Wednesday, December 15 2010
For Chaunukkah this year, Gretchen had won us a silent auction for VIP tickets to the set of the Colbert Report, where we would be part of its audience (the biological laugh track, if you will). This would be roughly similar to the time we were in the audience of The Daily Show a little over eight years ago. Today was the day of the show she'd won the auction for, and we had to be standing in the VIP line by 5:30pm. I drove us down to the New Jersey fueling stop on the Palisades Parkway, and Gretchen took over from there (whenever possible, I try to avoid driving in urban environments). Once we got off the West Side Highway near Colbert's sound stage, Gretchen tried to find parking. But we learned something today: there is no street parking in Midtown (even on the far-west side) before 6:00pm. We had to drive all the way down to 25th street before street parking became an option. We lucked out and came upon someone who was just leaving from in front of a grim tower-in-a-park redevelopment on 25th between 9th and 10th avenues (40.748746N, 74.002412W). This was near where we'd be dining tonight, but it was twenty blocks from Colbert's studio.
Still, we walked those blocks just because it was the most straight-forward way to transport ourselves. There are no useful subway lines that far west, and could have taken a cab. But we were dressed for the 20-something-degree weather, so we walked. The only problem was that I had a need to urinate, and there were no Starbucks franchises to serve this need. I tried using a McDonalds restroom, but found it locked. The far-west of Midtown Manhattan is seedier than much of the rest of the island, and this is why it has been avoided by Starbucks. It's also why parking and pissing are activities for which one must pay.
We joined the VIP line under the Colbert Report awning behind about ten others. 54th street was a mess of construction and dumpsters and I briefly considered ducking behind a dumpster to piss, but decided I could wait.
Knowing that we'd be standing in the arctic cold for as much as an hour, we'd dressed warmly (indeed, I'd started to sweat under my four torso layers over the course of the 20-block speedwalk). Still, standing around doing nothing in the cold is never fun no matter how warmly your dressed. It such conditions I find that my nose tends to run continuously (even if I don't have a cold). In the past my eyes used to produce enough tears in such conditions for people to ask if I was alright. But since I started wearing glasses, my eyes have been protected from the cold and can, I suspect, stay reasonably comfortable even when wind chills are well into negative Fahrenheit numbers (or even when I'm dicing onions).
Eventually our IDs were checked and we were run through an airport-style metal detector to make sure we weren't packing bullets with Colbert's name on them. And then we milled around in a holding room while the rest of the roughly 120-person audience was slowly processed. To entertain us, a flatscreen showed us a collection of Colbert Report highlights, particularly from the 435-part series "Better Know a District."
Over the course of more than an hour, more and more people packed into the holding room, where the temperature eventually climbed above uncomfortable (at 100 watts per person, it was as if ten 1,200 watt space heaters were running full blast in that small space). Packed in so close with other members of the soon-to-be Colbert audience, it was easy to get a sense of their demographics. The vast bulk hailed from a fairly narrow band starting from the low-20s and ending in the mid-30s, with a few outliers such as us, a smattering of people our age, and a few older people. I don't think anyone was over 55, though that might have been partly a function of the weather.
At some point the main door was opened and we were shown our way to our seats. Being VIPs, we were at the head of this line and got very good seats in the third row from the front near Colbert's main (desk) set. (The other set, where the guest was to be interviewed, was only slightly blocked by camera-teleprompter combo rigs.)
Unexpectedly, things went a little off-script when Colbert himself soon appeared to tape one of those back-and-forth banter segments he occasionally does with Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart appeared on the monitors live from his studio (wherever that is these days) and discussed the upcoming holidays with Colbert. As always, Colbert expressed a pathological lack of familiarity with Hanukkah, and Stewart playfully acted as though he didn't know what Christmas was about. The banter went on much longer than what was eventually broadcast; a long raunchy bit (I forget how exactly Christmas was sexualized) was edited out.
After Colbert left the set, a stand-up comic came out and warmed the audience up. His act was audience-banter improv. He started out asking if anyone had come from a foreign country, a bunch of Puerto Rican lawyers raised their hands. When it turned out that these lawyers hadn't yet figured out what sort of law they wanted to practice, it gave the comic an opening, suggesting that they're really a bunch of shiftless pot-smoking hippies. But then the comic latched onto a pair of Asian guys from New Zealand who had just graduated from high school. When he found out that they didn't really know what they wanted to be when they "grow up," the comic acted as though his mind had been completely blown: Asians who aren't sure what they want to be, which is even crazier than lawyers who aren't sure what they want to be.
There were a few other lawyers in the audience, and one of them eventually was noticed by the comic because he looked like he might be a lawyer "for the Foo Fighters." In a back-and-forth about good lawyers (defense attorneys) versus bad lawyers (corporate lawyers), Gretchen couldn't contain herself and shouted out the name of an example corporation that a bad lawyer might represent, "Like Enron!" This opened up a new comedic avenue for our comic, and he rhetorically asked, "Is Enron even still around? Thanks a lot, 2006 lady!" He was being generous; I think Enron stopped being in the news circa 2003.
We were delighted by the warm-up comic, an indication of which was how quickly time passed as he did his thing. Suddenly it was time for Colbert to come out and answer audience questions. During this period, he was out of character, a state in which he's rarely experienced. At least two people wanted to know about the possibility of a Strangers With Candy reunion (none), and one of these people convinced him to dance like he did at the end of SWC episodes. He obliged with all of his charmingly awkward überwhiteguy dorkiness.
