How to Be a Live TV Audience

In honor of Stephen Colbert’s final “Colbert Report” tonight, here is a column I wrote in September about attending a taping of his show. Thanks for the memories, Stephen (and Gerry and Theresa).

The Gad About Town

Comedy Central’s two main franchise shows 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 Colbert Report’s” studio looks like it was a house or storefront once upon a time.

The Thursday, September 18, 2014, broadcast of “The Colbert Report” was a very special one because I was in the audience, as I wrote yesterday, in “Four Minutes and 24 Years.” Terry Gilliam, the legendary film and theater director (the list is epic and includes: “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Zero Theorem”) and Monty Python animator and cast member, was the guest.

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How to Be a Live TV Audience

Comedy Central’s two main franchise shows 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 Colbert Report’s” studio looks like it was a house or storefront once upon a time.

The Thursday, September 18, 2014, broadcast of “The Colbert Report” was a very special one because I was in the audience, as I wrote yesterday, in “Four Minutes and 24 Years.” Terry Gilliam, the legendary film and theater director (the list is epic and includes: “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Fisher King,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Zero Theorem”) and Monty Python animator and cast member, was the guest.

The studio is on the same level as the street outside, but it takes a lifetime to get there. Sorry, that was a sentence from a television ad for a college course in broadcasting that I am working on. We should go back outside.

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, “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.)

The producers also do not want an audience of people 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 taking the phone call; people walking across the stage (especially in theaters with the stage and seats on the same level) looking for a restroom; 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. 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. The performance 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. (Willing to be loud. Happy to pretend to not be faking enthusiasm.) Some shows use online trivia contests to winnow out the casual fans. My method was the easiest for me: I have a friend who has done this before (he attended “The Daily Show”) and wanted to do it again and invited me.

(Would that we had attended “The Daily Show” last Thursday; former President Clinton was there that day.)

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. 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 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.

My thumb.

My thumb.

In that room, one goes through a security checkpoint and then waits. For over an hour. It is a square room, maybe 25 X 25 feet, extraordinarily air conditioned. Several monitors play old Colbert shows on a “Best of” loop. The walls are plastered with Colbert memorabilia. Over the next few minutes, the entire audience-to-be was herded into this room, which made clear the need for extreme air conditioning. Seeing I walk with a cane, one assistant walked me through the crowd to a bench.

Twice an assistant addressed the crowd. Both times the message was: “This is very special. Stephen is going to chat with you before the show, so have some questions ready.” (Perhaps he does this every show and they tell the audience it is special.) “When you’re watching the show at home, you only chuckle at the jokes because you’re thinking about your own life and you hear the audience in your TV laughing uproariously. You’re the audience in someone’s TV now. Whatever you’re going to laugh at, laugh loudly.”

The doors to the set were opened and people were ushered in by ticket number but in small groups; my group of four friends went in together. The bleachers do not have banisters, something which I was anxious about as a person with spinal muscular atrophy and thus almost no balance on stairs, even with a death grip on a railing. One of the assistants saw my cane and the four of us were thus seated in the front, over by the interview table. The stage manager and then the warm-up act coached us some more in the finer points of yelling our laughter. (Since all of you have heard my voice in an earlier post, you should be able to hear me clearly if you watch the show. Of course.)

Contrary to what I thought, the show is not taped in real time; Colbert made one verbal typo and they recorded a do-over, the commercial breaks were over ten minutes each, the interview with Terry Gilliam was over 15 minutes, of which about not quite 10 made the show. The affection between Colbert and his staff was obvious: at one point, while a hairdresser was combing his hair, he started pretending to comb hers. He indeed took questions before the show and again after. All told, we were in the studio for a bit over an hour for a 21-minute show.

The broadcast will be available for free on the website for the rest of this week, so here is the link: The Colbert Report with Terry Gilliam. And here is the 60 second edit:

It was a fun day and night in NYC, thanks to Gerry, Theresa, Ron, Bob and Kevin, and all of New York City. Even the panhandler on the train from Secaucus.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 9 asks, “If you could learn a trade—say carpentry, electrical work, roofing, landscaping, plumbing, flooring, drywall—you name it—what skill(s) would you love to have in your back pocket?” TV host. I am heading to NYC today with my one and only, Jen, to view tonight’s taping of “The Nightly Show,” starring Larry Wilmore. It is in the same theater as “The Colbert Report” was recorded each night. That is the reason for re-running this column from September. Tune in tonight at 11:30 EST on Comedy Central to see if you catch a glimpse of me and my love. Full updates tomorrow.