Sharilyn Johnson

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z

Independent project //  Date: 2014  //  Medium: book

What it is

A full-length trade paperback book conceived, published, and co-authored by yours truly. 

It’s also my first-ever content design project — though I didn’t realize it at the time. 

The opportunity

In April of 2014, Stephen Colbert announced the end of his Emmy-winning Comedy Central satire series, The Colbert Report.

The day of the announcement, I was interviewed by media outlets as an expert on the subject.

I’d written about the show extensively as a journalist. Plus, I had deep knowledge as a dedicated viewer, frequent taping attendee, and even a graduate of his showrunner’s Writing for the Colbert Report course in New York. 

When I hung up the phone after my last radio spot of the day, I thought, “someone should write a book to commemorate this show.”

And then I looked in the mirror.

Primary challenge: timeline

For maximum marketability, I knew the book needed a release date to coincide with the show’s finale, which I correctly anticipated would be December 2014.

Publishing operates at a snail’s pace, and a fast publication timeline can be 18 months. I gave myself 8 months

Decisions had to be made fast.

My fast content decisions:

  • What should the scope of the content be?
  • How should the content be organized?
  • What’s the tone?
  • How do I make this entertaining for both megafans and casual fans?
  • How much space to give to each topic – “weigh” them based on prominence or freeball it?
  • Are there any legal risks to consider in the writing choices? (eg: researching case of Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. v. Carol Publishing Group Inc.)
  • How can I make it easy for fans to find video of the segments referenced?
  • How do I easily differentiate “Stephen Colbert” the character from Stephen Colbert the writer/performer?
  • What are the deadlines and key milestones?
  • How do I organize a critical path?
  • What platforms should I publish through?
  • How do I incorporate the finale into the book if I release it before the show ends?

Key methods:

  • Enlisted a co-author. I knew I could delegate a lot of the writing, so I enlisted writer and fellow fan Remy Maisel as my collaborator.
  • I chose a simple format (encyclopedia-style) that could easily accommodate additions and not be tied to a singular narrative. Being out of chronological order meant I didn’t feel obligated to include “every” moment from the show’s nine years. 
  • No inconsequential rules just for the sake of having them. For example: entry length. If a topic warranted one sentence, so be it. I dedicated 5 full pages to Daft Punk (if you know, you know).
  • I had trust in myself – and Remy – to include moments that would resonate with other fans. If the stone went unturned with us, it was unlikely other fans would notice. 
  • I kept watch over the tone and format of every entry, ensuring they flowed well both as individual narratives and with the entries on either side of them. 
  • I gave us flexibility in our assigned workload. I couldn’t afford for either of us to waste time staring at a blank screen. As we compiled the ever-growing list of “entries” to write, we’d stake claim to the ones that excited us and could swap at any time. 
  • I set high standards and a firm vision. I didn’t skimp on editing services, and worked with a fantastic artist who executed my specific direction for the cover.   

Results:

Book launched 4 weeks before the finale of The Colbert Report.

400+ units sold at launch, 150+ units sold since (great numbers for an indie!).

Rated 4.7/5 on Amazon.

In 2015, I released the “revised edition” which included content about the show’s finale.

Select press:

“Has Stephen read it?”

I get this question a lot! He knew about it and I made sure he got a copy when it came out. He later told me that he doesn’t read anything about himself (I maintain that’s a half-truth), but that his wife, Evie, read it on his behalf.