~ Saturday, December 09, 2006 ~
I haven't been watching The Colbert Report for too long--Graham and The Advocate turned me onto it several months ago, but I'm slow to pick up on new things sometimes--but the more I watch, and the more I read about Stephen Colbert, the more I've been itching to go to a taping. Luckily, tickets are free, and I happen to live an easy 45-minute train ride from the studio, but unluckily, there's been no ticket distribution via e-mail (the usual method) for a couple of months. I'm supposed to finish my program in May and then I'm thinking I'll be heading back west, and I have no idea how many more months they won't be distributing tickets, so I've been getting a wee bit nervous that I might leave the city before ever making it to a taping. However, an opportunity came up a couple of days ago. Normally I tutor on Thursdays, but both my afternoon and my evening students had cancelled this week, so on the assumption that this sort of chance might not come again for a long time, I seized it and rode the subway over to the studio in the afternoon to try my luck at standby. I arrived a little after 3, later than I'd intended, but I found the sidewalk absolutely deserted. I figured that boded well, so I tucked myself into the little alley to try to stay warm while I waited for 4 o'clock to come. I pulled out a piece by Nozick I was reading for Philosphy of Law and tried to focus on analysing it, which was hard, both because I was already excited and because it's tricky to write little margin notes while your fingers are covered in clumsy gloves, but it was too chilly to take the gloves off. A few minutes later, a young couple arrived and planted themselves on the sidewalk against the building. Fellow travellers. They looked excited, too. Then another couple showed up and tucked themselves into the alley with me.
Now, the night before, when I decided I was going to try my luck in the standby line, I spoke to Rob and he gave me some advice. He's the sort of person who either knows everything or does a decent job of faking it, and he's lived in the city most of his life, so when he said he knew a trick for getting into the show, I figured I could trust him. As it turned out, his "trick" was that many of the people who have tickets have more than they need, because someone might have had to back out or because they asked for four and their party only had two, or whatever. Okay, that's kind of like a trick, but from the mystery in his voice, I was expecting something like a secret door with a combination lock, whose code is known only to Rob and Stephen himself. "But you have to be friendly and talk to people," he cautioned, as if he thought I have no social skills. Thanks, Rob. ;) I told him I'd try, but I was still preparing myself to sit all the way in the back, if I got in at all, because honestly, who would give up a ticket to The Colbert Report?
So when the second couple sat down like six inches from me, I looked up from my reading and smiled, and we started chatting. They were a nice pair, and the male half was celebrating his birthday that day. After a few minutes, I asked them if they had more people joining them, trying not to let them hear the hope in my voice. "Oh, yeah, we've got two more friends joining us," she said. Oh well. "But I don't think it'll be a problem," she continued, "because it says in the e-mail that people can join you in line later."
"Oh, no, I'm sure it won't be a problem at all," I said. I was grateful for anything to focus on that would make it seem less like I'd been asking her for selfish purposes. I felt kinda crappy about trying to chat people up just so that they would give me something, anyway, and while I was disappointed that she didn't have extra tickets, I was also a little relieved.
We chatted a bit more, and soon the first couple joined in our conversation. It turned out they were on vacation from Southern California, and they'd been planning this trip to NY for several months, but they'd only gotten a response to their ticket request the week before, so it was pure luck that their trip coincided with the date of their tickets. Amazing.
I lamented to her over how long the ticketing webpage had had "sorry, no tickets until further notice" posted on it, and she said, "Oh, you don't have a ticket?"
"No, I'm just waiting on standby."
She glanced at her husband. "Because actually...we have one extra ticket." She showed me the printout of her e-mail, with the giant number 3 on it. "And it was supposed to be for my brother, but he can't make it, so...if you'd like to, you can use our third."
How do you do it, Rob? Teach me how you do it!
"Uh. Uh, wow. Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it's totally fine! I'm just glad it's going to be used!"
Remember, this couple was *first* in line. I'd just jumped from having no idea whether I'd make it in to being guaranteed the third-best seat in the house. I was practically exploding.
