NEW YORK — For most people I know, 8:30 on a Tuesday morning is either time to go to class or time for nothing at all; why wake up before noon if you don’t have to?
For me, however, once every six months, it means something totally different. It means I’ve made the journey to South Station and am about to catch a Greyhound to one of my favorite places in the world: New York City.
And, despite what my past behavior would seem to predict, this isn’t for a concert or a music festival or anything of the sort. No, this is my biannual trek to the sacred ground of 513 E. 54th Street – “The Colbert Report.”
On this particular occasion in late April, I couldn’t have asked for better weather to stand, iced coffee in hand and with two of my friends in tow, on the streets of Manhattan for a few hours. The instructions on the ticket confirmation e-mail instructed us to show up no later than 6 p.m., so my friends and I naturally showed up to “get in line” around 2:30. To our surprise (yes, surprise – the anxiety of losing a good spot in line is not exclusive to concert-going life), we were first. Even security seemed taken aback seeing us there, asking us outright if we were actually there, so early, to get in line for the taping.
The hours passed easily until we proudly received our blue, laminated tickets that designated the order in which we would at long last enter the studio: 1, 2, and 3.
Of course, if my previous experiences in the concert world have taught me anything, it’s that a place in line is never guaranteed – and that even if it was, that place doesn’t guarantee much within itself.
Let me explain. After you’ve lined up for a while (in our case three and a half hours, but probably less for most) the Report’s interns lead you into a holding room that might also function as an elaborate shrine to Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert DFA. A poster from 2010’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” and various incarnations of the iconic portrait that hangs over the studio’s “fireplace” adorn the walls, as well as a not-quite-life-size sticker of the man himself, posed for a photo.
As more and more fans trickle in from the outside and go through the metal detector, a highlight reel that was probably compiled in 2007 (and not altered a bit since) plays on a television in the corner of the room. You can’t exactly call anything that Stephen does “outdated”, though, and soon the entire room is laughing at some of Stephen’s best “Better Know a District” interviews to date, the introduction of the word “truthiness”, and his light saber fight with George Lucas.
Time is just starting to drag after about an hour or so when the excited interns brief everyone on conduct policy, beg the audience to laugh and clap as loud as humanly possible (something I still don’t quite understand – why would anyone need to be told to laugh at this show?) and tell everyone to keep it clean during the pre-show Q&A: “If your question has anything to do with some below the belt, above the knees action, keep it to yourself,” they’ll tell you. Then, finally, they start to let everyone inside the studio itself.
…and that’s when it happens. Out of nowhere, people emerge with tickets completely different from your own, and those people are instructed to go in first. Granted, on this particular venture I learned that some of those lucky not-so-few are military families, which the Report makes a point of ushering to the front of the line. Even two hours into our wait, I couldn’t help but feel admiration, not bitterness, when this policy was quietly announced.
After the military families, though, comes VIPs. Red tickets in hand, they are led in, and the lowly mortals who have stood in line outside can wait still a few more minutes to find their seats.
On my first visit to the Report in October, I remember finding this particularly disenchanting. For years (about six, to be precise) I’d watched the show religiously and dreamt of the day that I, too, would stand in the front row and high-five Stephen as he ran by. I remember distinctly watching the show in middle school and hoping against hope that the show would not be canceled before I turned 18, lest I lose my chance forever. In my mind, back then, all I had to do was show up early (of course) and I was home free.
This time I remarked to one of my friends how nice it was that at least we didn’t have the expectation of getting the front row anymore. This time we could go in without a shred of disappointment and hope that wherever they stuck the three of us (they always keep parties together, to their credit) was worth those few extra hours in line. We also had the advantage of knowing that there was no such thing as a bad seat at the Report – but, I mean, can you blame us for wanting to be as close to the desk, and the man himself, as possible?
Still, when we were led in and looked up into the stands, we couldn’t help but feel a little deflated. There were unquestionably many more VIPs at this show than at the one we’d been to before: the first several rows back, in each section, were already full. We’d just said as much to one another when the security guard who’d met us before and joked about our dedication “Usually only tourists show up this early!”- said that we seemed just crazy enough to warrant a spot in the front row.
Before we knew what was happening, my friends and I found ourselves sitting in the only three free spots in the front row, the farthest to the left in the studio. All Stephen had to do was look to his right and there we were. It was unbelievable.
I’ll digress here to talk about the studio itself for a moment, because it really does deserve a mention. The first thing of notice when attending any taping, I’ve found, is that the studio seems a lot smaller than the show would indicate. The audience itself, the only part of the studio that you don’t readily see on screen for more than a few seconds, is relatively small, too (there’s a reason my friends and I show up early.)
Stephen may run from his desk to the interview table every week, for example, but he really only needs to take three steps at most. I myself, in the front row, could’ve taken as many steps and touched the infamous desk.
All of the decorations and nods to running gags on set are permanent fixtures, stacked on the shelves behind the desk. The lights and video screens embedded in the walls and on the desk are all actually in place, none of them that I could see inserted after the fact. It was in a lot of ways like stepping directly through the TV screen and finding yourself in the middle of any given episode. As a fan, in my mind, you can’t really ask for better than that.
From that point on, everything else seemed to go unbelievably smoothly. Some kind of playlist, containing everything from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Placebo to U2, blasted through the speakers as the audience was let in, picking up throughout the taping whenever the cameras stopped rolling. The warm-up comic, brought out some 30 minutes before the show started, alternated between picking on audience members and himself, taking particular pleasure in tormenting a self-described “analyst” who was unquestionably the best-dressed man in the audience with his suit and tie. It was also his somewhat enviable duty to get us on our feet and bring out the man of the hour with a yell into his handheld microphone: “Stephen Colbert!”
