Splice together the DNA of an adorable carpenter (let’s go with Harrison Ford) with that of a Jedi crafter (yes you, Martha), and—hey look, it’s Brendan Hurley!
The Colbert Report’s prop master since 2006, Hurley is actually half-artisan, half-sleuth. The guy can create something out of nothing and track down practically anything, and all on a dime, both literally and figuratively.
The thirtysomething, soft-spoken, nattily dressed native of Housatonic, in Western Massachusetts (population: 1,335), knows from tinkering; is passionate for the great outdoors; and has a Luddite’s love of Facebook, but that’s the extent of his Unabomberiness. Affable beyond description, a few minutes in his presence makes it abundantly clear why he’s been so wildly successful in a gig that might best be described as MacGyver meets Dog the Bounty Hunter—if Duane Chapman’s quarry was obscura rather than bail jumpers.
Jodi Levine, our crafts editor at large, sat down with Hurley in TCR’s Green Room, a space that, what it lacks in square footage, it more than makes up for in cheeriness thanks to top-to-bottom Jonathan Adler décor installed by the potter-turned-designer himself. The two talked shop, then Hurley guided Levine (and this third wheel) through what can rightly be deemed the D.C. of Colbert Nation. Officially known as NEP Studio 54, it’s a labyrinthine complex spread out over three buildings on Manhattan’s far West Side, just 28 blocks due north of MSL’s headquarters. We went backstage, under the audience seats, through the alleyways, past his tool areas, down to his storage lair, up to his office housed within the graphics department, onto the stage and up to the set’s tchotchke-laden bookshelves. Highlights included getting a close-up look at both the microwave infamously expropriated from The O’Reilly Factor and the desk of Sir Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Mos Def Colbert, D.F.A. It’s beneath this piece of furniture that Hurley often hides during the show, usually when it’s necessary to, in his words, hand his boss “a crazier prop that smokes, squirts, explodes—or something along those lines.” Talk about making the front row look like the cheap seats. —RS
JODI LEVINE: SO WERE YOU CRAFTY AS A KID?
Brendan Hurley: I was. We had a family friend who is an artist, Barbieo Barros Gizzi. Starting when I was around 6 years old, I’d walk to her house after school, and we’d work on projects. She inspired me more than school ever did. We were partners in a way. We worked with each other for around 10 years. Some of the pictures that we did together are still hanging in my parents’ house. She did collages that when people look at them now, they think it’s just Photoshop, but she had dresser drawers full of things she’d cut out over the years.
JL: DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST THING YOU EVER MADE THAT YOU WERE REALLY PROUD OF?
BH: There were ridiculous things I made at my house—my mom thought I was crazy. I had a hard time sleeping when I was a kid, so one night when I was probably like 14, I got up, took some copper tubing, porcelain and weights from an old, mod Jetsons-looking clock, and worked until morning on this weight system where you could press one part, and a painting on stretched canvas would become a window shade, but on a 45 degree angle. The light would shine through so it looked like Venetian glass.
JL: HOW’D YOU END UP IN NEW YORK CITY?
BH: I got a job when I was 16 working on a movie called Muscle Car. Half was shot in Massachusetts and the other half in Brooklyn. After that I was like, “I’m going to move down [to NYC].” I don’t think anyone really believed me, so I saved up a bunch of money, and my mom helped me out and gave me some money for the New York Film Academy. I moved here when I was 18. My sister was here, and I lived with her until I found a place. I think they just expected—and even I expected—just to be here a couple of months, because I was kind of a country bumpkin who liked hiking and all that. And now 15 years later… There was just something about comfort in numbers. You meet people who are different and interesting in the city, people who are into the struggle, doing stuff because they want to, because their small towns were too small, people who are like you. I just decided, well, this is where I belong. I got an apartment when I was 18, on 51st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, for $500 a month through an actor I met. Then I got a full-time job with King World Productions when I was 19. I don’t think they knew how old I was.
JL: WHAT TYPE OF WORK WERE YOU DOING AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR CAREER?
BH: I worked as a production assistant, an associate producer, and also did very basic computer animation for a Disney show called The Book of Pooh, and that was through Shadow Digital.
JL: WERE THOSE SKILLS SELF-TAUGHT?
BH: Yeah. And even though I liked that stuff, props and set design was what engaged me—it was never boring.
JL: IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU HAD A LOT OF DIFFERENT JOBS WHEN YOU WERE BUILDING YOUR RÉSUMÉ, LIKE MOST PEOPLE IN FILM AND TV.
