Sunday, June 25, 2006

Secrets of the Daily Show

I had the good fortune last week to be invited to a taping of The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart by a friend who works for Viacom, hence "V.I.P." tickets such as they are. On behalf of those Nettertainment readers who are also, like me, Daily Show completists, I offer as a public service this behind-da-scenes look on what it's like to be in the audience.

1. You wait.

Even with the VIP tix we were told to arrive at 4:00pm. Our line was shorter than the reg'lar folks line, and we got inside earlier. To the lobby. At 4:50pm.

This means we go through the metal detector before the reg'lar folks, we get to use the restroom first -- as we are warned that there is no escape for bodily demands once we're in the studio -- and we get to stand in air conditioning under four huge vertical banners, one each for Jon, Rob, Ed and Samantha.

The studio is way on the West Side just off 58th Street, which means you think you're entering a warehouse. Not much in the way of amenities in that lobby. Where we waited. Another forty minutes.

2. You are warmed up.

But who's counting. Because once you are let into the studio and trafficked to the seats, you start getting really happy. If you're like me, prematurely elated.

Our party (four of us) was seated in the precise spot that no camera ever sees, stage right in the corner, so no luck with the self-identification this weekend on the TiVo. However, we were close to a set of video monitors that a couple of flip-flops 'n' shorts wearing dudes sat at during the show, my guess being staff writers. As we sat there waiting for something to happen, we realized the scene on the monitor was from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and immediately assumed much goofing off. Little did we know it was to be part of the ensuing show.

I've been to a couple late night talk show taping before, and one of the more entertaining parts is often the warm-up. In some cases it's a producer of the show, but most times there's some legit stand-up comic who gets the job -- I have no idea what it pays, or if it is either respected or a stepping-stone in the comedy "industry".

I seem to remember that the gent who warmed up for Craig Kilborn several years back was a middle-aged guy, very sharp and a little fatherly, who may have occasional been on-camera for the show but mainly did gigs, one of which he plugged. The art of the warm-up is to (a) get you excited for the host, (b) tell you how you should perform with especially heightened applause when the host is introduced -- you are primarily there for the show and to serve their home audience reach, not as important for the show to entertain you -- and (c) to make you feel like a very happy community.

Our warm-up artist last Wednesday (not sure if he does it every day) was a very funny young comedian named Paul Mecurio. He was energetic, fast, and profane. As is the custom with such acts, part of the community-building, he picked out various members of the audience for comment, conversation and teasing, asking one high school kid if he smoked weed (with enthusiastic roach-toke pantomime), then asked his white-haired Mid-Western mom two seats over, "Ma'am, are you a gin drinker because you look like a gin drinker."

I became very nervous about being called on, and thankfully was not singled out. We got all our instructions along the way, he emphasized that the show uses no laugh track so it was all up to us (makes me wonder who does?), he told us he used to be a corporate lawyer (very believable, especially if in NYC) and plugged his website. And he told us...

3. Jon comes out before the show and takes questions.

Yes, Jon Stewart has more unscripted real person Q&A in one week of The Daily Show than George Bush does in his typical month. Than in all of 2004. Plus 2005.

I've never seen this at such a taping before, but Stewart comes out as personable as can be and answers audience questions. One of the first was, "What's your shoe size?" After wondering for a sec what prompted such a question he beautifully snapped, "Size 14" with a smug little look. The studio erupted in laughter and he followed with, "Actually, they're children's shoes."

He answered a question on when the show loses Rob Cordry -- they have him maybe through October, then he goes off to do a pilot. They already lost Nate Cordry -- "Can't trust those Cordry's, they'll stab you in the back!"

Maybe the most interesting answer was regarding Ann Coulter. Stewart doesn't really cover her on the show, and my own preference with this blog is really to ignore her, even when she's most admonishable, since I don't want her to earn an extra dollar from my coverage of her hate-mongering con. I can't remember the question, but Stewart's answer went to how her depersonalization technique, that what makes her so heinous is her stripping away of any shred of humanity from her poison-pen targets, i.e. those of a Liberal political persuasion, that no real dialogue or discourse, those fundamental building blocks of our country and any thriving democracy, can exist. I'm avoiding the "N" word, but where else can you go but Pol Pot, KKK and those guys who took over Germany 1933-1945?

4. Not so easy to see Jon.

Once the show starts, and the studio audience is cheering like crazy, two or three cameras move in close to Stewart at his desk and, at least from our angle, partially occlude the view.

There's a lot of checking out the studio monitors hung high off the grid, and much craning of the neck to catch opportune glimpses of the host, but it was particularly tough during the guest interview (Anderson Cooper).

One saving grace was our placement near the green screen where the show's "remote" correspondents do their reports from the Baghdad Green Zone, outside The White House or, in our case, San Andreas.

