‘Whhaaaaa…? But that’s not a theatre performance!’ I hear you grumble. But here’s my definition of theatre: a live experience involving suspension of disbelief. Here’s my definition of good theatre: theatre that moves me. This was good theatre. That being said, because it does not define itself as theatre, I will choose to forgo my usual ‘Hoo-ra’/’Blech…’ format of bullet-point review. Instead, think of this more as a recap. A thorough-recap. My goal here is for you to understand–to empathize with–how wonderful this experience was. Here we go.
1) Waiting In Line
Got to the line at about 4:30 PM, which put me 44th. I considered going earlier, but y’know, I have work, I’ve been to the show before, and to be in the front row you generally have to get there at about 1:30. Too much waiting for me. I hung out for about an hour before they started pushing us through security. Because I had reserved a total of 3 tickets and only ended up using the 1, I was happy to see they wouldn’t go to waste when I noticed significant ‘stand-by’ line of about 25 people.
2) In the Holding Area
This is kind of a strange experience. Once you’re passed security, you end up in small room about 20 feet by 15 feet that slowly fills up with the audience of about 120 people. Around you sardines there are two small bathrooms, a water cooler, various artwork depicting Stephen, and several hung flatscreen TVs that broadcast select bits from the first season of the show. Apparently these never change, as they were the exact same bits I saw when I visited the show a couple years ago.
I struck up a few conversation with other excited members. One girl wearing an Urban Outfitters Stephen Colbert shirt had a red and blue ticket instead of a blue one, so I asked her what that was about. She said she wasn’t sure, but they were given out people in the front of the line. I didn’t think these were present at my last taping, so I was curious to see what they mean.
Finally, I got to talking to a couple Canadians who handed off a mysterious looking box to the security guards. Turns out they were a founder and a technician from MakerBot. This rang a bell, and as I suspected, this had to do with a segment Colbert did a little over a year ago where he made 3D print of his head. Turns out, he loved his 3D printer/replicator that was gifted to him, but broke it after only a few months by accidentally dropping the thing. These guys were so grateful for the publicity Colbert had given them, that they brought him a complementary newest model. Wish I could have one! They run at a cost of about $2,200. Fascinating guys– we had fun talking about when 3DS Max used to be a set of 20-odd DOS disks, and the founder’s failed attempt at animating something for Stephen’s Green Screen Challenge. They also weren’t in NYC just for this, they were also attending Maker Faire on Saturday.
Pretty soon there was a palpable energy of anticipation in the room (and very little oxygen left). A guy came out and reminded us how important it is that we be excited, reminded us how awful it is that Stephen lost the Emmy again even though he does the show by himself when Jon Stewart has tons of correspondents , and let us know to the surprise of what seemed like everyone but me that we would have a chance to ask Stephen questions out of character. And to not ask him anything inappropriate. Red and blue tickets went in first, then red, then blue. Once we got in the studio (which is actually about half the size it looks on television thanks to some focal lense magic), it was apparent that the red and blue tickets were people guaranteed to be able to sit in the first row. And I think red tickets were the second row.
3) Warm-Up Comedian
I can’t remember if we had Pete Dominick last time, but it was this time, and this time was better than last time. They do this on The Daily Show as well as a way to get the audience into a laughing manner and to establish a rapport. Pete’s set focused on how excited he was that someone had said ‘boy, you are sexxxy!’ as he walked by a building, and how sad it is that men do that to women but women never do that to men. The person in question who did this was a guy in front of a gay bar, but Pete didn’t care! He walked with a spring in his step for the rest of the day. But he did lament that the guy was not attractive at all himself. From there he moved onto playing with the audience– this was well-done. Last time I remember there being some exceedingly awkward moments.
Pete’s great. First he talked about how being bald and having a overly-enthusiastic smile makes him a very creepy person to see at a child’s playground, even though he only goes with his daughter. He called out a very large, intimidating looking man who was ‘staring me down right through my soul’ while everyone else was laughing. The guy was maybe 6’3, 250 pounds, and reminded me of a cross between Stellan Skarsgard and the actor who played John Locke’s father on LOST. Turns out he’s a nurse in a children’s hospital and very amiable. Still, Pete kept looking to him every so often to confirm he found the jokes funny.
He also talked for a while with some young Europeans in the front row who he identified as Norwegian, but were actually Danish. Pete then proceeded to list off everything he knew about Denmark (more than me– except for the weird suggestion that their major export is flowers) then used these guys as an opportunity to over-explain his American humor (blow-jobs and the like). Finally he asked about the holding area where one girl shouted out that ‘it sucked!’ and he used her as the ‘Debby Downer’ character to refer back to for the rest of his bit. There were also a couple audience shout-out jokes that he played off of really well. The first came from one of the MakerBot technicians I was talking to who, after a comment about how everyone in the second row looked like a ‘One-percenter’, he shouted out ‘Occupy the second row!’ to a big laugh. Then as Pete was wrapping up, he said ‘You’re doing great and you just have to keep it up!’ and another guy shouted ‘That’s what she said!’ and despite the simple-mindedness of this, Pete played with it well. He said this a few times but it was also true: we were a fantastic audience and we all knew we were going to have a lot of fun with the show. Apparently he never does blow-job jokes unless he can tell the audience is awesome, and we got like 3 of them. So there’s that.
4) Stephen Colbert Out of Character
The stage manager is a warm, jolly, huggably friendly guy who came out briefly to coach us in standing up and cheering whenever he twirls his rolled-up script. We did this a couple times to practice, then Pete and him brought out Stephen to a roaring applause. He always looks smaller in person. He gave everyone in the front row a high five, joked a little about the Emmys, asked us how we were feeling, and asked the girl in the front row with the Urban Outfitters shirt I mentioned earlier to stand up and show it to everyone. He then proceeded to tell us how Urban Outfitters had approached him to start a merchandise line, and how he had approved something small– like a single t-shirt design. However, apparently he was pretty exhausted from his shows and all the stuff related to working on his two books, so he missed the part where they took their conversation as consent to go wild with anything and everything related to Stephen Colbert. They ended up making things like beer mugs with such “witty” phrases as ‘I Am Drunk and So Can You!’ and ‘Red, White, and Brew!’
Stephen’s response to this: ‘What the fuck guys?!’ His wife is also not happy about this (‘My wife is pissed!’) particularly Stephen’s visage being used on the Uncle Sam ‘YOU WANT ME!’ shirt.
Stephen then opened the floor up to questions, and as per usual at these things, I was the first person to get one in. My strategy? I extend my hand to the sky like I’m being lifted by God and sport an insanely giddy smile. Still not sure why that works. Last time I asked Stephen how him and the writers keep the character of Stephen Colbert consistent: are there lines/positions Stephen Colbert does not cross? He answered by saying consistency is important and they actually keep a Stephen Colbert ‘bible’ where they mark down every time the character takes a significant stance on an issue, and if the issue is reoccurring he can refer back to his steadfastness, or if he changes his position, he can talk about why. But then he said the character is also whatever they need him to be on any given night. Hm. This time I got a much more straightforward answer, and it went a little something like this:
STEPHEN: You, young man!
ME: Stephen, I’m deeply curious how you feel about The Hobbit being extended into a trilogy and if you believe the appendices of The Lord of the Rings provide enough narrative content to justify this?
AUDIENCE: (nods and murmurs of impressedness at my exceedingly excellent question)
STEPHEN: You are of course referencing the discovery of the arkenstone, the White council, and Aragorn’s travels in the East as ‘Thorongil’?
ME: Yes, and the Necromancer and Dol-Guldur…
STEPHEN: Enough for a trilogy? Absolutely. And frankly, Peter Jackson is a genius. In fact, (giddily) this is very secret, but he invited my daughters and I to New Zealand to tour the studios and workshops.
STEPHEN: Let’s just say I had to hold a history book over my lap. And again, he made me promise not to tell anyone, but I got to see a 25-minute cut of the film…
AUDIENCE: (angrier gasps!)
STEPHEN: I’ve seen it, and you guys haven’t, and it’s AWESOME! (he goes all high-pitched at the end– such a fanboy). So yeah, three, definitely! Make four! Yes!
Love how geeky he is. He then calls on someone who tag-teams off my question and asks Stephen if he can get his friend a ‘fountain-guard’ helmet from Peter Jackson for a project he’s doing. Stephen says there’s no such thing as a fountain guard, but this guy insists there is. Stephen says he thinks the guy means a ‘guard of the citadel’, but no, he’s sure it’s a fountain guard. He then clarifies by saying that the fountain guards are in Minas Tirith like the citadel guards, but they’re the ones with little wings on their helmets. Stephen gets (fake?) angry then says well maybe someone called them that but in his writings, Tolkien never did! But then he shakes the guy’s hand and says he’s certain the guy is right.
I just looked it up though, and I think Stephen was right. Near as I can tell, someone started calling those people fountain guards, but citadel guard is the correct term from Tolkien proper. Regardless, this is what Stephen references at the beginning of the episode proper when he tells the audience he would “have any one of you guard my fountain. If anyone did that, and I don’t think anybody does that. Kind of a stupid job.”
The remaining questions were pretty straightforward. One guy asked how he could get Sunday school classes with Stephen. Stephen responded that he’s taught Sunday school the past 3 years, but not this year, and that he gives private lessons. Finally, someone asked Stephen, now that his term is over, if he thinks George W. Bush was a great president, or the greatest president. Stephen responded: ‘professionally speaking? Greatest president.’ Then bounded over to his desk to have oodles of make-up applied and to get the show started.
5) The Show
Stephen tells us right at the top that they have too many jokes and so they’re going to cut the table of contents. The show starts proper and we stand up and cheer like good little monkeys as we are destined to do many times throughout the episode. You can see me here, here, and here. Stephen does the entire first act in one take without a hitch. Hilarious. He then gets to a ‘Cheating Death’ segment that you won’t see on the Thursday broadcast. He shows some clips about testosterone enhancement that talk about how a man’s testosterone decreases from some large number to some small number over the course of his lifetime and–without any scientific backing–this is bad. Stephen jokes about how he was distracted by the waves of text gently caressing a man’s chiseled abs, and the guy at the end who says that now he looks ‘friggin awesome!’
To balance out the increase in testosterone that may be detrimental to health, Stephen’s Prescott Pharmaceuticals announces a new injectable product called ‘Vaxotestostrogen’ which will give you six pack abs and double-d breasts. A beautifully photoshopped image displays this and Stephen breaks character for the first time. He giggles ‘I think they swiped that from the porn file on my hard drive…’ and the audience loses it. He redoes that and keeps going. No more mistakes for the rest of the show proper, and before I know it, the most brilliant mind in television is about to be brought out.
6) Vince Gilligan Interview
A silouette behind the skrim. A whisp of a moutache. Could it be him? Yes it is. Vince, my love, you are so close to me… yet I cannot touch you, for if I do, I will surely be tasered. Probably by the security guard who bears an uncanny resemblance to The Cousins.
While Stephen sits at his main desk and has make-up reapplied and drinks some water while his writers and producers swarm him, Vince is quietly brought out to sit at the desk. Remember, Stephen always takes the opening limelight from his guests so naturally, they need to already be sitting. Because the studio is pseudo-dark, Vince only gets a smattering of applause. I have to admit I was sad here. Vince sat there by himself for a good five minutes, and I would have done anything to run over there and talk to him for thirty seconds. And really, would it have been so hard to do a little audience Q&A while Stephen and his crew are busy with other things? The male nurse sitting in front of me made like he wanted to shout something out to Vince– I could tell he was just as big a Breaking Bad fan as I am. I told him, ‘whatever you want to shout, you should shout it!’ He looked pleased by my reassurance and was about to again, but then shook his head and didn’t. I came pretty darn close to yelling either ‘Vince you are a god!’ or ‘Will we ever find out why Don Eladio was so scared to kill Gus?!’ but alas, I restrained myself as well. Instead I contented myself with making eye contact with him, then blowing kisses and feverishly bowing. I don’t think he found me creepy at all!
The interview that you see in the finished episode has a good bit of TV magic applied. They did the whole thing in one 15 minute or so take, but then the crew ultimately decided that they were going to cut the Vaxotestostrogen segment and do about 10 minutes from the interview instead of the usual 5. So they had Stephen and Vince film a couple quick segments to be inserted in post-production to allow for a clean transition to and from commercial:
1) We’ve got to take a commercial break but stick around and we’ll talk some more. We’ll be right back with more Vince Gilligan!
2) Welcome back everybody! We are talking with the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan.
Watching the episode, I’m very impressed by how seamless these integrate.
So I have to say, I was nerdgasming the whole interview– even though it was clear Stephen doesn’t watch Breaking Bad, his writers came up with some great bits and I absolutely adored the suggestion that selling meth to pay for healthcare costs should be Mitt Romney’s platform, as well as the whole section of ‘Walt’s a job-creator and a small business owner. Keeping jobs here in the good ol’ U-S-A! He built that!’ And the meth-off was fantastic. Tee hee… Dr. Ice’s Tooth-Loosener. Here’s some interesting bits that were cut from the interview that aired:
1) Vince gave away a minor spoiler for Season 6 (you’ve been warned!). He stated definitively that Walt’s cancer is coming back! Very surprised they didn’t air that. This is something many fans suspected because we saw him popping pills in the Season 5 premiere… but a good number of people think that he’s taking his Chekhov’s ricin there. I still like the latter theory.
2) Stephen asked Vince more about what being on the show has done to him, and they talked about how Breaking Bad has brought him to some really dark places inside of himself that he’s not entirely comfortable with. He does feel like the show has changed him as a person, and sometimes not necessarily for the better.
3) Stephen talked about how Breaking Bad is being compared to a serialized The Godfather in terms of scope and care and brilliance, and does Vince worry that this is the last good thing in his professional life? How can he possibly top this? Vince of course said he worries that all the time and that’s why he tries to appreciate every moment (even the late night ones) he has with his writers and actors and crew.
And all too soon, Vince left. You can tell he’s a guy who feels so much more comfortable in a writers room than doing press tours. When he was told he could leave, he slowly stood up, started to walk out, then seemed to remember it would be polite to wave good-bye to the studio audience. He gave a quick awkward wave to uproarious applause, then slipped away… never to be seen again. I’m so grateful that I will forever know I got to see him in the flesh whilst he was still in the midst of making the world’s greatest television show.
7) The Unreheased Unreleased UN Bit
After a few more minutes of Stephen back at his desk talking with his crew, he announces to us: “You’ve been such a fantastic audience and laughed so much that we’ve actually over run by four minutes!” The Vaxitestostrogen (love saying that) segment is moved to Monday, and he filmed another one to replace that one and it that wasn’t even rehearsed. However, now that I’ve seen the episode proper, it seems that was moved to Monday as well in favor of the Vince Gilligan interview. Still, it was so cool to see Stephen in all his professionalism do a segment that he had absolutely no time to practice. It was great– basically riffing on how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is spending all of his time in America buying things at Costco, as such products are very hard to come by in Iran. Highlights were how we shouldn’t be worried about enriched uranium, but rather enriched yellow cakemix. And then about how in addition to being a holocaust denier, he was now going to open up a Holocostco. Stephen delivered this line and another in the bit kind of strangely and had to do a retake (just the audio). Funny to hear him say the same line 5 different times in a row with different cadences– I imagine that’s to make life easy for whoever has to sync it in post-production. He explained that when they were writing this segment, they all thought the idea of a ‘holocostco’ was clever and hilarious but probably couldn’t be broadcast, so when he saw it coming up on the teleprompter he kind of panicked.
Almost done! Stephen assures us there’s just a couple quick things left to film. He filmed a shot of him stroking the caressing his new book which has been inserted into an earlier segment of the episode. If you look closely, his hands don’t align when the camera cuts to the next shot. Stephen tells us offhandedly that he was never a watcher of the Oprah Winfrey Show and never had much interest in the woman, but now is absolutely in love with her. She’s fabulous!
9) Good Morning America Promos
I would have thought that these are rehearsed, filmed in multiple takes, and that there were probably about seven of them that then get edited down to two. Instead, there were only two, he filmed both in one take each, and they’re both being used:
PROMO #1- Hi, I’m Stephen Colbert and this Monday, I’m going to make Good Morning America, Best Morning America.
PROMO #2- Hi, I’m Stephen Colbert and this Monday I’ll be guest-hosting Good Morning America with George Stephanopoulos. I hope we do a cooking segment. Maybe meth!
10) Signing off
Finally, Stephen prepared to do his short little sign-off segment ‘That’s it for the report. Good night!‘ I’ve always been sad that he hasn’t done something comparable to Jon Stewart’s ‘moment of zen‘ to end his shows, but tonight’s sign-off was hilarious (for the audience) because of the context. Once the cameras were rolling, Stephen chose to improvise a little; as he said his good night, he pulled out the packaging for the earlier Prescott Pharmaceutical Vaxitestostrogen segment, ripped the needle out, and gave himself a faux injection. This was hilarious as many of us in the audience remembered as he was doing this that the segment had been cut. Thus, to the viewer at home, this needle would seem either completely out of nowhere, or a strange response to the Vince Gilligan interview showing a complete misunderstanding of how meth is administered (and even if it was correct, it would certainly be in bad taste). Anyway, someone offstage reminded Stephen of this, he burst out laughing, then awkwardly pushed the needle and packaging together on his desk saying ‘someone’s gonna have to fix that…’ He then pulled out his book and did he sign-off once more, this time ending it by feigning avid interest in reading his weighty 250-page tome.
11) Bonus: Story Time
Because this was (in his words) the longest he’d kept an audience waiting and he appreciated our patience through all the downtime between segments, Stephen decided to give us a little bonus: story-time! He read to us a section of his new (as of yet un-released) book, America Again, Re-Becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t. He turned to a section about pharmaceuticals, and proceeded to read off the prescription requirements and side-effects of such drugs as Xanax and Adderall in hilariously satirical fashion. We really are the most over-prescribed nation in the world.
And so, as you’ve hopefully gathered, the whole experience was exciting and inspiring and humorous and professional and gorgeous. Like watching a well-oiled machine be operated by the most experienced and brilliant of mechanics. I hope you’ve enjoyed this report of ‘the report.’ If you’re ever in NYC, I highly recommend checking out colbertnation.com/tickets at about 9 in the morning to grab some last-minute tickets from the last-minute cancelers. Did I mention the whole thing is FREE? Yeah. Awesome. The final cut of the episode can be seen here.