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Laugh Track

What’s so funny about Stephen Colbert? The Chicago comedians who make up half his writing team

Last summer, Comedy Central asked a thirtysomething New Yorker named Peter Gwinn to audition for a staff writing job on a new show titled The Colbert Report. In one audition piece, Gwinn argued that America should put Lance Armstrong out to stud like a retired racehorse and thus breed a new generation of champion cyclers.

Across the country, a thirty-something Los Angeles resident named Laura Krafft submitted an audition piece on the London bombings. Among other things, Krafft offered tips on how to avoid being mistaken for a terrorist (one suggestion: take along a posse of women in bikinis). “Unfortunately there’s no shortage of material to write about these days,” says Krafft.

Krafft and Gwinn had crossed paths before, but not, strangely enough, at Evanston Township High School, where they missed each other by one year. They met in 1993 through I.O. (formerly called Improv-Olympic); two years later, as part of a trio of Chicago improv artists, they put on a tiny basement show in Lake View-Glitterball-that earned rave reviews, then faded from memory. “We joke about how, apparently, the hotbed of future TV talent was the Cafe Voltaire basement,” says Gwinn.

After concluding that it was virtually impossible to break into television while living in Chicago, the two departed to opposite coasts. They reunited last year behind the curtain at The Colbert Report, hired as writers on a new show starring Stephen Colbert, who made his name on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The Colbert Report owes a lot of its funny business to Chicago. Six of the show’s 12 writers have ties to one of Chicago’s two major improv institutions, Second City and I.O., including Colbert himself, who performed at Second City from 1992 to 1994 after graduating from North-western in 1987. Head writer Allison Silverman is a former ImprovOlympian; besides Gwinn and Krafft, writers Michael Brumm and Tom Purcell also studied here. “There’s a whole Chicago writing and performing mafia in New York now,” says Krafft.

Gwinn and Krafft share strikingly similar backgrounds. After stints in advertising (Gwinn on Coors beer projects and Krafft on an Aldi’s supermarket account), each landed on Chicago’s improv comedy scene in the early 1990s-Krafft with Second City’s touring company and ImprovOlympic; Gwinn with the acclaimed improv troupe Baby Wants Candy. Soon after their Glitterball venture ended, Krafft lit out for the West Coast; Gwinn eventually headed to New York City. Even after getting the call from Comedy Central in New York, Krafft kept her apartment in Los Angeles, figuring the show might not last beyond its initial three-month trial. Little did she know that The Colbert Report would become a major hit, largely because of the star’s satiric spoof of cable anchors like the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly. “Stephen has a dark, sharp-edged sensibility,” says Krafft. “But it’s palatable because of his all-American looks. I’m not sure it would work if he looked threatening.”

Each night since the show began airing in October, Colbert has been choosing-or inventing-a word to explore and exploit, most famously, “truthiness.” Ask him to come up with one word apiece to describe Gwinn and Krafft, and he replies, “‘Droll’ and ‘wry’"-then adds that he can’t remember which is which.

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