​My Job Interview with Stephen Colbert Was a Total Fucking Trainwreck

Imagine humiliating yourself in front of your hero.

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Jun 27 2016, 6:30pm

Screengrab via 'The Late Show' CBS

In college, I majored in Rhetoric. Yes, I know.


My major disqualified me from every job imaginable. Yet, I've been employed my entire adult life. This is because after college I realized I am good at filling out job applications. I'm really fucking good at it. Filling out applications is my super power. I think this is because my dad is a first generation immigrant. In the 60s, he drove by Woodstock on his way to a job interview. And he took that nerdy, career-oriented sperm of his and made me.

This is how I've gotten a lot of random jobs for which I had zero qualifications. I was a referee for a sport I did not understand. I worked in politics, but wasn't even registered to vote. I traded options on a stock exchange floor even though I still do not know what an option is. I was a cook at a mid-range gumbo restaurant and it took my boss awhile to figure out I had no idea what I was doing, because gumbo is very forgiving.

I think my mom gave me the temperament to aggressively pursue jobs I had no business applying for. When she first came to the US, she had a string of jobs from which she'd get fired within two weeks. It didn't bother her. She couldn't believe they paid her anyway. So if you own a janky 1980s-era American Camper tent with no way to enter, you can thank my mom. Her advice to me when I graduated college was: "It takes an employer a long time to discover incompetence." It was great advice.

I'd apply to shit I didn't even want. Did I really want to be a stonemason rebuilding sections of a poison oak-infested hiking trail? No. I don't have the muscle mass for it. I was raised on fried Indian food and have been skinny-fat since birth. But I love telling people I applied to be a stonemason.

This is how I came to apply for a job at The Colbert Report (RIP). I'd never written for a late-night comedy show. But I watched that show religiously as a fan. A stand-up comic friend told me there was an opening. To apply, he said, all I had to do was submit a writing sample that was specific to the show. I worked super hard on it, sent it in, and was one of a handful of people selected for a phone interview with the head writers, because I am the LeBron James of job applications.

As I shook his hand, I blurted out "You've been to space!" like I was seven-years-old.

But this time I had a problem. In the past, I'd apply for jobs that I thought would be interesting, where I could learn something, where I could make some quick cash. But if I didn't get the job, I'd just move on to hustle up the next thing. I didn't give a shit. What made my interview with The Colbert Report such a disaster was that I actually wanted the job.

I was more than a fan of Stephen Colbert. I worked for the Democrats during the dark days of the Bush years. Colbert was one of the only heroes we had during the insanity of that. I was also stressing about the interview being conducted over the phone, because to this day, people mistake me for a woman on the phone. I would prefer they think I'm a man, because I am a man. It used to bother me a lot, but this telemarketer called one time and was super pushy trying to get me to buy something, so I said to him, "You know, I'll have to ask my husband when he gets home." And the telemarketer finally gave up. For real. I said that. I said that recently.

I was starting to lose my shit over this interview. But my stand-up friend calmed me down. He told me I was just going to talk to the head writers and they're both really cool. He said all I had to do in these types of interviews is be cool too. The head writers already read my writing and thought it was funny enough to give me an interview. He said they just want to make sure I'm not weird. My foreshadowing is so obvious here. I'm a better writer than this when I'm not reliving deep shame.

The day of the interview came. My phone rang. I picked up. The first person said, "Hi, this is Head Writer No. 1**." I replied, "Hi, Head Writer No. 1." The other person said "Hi, this is Head Writer No. 2." I said, "Hi, Head Writer No. 2."** I waited for the interview to begin, but a third voice came on.

"Hi, this is Stephen Colbert."

I've only been starstruck a few times in my life. When I worked in politics, I was at a NASA event and got to meet an astronaut. As I shook his hand, I blurted out "You've been to space!" like I was seven-years-old.

And Colbert had just recently given that incredible speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner which, aside from being funny and ballsy, was so cathartic for me after working in politics made me so cynical about government. I just wanted to high-five the fuck out of this dude.

This is the context for what happened next. Stephen Colbert, who was not supposed to be on this call, said to me, "Hi, this is Stephen Colbert." And this is exactly how I responded: "Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!"

It was high-pitched. It was super intense. You could practically hear the little hearts dotting all those i's.

"Hiiiiiiiiii!" Author Sanjay Shah. Photo from author.

Right out of the gate, I violated the first rule of these meetings. I wasn't being cool. I was being weird. Now I was in my head. I tried to recover, but got thrown off again because I became convinced he was doing the interview in character. Then again, I didn't know what his non-character character was. So maybe he wasn't. And why should it matter? I didn't know. This was the chatter going on in my brain when I should have been paying attention to what he was saying to me.

After a particularly awkward pause, he threw me a lifeline: "So ... what else can you tell me about yourself?" Great! A super general question. This was my chance to recover from this fucking nightmare. I wanted to talk about something other than comedy or politics. I wanted to really connect with him. We were just two cool guys who don't have to talk about work.

I knew he was a fan of sci-fi, so I mentioned how much I love Battlestar Galactica. Colbert said, "Oh ... me too. The new one or old one?" And I said, "The new one." And he said, "Me too." Things are going great. We're going to be best friends now. Then he said, "Can you say Battlestar Galactica backwards?"

Here's the thing. I know Colbert is an improviser. I've done improv. And in improv, the number one rule is to "yes and." I don't have to actually say anything backwards. If I replied by saying "mesothelioma" or "Jesus wasn't white," it'd been better than saying "no." I was having this thought just as I'm in middle of saying "no," because I'd not fully recovered from how intensely I said "hi" to him at the start of the call.

So I said "no" and wince. Colbert immediately attempts to say Battlestar Galactica backwards. It is hilarious. I laugh.

Then he jokingly says "You blew it, kid." I laugh.

And then the interview ends.

I didn't get the job. I couldn't watch his show for a year afterward. And I still can't say Battlestar Galactica backwards. So I learned nothing.

Sanjay Shah writes for Fresh Off The Boat. Follow him on Twitter.

** Not their real names.

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