Friday, February 23, 2007

March of the Pages

I still keep my gig as a page at the Letterman show on my resume, because it looks kinda jazzy. Was it actually jazzy to work at a TV show? Sure, as long as you were being paid to be there. If you were there for free and of your own accord, well, don't say I (or the Times) didn't warn you:

From the New York Times:
Live From New York, It’s Cold People Waiting in Line By BEN SISARIO

I THOUGHT I deserved it.
But the hour and a half I spent on wind-whipped 49th Street in Manhattan two weekends ago, hunched in the predawn freeze with 100 other people, turned out to be a weak, amateur effort.
That kind of commitment may be enough — barely — to get into a taping of one of the daily comedy shows on cable. For those of us in the shadow of 30 Rockefeller Plaza that morning, however, it would take a much more punishing, more frigid, more sleepless dedication to get what we wanted: a low-numbered standby ticket to sit in the studio audience of “Saturday Night Live.”

Steve Martin once said that comedy is not pretty. It’s not cheap, either, as anyone who has run up a bar tab waiting through five stand-up comics knows. But almost every night of the week New York offers one of the world’s great comedy bargains, the chance to be part of the audience for the late-night shows watched by millions, free. In less than one square mile in Midtown, four weekday shows are taped in the afternoon: “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” And “Saturday Night Live” broadcasts 20 new episodes each season.

“Free” almost always comes with qualifiers of course. As I learned while standing my way into every studio I could, the price for those free seats is time. And in deep winter there is another cost: the price of long johns. And something to protect tender ears from bitterly unfunny gusts.

Each year thousands of organized, forward-planning people — many of them tourists but plenty of New Yorkers too — arrange for tickets to these shows months in advance. The NBC information line states that for “Saturday Night Live” all requests must be made in August for the season that follows, and if you are lucky enough to be sent a pair, they will be for a random Saturday and cannot be exchanged. The rest of us have standby lines. Since most shows overbook to guarantee a full audience, standby is often a long shot. Subfreezing temperatures, however, can be the skinflint’s best friend, since the cold generally increases ticketholder absenteeism and decreases the number of people willing to risk frostbite to take those people’s place.

That, at least, was what I was counting on with “Saturday Night Live.” Its procedure is somewhat cruel. Numbered tickets are handed out on Saturday at 7 a.m., and suppliants return that night to wait for a chance to get in. Standby, no matter how many hours of chilly hardship you have endured, does not guarantee anything.

Huddled Masses, Yearning
I set my alarm for 5 a.m. and, with the skies still dark, slumped in a cab and headed for Rockefeller Center. My confidence sank when arrived and I saw the masses huddled beneath the “NBC Studios” marquee on 49th Street. They were bundled in thick jackets, wrapped in blankets and hidden in sleeping bags, and it was clear that many had been there all night.

Taking my place behind a group of 20-somethings from Florida — a birthday crew, one of three I encountered in various lines — I rubbed the arms of my inadequate wool coat for warmth as dairy and bakery trucks barreled by. At 6:57 a perky woman from NBC came out and explained the deal: We had a choice of standby tickets to either the dress rehearsal or the live broadcast.
One ticket per frozen nose.

I chose the live show, got a nicely printed blue card bearing No. 41 and headed home to thaw.
That night we queued up according to number — inside, thankfully — and waited for orders from the young women who mind this line, dressed in identical gray suits, like stewardesses. Around 11:15 one of our keepers explained with a smile that we could still be let in until just before the broadcast begins. It was 11:26 before I learned that I would not be so lucky.

Not every show is as hard to get into as “Saturday Night Live,” but none are truly easy. For “The Daily Show,” on Comedy Central, I filled out a request form for a regular ticket a few days in advance on the Web and to my surprise got a confirmation within hours. But even with this assurance I still had to wait in line. The audience is overbooked, so attendees are advised to come early.

On a blustery Tuesday I stood for almost two hours outside the 11th Avenue studio, where a banner above the door reads, in faux Old English script, “Abandon News, All Ye Who Enter Here.” Once inside I was led to a room with about 200 seats arranged on three sides around a fairly spacious stage, with Jon Stewart’s desk on a riser in the middle.

There I met my first warm-up man. Every show has one to get the audience members excited and to explain that even if they are not excited, they must fake it with lots of laughing, clapping and hollering. So accustomed the semi-vegetative state of late-night channel surfing, we were now asked to become actors.

Each warm-up man I saw relied on those hoariest of stand-up clich├ęs, ridiculing audience members’ home states and questioning their sexual orientation. But these uncomfortable moments offer important practice for the crowd’s prime directive: Even when it’s not funny, you must laugh.

It becomes Pavlovian. I chuckled and applauded heartily when Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, told Mr. Stewart, “We’re in the universe, but not only that: because the chemical ingredients of life are the same as that of the universe, and traceable to stars, the universe is also in us.”

But is that comedy? The funniest and most exciting moments were when something unscripted or unexpected happened. I could see on a monitor the lines that Mr. Stewart was supposed to be reading when he did his end-of-show check-in with Mr. Colbert, and the madcap jokes the two men improvised over a video link — acting out Daniel Day-Lewis’s running sequence in “The Last of the Mohicans” and bellowing, “I will find you!” — drew the most honest laughter of all.

The March of the Pages
I was still cold when I left “The Daily Show” studio about 7:10, and I was dreading even worse chills for “Late Show With David Letterman,” on CBS. About 4.1 million people watch Mr. Letterman on an average night, more than six times as many as watch “The Daily Show.” For a standby hopeful, that means serious competition for those scant extra seats.

To get standby tickets for “Letterman,” you must call at 11 a.m. and correctly answer a trivia question about the show. I haven’t been a regular watcher of it since high school, and the question I was asked — Who is Rupert Jee? — I couldn’t answer. (He’s the proprietor of the Hello Deli, around the corner from the studio.) But the man on the other end said: “Not a problem. Your number is 24. Come to the Ed Sullivan Theater at 53rd and Broadway at 3:30.”
I never had to give my number. When I arrived I was handed a ticket — a real ticket — and told to wait around the corner in the Roseland Ballroom. At 11 degrees, it was just too cold for an outside line, they said. Holding ticket No. 317, I waited in comfort on Roseland’s dance floor, where word got around that the guests on the show would be Dr. Phil and Fall Out Boy. At 4:15 we were led to the theater by the show’s pages, this time all young men in Worldwide Pants varsity jackets, after Mr. Letterman’s production company, and crossed 53rd Street like a family of ducks.

The intricate Gothic Revival interior of the Ed Sullivan Theater, built in 1927, is worth the trip alone. Inside, “Late Show” has the greatest audience capacity of all, with about 460 seats on two levels. But Mr. Letterman’s off-camera manner was brusque, and being there was not much different from watching it on television.

If my page-guided trip across 53rd Street for “Letterman” did not seem like the most sophisticated New York experience, I felt even less like a city slicker the next day at NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” The policy there is for those without advance tickets to wait outside on 49th Street — the same spot as for “Saturday Night Live” — at 9 a.m. I was there at 8:30 and got No. 8; the temperature was 20 degrees. But returning to the studio at 3:45 I waited in line after line that shuffled through drab office corridors, all the while being directed by the “Late Night” crew. Go down this stairway, up that one; form a line four bodies wide; make sure your ticket is in the same hand as your wristband. It was like being a kindergartner again.
The reward was Conan O’Brien. I groaned when I heard that one of his guests would be Dr. Phil — whom I was not excited about seeing once, let alone twice — but the show was the only one that made me genuinely laugh out loud. It featured “Vomiting Kermit,” as in the frog, and a slide show of presidential candidates and their pop-culture look-alikes that paired Rudolph W. Giuliani with Skeletor from “He-Man” and Hillary Rodham Clinton with Chucky, the horror movie doll. Nobody said late-night TV had to be subtle.

Mr. O’Brien was a treat to see in person. Even paler and more boyish than he appears on screen, he was also doubly zany and energetic in his own crowd warm-up. Spending much more time with the audience than any other host, he directed two men in the front row to hug each other (they complied without hesitation) and then sent another young man to embrace the bandleader, Max Weinberg. (That one was a little less enthusiastic.)

As a live, improvising comedian, only Stephen Colbert compared. Dressed and coiffed as perfectly as a Brooks Brothers model, Mr. Colbert took questions from his crowd, which at about 100 was the smallest of all. When one man suggested that Mr. Colbert do Tek Jansen, his animated space-traveler character, “on ice,” he responded instantly with a fairly lengthy song and dance number about “super awesomely spectacular heroes.”

One of the Chosen
“Saturday Night Live” remained unconquered. As the weekend approached I waffled between staying overnight and just rolling the dice again at 5:30. Remembering the previous week’s line, I estimated that only the first 10 or 12 people had been equipped to spend the night; everyone else must have gotten there sometime between, say, midnight and 6. I split the difference and decided to go at 3.

I was 17th in line. At the front were, as I expected, about 10 people packed like sleepers at Pompeii, followed by recently arrived standees. Line etiquette allows brief absences for food and relief. I held out as long as I could and about 5:45 stepped into a nearby building and ran to the heating vents.

The skies began to lighten about 6:30, and at 7 a familiar face came out holding two stacks of tickets. I took No. 8 for the live show: a big improvement over 41, but still no sure thing.
Fast forward to 10:55 p.m. The first 12 of us were screened by security and then lined up, tantalizingly, in front of the elevator bank. There my party giggled nervously and asked the guards about eight versions of the same question: What are our chances? They gave about eight versions on the same answer: Totally unpredictable.

I was starting to lose hope when, at 11:15, a woman with a clipboard leaned around the corner and told the guard matter-of-factly, “Let ’em up.” We all hooted joyously and began our trip to Studio 8H, the home of “Saturday Night Live” for 32 years.

Taking my seat in the second-to-last row of extreme stage left, I was struck by the vastness and complexity of the operation. The area in front of the stage, and every exit I could see, teemed with activity as stagehands, producers with headsets and dozens of others took up whatever space was not occupied by a camera.

More than any other show I saw, “SNL” seemed most like an elaborately orchestrated television taping and less like theater, though the clockwork production activity became theater in itself. With sets constantly going up and being broken down all over the soundstage, the actors were often not visible, but the busy crew always was. The instant a skit cut to commercial, a woman grabbed the guest host, Forest Whitaker, by the hand and dragged him backstage. All the while Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and executive producer, coolly paced the set in a charcoal suit and smart red tie.

After the show ended — it wasn’t the funniest episode I had ever seen, but I contributed my quota of laughter and applause — I walked through the doors of 30 Rock. The barriers were up on the sidewalk again and new lines were forming, this time to spot celebrities on their way out.
I was tempted to join them. But I decided instead that it was time to head for what was clearly the best seat in the house: my couch.