My Late Show With David Letterman Experience
I went to my first live taping of a late-night talk show on Wednesday. Considering the fact that I’ve been a fan of this genre for decades and have been doing Woody After Hours for four years now, you may be wondering why it has taken me this long to actually attend a show in person. Well, honestly, those shows ain’t easy to get to if you don’t live on or near the West or East Coast. So get off my back about it.
When 2013 started I concluded that it was critical for me to see the Late Show as soon as possible. