For our second trip to Manhattan we decided to do something we’d never done before: attend the live taping of a late-night talk show. Tradition holds that such shows may air in the wee hours of bedtime, but they’re recorded before a live studio audience that day’s afternoon. Sadly for our chosen week, most hosts were either on hiatus or already sold out by the time I thought to look them up. I found a few TV shows that we could have attended, but none of us three had any remote interest in either Maury Povich or The View. Fortunately there was one man who’s airing new episodes this week, who had tickets available, and who wasn’t the complete opposite of us.
That man was Stephen Colbert. That show was The Late Show With Stephen Colbert starring Stephen Colbert. These are the results of that time we showed up to watch Stephen Colbert record the July 11th episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert starring Stephen Colbert.
1. Getting in is the hardest part. The procedure was convoluted. I checked ticket availability on the official website a few weeks ahead of time, early enough to score tickets for the date we wanted, and coordinated with Anne to grab reservations ASAP. Maximum two tickets per request, so I got one for myself and she got hers and my son’s. She later researched and found that while the arrival deadline printed on our ticket was 2:45, processing would really begin at 2:00 sharp. We arrived at 1:15 because we’re convention autograph veterans who know that if you want to ensure a good place in line, you arrive early, especially when conflicting info arouses our suspicions. When processing began promptly at 2:00 instead of the time printed on our tickets, we received our real entry requirements — numbered passes and hand stamps for each of us. Then we were told to go kill time for a while and rejoin the line at 4:00, this time in order by the numbers we were given.
2. The waiting is the next hardest part. Shortly after 4:00 we filed inside, went through security checks that did not keep us in order by the numbers we were given, stood in the lobby for over half an hour (which got hotter while we waited), watched helplessly as they lined up a few dozen VIP audience members ahead of us, and eventually filed into the theater proper. After another hour of show prep and warm-up act, at last Our Hero took the stage shortly after 5:30 and all was well. But we were already drained from traveling around Manhattan all day, and these bonus standing-still minutes were among our least comfortable.
3. There IS a such thing as a lousy seat. Anne’s sources told her every seat in the house was awesome. Anne now knows that person was a lucky ignoramus. I have no idea how the audience in the upper balcony fares, but we were seated at ground level, at the far left side of the fourth row (i.e., the home viewers’ right side). Cameramen blocked everyone’s view of the stage sooner or later (mine included), but Anne and my son each found their views frequently blocked by security guards throughout the taping. We had the option of craning our necks to watch tiny overhead monitors instead, but that’s not really why we were there.
4. There’s no guarantee you’ll be on TV. Every audience member has the same question: Will I get to be on TV? I just finished watching the episode as it aired and didn’t see us till the very end. If you watch carefully on a suitable HD TV when Colbert runs through the audience and out the back door before the end credits, you can see our trio at far right. We’re tiny, but I’m good with that. That’s not really why I was there, either.
5. Passive watchers need not apply. No one gets to be just a lump on a log. The audience is part of the show and therefore needs to act as a concerted group that deserves to be on TV. That means cheering loudly, clapping till it literally hurt, laughing more loudly than you normally would at home, acting generally more animated, and being aware that you may be filmed at all times and that every ounce of footage is subject to use at their discretion. A producer and the warm-up act (in our case, stand-up comedian Paul Mercurio) literally train the audience how to be a TV audience before the big show. Once our training was completed to their satisfaction, then the magic began.
6. What you see on TV isn’t always what the audience saw. Each evening’s episode is largely filmed the same afternoon, but not every segment was filmed that day. For our particular episode, the main guests were in the studio (THE Bryan Cranston! plus actress Busy Phillips, who I know as the pregnant neighbor from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), but a performance by musical guests Blink-182 that was recorded on a previous day with some other audience was to be inserted in post-production. We didn’t even get to see the band’s taping. Our musical guests were originally supposed to be the supergroup Hollywood Vampires, but their guitarist Joe Perry (yeah, from Aerosmith) injured himself the other day, so some understandable shuffling was required. In exchange, we got to watch Colbert record TV promos for next week (special live shows for Republican National Convention week), and we got to see him pre-record his interview with one of the big guests for this coming Thursday’s episode. Special heads-up to any Colbert fans with tickets for the July 14th taping: you’re gonna be short one guest. Sorry!
7. The behind-the-scenes stuff is fascinating in its own way. So much minutiae to see — Colbert finalizing negotiations with each actor’s publicist or agent before they took the stage; a curious moment of necktie discussions inaudible from our seats; the crew checking equipment and stage props; the house band playing ten times more music between segments than what would air, including a long warm-up with several solos and one percussionist smashing his tambourine to bits; a mobile mini-stage that was wheeled out just for a sketch called “Too Much Exposition Theatre”; and the moments that were deleted from the final broadcast (a few extra awkward seconds of Pokemon Go banter; some minutes of Busy Phillips recommending and explaining TSA PreCheck at length).
8. Don’t schedule plans afterward in advance. With the RNC Week promos and other add-ons, we weren’t released till nearly 7:30, much later than anticipated. Thankfully we didn’t have any restaurant reservations or Broadway tickets to concern us.
9. Stephen Colbert is awesome for pretty much the entire time. Cameras on or off, he was always on, always charming and likeable. Those two hours were totally worth the free admission, would watch again, 10/10, if only for him and the chance to get better seats.
10. There’s a PokeStop at the Ed Sullivan Theater! I thought Pokemon Go fans should know, though curiously its photo is of David Letterman’s old marquee. Nintendo and Google might want to swap some notes on keeping their files updated. And before you look at me funny, I’d like to point out I’m not the only audience member who checked.
[UPDATED 10/11/2016: Our photos and additional tidbits are now online as part of our ongoing “2016 NY Trip Photos” series.]