Alexander Trowbridge ’09, making you laugh and making you think at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Being funny full-time is a serious business.
Just ask UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media alumnus Alexander Trowbridge ’09, a producer at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, whose journey to the Ed Sullivan Theater is filled with restless ambition and more than a dollop of drive.
It should be noted that his workplace is No. 1. The CBS network's late night comedy show averages 692,000 viewers nightly in the coveted 18–49 age group, putting it just ahead of the competition, The Hollywood Reporter noted earlier this month.
Trowbridge turned 32 this week. He was born in Washington, D.C., and raised there and in Connecticut. His father John is a Marine-turned-commercial real estate appraiser. His mother Lynne Haney is a biographer with eleven books to her name. Their son credits his parents with imbuing Alexander and his older sister Sarah — a 2012 Olympic finalist in London, now head coach of the University of San Diego women’s rowing team — with a lot of drive, and a love for competition.
“The funny thing is, I don't think either of our parents constantly promoted competitiveness,” said Sarah Trowbridge, “but you put those two near a track, court or pool, and one of them is bound to suggest a race.”
Trowbridge ran cross-country in high school and runs the streets of Manhattan for fun today, but his passion back then was theater. When it came time to find a college, he considered diving head-first into acting. In the end, he chose to pursue his passion for acting and comedy within the framework of a liberal arts education at Carolina.
In his freshman year, he found a creative outlet as a cast member in a Playmakers Repertory Company performance of “The Front Page,” a 1928-era Broadway comedy about tabloid newspaper reporters on the crime beat.
A 19-year-old Trowbridge was one of three students to win top honors in a stand-up comedy competition affiliated with Carolina Comedy Festival. The prize: a chance to open for comedian Lewis Black — 1970 Carolina grad, late night "Daily Show” regular and playwright — who was performing at UNC's Memorial Hall.
It’s not hard to picture Trowbridge waiting anxiously in the green room when the headliner popped his head in to say, “Don’t f--- this up.”
His insider jokes about Little Frat Court and Granville Towers slayed the crowd.
It was magical, until he tried his hand at comedy again in a "Gong Show"-style setting on campus. He bombed.
“That was a wake-up call,” Trowbridge recalled. “[Comedy] was not going to be magical every time.”
His interest turned to writing as a creative outlet. Trowbridge joined The Daily Tar Heel in 2006 and honed the craft as a student reporter and editor. At the DTH, he convinced the powers-that-be to let him cover the presidential primaries, borrowing his mother’s car to get to New Hampshire with his DTH press pass in hand.
The lure of Carroll Hall
Reporting the news had captured Trowbridge’s attention. He was convinced he wanted to study at Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. The school offered a national reputation and to his mind, even the school's Carroll Hall location exuded a sense of success.
“You’re in a beautiful building right in the center of campus,” he said. “You can tell that attention is being paid to [media and journalism], and there is a recipe for success that has been worked out. It’s evolving, but it has worked for others.”
He wanted to be a part of it.
Looking back, he said, “I hoped the Hussman School would prepare me for a career. And that’s exactly what it did.”
He relished courses in media law, writing, grammar and editing. There were lessons that stuck.
Ferrel Guillory, a professor of the practice who spent decades as a reporter, editor and columnist, mentioned to his class that he'd sometimes pretend a column he was writing was actually a letter to his mother.
“Have a specific audience in mind. That keeps coming back to me when I make these [Late Show] videos,” Trowbridge said of Guillory’s advice. “When I imagine that the audience is the people I love, I end up with the stuff I’m most proud of.”
There were bumps along the road. He got his only “D” in a digital journalism course with Associate Professor Ryan Thornburg, a humbling but elucidating experience.
“I’m a big proponent of failure as experience. I learned a lot more as a result,” said Trowbridge.
Summer internships build a portfolio of work
And there were internship opportunities along the way. The summer before his junior year, Trowbridge landed a multimedia internship at the digital arm of the The Washington Post. Financial support from the Hussman School helped make the experience possible.
At The Post, he borrowed a video camera and taught himself how to use it, practicing by filming and editing a birthday video for a family friend. Watching the personal video convinced his boss to send Trowbridge out on assignment to shoot video in Washington, D.C., that summer.