BH: It was a hard run. You know, freelancing is tough. There were no vacations, and it was a lot of going to the corner hotel for the free continental breakfast because you’re just broke [laughs]. Even when you come out of a job and you’ve got a lot of savings, you’re afraid to do anything with it because you don’t know when the next job’s coming.
JL: AND HOW DID YOU END UP AT TCR?
BH: Someone I worked with heard they were looking for a prop master here. They’d interviewed four people before me and had already decided who to hire, but then I showed up and I guess they felt like they had to interview me. They hired me, and thank God they did because it just seemed like the perfect fit for me. Because every other show I’d worked on, I wouldn’t watch it. To work on a show where you get to create very childlike, fun items, it’s just the perfect job for me. I consider myself very lucky.
JL: WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT TO DOING YOUR JOB WELL?
BH: Work ethic. I’ve had a job since I was 12, and even the jobs I didn’t like, I would stick around until the job was done.
JL: HOW MANY PEOPLE PITCH IN TO HELP YOU GET STUFF DONE BY SHOWTIME?
BH: In the beginning, it was just me, and back then I would tell interns to go out and get whatever materials I needed. I’d make the phone calls, and try to find out if they had stuff, how many were in stock. But about a year and a half ago, I got a props assistant, Liz Migliaccio, and now I have her do that, so it takes a lot off my plate. She’s great. There’s a bunch of other people that, when there’s something to be done, people here just do it, like Kate Sunbury, our production manager, Torey Strahl and James Kuo, our production assistants, and stagehands Ed Costello and Scott Heatherly, among many, many others.
JL: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PROP YOU’VE EVER MADE?
BH: Actually, it was when Stephen went over to do [Late Night with Jimmy Fallon]. He needed a huge pint of Ben & Jerry’s Late Night Snack ice cream. That was a crazy day. The first [ice cream container] we worked on was 5 feet high, and Stephen, Ben and Jerry were going to pop out of the top with spoons. But then there was a change of ideas and it needed to be more of a Trojan horse. We remade it so that it was 9 feet high, and Stephen, Ben and Jerry just walked out through a door I’d made in the pint, located where the nutritional facts are printed.
JL: DESCRIBE A TYPICAL DAY, IF THERE IS SUCH A THING.
BH: I get here around 11:00 AM, and then the meeting happens roughly between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM. So after that we start working on any props. We start rehearsal at 5:00 PM, and you want to get everything in for rehearsal so Stephen can get comfortable working with the prop. We tape the show around 7:00 PM, and then on average I stay until around 9:00 PM.
JL: YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO NEED THAT DAY? LIKE, YOU HAVEN’T PRE-ORDERED YOUR CARDBOARD AND YOUR WOOD, RIGHT?
BH: No, nothing. We hardly get anything online, really. But I do have a catalogue for finding some pretty crazy stuff in the city. There is this bar in Red Hook called Bait & Tackle, and I’d once seen there a white horse’s head that looks like it’s screaming in pain, and the neck opens up. I challenge anyone to find a taxidermied horse head in New York.
JL: YOU MUST BE SCOUTING 24-7.
BH: Whenever I’m anywhere I’m on the lookout. Like, I know where to get a crocodile rug.
JL: WHAT ARE YOUR GO-TO PLACES?
JL: DO YOU EVER JUST HIT A WALL, THROW UP YOUR HANDS AND CRY UNCLE!?
BH: It rarely happens, but for example, yesterday they wanted to do a balloon drop, but instead of balloons, they wanted to drop those Green Bay Packers cheese heads. But this is football’s off-season, so to get a bunch of cheese heads day-of … We searched everywhere, and then we ended up calling Packers bars and seeing if they had any. Two Packers bars had one cheese head each.
JL: YOU HAVE TO BE A DETECTIVE OF SORTS.
BH: Yeah—you’ve got to figure it out. They wanted 20 [cheese heads], but I said, “I’ll keep searching, but I think the most I can get you is three.” So now I just ordered four more, because I can see this [need for cheese heads] coming up in the future, so we might as well have them on hand.
JL: THERE IS A LOT OF MOCK SHOOTING AND FAKE BLOOD ON THE SHOW. DOES THAT FALL UNDER YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION?
