Every year, many Columbia students find themselves confronted with the same dilemma. They realize that spending an entire summer merely vacationing or hanging out with friends—while perhaps a good way to enhance tan lines or Guitar Hero skills—does little by way of enhancing a résumé. Conversely, they realize that the experience they stand to gain by pursuing an entry-level job or internship comes with the potential for a summer filled with drudgery, grunt-work, and coffee-fetching.
Fortunately, the testimony of media interns like Michael Grinspan and Sasha Stewart, CC '09 (both of Chowdah sketch comedy fame) and CU College Democrats President Josh Lipsky, CC '08, offers hope. Their experiences in television—specifically, working for bastions of fake news The Daily Show and The Colbert Report—prove that a fun summer job and a résumé-boosting one need not be mutually exclusive.
In general, you don't need to be a film or theater studies major or have contacts in show business to land a TV internship. Though Grinspan, Stewart, and Lipsky did happen to secure their respective positions through personal connections—a former employer (Stewart), a relative (Grinspan), and a guy in the same weight training class (Lipsky)—all reported that many of their fellow interns had gotten the job simply by sending in their résumés and letters of interest. But Stewart confessed that "knowing somebody who knows somebody" is still "always a plus." Grinspan, who, like Stewart, interned at The Colbert Report, advised that "even if a show doesn't seem to have a formal intern program," sending in a résumé is still "worth a shot"—most shows are "always looking for smart, enthusiastic talent."
While the presence of several New York University film students conversing in complicated jargon intimidated Lipsky when he first joined the other interns on The Daily Show set, he soon realized that, overall, the group represented a diverse array of backgrounds. His studies in political science rendered him no less qualified to be there than anyone else. Upon discovering that tasks of television interns are meted out on a day-to-day and fairly random basis, it became evident to Lipsky that patience, flexibility, and a simple willingness to work hard have far more bearing on one's success in such a job than does any specific technical knowledge.
To be on the staff of a show whose content is dictated by the unpredictable breaking news of any given day essentially demands that one be prepared for anything and everything. Grinspan's duties ran the gamut from fetching Stephen Colbert's signature sandwich (a BLT with a whole sliced tomato) from the United We Stand Deli to transporting the man's mail to a special office where it could be scanned for anthrax, bombs, and other hazardous materials.
Yet life as a rookie on a television production team is much more than a mere game of fetch and carry. All three interns reported doing plenty of substantive work, which they found had a real impact on the show—their attendance at writers' meetings was even mandatory. "It makes perfect sense for them [the producers of the show] to listen to the opinions of the interns and be receptive to them if they have a pitch to make," Lipsky said. "The intern staff is the show's target demographic."
All three interns also reported relishing their essentially unlimited behind-the-scenes access, each noting how it allowed them to get a sense of just how a television program is actually put together. Grinspan noted in particular how much he enjoyed discovering industry secrets, like a building on 54th Street and Seventh Avenue apparently filled with hundreds of TiVos all recording nonstop. This allows shows like Colbert's to find even the most obscure and outdated of clips to run for a segment.
"It's so cool to watch the show later and be able to say, 'Hey, that's the prop I bought!' or, 'That's the clip I found!'" Stewart said.
While there is surely a lot of fun to be had in such a unique work environment, the 10 to 20 interns that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report hire every semester must also understand the need for serious commitment. Most television interns are regularly expected to pull nine- or even 10-hour days. "It's definitely a long day," Grinspan said, "But you find you don't really mind it because you feel part of a team where everyone else is as dedicated as you are."
There also seems to be a sense among the staff of such shows of contributing something innovative and important. Everyone at the show "feels like we serve as a necessary check on the media, calling it out on where it has failed the American people and hopefully encouraging it to change for the better," Lipsky said. The chance to help preserve democracy and meet celebrities? Now that's something you won't find at a summer job at Burger Shack.