, right after school I know my parents thought I’d be going to law school, and actually I was really good at filling in ovals. I got a killer LSAT score, I could have gotten in anywhere. But I remember I told my father on Father’s Day that I wasn’t going to NYU Law School, and instead I was going to do comedy. I said I was taking a “year off,” and my father, God bless him, he actually paid for a bunch of improv classes for me when I was super broke.
So he was supportive of you pursuing comedy?
On some levels, he definitely worried about me. But he kind of appreciated all of it, and he had a great sense of humor. Sure, he’d express some stuff to my brothers, about paying for comedy classes and all that. But I think he liked it.
Could you have done both? A full time lawyer who also does comedy?
I do know plenty of people who finished law school and went into comedy, and went into law as their day job. Like a day job lawyer. But for some reason that wasn’t…
It didn’t interest you.
Yeah, I guess the difference, at least when I started out, was that I said I’m not doing this as a career, I’m doing this instead of a career. None of us thought anyone was actually going to make any money. In Chicago back then there was only one job everyone was shooting at and that was Saturday Night Live. But everything else – nobody thought any of us would get those gigs.
Were you performing every night back then?
We were always doing something, all the time. Back then, the city encouraged small theaters, so I was doing shows five or six nights a week. I was part of a theater company, an improv team, and a comedy duo at the same time. Plus I was doing some stand up. None of us were really working, so we were performing constantly.
So how did you make money?
At one point, I was an on-foot messenger for a law firm, and I was doing that in the daytime and doing shows every night. I was sick all of the time. Literally all the time. I was sleeping in a converted bedroom that was really just an unheated porch. I had pneumonia twice in one winter.
Like… full blown pneumonia?
Pneumonia, yeah. And I had no health insurance.
Wow. But you were happy?
Well, I wasn’t necessarily happy, but… these are the decisions you make, you know what I mean? Definitely at that time, it never felt like we thought we were getting “ahead in the world.” We thought we were like the bands we knew and loved: we’re just doing this for the sake of doing it.
There’s definitely an artistic strain of improvisers from my generation, people who wanted to get good at improv, not to get a job. There are guys like Dave Pasquesi [from legendary improv group “TJ and Dave”] – he always wants to be getting better. That was all he wanted. He talks about how he has a hard time explaining to his family even now, explaining what he’s doing with his life. How comedy isn’t just a stepping stone to something else. “I just want to be good at improv,” you know? There’s an art form to it.
Who else did you come up with during your time at Second City?
I’m very fortunate in that I learned more from my peers in improv and comedy than the instructors I ever had. My class was myself, Dave Koechner, Chris Farley, Pat Finn, Clea Lewis, and a bunch of great people. I think to a great extent, I was much less artistically inclined than some of my peers.
How do you mean?
I just mean, you know, I’m not a very “well-rounded” performer. Those Second City shows, you have to sing and dance, and really perform, and I’m not a particularly good singer, I can’t dance at all. What I’m best at is talking. Sadly. [Second City] got kind of mad when they hired me. Like, “Oh you can’t sing and dance?” And I said, “Well I never told you I could sing and dance.” I don’t think they believed in me very much. They had amazing guys at that time. They had Adam McKay, they had Colbert. They had Sandler, they had Farley.
Did that ever get you down, that they sort of ignored you?
Sure, but I always say this to younger guys, I say: You have to believe in your own talent. Nobody’s going to pump you up, because nobody gives a fuck. The idea that someone’s going to just pluck you out of nothing, celebrate you, that’s a bit foolish.
The hardest working people I know are also the most successful people I know, almost across the board. There’s an occasional guy like Farley where the talent was just so huge…[Dave] Koechner and I would badger him all the time – we were in six hours of class together every Monday, saying how he’s going to be a huge celebrity. Chris was a wonderful actor and performer, he was just crazy talented and smart. It’s still hard to think about all that…
Was Chris supportive of his teams on stage? He’s such a huge personality, would he make the rest of the team look good?
Oh yeah. Chris made you look fantastic. We once made him sign this napkin that said, when he had a singing and dancing special, we could be on it.
What transformed those “I just want to do comedy” years into the “Holy crap I need a job” years?
I turned 30. I turned 30 and you go, “Uh oh.” I mean you make money at Second City, but it’s nothing. So I supplemented it by writing corporate industrials, which was actually a great thing for me. A) It teaches you to not be precious about your writing. B) It was pretty good coin.
And you were writing on your own time?