The only downside to this is that now, instead of being outside in the cold for another forty minutes, I would be outside in the cold for another two hours and forty minutes. I'd been counting on retiring to a library or a warm coffee shop or something while I passed the hours between getting my name on the standby list at 4 and checking to see if I got lucky at 6. Now, with an official ticket, I had to stay in line the whole time. Heat I can handle pretty reliably, but I'm a total wuss in the cold. Weather.com said it would be dropping to 35 F. by 6 pm, and that was before windchill. I certainly wasn't going to let a little cold come between me and the third best seat in the studio, but I was still not quite sure what I was going to do to keep myself from shattering to pieces.
My benefactors, Anna and James, had it far, far worse. She had a sweater and a peacoat, but neither scarf nor gloves nor hat, and he only had a t-shirt and a hoodie. As long as we were now bound together for the next few hours, I wasn't going to let them freeze. I offered to go visit a drug store and pick them up some gloves, but he refused. I think maybe he didn't like the idea of my buying him stuff as if he couldn't afford it. By 4:30, though, it had gotten even colder, so even though they were both soldiering on admirably by staying put, our facial muscles were starting to go stiff, and our once-easy, lively conversation was beginning to sound a bit robotic. I really wanted to return even a little bit of the favor they were doing me, so I offered again to find them some gloves. Anna said she would go, and James suggested I go with her, because "a woman, walking through New York alone...you never know." I managed not to laugh. I walk around the city alone all the time, both day and night, and as long as there are people around I always feel safe...and there are ALWAYS people around. I've never had any problems here, unless you count crazy people who want you to agree with them that whatever's happening in Washington is a sign that the end of the world is nigh. I forget, sometimes, that people who don't live here only hear scary things about the city.
Anyway, Anna and I walked a couple of blocks toward the closest Duane Reade I knew of, but she spotted a 99-cent store on the way that served all our needs: two scarves, two pairs of wool gloves, and a thermal shirt for James, all for around $11. Anna permitted me to treat them to coffee, though coffee here tends to be ridiculously cheap, unless you buy it at Starbucks. I wish I had thought of a way to do more for them. :/
I can't believe how lucky I was that we happened to be there on the same day. We passed the next hour and a half chatting about religion (they're born-again Christians), Israel, California, the cost of living, and fun things to do in New York. I didn't get a bit of reading done, and I enjoyed every minute of it. :) It was too cold to stand still--you had to stay in motion to keep your extremities from going numb--but in general, it seemed like the time passed quickly enough. The last 10 minutes before 6 pm were the worst, though--I was waiting as long as I could between time-checks, and still, only two minutes had passed each time I opened my phone.
A few minutes after 6, the man with the clipboard showed up and let in first the VIPs, and then the rest of us. James, Anna, and I received our blue cards, numbered 1, 2, and 3 (I still couldn't believe it), and we then had to pass through a bag check/metal detector screening gate on our way in, which is probably why the entrance process took so long. I hadn't expected the metal detector, and I wasn't sure what was going to happen to the various things I had tossed in my bag on my way out the door, but the thing I was most worried about holding onto turned out to be plastic, so everything was okay.
We waited in the garage-like holding area (tastefully decorated with a TV in the corner tuned to Comedy Central) for what felt like a half hour, though I'm sure it was much less. They'd asked us to turn off our cell phones, though, so I didn't know how much time was passing. At that point, I was so cold and so wound up with excitement that all I could to is sit in my chair and bounce, in an effort to both release nervous energy and warm myself up. I failed on both counts.
After a crew member came out and briefed us on what to do and how to do it (summary: be loud), the gates swung open and the fig newtons entered. They were playing "I Wanna Be Sedated" as we were ushered into the studio, (in!! the studio!!!) and led to our seats. Sure enough, James, Anna and I sat in the front row, right in front of the C-shaped desk. Sitting there and listening, I was surprised to find just how much I liked the song, until I realised that at that point, any loud song with a beat would have sounded good. I sat and stared at everything like a baby, but sadly, my vision is a little more myopic than a baby's, so I'm sure there are a lot of things that I missed.
