austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Watch the seagull fly far-off skies

Thursday was to be my last day with bunny_hugger, with the climax of our time together being attending a taping of The Colbert Report, and her going to a hotel in Brooklyn while spending the rest of her vacation with her brother.

My mother offered the use of her membership card at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a particular recommendation to an exhibit about the fashion styles of the American Woman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which would be a more interesting period than you might initially think: it's when American fashion designers stopped looking so hard at European styles, and when women went through about eighteen rapid changes in what they were expected to do in and out of the home. However, given the need to be at the studio comfortably before taping, and that we wanted to sleep in comfortably long before going up, and that bunny_hugger and I would need to take a detour to a hotel near Prospect Park, we didn't think we'd have time to take in a museum.

My mother didn't quite understand this, but my mother is of the temperament which says there's no need to spend more time in any given museum than it takes her to watch an episode of Law and Order. By her standards we had plenty of time. bunny_hugger and I, however, are lingerers, the sorts of people who could go to a museum dedicated to an individual cancelled first-day mail cover and still need all day to take it in. The Met was, really, out.

In fact, we didn't even really stop for breakfast, as I recall; we grabbed a little snacking on the way to the park-and-ride station, and worried about whether the bus was ever going to come along to take us up. We had a little sentimental and sad moment when we noticed that I'd bought a round-trip ticket (maybe a dollar cheaper than two one-ways), and she had only the one-way, but it didn't get to be emphasized so much as to be mawkish or to distract the other person waiting for the same bus.

The ride up was uneventful, although we got to worrying about the time. As when I went to the finale of Late Night with Conan O'Brien we had the somewhat involved calculus of: we have to be early enough to be sure we get in; but we don't want to spend all day standing in a studio lobby; and the pages don't want people standing all day in the studio lobby either. The show was to begin taping about 7 pm, with the studio audience seated around 5:30 pm, so we figured that if we were on line by 4 pm we should be in good shape. bunny_hugger also, surveying trip reports from other people, found that remarkably some of the standby audience regularly gets into the taping, indicating that as long as we were on time and had our actual reserved tickets on hand then we should be fairly sure of getting in. Still, this could be one of those weird days when catastrophe happened.

So while the bus ride did not really take longer than we expected, or longer than it reliably has, we were still more nervous about it and didn't think we had near enough time. I did take a moment after our bathroom breaks to buy an interesting-looking BBC-produced magazine, Knowledge, which as of this afternoon I still haven't found time to read, which shows how badly my ``this looks interesting, let me read it'' sense is out of line with my ``this is how much time I have to read things'' budget.

We had determined from subway maps that getting from the Port Authority to bunny_hugger's hotel was a matter of getting one out of three possible trains passing through the subway station nearest the Port Authority and riding it into Brooklyn, directions simple enough even we couldn't get them wrong. It only seemed to us that they were running every possible letter and number other than the ones we might use first, eating away whatever time we might have to relax and to eat. It felt close, though.

bunny_hugger's hotel we found on getting out of the subway station, walking several blocks, and finding to our delight that we were not in fact walking the wrong way. I'd kind of expected we might get lost more than we actually did. The worst navigational glitch was that we had to go past the actual street her hotel was on and turn back around to get to the road the hotel was on, which meant that we approached the address from the wrong side of the street. But it was a beautiful street, late 19th-century style buildings with tall trees and slow traffic, the sort of place which central casting might send up if you ordered ``charming upper-class pre-skyscraper city residential block''.

bunny_hugger knocked on the door, a thick, heavy sort of the kind used to keep the rioting Parisians out of Notre Dame, and very soon ... nothing happened. We tried the doorbell, but couldn't hear anything; nor with knocking did we hear anyone inside. This may seem odd behavior for a hotel, but this particular spot was a bed-and-breakfast with the owner working multiple jobs, one of them a clothing store down the street, and we were there rather before normal check-in time --- at the owner's understanding --- although we hadn't arranged a specific time to be there because we had no idea when we might get there. bunny_hugger called the owner and she said she'd be right over.

