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I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee

Behind the scenes at Comedy Central
By SEAN BARTLETT  |  September 28, 2006

WHOLE MILK: Why does Sean Bartlett hate America?
It’s 11:39 pm on June 26, and my cell phone is about to explode. In the last three minutes I’ve received ten text messages and six voicemails from friends and family, all regarding the same thing: Stephen Colbert has just threatened to fire me from my non-paying internship during tonight’s WORD, for carelessly putting whole milk in his coffee, and I’m officially the most famous person I know.

While most of my summers back home on Long Island have typically involved a menial job and three straight months of unmitigated self-loathing, this past year proved to be different. Instead of hosing partially digested cotton-candy out of rollercoaster cars at my local amusement park, I got coffee and ran errands for the man who stood mere feet from our President and claimed, with genius pseudo-empathy, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” I don’t think I have to tell you that’s a marked improvement.

As a Colbert Report intern, my first day begins at 10 am when I arrive at the show’s 54th street studio in Manhattan. To be honest, I’m a little queasy as I walk through the front door, hoping that I’ll be able to maintain at least the illusion of professionalism in my first taste of the “real world.” I mean, this is the big time, a true bastion of modern comedy with a Daily Show pedigree, and I should check my adolescent sense of humor at the door.

My supervisor hands me a folder with a contact list, a subway map, and a packet entitled "Welcome to the Neighborhood: your guide to Hell’s Kitchen." It lists everything from Supermarkets to Starbucks in the surrounding area, and even mentions a massage parlor on Ninth Avenue called “Rub-A-Dub.” It’s described in the “Stephen Recommends!” section with a one-line review from the fearless leader himself. It reads, “Not a stroke joint!” I think I’ll fit in here just fine.

My duties on an average day at the Report were mostly what you’d expect from a sub-entry level position in television production. I stocked fridges, refilled water coolers, got coffee (it’s a triple-shot latte to answer your question), and numerous other humbling assignments that, had I been employed anywhere else, I’d probably come to loathe.

But there were, of course, those exceptional days that reminded my fellow interns and me what truly set this experience apart from the usual nine-to-five fare. Whether it being asked to pick up a large mailbox from a prop house in the middle of Harlem, or being sent down to Christopher Street to locate and acquire 100 miniature rainbow flags for the audience, you learned fast to ignore self-consciousness and expect the unexpected.

Personally, my favorite task was to retrieve a six-foot gnarled staff and a wizard’s hat from a costume shop downtown. I hate riding the subway enough to begin with, let alone looking like I’m on my way to the nearest comic-con, but I had to laugh when a particularly chipper urban youth shouts at me, “That’s a hot staff son.” I guess even gang-bangers have a soft spot for the Lord of the Rings.

But for all the ridiculous prop runs and tedious daily chores, the interns here are also given incredible access to the inner-workings of an Emmy-nominated television program. Aside from what we absorbed through sharing the same room as these people, each intern was allowed to choose a staff member to shadow for an entire day, to really see what makes the show tick. I chose Laura Krafft, one of the writers, and trailed her like an idiot at some sort of thousand-dollar-a-day fantasy camp.

I sat in on all of the writer’s meetings that day, and was able to see how an episode of the Colbert Report evolves into the tight package we get every Monday through Thursday at 11:30 pm. I was privy to discussions of ethics (Is a Hezbollah-palooza joke over the line?); given sage-like advice (“There will be days when you’ll wonder why you’re in this business, and then days when it all makes sense.”), and even got to pitch some of my own ideas (“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed America, it’s just the Colbert Report.”). To my surprise, I was actually taken seriously, my initials even placed on script submissions alongside writers I supposedly collaborated with. It was an honor, but I couldn’t help feeling a little like that kid from the Shake ’n’ Bake commercials; Mom did all the work, I just shook the damn bag and got credit.

As the day came to a close, I was invited into the studio to watch rehearsal. The studio itself is much smaller than I imagined. I’d describe it as “intimate,” but not in that deceitful real-estate agent sense of the word. Instead, it made me realize that there are actually places that can be described as “where the magic happens,” even if that phrase has been abused by every clueless celebrity in a trucker hat on Cribs to describe their master bedroom.