“Whenever I give advice to students, I go all the way back to that,” said Trowbridge, who is actively mentoring Hussman School Park Fellow Jeremiah Murphy '19 (M.A.) through the Media and Journalism Alumni Association's Mentorship Program. “Do something creative and fun for yourself for an audience of people that you love. It’s a good indicator of what you should be doing and making. Show it to the right person, and they’ll get it.”
Trowbridge returned to Carolina with lots of video clips, more interested than ever in blending disciplines to craft a multimedia career.
In 2008, after three years of applying for it, Trowbridge finally landed a coveted internship at The Vineyard Gazette — founded in 1846 — on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, just south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
"When I was interning, they were still printing it on a giant broadsheet as big as your body, in the basement,” he said. “Fridays after writing, I’d go downstairs and help them print those articles I’d just written.”
At least 40 bylines later, he returned to Chapel Hill for his senior year at Carroll Hall. Working part-time at The Carolina Inn’s restaurant as a back waiter in the spring of 2009, he committed himself to obsessively focus on getting a job lined up after graduation.
Starting a career at a news media startup
“[Hussman School Director of Career Services] Jay Eubank was just this incredible resource for me,” Trowbridge said about that time, “and for everyone else I remember.”
Politico, a news media startup founded two years earlier in Washington, D.C., had an opening. Trowbridge sent in clips that spring, including “Hey Dad: My Life at UNC,” a birthday video he’d created for his father. He got the job.
Over time, he was a video producer, assistant editor and a video reporter for Politico, working with the likes of Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin, and Kasie Hunt — and he was learning by doing at top speed and at all hours.
Trowbridge came in daily at 6 a.m. to help produce a Politico writer’s segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” broadcast; he’d also collect the previous night's late night shows and edit them to broadcast "the best of last night's late-night TV" political jokes; he hosted a podcast; and tried his hand at video blogging.
General assignment reporting, with a side of comedy training
By 2013, ready to get outside of the Beltway bubble and try his hand at something other than politics, Trowbridge took a job as a digital reporter at CBSNews.com in New York City. He wrote stories, produced videos and appeared on camera, “doing my best impression of an on-camera reporter,” as he puts it. He soaked up all he could but found he missed the world of politics that he’d spent years mastering. And he missed comedy as a creative outlet.
He put what he calls “all my pent-up creative angst” into a comedy class in New York City, developing a six-minute solo show called “It’s Hard To Cook While You’re Dancing,” wherein he combined cooking, the news and dance — a video snapshot of the high-pressure news industry and millennial single life in Brooklyn that he was living in 2015.
Self-actualization at Bloomberg Politics
Former Politico colleague Matt Negrin (now a producer with The Daily Show with Trevor Noah), saw the show and sought Trowbridge out to tell him about a political show he was working on at Bloomberg Politics. Trowbridge put a video clip of his recent comedy online, interviewed for a job and ended up at Bloomberg Politics within the month.
Negrin remains a fan.
“Alex is one of the absolute few people in the modern media world who understands that the best way to tell a story is to be clear, smart, funny and probably dancing,“ he said. “Never underestimate how much people want to see Alex dance.”
At Bloomberg, Trowbridge contributed to “With All Due Respect,” a New York-based political daily. And together, Trowbridge and Negrin explored digital video.
Of his Bloomberg days, Trowbridge recalled, “We were attempting to find a voice, to bring humor to political content without being a humor show. Matt and I were this digital extension working under the name of Bloomberg Politics.
“It was the closest I’ve come to self-actualization,” he noted. “Mixing journalism, humor, drama and elements of fiction to make salient points stick when it comes to explaining [serious] issues.”
During the debate leading up to the 2016 election, the digital team struck a partnership deal with Twitter. The social media behemoth would livestream the debates and coverage, with the Bloomberg team of Trowbridge and Negrin providing multiple videos and dispatches via Facebook and Periscope.
One of their most well-received pieces was a cinematic “Ocean’s Eleven”-style sendup full of cameos that Trowbridge and Negrin made with videographer Griffin Hammond, what Trowbridge calls an “explainer piece” about how to rig an election — presciently, made in October of 2016.
“We did deep research and made sure every line was accurate,” Trowbridge said.
About that time, Stephen Colbert — who’d replaced David Letterman as host of late night TV stalwart The Late Show — had brought in a new executive producer/show runner named Chris Licht to improve ratings, to stellar effect. A lightbulb went on for Trowbridge.