The studio really is a lot smaller than it seems. It's very wide, but the seating only went six or so rows deep. While we were being seated, a guy came out and wiped down the C desk, which was when I realised it wasn't blue metal at all, as I'd always thought, but rather clear lucite. It can turn any color they want it to be, I guess, depending on the lighting they use. I also remembered that in interviews and articles I've read, they've talked about all the lines of the set being oriented around Stephen's head, as if he is the sun from which all truth emanates. You can certainly see this during the broadcasts (and their efforts would have been all in vain if you couldn't) but it was nice to be able to follow the paths of the lines at my own liesurely pace, instead of according to someone else's camera work.
After a few more songs, a warm-up comic came out and talked to us a little, made us feel welcome, informed us that there would be a brief question-and-answer segment during which we should ask questions that are original, funny, and unique, and that we should stand up when called on. Then he told us again to be as noisy as possible with our laughter and cheering. There were a few jokes in there, but few that I remember. He did one about how New Yorkers aren't rude, but just in a hurry--"I'm late for an audition that I'm clearly not going to get, stab, get out of my way"--that made me laugh because I've had those thoughts so often myself. I often take a route that's several blocks longer just to avoid going through midtown during the theater rush. (Best way to spot tourists? They're standing still.)
When everyone was ready, the comic introduced Stephen, and Stephen came running out from behind us, through the aisle separating the two sets of seats, with all the triumph of someone who'd just won a marathon. We all cheered like crazy, and he ran a down-and-back gauntlet of front-row high-fives. I got to high-five him twice, and his hands are startlingly soft. I wonder what it would be like to shake his hand, and I'm surprised the people on the show who do so don't get quizzical looks on their faces, as if to say, "How can you be in your early forties and have the hands of a baby?" Does he take special care of them because he knows they get so much camera time, or are they like that naturally?
Someone handed him a cordless mic, which he took, tossed behind his back and up in the air, and caught as it spun down. Then the question/answer part of the evening began.
Guy in the back [muffled]: Stephen!!
SC: I have no idea what you just said, but I *agree*. Rragghhnnn! Graoghgghgh! Welcome to the show, thank you for that spontaneous outpouring of joy. I can tell it wasn't prompted or coached in any way. I'm Stephen Colbert, welcome to the show. Do you have any questions [my hand shoots up] for me before we start, to humanise me in your eyes before I say these terrible things in character I saw her first.
SC: Look at what she does, folks, she stands up. That's *breeding*.
Me: I think it's awesome that you teach Sunday school, and I'd like to know how your relationship with religion would have been different, if you'd had the kind of education you're giving people now. [I sat down, and immediately realised I should have said "kids" instead of "people", but I figured he'd know what I meant. He might not have, as you'll see:]
[uproarious laughter from the rest of the audience...which was funny, because I hadn't meant it to be a funny question. I really wanted to know the answer.]
I have noooooo idea what kind of education I'm giving people now. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not an educator. I'm a comedian. I don't know...I don't know! I...I listened to a lot of comedians when I was younger, went to bed every night to Bill Cosby's "Wonderfulness", "Bill Cosby's A Very Funny Fellow...Right?"--anybody know that one? Yeah? [A few people do the
I-know-that-one clap] Uh, "Richard Nixon, A Fantasy", by David Frye? Oh, buuullshit if you clap for that, nobody knows that one. [pointing at one guy clapping] Not even you.
[turning to me again] So...I don't know. Why, are you a religious person?
Me: Yeah, I...was in rabbinical school for a year.
SC: You were??
Me: Yeah, for a year.
SC: So you were thinking of being a rabbi?
Me [wondering why else he thinks anyone would go to rabbinical school]: Ye-
SC: A rabb-ette? [winning smile to the crowd]
[crowd: uproarious laughter]
SC: Does anyone else have any questions?
