Catching Up with Colbert's Friends
Christopher Baker (C85)
Christopher Baker, a former Stephen Colbert roommate, says he’s not the one to ask to sub for anyone in an improv group. So he was shocked when Colbert asked him to fill in for him one night with his Northwestern improv team, No Fun Mud Piranhas. “It was a complete fiasco,” Baker says. But he remembers Colbert lying to him afterward: “I heard you were great. I heard it went great.”
“He was just being very generous with me,” says Baker. “He was the kind of person who would say something to someone that he knew would be a kind thing to say, or make them feel good. … He was genuine about it. That’s something that I was envious about — that he was the kind of person who was funny, smart, good looking and actually a nice guy.”
Baker is now senior dramaturg at Hartford Stage in Connecticut and a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts. He’s also an author, playwright and director. He directed his own play for children, Calliope Jam, as well as Oleanna, Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night for the Alley Theatre in Houston. His articles have appeared in Theatre Journal, Hog River Journal, American Theatre magazine, and the Hartford Courant.
Baker wrote the Shakespeare and Molière volumes for the 27-book “Playwrights in an Hour” series. He credits his Northwestern training for “a certain love for those playwrights. … Now I teach the plays, but it began there in a certain understanding, a physical and structural understanding, of how those plays work.”
Jennifer Cohen Estlin (C87)
Jennifer Cohen Estlin remembers lending her former roommate Stephen Colbert 20 bucks as he left the Edinburgh International Festival for a post-graduation trip around Europe. “I said, ’Don’t worry, you’ll get me another time.’” A year later Estlin was back in Chicago, registering at an agent’s office. “I was bent over writing and I saw this $20 bill coming over my shoulder, and I turned around, and there was Stephen.”
She also fondly recalls performing together one summer “in a group we called the Farmer’s Market Shakespeare Company,” in which a group of enterprising Northwestern theater students visited local markets and festivals to inject some culture. She was playing opposite Colbert when “this guy threw up on my shoe,” she says. “And that’s when we decided it might not work out.”
Estlin went on to perform with Second City and became president and executive producer for Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre in 2001. Besides numerous Annoyance productions, Estlin has appeared on TV’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Law & Order, Exit 57 and Loving. Her film credits include iMurders, Volcano and The Stand-In.
Alan Goldwasser (C87)
Alan Goldwasser was part of Stephen Colbert’s Northwestern improv team, No Fun Mud Piranhas, which participated weekly at Chicago’s ImprovOlympic, doing the classic improv game called “the Harold.”
“He had the chops,” Goldwasser recalls. “He’s not a goofy comic type, and that’s what makes it all the better when he’s up there, because you’re up there with someone who’s not gonna just make a funny face. And that’s what improv is all about, not going for the easy laugh. Especially ‘the Harold,’ which is much more complex. You have to bring it around to form a little play with your improv, not just funny things that occur to you. He was good at it.”
After graduation Goldwasser moved to Seattle. He began performing in Seattle theater but noticed that the city didn’t have a version of Hot Tix — so he started one in 1988, called Ticket/Ticket. Goldwasser closed the business recently to concentrate on his consignment business on Amazon Marketplace, where he can be found under the username "bigalgie."
Eric Goodman (C87)
When Eric Goodman visited a taping of The Colbert Report recently, he was lucky enough to get chosen by Colbert to ask a question in the pre-taping Q-and-A session. “I said, ‘So, do you ever keep in contact with any of your college friends?’” Goodman recalls. “And he gives me this look like, ‘I should know you.’ And then he burst out, ‘Eric!’ and comes over and hugs me.”
Goodman is an “Imagineer” for Walt Disney. “If you could sum up my job, I’m a show producer that builds concepts and rides and attractions,” he explains. “Not as good as Stephen’s job.”
Goodman is a third-generation Disney “cast member” — his grandfather helped open Disneyland, and his mother worked there too. Goodman’s most recent project is Epcot Center’s The Sum of All Thrills attraction, sponsored by Raytheon. Guests learn how math and engineering work in designing their own amusement park ride, figuring out where to put steep climbs, dives and loops. Then the newly designed ride information is put into a robotic simulator, so everyone can take their own ride.
Ayun Halliday (C87)
Halliday joined Chicago’s Neo-Futurists in 1988 as they started their signature (and still running) show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, in which the company performs 30 plays in 60 minutes. That’s where she met her husband, Greg Kotis. After they moved to New York, Kotis wrote the Tony Award–winning Urinetown: The Musical. Halliday began writing her zine, The East Village Inky, and numerous books. They include No Touch Monkey!: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late (Seal Press, 2003), a memoir of her vast travels, featuring incidents such as explaining what tampons are to soldiers in Kashmir. Her brand-new book is the participatory Zinester’s Guide to NYC: The Last Wholly Analog Guide to NYC (Microcosm, 2010). For example, rather than just telling readers when and how to see the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, she says, the Guide explains how to be in it.
