UPDATED: Think you’re funny? If Stephen Colbert thinks so too, he might just offer you a job on The Late Show, which is looking to hire a new staff writer. But first you’ll have to send him a lot of free jokes, and you’ll have to knock them out real fast: the deadline for submissions is Tuesday. And you won’t get paid unless you’re the lucky one hired.
“Hello, talented person and/or sentient AI program!” begins the CBS late-night show’s amusing help-wanted ad. “We are looking to hire a staff writer to join us at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. You’ve already demonstrated an ability to read, so you’re off to a great start.”
As part of a submissions packet (see it here), the show wants to see two examples of cold opens that air before the credits roll. These bits “often feature Stephen backstage, or in the office, preparing for the show,” the ad says. “At times, they are reacting to the news of the day, or interacting with a guest; other times they’re just wacky weirdness.” Then the show wants to see five opening monologues jokes: “Think of them as mouth-tweets for TV,” the ad says.
Next up, you’ll have to write one topical news segment. “In our topical news segments, we dig a little more into the news. Whether it be a deeper look at a story, or framing a news item in a larger context. Because these are often at the desk, we can include a lot more elements, such as over-the-shoulder graphics, more elaborate props, or even characters that emerge from beneath Stephen’s desk.”
Then the show wants to see three Confessions, where Stephen “admits to faults and asks the audience’s forgiveness. These aren’t sins, per se, but things that feel wrong somehow. We have also found that it is more valuable to have confessions that feel true and relatable (‘I only floss on the morning I go to the dentist’) to buy us the rare trip to CrazyTown (“If I got two cats, I would name them ‘Cat One’ and ‘Cat Three’ so everybody felt sorry for me.’)”
Finally, the show wants to see two pitches for segments, at least one of which must be an idea for a guest segment. “These are just ideas for something funny you’d like to see on the show. You don’t need to script them out, but explain how the bit would go, and provide a few examples of jokes that they would include. They shouldn’t be more than a few paragraphs long, a page, tops. And no fiddling with the margins and font size.”
The show advises applicants to “Be inventive, be funny, be clever, be passionate, be informed, be curious, be careful, be thoughtful, be empathetic, be deliberate, and be yourself. Shouldn’t be hard, right? If we didn’t think you had the ability, we wouldn’t be asking you to write this submission” – for free.
“If you know Colbert’s show, you will also know that it would take a competent, experienced late-night TV writer a week to generate this much material, and that’s working full time,” said one informed and empathetic writer who thinks the show is asking for too much free material from job seekers. “I’m estimating that it would amount to a 30-plus-page submission packet. Do the Colbert producers feel that this is reasonable? It isn’t. They are preying on the desperation of TV writers looking for work, and asking way too much. I’m surprised that a network like CBS would allow this, and I’m even more surprised that the WGA hasn’t come down on them for doing it.
“Knowing how badly people want to work, and how hard it is to get a job in TV, I’m sure that a lot of people will spend their time on this packet. Based on past history, there is nothing to prevent Colbert from using the material sent in, and you know what the usual answer is when a writer says, ‘Hey, I wrote that — and you didn’t give me the job!’ The producer cheerily responds, ‘Great minds think alike.’ ”
The WGA East, which has jurisdiction over the show, declined comment. The WGA West investigated similar complaints against The Tonight Show’s submissions program three years.
“Whether a submission/packet violates the Guild agreement depends on what is in it and what it asks writers to do.” a WGAW spokesman said in a statement to Deadline. “Each has to be reviewed on its own set of facts. If we think there’s a violation of the MBA, the Guild will pursue it.”
Pitching free jokes to get a job is a time-honored tradition in the TV industry; it’s how a young Woody Allen broke into show business, slipping unsolicited jokes under the door of the producers of Your Show Of Shows until they finally hired him.
“You want to be able to be seen,” said a WGA West source, “but it’s a slippery slope. When it became formalized, it developed into a practice we wanted to discourage. It’s like telling an unemployed coal miner, ‘Come in and dig a few free holes so I can see how good you are at digging holes.’ It becomes too easy to break the contract when they tell you what to submit. They become an employer and they should pay you.”
“The submission process is rigorous because the job of a late-night writer is,” said an insider. “This rigorous process is not uncommon. Late Show With David Letterman used it as well. A longer explanation in the submission process helps younger writers. They’re not expecting 30 pages. The show has great respect for writers.”