(*sigh* It's not that he wasn't funny. It's just that I'd heard that one before. To his credit, though, when he said it, it seemed funny again. I was just hoping he'd have a real answer to the question, something other than "I don't know, but hey, do you guys like Bill Cosby?" When I learned he teaches Sunday school, I imagined that his religious education had influenced him in some lasting way, and that he cares so much about children having a certain type of religious education that he decided to do some of the educating himself. I thought maybe there was some element of religious education that he never got that he wanted to be sure to give to today's kids, or at least, today's Roman Catholic kids. I mean, he *chose* to teach Sunday school, and I assumed he'd have a reason for choosing to do so, so I thought he'd have worked through how he wanted to present religion to the kids, and I thought surely it would have something to do with how religion was presented to him. Maybe it was just the wrong situation to ask non-jokey questions, so he opted to skirt the issue...or maybe, as I suggested, I wasn't clear enough. After he "answered" it, I remember thinking, through my thin veil of disappointment, how polite he was to show interest, even if it were feigned, in my reason for asking. *That* is breeding.
OK, now back to the story.
SC [to a guy behind me]: Yes.
Guy behind me: Yeah, I'm working on my thesis, and I know I'm not a guest, but I was wondering if coming onto your show and being in the audience will give me the Colbert Report Bump (sic) and help me finish my thesis project.
SC: Ahahaha...yes. Because I think all that really matters is for me to say yes, is that right? I like your t-shirt, by the way. Usually they say Stewart/Colbert, but that one says Colbert/Stewart '08. Goooood man. Someone from over here? Yes.
A young Asian guy from across the aisle: [something like] Mr. colbert, I plan on growing a beard. What do you think about that?
SC: My question back to you is, *can* you grow a beard?
SC: Alright, we're ready to go, let's go ahead and do the show. But first, could I have some of that artificial love I heard when I first came in here tonight?
We gave it to him, and he started directing the applause like an orchestra conductor, using the mic as a baton. First loud, then quiet, then one side, then the other, then all of us big, then quiet again. When we'd finished:
SC: *That* is how Hitler took power.
He passed the mic to a staffer and ran up, clicked his heels in the air, and took a seat at the desk. The music came on again ("Saying Sorry" by Hawthorne Heights) while he sat down at his desk, went over some business with some of his staff, and arranged himself. When he was opening his water bottle, he screwed up his face with the effort of breaking the seal, and I thought how much more expressive his face is when he's opening a water bottle than anyone else's would have been. Was it because that's how he is normally, or because he knew he was being watched and he was playing to us? He nodded in my direction (!) and raised his bottle with a "to your health" sort of gesture before he took a drink. As I said, breeding.
When the music died down, we began.
Crew Guy: Stand by everybody!
SC: Let's do it! Oh, it is Go Time.
The Table of Contents was my first glimpse of him suddenly in character. His performance--the enunciation, the expressive faces, and the deeper vocal register he uses--combined with the lighting and the suspenseful music, was disconcerting in its complete disconnect from the person we saw when he was being the playful, jolly host. He holds his face differently, for one thing, and all his gestures become...not necessarily bigger, just weightier, I guess, as if he's become several times denser than the rest of us, or several times more tightly packed with energy. It's like he's humming, or there's an aura around him. He's larger than life, to the point that I almost felt like I was watching a cartoon. On the monitors, he looked normal, the same Stephen Colbert I'm used to seeing. In person, he looked huge and exaggerated. I kept going back and forth, like Grover with his "Near...Far!" bit, but between the two different Stephens. Normal...Freakish! Normal...Freakish! It was hypnotic.
When the camera's on him, though, his gaze is intense--it's like he stares with his whole body, deep into the camera's soul. You almost feel as if you're not there, as if it's just him and the camera. It was at this point that I finally realised why the studio audience always laughs at the written commentary half of The W0rd later than I do when I'm watching it at home. They forget to check the monitor screens sprinkled around the studio, because they're all transfixed by his face. Sitting there in the studio, I was honestly having a hard time concentrating on the jokes. As I said, he's hypnotic. Well, him, and I guess the lighting and makeup and set design, all that, but mostly him, the way he's exuding "I mean business." You just can't look away.
I'd been so captivated by his face that I didn't even notice Elizabeth de la Vega come onstage until other people started laughing, cheering, and pointing. Speaking of which, I thought it was awfully nice of one of the staff to escort her out and help her up the step. She might have needed the help, too--she looked a little wobbly on those heels.