Yep, we had a perfect profile view of audience-beloved Samantha Bee appearing as if inside the game itself, hence the GTA appearance on the desktop monitor before the show. It wasn't the greatest bit she's ever done (which might have been offering her body to Virgin founder Richard Branson) but we were buzzed enough on the whole experience to fill in for any missing laugh machine.

One side treat was that Stewart's whole bit that night regarding Congressional grandstanding over videogame violence made some of the better gamer blogs.

5. They curse.

If you've watched the show you know they bleep, but it was quite refreshing to hear it all au natural just like...we're adults. I counted one "shit" from Stewart, three "motherfuckers" from recent new mother Samantha Bee, and then a couple f-bombs in a very special, un-aired bit, that provides my favorite Secret of the show:

6. Stewart and Colbert do a throw before the throw.

As is custom ever since The Colbert Report debuted in the half-hour following Stewart's show, Jon turned to a monitor facing him to "check in with our friend, Stephen Colbert," but as they started talking the audience began to realize this wasn't the tightly scripted "bit" we're all used to seeing at home. In fact, in their ramblings (clever nonetheless) about Stewart's discomfort wearing pinstripes for the first time and his kids draining "the calcium from your body" it was clear that Stewart was leading more than in their scripted bits, or that Colbert was obviously and delightedly deferring.

I'm assuming the studio-only bit serves as warm-up for the two performers, clears any tech questions for those running the inter-studio transmissions (Colbert tapes in Stewart's old, smaller studio several blocks away), and that they just enjoy each other as much or more than we might already imagine.

We got one more treat following. Colbert blew his punchline in the actual throw and broke character for second to say "I fucked up the joke" to everyone's amusement no one moreso than Jon, who replied, "That's the first time you've ever done that!" Sarcasm, you ask?

7. Global Edition.

After wrapping up the regular show, Stewart said that Wednesday night audiences have the extra duty of his Global Edition intro, which he does standing rather than sitting, in front of some slick wireframe globe graphic. It's a half-hour compendium, the best of the week one hopes, and there were actually a few audience members who had seen it (Stewart asked).

He also commented on how the show airs on CNNI (CNN International), making him wonder whether or not CNN knew that the show was actually a Fake News Show.

8. Gentleman Jon.

Unlike my experience on the Kilborn show (unless my memory betrays me), where we didn't get no thank you from the host, Stewart makes a point to come back out after officially leaving for backstage, and thanks the audience for coming, invites them back again, basically acts like a gracious human being.

9. Jon in control.

Several years ago I read Merv Griffin's autobiography. The best chapter was on how to construct a talk show. Griffin was clearly a master, not a tool, and Stewart is clearly the master of his show as well. Prior to attending I had asked someone connected with the show how long the taping would take. They told me, "Whatever Jon wants."

That feeling was present in the room. When Stewart bobbled a joke, he didn't bother asking for another take, he just riffed loosely like a pro and moved on. He seemed taller on the set than in his bio, and when he cut a whole last line in the Global Edition intro, replacing it with deftly comic epithet, the two flip-flop wearers at the monitor near us burst into hysterics. We could see their teleprompter feed and that he'd summarily sliced off the whole ending, but there was no retake. Stewart's rules.

10. Go. Why not?

Okay, maybe the waiting, but if you can put up with it you might get a stellar night like with Al Gore scheduled later this week, or maybe a full take-down of Bill Bennett.

Okay, maybe one other reason not to go. Before I left my office in Los Angeles I told a young employee that I was going to see The Daily Show taping.

"No, no, man," he said. "You gotta go see The Colbert Report. That's the big show now."

How quickly they turn.


muriel gunch said...

I will never physically get to go, but I really appreciate your taking me on a virtual tour.

I'm an still barely middle aged Daily Show junkie.

slick said...

Thanks, Toto, for pulling back the Wizard's curtain. Sounds like a blast.

After watching Stewart's brilliant clip about the Vidgame hearings, it's all too easy to dismiss the entire body politic as a bunch of bozos -- they clearly are. But what is lost in all their publicity-seeking pandering is that there really is reason to be concerned about violence -- not just about videogames, but also about movies, TV -- any media that is directed at our children.

The fact is violent crime is on the rise in most cities across the country. People are being murdered because... well, there is often no logical reason. And that suggests that there is something deeply wrong with our society.

I put this out there: Is it a mere coincidence that this rise in violence is happening as we are exposed to and become more accepting of larger doses of graphic violence on our screens? And don't cop out and say, "It's what the consumers want."

Mark Netter said...

I think what Slick brings up is a very thoughtful, provocative question. Is all the violence in the media a legitimate reflection of what's going on in society, or is it an actual cause? Is it possible to separate the craven from the profound? And how come there's so much more violence than human sexuality allowed on our screens?