As promised, my friends and I stuck out our hands as Stephen came bounding out from backstage, making the rounds of the front row to the sound of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me”. Pausing in the center of the floor to our continuing applause, he laughed and caught his breath, smiling good-naturedly into the crowd. When he finally convinced everyone to quiet down, he broke the ice by revealing that today he had been completely unprepared for his introduction, bolting out in an instant when he heard the comic yell his name.
Still, he looked as ready and willing as ever, and started the Q&A portion that comes before every show: “Do you have any questions to humanize me in your eyes before I say these terrible things?”
I’ll admit something here: with each taping of my favorite shows that I’ve attended (two for The Daily Show and one Colbert before this occasion), I’ve always stood outside in line contemplating what brilliant, witty question I would ask either faux-pundit if given the chance. Unfortunately for yours truly, that resolve has each time evaporated once the man in question was standing mere feet in front of me, looking expectantly into the crowd. I’ll put it this way: I didn’t even try. This time, though, I knew I’d written it off for long enough, and up my hand went.
Stephen first called on a man a few rows back, who asked what was the most ridiculous or “questionably legal” thing that Stephen had done with his Super PAC funding (collected, as many of you may know, from donations from the faithful Colbert Nation). Stephen went on to recount for a few minutes the process of offering to solve the South Carolina Republicans’ financial woes by buying the naming rights to the Republican Primary there for $500,000, dubbing it the Stephen Colbert South Carolina Republican Primary.
Before all of us he began to lose himself in the tale, taking on the personages of the various characters by putting on a thick southern drawl or lazily scratching his stomach as necessary. In the end, he said, the financial struggles of the party concerned were alleviated by the government – but they didn’t write him off, either. “They didn’t need my money,” Stephen recalled, earning a disappointed groan from the audience, “…but they still wanted it!” he finished, with a mischievous grin. In the end, he said, he had all of the records of the exchange, enough to tantalize any self-respecting investigative journalist, but he wasn’t about to turn them over. He liked the guy, he said simply, with a shrug.
If anything, this seemed to answer the ever-looming, unasked question if Stephen Colbert can truly charm his way into getting anything he wants through the Report. The answer is clearly yes. Yes, he can. And he does.
Realizing this question segued perfectly into my own, my hand shot up in the air. To my surprise, Stephen pointed at me. “Yes, young lady?”, he said.
“You’ve clearly done so much crazy stuff with this show,” I said. “Has anyone ever told you no?”
He opened his mouth for a moment, closed it again, and answered with a smile: “A lot of girls have.” And the Q&A rolled on.
Asked if he’d ever forgotten who he is, Stephen cut off the asker with an abrupt “No,” and a laugh. He had only gone home in character once, he said, after he had spent his ride home after a taping writing up notes and dialogue for the next show. He walked in the house and his wife recognized the shift immediately and told him to “get the fuck out of my house,” he recalled with a laugh. “She said ‘Why would I want to be married to this?’”
After a few more questions, the soundtrack was cranked all the way back up and Stephen was quickly prepped behind his desk. His makeup was touched up, his hair was combed back (Stephen jokingly stroked the stylist’s hair as she worked), and the cameras were rolled into place.
He grabbed a handful of his signature red WristStrong bracelets and stretched them back, shooting them into the crowd. Never one to miss out on a gag, though, after about five bracelets were sent out and the audiences’ hands remained outstretched he held up an impressive-looking dagger, poised to throw. He grinned, somewhat dangerously, before putting it away, pulling out his notes for the first segment.
The stage manager twirled a script in her hand, our signal to go nuts, and we obliged as the intro to the show started up on screens around the studio and the theme played through the building.
This episode saw the return of a long-lost segment, “Thought for Food”, as in-character-Stephen bemoaned the presence of ground-up insects in Starbucks’ Strawberry and Crème Frappuccino. He broke character a few times, collapsing in laughter onto his desk and saying “Just keep going, just keep going!”
The rest of the taping went off without a hitch, covering everything from Mitt Romney’s interview with Diane Sawyer to the much-maligned exorbitant government conference in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a typical balance of skewering the political topics of the day and mocking some bizarre news story of the day – just what a fan would expect and look forward to.
Still, at every break, where commercials would normally be placed on the air, the soundtrack would come back up again and Stephen would, more often than not, start goofing off. He sang along (as did I) to the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” and danced in his chair to a Spanish rap song that I’d never heard in my life. Like someone out of a silent slapstick movie, he pretended to scold a production team member when they seemed to have run out of things to talk about, comically wagging his finger and narrowing his eyes. The security guard was pretty much the only person in the building who did not outwardly appear to be having a good time, and even then that was probably because he’s paid to look that way.
The interview portion, featuring author Jonah Lehrer, saw Stephen in his element: a give-and-take situation, feeding off of whatever someone else gives him and spitting something back.
Seeing this particular segment live, before editing, provides the advantage of watching him work. Every pause, later edited out for time, isn’t an awkward silence but rather a few seconds during which you can really watch the man think. In the silence, one gets the impression that if your hearing was just a bit better you could hear the gears in his head turning, the ideas forming, before he produces an insightful follow-up question or a perfectly witty retort. This was no exception, producing a number of quotable off-the-cuff lines that were later quoted back to me by friends or various social media sites. As per usual, four days a week.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end – all too quickly, it seems. In almost no time at all Stephen was back behind his desk, gave a signature bellow of “That’s it for the Report – goodnight!” and it was all over.
Still, despite its apparent brevity, I couldn’t have asked for a better “Colbert Report” experience. Even the somewhat miserable ride back to Boston on the 12:15 a.m. Greyhound couldn’t dampen my spirits, and I see no reason not to keep my resolve to see a Report taping every six months for as long as the show exists. I can dream, right?
Those interested can watch this particular episode on Colbertnation.com here.