Then the show began. We'd been given our stage directions by the stage manager about when to clap and when to laugh (even when things weren't especially funny) and now it was time to do our thing. Colbert came out, we went crazy, and he did his "table of contents" (as the staff referred to it). After a pause (seemingly the same length as the computer animation featuring a red, white & blue Bald Eagle and Colbert falling through space to plant his flag), the show began. Colbert opened up with a segment about how pancakes could be used by terrorists to conceal weapons or bombs from backscatter x-ray scanners. This led Colbert to propose that we conceal our "sausage and eggs" from the prying eyes of airport security by shielding them with a special Colbert brand of pancake batter. He proceeded to "pour" this batter onto his crotch (unseen behind his desk), whereupon we were supposed to suspend our disbelief and imagine him being zapped by x-rays. At that point he produced a perfect little pancake, acting as though he'd just pealed it off his junk. As memembers of the audience gasped in horror, he took a bite, and then flung the pancake into the crowd, declaring, "I'd better not see that on eBay!" It landed near or at the feet of the gentleman sitting directly in front of us, and when he expressed no interest in it, Gretchen asked if she could have it. So it ended up in Gretchen's possession. She was so in the moment (and hungry) that she she took a couple of bites out it even though 1: it probably had been in contact with the floor and 2: it most certainly wasn't vegan. Eventually, though, she put it in her coat pocket. Eventually we'll make a family heirloom out it by covering it in resin or something.
The rest of the show unfolded with the usual Colbert-level hilarity. There was a segment in the series "Tiny Triumphs" about how California had to borrow some sodium thiopental from Arizona (like a neighbor needing a half cup of sugar) in order to carry out a lethal injection. The kicker: when the sodium thiopental came through, Scott Kernan of the California Department of Corrections Undersecretary sent an email telling the Arizona people: "You guys in Arizona are life savers." At the end was an interview with a 40-something bronze-skinned surfer, not exactly our ideal Colbert guest. (Gretchen kicked herself when she later realized that the next day Colbert would have two guests more to our liking: Amy Sedaris and the musician Paul Simon.)
The recording of the show seemed to move at the same pace as the broadcast, with the inter-segment pauses even seeming to be the same length as the advertising segments. During these periods, Colbert conferred with his writers or tidied up his desk. When the recording was over, the tape in the can was ready for broadcast; there was no need for post-production. Still, Colbert in the studio wasn't exactly what we expected. He was shorter and stockier, and Gretchen was a bit puzzled by the chunkiness of his midsection.
On the walk back south toward Chelsea down 9th Avenue, we kept thinking we'd hail a cab, but it would have only been to warm up; traffic appeared to be moving no faster than a brisk human walk. In the end we covered all 25 blocks to our destination: Blossom, a nice sit-down vegan restaurant. (Gretchen and I had been here together once before.) After waiting for the very slow departure of a pair of what appeared to be middle-aged lesbians, we managed to secure the coziest seat in the house, in the window beneath a radiant heater. The heat should have felt nice, but we were a bit warm after walking briskly for 25 blocks in heavy winter clothes.
We hadn't been especially impressed by the food last time we'd eaten here, but today it was absolutely delicious in the sort of multi-level gourmet way that would have been lost on me had Gretchen not been refining my palate for the past nine years.
Our drive back to Hurley was uneventful. We listened to the latest episode of Radiolab, the one explaining the biological basis for altruism. It turns out that a gravely-troubled polymath named George Price who came up with an equation to explain altruism given (as I understand it) percentage of genes shared between helper and helpee, the number of helpees, the percentage decrease in personal fitness of the helper, and percentage of increase in personal fitness of the helpees. Gretchen was curious how to explain the sort of altruism she manifests: organizing inner-city nursing home workers (in her past life as a union organizer) or advocating for abandoned and abused domestic animals while choosing not to reproduce. I suggested that her contribution was possibly being made at the societal level. A society can be helped or hindered by the activism of its members, and since societies themselves are in competition, helping to mold a society so that it makes better decisions can have a long-term effect on the propagation of one's personal genes (even if one doesn't actually reproduce). If you help your society succeed against one having ideals that are harmful over the long term to its members, than those genes that you share with others in your society will be, in comparison, more successful. These effects play out over millennia, not lifetimes.
An example I could immediately think of was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In addition to the six children he produced directly in his marriage, he had, by virtue of having been president at a crucial time in American history, had a huge effect on guiding the direction of our society. FDR, as a person of Dutch ethnicity, shared a lot of genes with the Germans who wreaked such havoc in Europe. One could argue that, from a Darwinian perspective, he might best have propagated his genes by siding with the Axis against the Allies. But this assumes that the Nazis had a society that could be successful over the long term. If not, siding with the Nazis would put American culture on the wrong side of history in competition with other societies with more successful traits (say, ones that didn't kill their most brilliant scientists for purely genocidal reasons). And leading your society by placing it on the wrong side of history is probably worse for your personal genes than having a huge family; just ask the Carthaginians.
Deborah had stopped by for an hour or two and stoked our woodstove's fire, so the living room was still in the upper 60s when we got home.
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