BH: Yes. We have our prop gun, “Sweetness,” the end of which is corked. And when someone gets shot in the audience, that typically involves a battery-operated remote setting off some black powder in a squib, so we have to get a licensed pyrotechnic, which is really expensive, plus you have to get a fire permit, because you have to turn off the fire alarms. That’s hard to make happen in a day, especially if the request comes late in the afternoon. So as a work-around what I usually do, I just get an IV bag and attach it to a long tube and place it somewhere on the “victim’s” body—usually played by Tom Purcell, our executive producer. Then I sit behind them, and I just hit a switch and then the blood comes running out of the IV bag. But just the other day I found online a pressure squib that you don’t need a pyrotechnics permit for. It actually will go through the fibers of a shirt and squirt out fake blood without leaving a hole in the fabric.
JL: IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU LEARN HOW TO DO SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY. YOUR BRAIN WON’T ATROPHY!
BH: I don’t know about that, considering all the spray-paint fumes I’ve inhaled [laughs]. But yeah, it keeps you on your toes. Some days, you’re stressed out, but at the end of the day, when it gets done, it’s like, “Yeah, that was fun.”
JL: WHAT PERCENTAGE OF STUFF DO YOU MAKE VS. BUY?
BH: I’d say fifty-fifty, and it might even be more finding stuff. Like, if you need brown paper bags for Stephen to huff paint from, it’s harder to count those items.
JL: YOU MUST WORK CLOSELY WITH THE GRAPHICS TEAM.
BH: Oh yeah, and we’re great friends—that’s where my office is. They’re all brilliant guys. We always bust each other’s chops. But when I can’t figure something out, I can turn to them and inevitably one of them will offer up a great suggestion. They help give me a lot of confidence whenever I’m doubting that something can get done. And when we have weeks down [off], we’re all kind of excited to get back, which I think is a rarity at any place, that you actually wanna see your friends. It’s a great, great environment.
JL: WALK US THROUGH AN ITEM THE PROPS AND GRAPHICS TEAM WOULD CREATE TOGETHER.
BH: For example, if it’s a “Cheating Death” segment, Stephen will pull out a product to present to the audience, that’s always from Prescott Pharmaceuticals. It’s always some drug with side effects that are much worse than the cure, like, “May cause anal tear ducts” or “May cause brain tooth.” The graphics guys will make a graphic for it, and I’ll find a box that fits it, and it’s a bunch of measuring, cutting and scanning to get the exact size. Then I’ll wrap the box in their graphic.
JL: LET’S TALK ABOUT DRINKY, AKA GULPZILLA, STEPHEN’S PET 44 GALLON SODA.
BH: That [prop] was supposed to be day-of, but then it got pushed to the next day, so I had another day to work on it. It actually wasn’t that difficult. There was another Styrofoam cup that I made, that was completely different, and I like [Drinky] better.
JL: SO WHO IS INSIDE THE CUP? WHO IS DRINKY?
BH: It’s always me.
JL: NO WAY! AW, DRINKY’S NOT REALLY DEAD, IS HE?
BH: Drinky will be back. There’s no way I’m throwing that out. I threw out the first cup costume.
JL: BECAUSE YOU JUST DON’T HAVE THE STORAGE?
BH: We don’t have much. Like, the giant pint of ice cream, that just got thrown out. But it’s funny, because a lot of times, when we throw out stuff, I think there’s a red light that goes off in the writers’ office, because the next day they’ll ask for the very thing we just threw away. It’s weird how that happens, and it’s happened so many times! But then we’ll just remake it. But in the case of Drinky, it actually worked out, because I think the second one looked better. And [when I wore it], I could see better out of it than I could the first one, when I was completely blind and I just had to go towards Stephen’s voice.
JL: SO DRINKY COULD REALLY SEE THE SUNSET BEFORE STEPHEN OLD YELLER’D HIM?
BH: He saw the sunset.
JL: WHAT’S THE PROP YOU’RE MOST PROUD OF GIVEN THAT YOU HAD THE SHORTEST NOTICE?
BH: That’d be the guillotine. Stephen wanted to have a banana that had a condom on it, that he puts in a guillotine. There was one place I remembered seeing a mini-guillotine, but it closed down. So I just made one using scrap wood, aluminum railing and a butcher’s cleaver. I waxed the rails so the blade would slide down faster, but it had trouble penetrating both the condom and the banana. So I had to add weights to give it as much force as possible, plus I had to keep sharpening the blade, but it finally worked. And considering we made it in probably an hour and a half …
JL: THERE ARE SOME SHOWS WITH NO PROPS AT ALL, RIGHT?
BH: Yes. It’s really feast or famine [laughs].
JL: DO YOU HAVE WOOD TOOLS HERE?
BH: I’ve got an area near the stage that has all this stuff in it, and I’ll go out in the alleyway to spray-paint and do a lot of the cutting.
JL: WHAT’S YOUR PROPS MUST-HAVE?
