The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

My Trip to See The Colbert Report

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Tuesday, January 5. New York is freezing with an ungodly chill that is only worsened by the wind tunnel effect created by its tall buildings. But I have no worry, as I am out to prove that I am a worthy member of Colbert Nation. Fresh off a double-decker Megabus (aptly named, indeed), today I will wait in line outside an unassuming warehouse-type joint on West 53rd Street to attend a taping of The Colbert Report.

Everyone was in a pile fighting over the last Colbert Wriststrong bracelet...

Funny how this came to be. I’m no fanatic, nor was I ever one to salute the emperor on the way to a glorious death. And I certainly don’t get my news exclusively from Comedy Central. The Stephen Colbert fanbase is real, but the cult of personality that surrounds the opinionator character is only a joke–we assure ourselves. Before the day is over, I am wondering if the people I encounter will turn out to be a real cadre of devoted, charismatic die-hards, or just a bunch of wry college kids who play them on TV.

I already have my ticket, and I didn’t need to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire it. No: As with all great comedy, timing is everything. I’d heard that tickets for shows at the Colbert Report website usually open up around 10:30am (New York time) on weekdays. That’s exactly what happened: I checked the site the Monday before Christmas and tickets were available for two dates. Five minutes later, they were gone. But not before I got mine.

Admission isn’t guaranteed, though. The shows are always overbooked to ensure they have a full studio audience. They recommend that you get to the studio by 5:15 for the best chance of getting in.

colbert_awningI wish to get there bright and early, but I’m not in the mood for camping out. So, after killing time and staying warm in a few locales–a cafe on 9th Avenue, and the Public Library at the Lincoln Center–I decide to show up at 4. There is a long, wraparound line set off from the street and covered with a plastic tent. About thirty people are already there. It is mercifully less chilly inside the tent. I don’t know what the studio’s seating capacity is, but since the tent isn’t even halfway full yet, I figure I’m in good shape. Whether I’ll have a good view of Colbert himself is another matter.

By 5, I’ve had my ID checked by a staffer and I’m holding an official blue placecard: number 45. This makes it official. At 5:15, the chief of security gives the line a briefing on the airport-like screening everyone must go through. Only people with bags (ahem, myself included) will have any trouble getting through the gate. But I have no weapons, just a small camera, which the security guy doesn’t confiscate. 5:45, I’m in.

The waiting room looks like an old bus terminal. There’s a row of 20 chairs where the first people in are sitting–they have red cards, which I guess makes them better than us blue card-holders. The room keeps filling up and I get pushed closer and closer to the double doors that lead to the studio. For entertainment, there’s a TV with a tape (dare I say VHS?) playing clips from the show from about three years ago. The room ends up holding almost a hundred people; the staffers tell us that the studio set has been redesigned and the show is now airing in hi-definition. They also constantly remind us how we the audience are the life of the show and need to go crazy applauding and cheering, so we show them what we got. To me it seems strange that a fanbase would need such a prompt. I guess that’s the Philadelphian in me talking.

Around 6:15, the studio doors open. It doesn’t matter where you are in the throng; the order of seating is based on your card. A staffer calls for the white card holders first–which surprises even the red card holders. (“WTF?! I thought we were the most important people in the room!!!”) The rest of us can only sigh. Eventually they get to Number 45. Walking into the studio at last is a thrill. It’s bigger than I expected. My assigned seat is only three rows up. I can see the whole stage perfectly. But there’s more waiting, with music playing to pass the time; clearly Colbert and Company are big on alternative rock.

At 6:45, a stand-up comedian comes out and warms us up for the show. He draws his energy from picking out people in the audience and cracking jokes at their expense, but it works. The delay in starting the show is longer than expected, but he valiantly keeps the act going until…

7:30, at last, Stephen comes running into the studio. The moment is surreal. The celebrity effect; really, he’s larger than life. This is the best part of the night, in which the real Stephen, out of character, fields questions from the audience. Some are mundane: does he ever gamble, how often does he go home to visit South Carolina. (Answers: No and Very often.) Then someone asks, “What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?” which gets him thinking, and he ventures into an anecdote about driving on an icy road in Long Island on an assignment for The Daily Show during the “Blizzard of the Century.” A college student (surprise) asks him if he knows of the campaign to rename one of the dorms at her school after him. Stephen is intrigued at this, but then she says that he either has to be filthy rich or dead for it to happen. To which he deadpans, “Uh, yeah, sorry, no luck.” From question to question, he doesn’t miss a step. His roots are in improvisation, and improv is still his strongest comedic asset. Even out of character, he isn’t much different from his TV persona in personality, only in politics. When the Q&A is done, he takes his seat behind the C-shaped desk and the crew preps for the show. That’s when he starts shooting the elastic Wriststrong bands into the audience, an event no one is prepared for. But once we’re all fired up, the bands go flying. One goes over my head and another lands in the row right before me.

7:45, taping begins. Some people wonder if the entire show is done in one take. More often than not, it is. Only serious flubs warrant do-overs. There were two retakes during the taping, but they were brief and didn’t disrupt the flow or temper the audience’s enthusiasm. The taping wraps up around 8:15 and the show is done.

Leaving the show

In all, it was a good time. Not his best material; I was hoping things would get crazier. And the guest pool this week was unimpressive. Dr. Riley Crane is a real innovator and could well go down as the guy who turns social networking on its head, but clearly the program execs went with him and other relative unknowns this week so they could land Morgan Freeman the next. Still, fresh into the new year, Colbert was true to form. The show didn’t disappoint. The Word and the telestrator bit on Yemen were both packed with welcome laughs. On a related note, this was also the second straight show in which a groin-related image turned out to be censored. Watch out, guys, or this latest would-be bomber could spell the end of comedy.

As usual, it seems I’m at no loss for words. To conclude, all I can say is that it’s worth going to a taping; if you’ve never been in a studio audience, you’ll never look at TV programming quite the same way again.

(Here’s the full episode, in beautiful HD. You can see me in the opening crowd shot on the far left side; I’m the guy with the beard right behind the white dude in the Rastafarian cap. Five seconds of fame, 14:55 to go, baby.)

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Written by cwmote

January 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

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