“Oh my God, it’s Fareed Zakaria,” I whispered to Jen, my girlfriend. It is possible that Mr. Zakaria goes days between hearing something like that from non-famous people; it is possible that he can leave his house without a pen because he can expect a day without autograph requests.
I am a lifelong news junkie and talk show viewer, so in my world, Fareed Zakaria is very famous. He was one of the guest panelists Thursday night on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” which Jen and I watched get made. Because I attended that taping and was in the audience for one of the last episodes of “The Colbert Report” in September, I thought it would be worth comparing the two experiences—”The Colbert Report” was very professional and “The Nightly Show” was not as professionally run, but this was okay. “Keep it 100,” as he would say.
Comedy Central’s two main franchise programs, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Nightly Show,” are both recorded in a part of New York City called “Hell’s Kitchen,” a section of Manhattan that extends about 25 blocks south and west of Central Park and west of Midtown over to the Hudson River. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood are former walk-ups and townhouses that are now offices for media companies; the studio in which “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” is recorded looks like it was a house or storefront once upon a time.
Until December, this was the home of “The Colbert Report,” which ended its decade-long run at that time. In January, Larry Wilmore’s show moved in and made its debut. (Colbert will be replacing the retiring David Letterman on September 8, 2015.) Last September, I attended a taping of “The Colbert Report,” which I wrote about in “How to Be a Live TV Audience.”
The behind-the-scenes operation of “The Colbert Report” was that of a well-oiled machine: assistants made regular appearances to update the audience-to-be with what was going to happen next; when a producer in charge of seating saw my cane, he quickly helped my group to seats on the floor.
That last bit is important because TV studio audiences are small (250 or so) but seated on steep risers, steeper than high school bleachers, but absent any railings or support. The steepness makes every seat an excellent one and close to the action. With legs that are no longer stable, I climb stairs with my arms pulling me up along whatever banister is available, however. Without one, I would have to climb stairs on all fours. There were four of us in my party that day in September and the four of us got floor seats as a group, right next to one of the TV cameras. Excellent seats, eye contact distance with Colbert and his guest Terry Gilliam.
In September, I wrote about getting tickets for TV shows and what is expected:
The tickets for live-on-tape broadcasts are free, because these shows need a full and loudly enthusiastic house for each and every show and the producers do not want people who feel that sense of hostile proprietorship that can come with a ticket purchase. They do not want an audience of people with crossed arms and an attitude of, “Okay, Now entertain me.” A theatrical performance in front of an empty house could nonetheless be great but a television show performed to silence and a performer feeding off the silence could be horrifying to watch unfold. (Only Johnny Carson seemed to be able to work with a not-yet-impressed audience.) So the tickets are free; one needs only to register online.
The producers do not want an audience of people just off the street, happy to receive free things but not aware of how to be an audience. Talk with a stage actor sometime. He or she will tell you stories of the weirdest things that have happened during performances: cell phones going off, of course, but also people actually taking the phone call and conversing; people walking across the stage looking for a restroom (especially in theaters in which the stage and seats sit on the same level); audience members yelling at or asking questions of the characters as if they are in their easy chair yelling at a TV screen; babies crying. The audience is supposed to be separate from the performance, with some exceptions.
However, a live television show audience is not at a stage show; the audience is a part of the show: the audience is the soundtrack.
Thus, the audience is coached on this point by producers before the taping begins. And then re-coached. And then coached by the warm-up act inside the studio. The performance itself at first felt like a pop quiz to gauge how well we had absorbed the coaching. It also felt like if we were insufficiently enthusiastic we would be escorted back out to 54th Street.
The process of acquiring these free tickets varies from show to show but all of the shows use the method to establish that the audience is made up of fans, who are willing to be loud and happy to pretend to not be faking enthusiasm. Some shows use online trivia contests or place phone calls to fans who have registered for tickets in order to winnow out the casual fans.
That was September. “The Colbert Report” was a decade old and 1447 episodes had been recorded. (I was at episode number 1403.) There was excitement over Colbert’s announcement that he was moving to CBS; it is possible that every employee was auditioning through professionalism for employment at the next show.
The tickets one receives for registering online for a television taping are not tickets as one usually thinks of them. They do not guarantee a seat. They guarantee a spot on line, in a covered alleyway, where one waits for the doors to open. The tickets guarantee ticket-holders the right to be among the first in a first-come, first-served seating arrangement. After all, these are free tickets. If you arrive even an hour before the taping, you will most likely have been beaten to the line by 250 others. Get there early. Early like 4:00 p.m. for a 6:30 taping early.
In September, I wrote about “The Colbert Report” experience, “We arrived early, chatted with the show assistants, and waited some more. The assistants are talented at a particular task: they quickly learn who is with whom, names, who has special needs. My friend’s wife sat with me at a coffeeshop for a few minutes while he held our group spot on line, then they traded: she went back and he sat with me. When he and I rejoined the line we found that we could not see her; one of the show’s assistants got our attention (not vice versa: They. Ran. Us. Down), gave us our seat tickets, and ushered us into a room in the building, where she already was.”
As “The Nightly Show” is recorded in the same building, everything was the same except the number of assistants attending to the future audience members. There are many ways to make a television program, and “The Nightly Show” experience was great—great fun, helpful staff, very funny episode—but “The Colbert Report” experience probably spoiled me. The staff for that show was extraordinarily attentive and made every audience member feel like he or she was a detail that needed attending to; when the staff of “The Nightly Show” has 1000 shows under its collective belt, I am sure it will be just as professional and attentive to detail.
The line moves from outside into the building, through a metal detector and security checkpoint (just like boarding a plane), and then everyone waits. For over an hour. It is a square room, maybe 25 X 25 feet. When 250 or so people are gathered in a small space, information is essential, or else everyone starts to offer theories about the shared current predicament. There were white tickets and red ones. Was one color more important? Who was going to be seated first? “The Colbert Report” producers popped in twice to give information, such as when they would start seating us. They coached us in cheering, and urged us to cheer loudly, so loud “that Stephen can hear you’re going to be a great audience.” “The Nightly Show” producers did not. Two-hundred and fifty people sent out 500 Tweets, none of them correct.
For the record, red tickets went in first, for reasons not explained. As every seat in the small studio is a great seat, with none closer to the action than others, there is no special seating. The only difference seemed to be that red tickets entered first.
As I wrote above, there are no railings on the steps up, so floor seats are needed for me and anyone with me. When the woman in charge of seating saw my cane and that there was only one floor seat left, she asked if Jen and I could be separated. We made it clear that that was not an option. She sighed. We waited while she thought it through. Sometimes two minutes feels like 20, and this was one of those moments. Feeling my co-dependence to be an asset, I looked around and even offered a suggestion as if it was my job, too: “Can you move those chairs from there to there?” The answer was no. The 100 or so people who had been seated looked down at me with my cane standing on the set. Lollygagging. The 100 or so remaining to be seated looked at me and my cane and collectively willed me to get healed.
As that did not work, the producer asked two women in the lowest row if they could move and make their seats available, which they did. Jen and I had met them on line and learned they were visiting from Seattle; because of these two people, I am now a fan of Seattle, so if you are from there, you rock. All of you.
We watched the show online the next day. Jen says she can hear my laugh throughout the broadcast. I watched and could not make out my laugh. What do you think? Comedy Central runs complete episodes of its programs online for about a week after they are broadcast; the episode we attended is titled “The Value of a College Education,” and will be available until Thursday, if you are interested in picking out my chortle from the crowd.
Here is the 60 second ad for the episode:
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