BH: Double-sided carpet tape. That’s my bread and butter.
JL: AND WHAT’S BEEN YOUR WORST PROPS-RELATED INJURY?
BH: I burned myself with the glue gun, and then it got infected. I went to the hospital, and they thought I was going to lose the tip of my finger, but then I ended up going to a hand surgeon who [saved it by] cutting out the infection. Because there’s not a lot of [flesh on the side of your finger], it was just exposed bone. Those industrial guns, the glue’s like napalm!
JL: DO YOU REMEMBER THE PROP YOU WERE WORKING ON WHEN YOU GOT THAT INJURY?
BH: I couldn’t tell you [laughs], but another time, I cut myself with an X-ACTO knife while making a giant pill. It wasn’t that bad, but it bled a lot. I remember being out in the alleyway getting bandaged up by one of our security guards. These guys have served in Afghanistan. I’m like, ”I don’t want to look at it!” But the last time these guys worked on someone, they were tying off a vein, so it kind of puts it into perspective.
JL: HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE PRESSURE ON PROP-HEAVY DAYS?
BH: For the first year and a half it was—I’m embarrassed to say—pure panic. I was like, “How am I going to do this?!” But it’s not really there too much anymore. I mean, there’s sometimes frustration a little bit only until something’s done, but it got to the point where I thought, “It can’t get any tougher,” and so if I got through that day, I’m gonna get through this one, too.
JL: YOU MUST HAVE TO LET GO OF THE NOTION OF “PERFECT.”
BH: Yeah. Everything for TV, you know, it’s got to be done quick, plus it’s only going to be out there for 15 seconds, so no one is going to see that little hole.
JL: HOW DO PEOPLE REACT WHEN YOU TELL THEM HOW YOU SPEND YOUR DAYS?
BH: People have a lot of questions because, yeah, it’s a cool job. So I try to answer whatever they ask, and I talk about it, but then I ask them about their job.
JL: DO YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY EXPLOIT YOUR MAD SKILL?
BH: Yeah, but I mean, a lot of times, it’s beneficial, especially if you’re, like, at a new girlfriend’s house, and her mom needs something fixed. That gives you something you can do that doesn’t necessarily involve interacting, but will make the mom happy. So I don’t mind doing it. [laughs]
JL: DO WE SHARE A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH GLUE GUNS?
BH: Without a doubt. Every time I use one, later on, I wake up halfway through the night, heart pounding, being like, “Did I unplug the glue gun?!?!” even though I always have.
JL: OOHHHH, YEEAAHHH.
BH: That’s why I think I love the double-sided carpet tape so much. There’s no issues with it except for it getting attached to your shoe. That’s pretty much it.
JL: DESCRIBE YOUR FANTASY WORKSHOP.
BH: I guess just space would be the biggest thing, and tables. And it’d have the great printer we have here, that prints out images 24 inches wide by however long you want. A spray booth [for spray painting] would be great. And every tool imaginable because they all have a use. And then maybe everything would be hooked up to a vacuum, so it’s easy to clean up. A furniture shop would be great, but that would almost be overkill. That’d be more for stuff I want to do outside of work.
JL: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE PEOPLE WHO SAY THEY WANT TO BE A PROP MASTER?
BH: I don’t really have too much advice, but when I talk to interns, I tell them, “If you want to make money, become a banker.” [laughs] But you know, it’s almost something you can’t really teach. You just have to do it, and you become better. Although I do tell them, “Never think that you’re not able to do something just because someone is older than you, because they were you at one point.” Confidence will come, just keep on pushing through it. And “Yes” is always the right answer.
JL: FINALLY, WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT WORKING AT TCR?
BH: I love this job, I’m proud of it, it gives me purpose, and I feel I’m good at it, so that’s one of the best parts, but also the people I work with, I would say a lot of us are very, very close. And Stephen pushes the envelope in a way that makes us all realize that there’s stuff that we can do that we wouldn’t have thought we could do before that. He makes the group as a whole stronger, and he just brings out the best in the people that work here. He thinks anything is possible, and he hasn’t been wrong yet.
A huge thanks not only to Brendan Hurley, but to Meredith Bennett, The Colbert Report‘s co-executive producer, and Renata Luczak, Comedy Central’s director of communications. TCR almost never lets press go behind the scenes, so for making an exception, and then being incredibly hospitable, thank you ∞.
* And thanks to our editorial intern Becky Mickel, a journalism and mass communications major at Washington & Lee University in my and Thomas Jefferson’s home state, for doing such a bang-up job transcribing this interview!