She had been down the block, at the clothing shop, and might have noticed us coming up the way if we had been on the correct side of the street; since we'd crossed the road late, we missed her, and had the unexpected wait. The owner gave us a tour of the bed-and-breakfast, though, a great spot with all sorts of odd little vestibules and corners and wooden floors and that outstanding ventilation which architects knew about back before air conditioning made it acceptable to be lazy with windows. She offered us water --- from a pitcher in the kitchen fridge --- and chatted a bit with a neighbor in deploring the poor state of a fence which had been repaired recently by workmen who were apparently unfamiliar with common traits of wooden fences such as ``roughly vertical'' or ``following a clear line in the level ground''. The owner also decided to relocate bunny_hugger from the original reserved room to a larger one a floor lower and facing the street. Besides being nice this left us confused when we considered her alternate statement that the bed-and-breakfast was fully booked. We had theories about just what that did mean.

Though we would have loved to spend more time wandering here, we also thought we had maybe just the right time to get back to Manhattan and make our way to the Colbert Report studio, thus, we got back to the subway by way of the Franklin Avenue Shuttle which has a much more fascinating history than you might imagine. Back in Manhattan, a few blocks north of the Port Authority, we stopped in a bagel shop to get something decent to eat on our way. These would be bagels overstuffed with cream cheese, simple options, but good ones.

We didn't have trouble finding the studio, even though it's not at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. To my surprise, though, we weren't to wait indoors: the line for ticket-holders was within an alley, underneath an awning which did some good against the heat of the day, but which probably just makes waiting for a winter show extra-horrible. Along the alley way previous show visitors have graffiti proclaiming love for the show in various ways, with pictures of Snoopy and claims that ``I've Been Eneagled'' and the like; one person also wrote to tell line-waiters that soon they would be seeing the show.

You can only get tickets to The Colbert Report once every six months, for some reason; and they apparently enforce this by actually checking the identification of ticket-holders. bunny_hugger, who had the printed-out e-mails, had her name taken and driver's license checked as expected; but so were mine, and I was there simply as her guest. Still, the woman checking all this identified us as ``a cute couple''. I like hearing things like that. Another person handling the lines would give us laminated blue passes --- some of them had been folded by previous holders --- with the enthusiastic question, ``Who's Seeing The Colbert Report? THIS GUY! (Or Gal)''. We were numbers 27 and 28, making it very likely we would get in, barring, say, our spontaneous combustion or the Hudson River fault line finally erupting in that 7.3 earthquake it's due for. (Go ahead and guess the other colors of passes.)

In the waiting we finished eating and trusted there would be a place to throw out empty bags of bagel and drink residue. bunny_hugger also got a voice-mail message from her brother, who we faintly thought we might be able to meet up with, although we were never able to arrange anything. She also talked with her parents --- her mother shares bunny_hugger's enthusiasm for Colbert --- but that also meant getting news about the declining health of her elderly mouse. It was still alive --- and would be after bunny_hugger got back home --- but wasn't even eating peanut butter.

Around 5:30 they started letting us into the studio's lobby, although we had to go through an airport-style security screening, lest someone take the show to Cuba. I was embarrassed at my bag, which was stuffed with a couple of books and my iPad and my camera and I hadn't figured how to make everything lay together naturally; the screener said he'd seen worse. The lobby got ever-more-packed with people and noise, though, as segments of past Colbert Reports played very loudly on a TV, and people struggled to take pictures with one of those wall-matted flat pictures of Stephen Colbert pointing enthusiastically at whoever might be standing beside the picture. I was surprised bunny_hugger didn't ask for her photograph to be taken ``with Stephen Colbert'' in this way.

After a lot of loudness --- and people rushing to the few bathrooms to follow advice to go before the show since once in the theater you can't be excused --- we started being allowed in to the studio, with the ticket number not exactly corresponding to order. Color came first. We ended up about four rows up, on the far right of the audience (as viewed from behind the audience), so, in a poor spot for the desk material but pretty close to the guest-interview space.

You know the monitors underneath and lining Colbert's desk, normally showing the various trappings of loudmouthed patriotism? Before the taping --- at least before this taping --- they were showing an aquarium almost in ``screensaver'' fashion. The aquarium clips weren't long, maybe a minute or so before jumping back to the start, and they were oddly reflected across corners, I suppose to make a little bit of video go longer; I was curious who programmed the fish.