Colbert left this comment on the publisher’s Zinester’s Guide web page: “If I could still walk the streets of New York among my People, I would use this truly funny and truly affordable guidebook. It kicks ass.”
Anne Libera (C86)
“I’ll tell you a story I always think of when I think of Stephen,” says Anne Libera, a former Colbert roommate. “He’s always been interested in semantics. My sister was a math major. He’d say, ‘We have to call your sister Julie, I have a math question. If I have a loaf of bread, and I cut it in half, do I have two bread?’ Julie was like, ‘That’s not a math question, it’s a semantic question.’”
“He is still so fascinated by the way people talk about things,” Libera muses. “Even more than what they say, how they talk about it reveals something.” The Colbert Report, she says, is “satire about the way people talk about politics.”
Libera joined Second City soon after graduation and has spent her career there, as a director and teacher, artistic director of the Second City Training Center and now director of Comedy Studies, a joint Second City–Columbia College Chicago program. As a director her Second City shows include The Madness of Curious George and Computer Chips and Salsa. She is also the author of The Second City Almanac of Improvisation (2004), published by Northwestern University Press.
Kellie Overbey (C86)
Former roommate Kellie Overbey wasn’t surprised when Stephen Colbert hit the big time. “He isn’t only just funny, he is highly intelligent and has an encyclopedic recall, so he can reference things historically when he’s improvising,” she says. “When the TV’s on and he comes on, I’m like, ‘It’s just like college.’”
Overbey made her Broadway debut in a production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. She also appeared in The Coast of Utopia, Twentieth Century and QED. Overbey is also a playwright. My Wife’s Coat, a one-act, was a winner in the 2004 Samuel French Short Play Festival. Her full-length Girl Talk ran off-Broadway in 2004 and is now being filmed as an independent production titled That’s What She Said, a film starring Anne Heche planned for release in 2011.
Aaron Posner (C86)
As a Northwestern senior Aaron Posner directed Stephen Colbert in a production of Mark Leib’s Terry Won’t Talk. More recently, Colbert participated in a fundraiser for Two River Theater Co. in New Jersey while Posner was artistic director there. Onstage, “I asked him 10 questions as himself and then said, ‘Now can I ask Stephen Colbert these questions?’” says Posner. “And he got up and did a sort of victory lap, and everyone applauded. He sat down, put his feet up on the table, and I was looking at a different person.”
Posner is co-founder and former artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre. He won two Helen Hayes Awards for direction at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. — for The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2005 and Measure for Measure in 2007. He also won two Barrymore Awards at Arden Theatre, for direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1998 and for Outstanding New Play in 1999 for his adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. He recently directed Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Mary Siewert Scruggs (C86)
Mary Siewert Scruggs, now head of writing and education programs for the Second City Training Center, has the distinction of being the first to write a part specifically for Stephen Colbert — the part of the miller in Rumpelstiltskin v. the Queen as part of the Fairy Trials Project she helped create for the Cook County Circuit Court.
Scruggs, Colbert and a group of fellow recent Northwestern grads — all from associate professor Ann Woodworth’s acting class — formed Journeymen Theater Ensemble. Rumpelstiltskin was one of their first efforts, traveling around to Cook County schools and teaching kids the finer points of contract law with the well-known tale of a custody struggle.
Scruggs based the miller on the character of a cigar-chomping agent, which Colbert often played around with at school. “It was a fun experience, to write something to someone’s voice knowing that they would do it,” she recalls. She also notes that while Colbert “really did wear black turtlenecks” at the time, “even then he had a sense of humor about that stuff.”
Besides the Fairy Trial series — which has been in continuous production since 1986 — Scruggs created and performed the solo show Missing Man at Live Bait Theater in Chicago and elsewhere, including the New York International Fringe Festival. Her other plays include a co-adaptation with Susan Messing (C86) of What Every Girl Should Know for Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre and Revelations, which won Northwestern’s Agnes Nixon Playwriting Festival, which focuses on the artistic collaborations of student playwrights, directors and actors.
Scruggs also co-wrote Process: An Improviser’s Journey (2007) with Michael J. Gellman (and with a foreword by Anne Libera), published by Northwestern University Press, and The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning in the Content Areas (Jossey-Bass, 2008) with Katherine S. McKnight.