A guy I toured with at Second City, a guy named Tyler Finch, we started writing together. We wrote a bunch of spec scripts, moved out to LA, and got nothing. I mean: nothing, noooothing.
Did you think it would be different?
We mis-understood what an agent was doing for us, which was nothing. We blew through all our money, didn’t work at all, for like a year.
So what turned the tides?
A friend of ours, she was a set decorator, was flying to Aspen. At this time we’d probably written 12-14 scripts, and she had a few of them with her, because she enjoyed our writing. She wanted to read them on the plane cause she thought we were funny. And next to her on the plane on the way back from Aspen was an agent, and he said, “You know what I’m looking for? Improvisers who can really write.” And she had our scripts! The same scripts we were getting nothing with. He reads them and immediately we get meetings, meetings about a cartoon, a movie, a TV show, it was nuts.
Just like that, it all started happening?
Once you get a foot in that world, then people trust you. I wrote for the new Cosby show for a while, and then things worked from there.
So then, a few years later, the Colbert job. How did you score that, initially?
I had been working in New York on the other Cosby show [Cosby, the one that ran in the late 90s] and then I didn’t work for over a year. But I was writing pilots, and I wrote this pilot about young republicans. I pitched it to Comedy Central and they liked it, but I wasn’t really enough of a somebody for it to go anywhere. But then my agent goes, “Do you want to submit to a show in New York? It’s cable, it’s half your rate.”
I was living in L.A, and I didn’t want to go to New York, I didn’t want to make half my [previous salary.] But then my agent says, “It’s Colbert.” And I was like, “Agh.” Because I had tremendous amount of respect for this guy. I didn’t really expect to get the gig. I thought, I’ll sell him a couple ideas and we’ll just see. I knew him very casually at Second City, but everyone always liked him.
What were you doing for work in L.A at the time?
I was directing and teaching improv at the Second City out there. Teaching teen classes in improv. I actually did my Colbert interview on the phone, sitting in the Second City parking lot. There’d just been a performance of these kids at the theater, and they called me on the phone, I did the interview, and then I went back and gave these kids my notes [on their performance]. A twenty minute interview.
Was there a period early on where you weren’t sure if that show was for you?
Turns out the thing with Stephen is… I think just about anybody who knows him would walk through a wall for him. I thought I’d maybe be on the show for a year, help him get the show going, and then do something else. But then everyone who knows me was like, as soon as they saw the show, they were like, “That’s the show for you. You’ll never leave.”
Is it a collaborative vibe on set?
Yeah, it’s kind of a dream gig in a lot of ways. There’s this feeling where everyone’s pulling the same rope. We’re all coming together to make the show better and not to make themselves look good. Nobody’s jealous of whose joke gets in. If you keep writing consistently good stuff, it’s going to get on the show. Being an [executive producer] now, it’s like directing an improv show. It’s corralling energy and helping things look better. It really does feel like everyone from our prop guys to our non-writing producers are working on this together. Even our footage guys improvise, you know? Everyone’s in it for the same reason. There’s a lot of creativity flowing through the entire building.
Looking back now on the trajectory of your whole career, did you ever imagine things would go a certain way? Did you ever have a real idea of how to go about getting what you wanted?
I don’t think your career ever goes according to plan. I’m very fortunate on a personal level to work with the people I’m working with and to do do the work I’m doing. At a certain point, every writer gets tired. My friend told a story about writers who left MASH and were miserable because they couldn’t ever work on the dream show anymore. But I can’t envision wanting to leave these people on Colbert, that would be a very sad thing. Every so often I have ideas of things I want to do, but I have no exit strategy. Not at all.
90% of people quit comedy at the first face plant. You show me somebody who’s never bombed, I’ll show you somebody who’s never made an audience laugh. We all have to be addicted to that not knowing. Everything you do in comedy has a risk of totally bombing. And that’s what makes it interesting. If we succeeded every time, we’d be doing something else. You’re jumping out of an airplane with your sense of humor.
Any final words of advice for young comedians or comedy writers out there?
Do your own stuff sooner. There is the illusion that you have to somehow get plucked out and then you can do your own stuff, but it’s the other way around. You never know what people will like, you just have to make yourself laugh.
I’ve worked on stuff with super talented people where the first day you go, “This is going to be fantastic,” but for some reason the soup plate falls. And then other times something is just magic, it’s wonderful, and you never know. You can’t guarantee anything’s going to succeed. Two days after I leave Colbert, I’ll be in the same boat as you. I can only write what’s in front of me.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo courtesy of the artist.