Before the show, Colbert comes out to finish the warming up of the audience, and to answer a few questions out of character, something we were warned about several times, and the questions could not be along the lines of ``will you date me?'' or ``will you autograph this?''. The warm-up comic emphasized these points too, but got into the sort of cross-chatter with the audience which makes a warm-up comic what it is. Mostly he picked out people, asked what they were up to, and determined that they were up to nothing. As an example, in the back row were a couple of people who claimed to be in a band, although they were actually one group of friends who were in two bands, and the bands hadn't actually performed anywhere noticeable ... which may sound a bit complicated, but people do get to fumbling explaining just what they're doing, or even simpler questions like ``what are you majoring in, in college?'', when they're on the spot like that. Oddly, Colbert later and apparently independently picked some of this group of band members while talking with the audience for his warm-up.

The warm-up comic might sound a bit mean, but there wasn't any meanness to it, at least from the perspective of a person who wasn't called on to say what he hoped his career would be and therefore didn't look ridiculous saying it.

Finally Colbert came out, and bunny_hugger's delighted enthusiasm reached a peak higher than that of being on the platform at Kingda Ka, although maybe not much higher. She had hoped very much to get to talk with him, and had after great thought figured out to ask him something about Watership Down, which she had noticed on the set's bookshelf. All that was needed was to be one of the handful of people called on, out of the audience of maybe 120 people, in the few minutes before taping began.

For the very first question, Stephen Colbert walked toward our section of the audience, and pointed ... just above our heads, to the question of a person maybe two rows behind. My heart fell: it didn't feel likely to me that he'd go back to the same area for another question, particularly just two rows away. When for the next question he went to the center of the audience, and then for the one after to the far side, I figured I had his question-asking method pinned down; it would be just like how I ask students for questions from lecture classes.

And yet ... there might be hope. He came back around, to our side of the audience, for a second question in that area. Maybe he might get back to us ... but he asked someone more rows behind us, and then moved to the center, and to the other side again. The questions seemed fairly routine, really, the sort he probably gets asked at least weekly, like, ``Do your kids think you're funny?'', or ``Can you keep doing your show forever?'' (he thought likely; he'd done seven hundred and something, and had noticed that his thousandth show should come up right about his birthday, 2012). The worst, I thought, was the person asking if he ever found the Stephen Colbert TV persona character leaking out into his real-life interactions; Colbert described it as, ``What, like the Hulk? ... no, I avoid bringing him out,'' and, in what might have been a revelation to the person who apparently doesn't know how acting works, ``He's not a very nice person.'' The oddest and most interesting question at this point was asking what Colbert's favorite breakfast cereal was. This turned out to be an organic-foods cereal called Peanut Butter Bumpers, which nobody in the audience had heard of because go ahead, you name an organic-foods store breakfast cereal.

But, then, he came back to our side of the audience, for one further question, and he called on bunny_hugger. ``You mean me?'' she squeaked, disbelieving, and he quipped, ``Well, I did, but since you said that I'm going to call on someone else'', making her bury her head in her hands while the audience laughed, but he asked her again for her question.

And so she asked: Watership Down is one of her favorite books, and she wondered, how did it end up on the set's bookshelves, in the nonfiction section?

After a moment, and I believe checking with staff about just what was on the shelf, he began explaining: when they were dressing the set they understood that the Colbert character would not himself like books, but would appreciate the prestige attached to having books, and therefore needed some. And the placement would have to fit what his slightly confused sense of reality --- putting The Origin Of Species there under fiction, of course, and taping a copy of Elie Wiesel's Night between the fiction and nonfiction sections because of its ambiguous state between memoir and novel, The Bible in nonfiction, and so on. And then ...

One of the problems in writing Colbert's character is that it's easy to write him as being too smart. And so Watership Down becomes a good check on how smart they are writing him, because they had concluded he was not quite smart enough to realize the book about the ongoing wars between rabbits was not for real. So not only would it be on the Colbert character's nonfiction shelf, but it would be one of the calibration points: ``is this idea too smart for a person who doesn't know bunnies aren't really at war?''

