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.
WHOLE MILK: Why does Sean Bartlett hate America?
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.