Licht was co-creator and original executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when a younger Trowbridge was watching daily from Politico, while he was gathering daily roundups of morning punditry. The two met when Trowbridge got to CBS and made a beeline for Licht’s office, who was now producing “CBS This Morning.” Trowbridge introduced himself and sent Licht all of his CBSNews.com pieces from that point on for feedback. Ever persistent, Trowbridge also kept up with Licht on Facebook during Trowbridge’s stint at Bloomberg Politics, eventually direct-messaging the showrunner to express his interest in working on the Late Show production.
With a foot in the door at the late night comedy show, Trowbridge underwent a four-month process, submitting a curated producer packet and making his way through multiple interviews with increasingly high-ranking producers to convince them of his skills and with the comedy writers at the Late Show, to confirm that he had a sense of humor.
Finally, the day came when he met with Colbert directly — answering the erstwhile improvisational comedian’s questions about the teamwork behind the production of the Ocean’s Eleven parody video for Bloomberg Politics and marveling at the fact that the comedian, whose work he’d studied at 6 a.m. every morning years earlier was sitting in front of him, asking Trowbridge about his work.
Word came that he was “in,” and after three celebratory weeks off immediately following the 2016 presidential election, Trowbridge jumped feet-first into his current role at The Late Show.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that he's at The Late Show," said Eubank. "Alexander was always the kind of student who'd take the best of every experience and use it to pivot to other things."
Tinkering in the comedy lab
“I had to relearn everything,” said the producer. “I felt like I was starting [at my first job] at Politico all over again.”
He could carry over a lot from his journalism experience.
“But I had a whole language to learn about comedy. And it’s a specific brand of comedy at that," he said, ”a network broadcast show that’s on TV every night.” At Bloomberg Politics’s digital video, he could get away with covering politics while being mildly funny. Now, the goal was wildly funny. No. 1-show funny. And at the same time, Trowbridge looked for ways to have a bigger impact on the show.
He decided to try to capture behind-the-scenes moments with the show’s guests and its engaging host. At the advice of his old Bloomberg Politics-era friend Hammond, Trowbridge bought a Panasonic Lumix G85 and attached a small shotgun microphone, nimbly using it to capture the fun and joy of backstage life on the set with a documentary journalist’s ease.
Eventually, Trowbridge pitched a series of eminently watchable digital shorts made up of backstage moments called “Late Show Me More;” even more endearing “Stephen Has a Story” shorts, footage of the show’s host in an elevator riffing on topics of the day, shot in black-and-white; and a unique perspective on Director Spike Jonze shooting a music video live (in one take) with Karen O, Danger Mouse and a cast of dancers live on the set of The Late Show.
Trowbridge is quick to credit a whole team that is constantly making the lighting, set and people in the Ed Sullivan Theater look as good as possible; and a production assistant whom he’s training to shoot similar documentary-style footage. The digital shorts are full of jump cuts and exquisite comedic timing. Trowbridge edits them every week in Adobe Premiere, and they're released each weekend.
“I’m taking the one-man-band skills I learned at the J-school and DTH and The Washington Post and Politico and using them to my advantage,” Trowbridge noted. “It allows us to avoid what I've heard described as 'comedy by committee’ ... and to keep reaching for that perfect mix of entertainment comedy and information that sticks because it is delivered in a format that resonates with people.”
Back at Trowbridge’s alma mater, science writer and graduate student Jeremiah Murphy — whose goal is to craft a podcast that uses comedy to explore science news — appreciates hearing from his Hussman School mentor on a regular basis.
“He goes out of his way to be available to discuss my goals — giving me advice from his journalism background and current work with Colbert,” said Murphy. “Alexander has also given me advice on project management — which, as a grad student and a parent, I find invaluable. Just checking in with him on the phone every month or so, helps me focus and articulate what I'm working on.”
Asked about an impression that he himself is constantly re-calibrating his career over time to try to craft the best blend of his interests and talents, Trowbridge laughed.
“I love moving around. I like running. I like playing,” he said. “So I’m always going forward and then trying to come up with something to get excited about. Always tinkering, always in the lab.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In early May 2019, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University announced its 82nd class of Nieman Fellows. Among them: Alexander Trowbridge ’09, who will use his two semesters at Harvard to study his sweet spot, the intersection of comedy and journalism. Trowbridge plans to research ways to capture and illustrate the nation’s daily news agenda and priorities and develop a related production and training process.
Photo © 2019 Scott Kowalchyk at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert