Monday, September 15, 2008

My Colbert Rapport

It’s a great thing to do in New York. For me, there’s this buzz of anxiety that I may not get in. When I do, it’s like a personal achievement, not just something like The Lion King that’s assured for anyone who can purchase a ticket. This time, I was with Svetx, and we didn’t merely want to get in -- I had comments to voice to Colbert during his question and answer session. He and I have walked the same ground, at the same time. We have a commonality in our pasts. I had to make sure I was called on and spoke about this without sounding like an idiot in front of the other audience members.


Svetx and I approached from the west, Riverside Park, and there was a guy already there, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, reading his business magazines. He was 1st standby, and we claimed 2nd and 3rd. I had told Svetx that if we were to be separated, with one of us admitted in and the other not, that she should be the one to go in.

We sat. The sidewalk smelled like piss, but I could not find an actual puddle anywhere. I figured it was dry piss we were sitting in -- piss baked into the concrete along with the dried and blackened chewing gum. Thank goodness for whatever sanitizing properties the sun provides, in summer at least.

I tried to sleep, something I’d never tried to do in the past on the sidewalks of Manhattan. I guess I’m getting used to the place. I closed my eyes, but noises played across the insides of my lids like richocheting billiard balls, sometimes coming toward me and making me start and open my eyes again.

The standby line built up to maybe 8 or 10 people. In December of 2005 I had done this, and there had only been 3 standbys. Being the first back then, I had read all the signs and directed others, as they had arrived, to whatever line was appropriate for them: ticket holder, standby, and VIP. One ticket holder that I assisted came back to me from her line a few minutes later and said “I guess I should offer my extra ticket to you -- I have a friend who’s not coming.”

Her name was Wendy and she had purple hair. I joined her in line, and she talked about how she had looked up Colbert’s wife and thought she looked kind of plain; how she imagined that Jon Stewart was the “voice” of the text which appears in counterpoint to Colbert’s monologue, “The Word.”

Wendy’s friends arrived. She told them how winter was always hard for her in the city because she thinks about the animals, particularly the horses who have to stand in the cold, blindered, for the benefit of tourists. I’ve thought a lot about Wendy since then, in light of how my Dad thinks liberals, such as the attendees at Woodstock or students at Oberlin, his alma mater, are all sick and depressed people. And I’ve previously written about my family member who said, with the support of most of the rest of the family, that a bomb should have been dropped on Woodstock. I think Wendy is the type of person they are denigrating, and psychologically, I find myself more aligned with her than with my family. Sure, we’re kind of melancholic, it’s because we are sensitive. She sees the horse and buggy ride worries about the horse. I see my country taking the fight to the terrorists in a short-sighted manner, and I worry about the implications for the people of the Middle East, most of whom have nothing to do with 9/11.

This time, there was not Wendy. There was the guy in front of us who would start an entry-level job at an investment firm the next day, and expected to be working 70 hours weeks for pretty low pay, until he had proven himself and could move up the ladder.

And behind us was a couple from Seattle who had come to New York because their daughter had won a chance to meet J.K. Rowling. Their daughter was not with them. They looked like such suburbanites that I was surprised to find them at Colbert. I talked about the time in 2005 when I had been to Stewart’s show, the night before I had been to Colbert’s. Some audience members had asked Stewart if he could get them into Colbert’s taping right after Stewart’s that same night, so during a commercial break Stewart set up a remote link to Colbert just to ask this question. Stewart put his feet up on his desk and posed the question to Colbert. Colbert asked if they were cute. Then he said, “I’ve got a seat right here,” and slapped his hands in his lap.

The suburbanites laughed, and I decided they were cool.

The ticket holder line was shorter than it had been in 2005, and when the doors opened, we were all admitted, all ticket holders and standbys.

Security was tighter now too. More guards were on hand, all dressed in blue blazers and kakhi pants, all very nice and professional and respectful of us. I imagine that Colbert himself had vetted them with an eye toward keeping an air of good humor. They searched our bags and ushered us through a metal detector.

Inside the holding room, a TV was mounted up on a wall. It showed highlights from past shows. This had not been there in 2005. Colbert’s interviews with Eleanor Holmes Norton were among the clips playing.

The audience manager stood on a pedestal and got our attention. He said he was going to ask us questions, and those who gave correct answers would get free T-shirts. Though it’s against the positive attitude my therapist and Svetx and other friends advise me to maintain, I felt inadequate for this challenge. Through 2006 and the first part of 2007, I could not find anyone who knew Colbert’s shows better than I. But I have not had cable at my house for a year, and my advantage has slipped. The first question was to name 4 musical guests that have appeared on the show. I did the wrong thing, which was to think. I thought of Toby Keith, who said that our war in Afghanistan is going great; I thought of Willie Nelson, who had told Colbert that his ice cream flavor was “Right good.” I thought of Barry Manilow, about how Colbert often sings harmony on one verse when the musical guest performs. While I was thinking all this, someone else was answering. The audience manager threw a wadded T-shirt to him. It seemed to travel in a straight line over the audience members’ heads, without unfurling.

This hesitation would never do if I was going to have my interaction with Colbert during Q&A.

Next question was: Name 4 items on Colbert’s set. Again I froze, feeling rusty, though of course I could name 4 items. The guy who answered listed Colbert’s C-shaped desk as one. The audience manager said this was lame, but he threw him a T-shirt anyway.

Then: Name Colbert’s home state.

My arm shot up with all the earnestness of that guy in the front row on Welcome Back Kotter.

“Yes, go ahead,” the audience manager said to me. He was like Colbert -- he had dark hair parted on one side, glasses, a way of raising one eyebrow with affected earnestness. Behind those glasses, it was hard to see who his roving eyes had lit upon, but it seemed it was me, and for an instant I forgot the ridiculously easy answer. Then I remembered it: South Carolina.

A T-shirt came hurtling at me, above the heads. I snagged it and pulled it in. It was mine.

Questions were over, and the audience manager stepped down for a little while. Another audience member came up to me. “You look familiar,” he said.

I looked at him. The beard wasn’t right, but the glasses were, and so were the voice and the small eyes behind the glasses.

“You look familiar to me too,” I said.

He explained himself in a stream of words in which I caught “casting call” and “South Carolina.”

“Beauty and the Geek!” I said. “Nathan!” The host geek!

He had been a geek on the first season of the show, and had attracted notice from the producers as having a good presence on camera and in real life, a well-rounded personality that extended well beyond his role as a “geek.” Beauty Jennylee had similar qualities, and the two became friends. They were given jobs as co-hosts for the second season. He and Jennylee went around the country doing casting calls, and I had been their audio guy in North Carolina.

In fact, here is Jennylee taking a picture of herself in front of one of the places where we did the casting calls. On the right edge of frame is the local cameraman who hired me on the job. I was probably standing just off frame to the right.

Nate said he was now teaching middle school social studies in Brooklyn. He had thought he recognized me by sight, but when I spoke out loud "South Carolina," he knew exactly where he knew me from. He said Jennylee was in LA doing some modeling and acting stuff. It was great to see him.

The audience manager came back to answer questions. We learned that Colbert was very upset when he was disqualified from running for president of the U.S. in South Carolina because you can’t have a TV show about yourself and be a candidate; that the day of Colbert’s accident that broke his wrist had come after many weeks of Colbert staying at the studio every night after taping the show, until midnight, to work on his book. His exhaustion had lead to his slipping that day when he had run into the studio to greet the audience. And yet, in great pain, Colbert had done the show, then still delayed going to the doctor for another two weeks.

We learned that when Colbert stole Bill O’Reilly’s microwave oven, they found O’Reilly’s lunch in it. Colbert had just walked out through O’Reilly’s security carrying it in the manner of Jeff Lebowski: “He said I could have any rug in the house.”

And we learned that Rahm Emanuel, head of the House Democratic Caucus, has forbidden all Democrats from appearing on Colbert’s Better Know of District series. Colbert can hardly get any congressman to appear any more.

We were told that while the audience manager was keeping us entertained, Stephen and the crew were in rehearsal, and that when they were through they would go into rewrites while the audience would be ushered into the studio.

We were told not to ask for autographs or to ask Colbert his political affiliation.

We entered the studio behind the tiered stands where we would sit. Hanging black curtains guided us to the end of the stands where we would walk around to the front, but as we walked I peered backward between some curtains to see if I could glimpse the man himself engaged in rewrites. All I saw were a production assistant and some hanging work lights and orange extension cords.

We were seated and told that the interview for the night, with Kevin Costner, had been previously taped because of scheduling problems. We watched the tape before Colbert appeared.

Then Colbert did appear, running out from the aisle between the two sets of stands, his hands out as if he had just made a touchdown, a stick mic in one hand. This was the run that lead to his fall that broke his wrist. He gets a standing ovation just for doing this, and then he goes to Q&A.

The first question came from a young woman who asked him to sing her Happy Birthday. He asked how old she was. 21, she said. He asked to see some I.D., so she showed him her driver’s license. Then he sang her Happy Birthday . . .

. . . in Latin. Lord knows where he learned that. It could be one of the geeky things he taught himself, like Aragorn’s genealogy, or the Apostle’s Creed. But this did tie in to what I had to ask him. See, I grew up at a small college in Virginia called Hampden-Sydney. My dad was a biology teacher there. Colbert had attended Hampden-Sydney for two years, been turned on to acting by the acting teacher there whom I knew (named in the previous link), and went to Northwestern to finish college. Colbert had said that Hampden-Sydney was a hard school for him at the time. He had studied classics and had a rough time of it.

I had asked a classics and Latin professor, JA, if he had had Colbert in his class. He said promptly, “No.” This was at one Christmas dinner back home.

This past Christmas, at another dinner, I asked HS, a retired professor of English, if he had had Colbert as a student. “Yes,” he promptly said. He said Colbert had asked him for a recommendation to go to Northwestern, and he had not heard from Colbert since. He seemed a little hurt by that.

Another audience member stood up and started talking about Colbert’s favorite Bollywood star. Having been out of touch with the show for a year, this was a little over my head. After they had talked about this a bit, Colbert said, “We are alienating the rest of the audience.”

This audience member asking the question claimed to know this Bollywood star, said the star is in town this week, and said the star wants to be on his show. Colbert looked over at an assistant, a real assistant, not the Bobby that appears on the show, and asked in what sounded like a genuinely stern tone why the Bollywood star had not been invited. The assistant had no answer.

Then the audience member said, “And I know you don’t do autographs, but for [the Bollywood star], would you?” He held up a magazine and Sharpie.

I thought, oh shit, he’s going to piss Colbert off and he won’t take any more questions.

The audience manager appeared out of nowhere frowning and said in exasperation, “Give it to me.”

Colbert was now discussing something with the assistant. The audience manager took the magazine and Sharpie to him. I didn’t see what happened with all that.

Colbert then took another question from the other side of the stands. Each time he asked for questions I raised my hand with all the earnestness I could muster, feeling like a kid in a class about to burst with his answers. Colbert was alternating sides of the room calling on people. This one was on the opposite end. If it were not the last one he would take, he would next come to my side.

And he did. I couldn’t believe he was actually looking at me, calling on me.

I had deliberated on how to phrase this. I had decided against saying “I bring greetings from Hampden-Sydney college,” because I’m not really in touch with the college these days, and who knows if someone currently living there actually had come to Colbert recently and spoken about it. So I said, “I grew up at Hampden-Sydney college in Virginia.”

“Hampden-Sydney!” Colbert said, standing up a little straighter as though being called to duty by some old sworn fealty.

“My father was a professor there-”

“Who was he?” Colbert said.

“___ in biology,” I said, “but you didn’t have him.”

“No,” he said.

“But I know HS-”

“HS!” Colbert said, standing straighter still, that old fealty gripping him more deeply.

“Yes,” I said, “And when I was growing up and playing Dungeons and Dragons, it was with his kids that I played.”

The audience gave a little “Awwww,” at this.

“We are alienating the audience again,” Colbert said. Then, to fill them in, he went on. “My whole time at Hampden-Sydney, I felt like I was in a 19th century monastery. All Latin and classics. It is all-male. When I transferred to Northwestern, I couldn’t believe that there were women. There were women two floors away. One of our professors came to our room and smoked pot with us and ended up sleeping with my roommate. I was a lot more at home there.”

I said, “And did you have JA?”

“Yes, absolutely,” he said without hesitation. Then, continuing the background for the audience, “The place is a stalwart rock of southern conservatism founded by Patrick Henry in 1776. Tell me, are you conservative?”

He was asking me, and I had to say something intelligent right then, in front of all those people. I said, “Well, I formed my idea of spirituality playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I love your show.”

“You are seriously damaged,” he said.

Svetx and I were elated. I had won a T-shirt during the quiz (though the quiz was laughably easy), and managed to have some exchange with him. Whatever would happen next we did not care. We had completed our mission.

Colbert took his seat at his desk and his director started the countdown “5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . .” not speaking the “2” “1” because, in television, the on-camera talent always finishes the numbers in his head and starts on “0”.

I remember very little of the show. I remember more from the 2005 show I went to, in which Colbert’s final statement of the Table of Contents portion was, “Step aside Oprah -- every member of this studio audience gets a free gift -- of the truth!”

In 2005 when I attended, both Colbert and Stewart did their shows straight through with no editing. This time, Colbert did stumble. It was right after they showed a clip of Obama rebutting McCain for making fun of him about the tire gauges. Obama reiterated that experts say Americans could save 3 % to 4% of our oil consumption by keeping our tires properly inflated. “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant,” Obama said.

When the video cut back to Colbert he fumbled his line, said “Fuck,” and put his head down on his desk. He stayed there for a few seconds, an eternity in TV. I thought they would keep taping straight through, but Colbert raised his head and told the technicians to run the clip back.

“From the beginning?” the director said.

“Play the whole Obama clip,” Colbert said. “We need to get into it.” Colbert, behind his desk, is not only the talent but the boss as well.

Some switcher or whatever backstage really has his act together. Without delay they rolled the clip again. “ . . . take pride in being ignorant.”

Colbert started with a more dramatic air this time, fumbled, and cursed again.

Take 3: “ . . . take pride in being ignorant.”

This time we audience members had our part down. “Ooooooohhhhh!” we went. And Colbert nailed his response, as if, in part, drawing from our input.

“Yes sir, we do,” he said, narrowing his eyes. He went on to declare one week of September “National Ignorance Month.”



Also on our night, he chose a spider to be named after himself.



Then, with the first and second acts done, there was nothing left. The Costner interview had already been taped. Colbert stood up and said, “It’s over already! Here, I’ll interview you,” he said, putting his arm around the shoulders of his floor director, who made like he was going to speak, then waved the mic away.

We were through. Outside, I called my dad and told him what had just happened, that Colbert had studied under HS and JA and remembered them both.

The audience manager came out a side door and took the magazine and Sharpie to the guy who had asked for Colbert’s autograph. “I’m sorry, sometimes it happens that way,” the manager said to him.

I told the manager he was doing a great job.

Nathan walked by with his friends, and we said our “laters . . .”

We had done it. Svetx and I had made it to Colbert. It’s always a thrill. It seems that it doesn’t matter what happens in New York after that.

Next time I see JA I’m going to tell him that his former student in classics, now a famous comedian and late-night show host, a ground breaker in political and social satire, the next big thing after post-modernism, is singing Happy Birthday in Latin. I’m gonna tell JA that maybe he should start remembering this student of his.

4 comments:

phil said...

Awesome, dude!

One of my godsons has been growing up on the H-S campus for the last few years now.

I hope he gets on TV someday, too.

Elrond Hubbard said...

I wouldn't say that growing up there gets you on TV. I didn't get on TV. But your godson does live in earshot, and probably sight, of those wonderful new football stands they have. In my day, there was just a lousy brick shack up on that hill.

And your godson lives in the house formerly occupied by the famous old football coach, who was coach back in Colbert's day.

Maybe your godson will get on Beauty and the Geek though.

Is only one of their sons your godson? That's playing favorites, isn't it?

--Lisa S. said...

Hah, liked your on-the-spot answer to "Are you conservative?" My good answers aren't formulated til 2 am the next day.

Ajit said...

When I mentioned you to my wife, she said "he looks like Stephen Colbert, right?" And then I see this. Perfect.