I was actually feeling sorry for her when she first came out, because her presence is so much airier than Stephen's. With his cartoony bigness, I was sure this slightly nervous-looking lady sitting across the desk from him would be swallowed up, but he very kindly made room for her.
After their bit, he gave her a hearty handshake and said to her what looked (with my poor lip-reading abilities) like, "That was great!" He looked genuinely delighted. I was surprised, watching it when it was rebroadcast, that the hearty handshake made it into the broadcast. Not the words of congratulations, though.
During the break, he had her stand again for our thunderous applause, and he took a bow with her. Then he returned to the desk and mimed testing the gavel, finding it too quiet, and struggling to turn the volume up on it. OK Go's "Here It Goes Again" pumped through the speakers while Allison (head writer) and a bearded stage manager (I think) talked with Stephen at his desk. As they were finishing, he pulled out a pitchpipe, and he spent the rest of the break practicing his blow-pitchpipe-scream-blow-pitchpipe-again business. One of the cameramen was cracking up every time he did it, and Stephen did it again and again, bigger and sillier each time, as if just to crack the guy up.
We were counted in (backward from 10), we started cheering at 3, and Part II began. This was the Decemberists bit, which explains the pitchpipe. You can't hear it in the broadcast so much, but when they were showing the clip from "Charlene", the crowd was going absolutely nuts. Everyone loves Stephen and the Colberts. In case you were wondering, the pitchpipe was tuned to a high C. He hit a G above that.
During the next break, they played a song whose title I wish I knew. It was in G Minor, and it started with a straight thump-thump-thump beat and some guitar riff with a tricky little rhythm. When the singer comes in, he sings in falsetto. I wish I knew the name of the song because if I could tell you what it was, then you could imagine this scene more fully: when Allison came up to Stephen's desk, he mimed playing the song to her, and she mimed it back, and as far as I could tell, they spent the whole time playing the riff at each other on their air guitars and singing in silent falsetto, instead of actually doing any prep. I think this was one of my favorite moments, watching their strumming arms going sharply up and down, perfectly synched with the music, and both of them almost-cracking-up while they stared each other down. Toward the end of the song, he pulled out the pitchpipe once more, so that he was already deeply into practicing his scream by the time they started taping again.
I was disappointed that Stephen didn't do his high-tenning on his way over to the interview table--he just ran straight over--but as the camera swoops from one side of the studio to the other, you can see some people cheering and pumping their fists. The back of my head (black wavy hair, half pulled back with a silver barrette) is the last bit of audience you see before we zoom in toward Stephen, standing near the interview table. Fifteen milliseconds of obscurity. :)
I thought Dr. Collins did a great job, especially because he didn't look at all fazed by Stephen's aura. He managed to seem just as big, not to mention just as quick, maybe because he was so completely absorbed in the argument, or maybe because he's such a well-trained performer. I loved it when Stephen said "I wish we were all still shepherds," and they both turned to gesture toward the figurines simultaneously.
In the break after the interview, Stephen had Dr. Collins stand for applause again. He got a standing ovation. Then, Stephen went back over to the desk and Allison came out again. They and the bearded guy chatted while the music played, and in a minute or two we were counted in, we cheered, and Stephen recorded his goodbye speech. The one time he messed up in the entire night was here--he accidentally spoke to the wrong camera, cracked up, and they took it again. This time it was just right, and we all applauded again. Instead of the credits rolling on the monitors, though the camera guys panned across the audience so that we could wave at ourselves. Stephen stood up and thanked us for coming, and said he hopes to see us again a long time from now, at which point he hopes they still have a show. Heh. Then he walked out of the studio passing between us like a prophet ascending to heaven, his aura trailing out after him. It all zipped by--we couldn't have been in there more than 45 minutes before it was time to go.
I had briefly considered hanging around by the stage door and waiting to catch Stephen on his way out, mostly since I've heard that it's possible and that he's friendly, but James, Anna, and I were all pretty hungry, so we opted for having dinner in a nice warm restaurant instead. Maybe I'll try again in May.
~ prattled by Miriam at 12:33 p.m. [+]
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