Two months ago, a group of reporters and comedy writers crowded into a conference room in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to begin work on a new HBO show hosted by the comedian and former “Daily Show” correspondent Wyatt Cenac. I had just joined the team and, like everyone else, was still adjusting to the show’s distinctive mix of sensibilities—part journalism, part standup. Cenac and our head writer, Hallie Haglund, another “Daily Show” alum, had convened the meeting to train us in Scripto, an app for writing and producing television. When our trainer appeared on the screen at the front of the room, beamed in from his home on tiny Peaks Island, Maine, he introduced himself as Rusty. Two digital-journalism vets recognized him immediately. “Hey, isn’t that Rusty Foster, from Today in Tabs?” they asked.
Foster and his e-mail newsletter, Today in Tabs, were a minor sensation among Web-savvy journalists and Internet cool kids just three years ago. Though compiled from Maine, Tabs was known in New York as a daily conveyance for tantalizing Twitter spats and journalistic gossip—the water cooler or, less charitably, the high-school cafeteria of media land. Its tone was consistently sardonic: “A database of 4.6 million Snapchat name & phone number pairs has been leaked. Was your info in it? Who really cares, actually,” an issue from January, 2014, read. (Later that year, Tabs made a notorious misstep, wading into a debate about bro culture and rape. The affair, Foster told me, “was the one thing in Tabs that I think was a mistake—unequivocally an error on my part.”) But, while Foster was obsessively scouring social media for Tabs, his day job was with Scripto. He had joined the staff at the suggestion of the tech writer and software consultant Paul Ford—like Foster, an occasional contributor to The New Yorker—who had recently responded to a vague Reddit listing: “ ‘The Colbert Report’ is looking for programmers.”
Scripto was conceived at the end of 2010, when Stephen Colbert and one of his writers, Rob Dubbin, a longtime amateur coder, first discussed making a bespoke drafting program for the staff. Until then, “The Colbert Report,” just like its progenitor, “The Daily Show,” had used the Electronic News Production System, a platform developed by the Associated Press and used by some nine hundred TV newsrooms around the world. E.N.P.S. was good at doing certain things, such as formatting text for the teleprompter or feeding in archival footage. But it had a major flaw: writers could not work simultaneously in the same document.
This was fine for regular news broadcasts but disastrous for the new species of nonfiction show that more closely resembled scripted TV. On “The Colbert Report,” the productive chaos of the writers’ room had become a plodding relay, with one person editing the document, then saving it, then closing it out before the next could take her turn. In rewrite, as Dubbin described it, “you had one person typing on a computer hooked up to a TV and everyone yelling at them.” Not to mention the goat incident: at one point, the higher-ups had cut a proposed bit involving a live goat, but, because the script had not been updated in time, the wrangler showed up with a bleating client.
And so, during the “hour-long lull while others were reading scripts, shovelling sandwiches into their mouths,” Dubbin began to code an alternative. He and Colbert split the cost of an outside developer and put the resulting program to use, bit by bit, on the show. “Once every couple weeks, we fixed the thing that went horribly wrong,” including blackouts and deletions, Dubbin told me. Within a year, Scripto was stable enough to replace E.N.P.S. on “The Colbert Report”; in 2015, when Colbert assumed David Letterman’s late-night spot on CBS, he took the software with him. By then, Scripto had infiltrated “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” too.
“The first batch of clients got two servers each. It wasn’t a cloud thing. We installed a pair of physical servers in their studio,” Foster told me. He was then, as he is now, the on-call help desk, running back home from outings with his wife and three kids to respond to emergencies. One night, shortly after “The Daily Show” started using Scripto, he told me, “I get a phone call from their executive producer, who’s, like, ‘Nobody can get into Scripto!’—and I was on the beach.” By late 2015, with still more shows using the program, business was good and Foster was overwhelmed. “My time was sixty-five per cent Scripto and seventy-five per cent Tabs,” he said, and “it got more and more difficult to write impartially about media and then work for a software company that became a media company.”
Scripto is now the engine of an entire universe of left-leaning news-comedy shows, among them “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” “The Rundown with Robin Thede,” “The Jim Jefferies Show,” and BuzzFeed’s “AM to DM.” Dubbin, Foster, and their four co-workers are beta-testing a second piece of software, called Showrunner, for scripted TV. “At this point, our biggest competitor is Google Docs,” Foster said. “That makes our case for us, almost. People are willing to give up every other useful tool for being able to write together.” I asked Dubbin whether he would ever license Scripto to a conservative show. “Fox News wouldn’t use it, but I wouldn’t sell it to them,” he said. “I’m not interested in making their job easier.” Foster’s politics are similarly clear: he was recently elected to the executive board of the southern-Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
At work the other day, I logged in to Scripto and watched the app’s familiar icon, a tiny pink unicorn, pop up in a new browser tab. I clicked the help button, a gray question mark inside a blue circle, and felt oddly comforted by the avatars for “Rob” and “Rusty” that appeared on my screen. It was a small thing in a time of faceless tech monopolies—a program fitted to our peculiar, coöperative labor.