Colbert concluded by saying it was an excellent question, and as the audience cheered, then did a stage whisper to the rest of the audience that he only said that so she'd feel better and it was the worst question he'd been asked. But from the response, and the thought Colbert was clearly putting into it, it's clear to me that not only was it a good question --- opening up to some real-sounding talk about how the character was set up and how he's still written --- but it was also what must be the most precious of things after 700 shows of seven questions a show, something he hasn't been asked unto death.

bunny_hugger while as enormously thrilled from this as you might expect did also have a little disappointment since from the phrasing of his answer, particularly his checking back with her that the book is about bunnies at war, suggested that he hadn't actually read it or wasn't interested in it except as a character mark. I'm not sure of that; I think that his double-checking with bunny_hugger about the content of the book was a graceful way of making sure everyone in the audience knew what was being talked about, with dialogue being generally more interesting than monologue. It's ambiguous, but Colbert-the-person does show rather strong nerd-oriented traits, and he's just old enough to have been in the right age to pick up Watership Down in its first wave of public attention-drawing. I'm not sure.

Still, it was an excellent question.

With Watership Down explained, time for questioning was wrapped up and taping began. The taping started on a bit of a mishap, as the audience applauded and cheered wildly while Colbert began his ``Tonight!'' rundown of the contents of the show, the thing which runs before the opening credits ... fine, as it goes, but keeping him from being heard on the taping. Colbert explained that he's thrilled when he sees himself on TV too, but they need quiet to start the ``Tonight!'' segment.

There would be a handful of re-taped bits, actually, through the day as Colbert was apparently suffering from a bit of a cold and he coughed in awkward spots during his ``The Word'' segment and at the return from a commercial break. Perhaps mercifully for Colbert's voice, a good part of the middle was a pretaped segment, about his last day of training as an astronaut. bunny_hugger's mother felt we were being cheated a bit by the pretaped segment taking up much of the show, but that did mean we had not just the segment to watch but also Colbert's reactions as he watched it to take in. As you might expect he was having a great time watching himself clown around and actually land a simulated Space Shuttle.

The interview segment was with Michael Specter, who wrote a book called Denialism --- or as Colbert's introduction, read ahead of time by someone on the far side of the audience who'd spotted the teleprompter warned us, ``No he didn't!'' --- about the perils of not being sufficiently into science. From the description it sounded like the sort of thing the Skeptical Inquirer churned out by the cubic football stadium until I stopped subscribing. Maybe it's better than that, but the interview didn't give me much hope. Colbert ended the interview with a reference to Peanut Butter Bumpers, an in-joke which drove the audience wild and likely left the audience at home wondering what was going on. Well, when the audience seems to go wild for no reason, likely it's a reference to something in the warm-up. Oh, also it's in the pan across the audience as Colbert went to the interview that I could most clearly identify me and bunny_hugger in the audience, but I don't think we could convince anyone else we were at all visible. We leapt up clapping faster than other people.

After the closing credits, and the thanking everyone for being there, the audience started filing out, although a woman sitting next to us told bunny_hugger she thought her question was the best. It really was.

Outside we thought about where to eat and started wandering around trying to find a suitable vegetarian-friendly restaurant when the obvious finally hit me: we were near 45th Street; we should go to Junior's. They serve real food as well as cheesecake, after all, and that's what we went for: sandwiches with huge heapings of cole slaw and pickles, and wedges of cheesecake large enough to crush a small child. This was a delicious conclusion, and perhaps the happiest way which our time together could end.

Actually, we walked back together to the Port Authority, where I had just the right timing to catch a bus which was numbered the 130, but which the driver wouldn't confirm was actually the 139. (It wasn't, although not in a harmful way: this bus didn't make its first stop until Freehold, so that while I got back to my park-and-ride, I got back a little faster than I otherwise might have.) I got home, just in time really to get to bed but hoping to catch bunny_hugger online so we could talk about our time and experience together.

But she hadn't gotten the Wifi password for her bed-and-breakfast, so there wasn't the chance to re-devour the experience we had just had. And besides, I had work in the morning, making up some of my time off with a Friday workday. I may have done something at work that day, although it wouldn't be as good as the week before was.

Trivia: At the height of the ``Woody Woodpecker Polka'' mania, the Revell Company of Hollywood put out a harmonica which, blown straight across, produced the correct C F A C A melody. Source: The Walter Lantz Story, Joe Adamson.

Currently Reading: Girl In Landscape, Jonathan Lethem.

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