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I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Sweet article. Does Colbert really have as sexy legs as they say?
By pjbss on 09/28/2006 at 1:16:10
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Raaaammmoooonnnnn....Just kidding Sean. Awesome article, excellently written.
By bigdirtyphil on 09/28/2006 at 3:34:41
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
You aren't the kid from the "Shake 'n' Bake" commercial? I though that's how you got your in with Colbert... Nice work, Sean. I always enough laughing with you.
By sethy on 09/28/2006 at 4:15:38
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Great article, Sean. :)
By Christina on 09/28/2006 at 4:25:32
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Your writing is like a Stephen Colbert Martini: Intoxicatingly delicious, dry, and always puts me in a good mood.
By halligan on 09/28/2006 at 4:30:05
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Sweet summer job. You really conveyed the experience well to the readers, good article.
By peter_z on 09/28/2006 at 4:43:11
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Your last graf is one of the best I've read anywhere. Really liked it... a lot. However, I prefer to think of your writing like a Steven Colbert bag of Lays Potato Chips: delicious (not necessarily intoxicatingly so), salty, and I can't have just one...
By nickcamm on 09/28/2006 at 5:10:16
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Sean! What a great article! The only part you didn't capture about working here is the smell... that damn smell. -laura krafft
By laura k on 09/28/2006 at 7:14:05
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
I agree with peter_z.. I must know more.. like how do you become an intern.. what kind of prerequisites do you need? and the image you give of kids at play in the studio.. I've had dreams like that, actually.. of walking into that studio.. and it was empty.. for me, it would be like a sacred place.. you have to stay quiet, like in church... at least, that's how it would feel.. as it is, it has become a bit of a Mecca for me.. to at least sit in the audience, just once... I'm hoping to get there soon....
By Rikimae on 09/29/2006 at 12:40:15
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Entertaining and enlightening--really puts the world into perspective. I'd take him home.
By romano on 09/29/2006 at 9:16:47
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
I laughed, I cried (not really, it was just dusty in the room) We want more Bartlett!!!
By fossman on 09/29/2006 at 11:46:39
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
This feature is really good and shows a lot of talent. Keep up the good work, I look forward to reading more of your stuff!
By mwatt on 09/29/2006 at 4:04:24
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
You're article is amazing, It's exactly what I remember of the summer. (minus the swearing during the third "short" trip to Video Cafe) And I'm honored that you'd include my mailbox in Harlem story. You managed to describe the priviledge, trial and joy it was to have experienced working for Colbert. From the tears of almost getting run over by a taxi on my fifth run to downtown to the joy of playing "interview" with Puneet in the studio.
By Sam (the girl) on 10/01/2006 at 4:09:35
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
love the article sean...and i do remember that night, as i was one of the people who called you at 3am to make sure you know stephen colbert was mentioning you on television. it was a very special moment in my life as well :)
By smoothoperator... on 10/01/2006 at 6:25:43
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
reading this makes me happy. there. i said it. write more.
By wolframwonder on 10/02/2006 at 5:15:30
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
From the freep, to the phoenix... I can't wait till I read your stuff in Rolling Stone. Make sure you keep me updated on more of your work, it makes me feel at home.
By aryn on 10/03/2006 at 10:13:27
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
Yes, I second Laura_k's request. Please tell us more about the process. How did you get that position at the CR? How many nobleman's lives did you have to save? What was the exact number of right arms you had to give up? Please, a hint, a dusty map, ANYTHING!
By showcase_showdown on 10/06/2006 at 10:53:57
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
My dream is to be an intern on the Colbert Report.... any advice as to how?
By Nik on 01/28/2008 at 2:12:36
I ruined Stephen Colbert's coffee
You need to be a FT Communications student, interested in broadcasting. Then you look for "Intern" opps at the networks, either through your job bank or on the 'net. The top jobs get snagged early. The station I worked for, RNN, does that, and you would mainly be a go-for, but we do get you a nice tape of your "on air read". ( oh, Sean, great article, too)
By patkeepsie391 on 04/04/2008 at 7:24:39

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