Behind the Scenes at ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’

Gillian Horn, senior at SMPA, used GW connections and networking to turn her passion for entertainment and journalism into a job with one of late night comedy’s leading lights.a

October 24, 2018

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SMPA senior Gillian Horn helped power "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Ruth Steinhardt

Gillian Horn has a morning routine. A journalism major at the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, she wakes up, first checks the news on Twitter, and then does what she calls the “late night round-up,” seeing which late night television hosts had the best jokes about what’s going on in the world.

The mix of entertainment and journalism fascinates Ms. Horn. “I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the late-night comedy world,” she said.

It’s a world into which Ms. Horn has an insider’s pass. This summer, she worked for comedy powerhouse Stephen Colbert as a general production intern on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” She helped facilitate segments with stars like Seth Rogen and Mandy Moore, ran errands for Anthony Scaramucci and Michael Avenatti and escorted Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s mother to watch her son’s guest spot.

But the glamour of celebrity encounters soon palled—“It’s sad, but you do get a little jaded,” Ms. Horn said. More important was the work she and her fellow interns did to ensure every cog in the complicated machine of late night television turned smoothly.

“We’re kind of the batteries behind a lot of what goes on,” Ms. Horn said.

As an intern, Ms. Horn worked three days a week. She spent Wednesdays with the talent department preparing green rooms for celebrity guests, helping segment producers and greeting guests and their posses—which could range from one companion to several dozen.

“With music talent they had a whole band, and sometimes even a gospel choir or dancers,” Ms. Horn said. “So you have to wrangle people and make sure everybody’s ready to go by the time the show starts.”

Unlike many other talk shows with modern, custom-built studios, “The Late Show” is filmed at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, a restored 1920s building on the National Registry of Historic Places with a stage the host himself calls “a very intimate space” and a warren-like backstage.

“It could be a little hectic, because it’s an old theater,” Ms. Horn said. “There was craziness all the time, but it was so much fun.”

On Thursdays, assigned to the digital department, she helped with social media, pulling clips from the show for the digital team to Tweet out later, capturing backstage moments to add to the show’s Instagram stories or helping with shoots for exclusive online content. And on Fridays she was assigned to general production, doing office tasks, running errands, transcribing interviews and restocking snacks for the famished production crew.

“You’re going all over the city on errands, which is pretty sweaty in the summer, but you don’t care because there’s no one you’d rather be doing it for,” Ms. Horn said. “There’s no job too small in this industry, and you have to be humble about it, because these things do matter. If someone reaches into the fridge and gets a warm soda, especially if they were already mad about a segment not working out or something, you’ve made their day a little worse when you could have made it a little better. It sounds so little, but these things make a difference.”

GW Connections

Ms. Horn’s path to the Late Show began in the summer of 2016, when she was working as an intern at Bravo TV. (She didn’t intern her freshman year, focusing on other aspects of her college experience.) While in the company’s offices at 30 Rockefeller Center, she parlayed a GW connection into her next career step.

“I knew I wanted to do something in D.C. in the fall, so I started asking around the human resources department,” Ms. Horn said. As it happened, one intern recruiter in HR was a GW alumna and, like Ms. Horn, a member of Chabad GW. The alumna helped flag Ms. Horn’s email for MSNBC producers in D.C. and gave her advice on how to interview. The result was a prime fall production internship on “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”

Just as she had at 30 Rock, Ms. Horn took advantage of physical proximity to make connections and learn what she wanted to do next. When Mr. Matthews made an appearance on “The Late Show,” Ms. Horn reached out to an acquaintance who worked with Mr. Colbert. The acquaintance helped Ms. Horn apply directly for one of the highly competitive “Late Show” internships—and Ms. Horn’s experience and qualifications helped her land it.  

“I hate the word ‘networking,’ and it’s annoying that it works, but it does,” Ms. Horn said. “It’s just that extra effort that sometimes goes a long way. Schmoozing’s part of journalism.”

Now in her senior year, Ms. Horn has a full course load and is interning for NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell. As to what she wants to do after graduating, she’s staying open. She particularly enjoyed her work in “The Late Show’s” talent department, so working in booking for a late night show is a possibility. But she also loved tagging along with “Late Show” field producers for segments produced outside the studio and is interested in field production for international news.

“It literally depends on the day,” she said. “I know I want to be in TV behind the camera, but I’m kind of still torn between journalism and entertainment.”

As to what she’s doing for her next career step, Ms. Horn is giving it time to breathe.

“My friends in the business world get offers a year in advance, but that’s just not how it works in the TV world,” Ms. Horn said. “If they need a producer, they need her tomorrow, not in a year. So there’s really no point in stressing right now. I think I’m in as good a position as I can be to get where I want to go.”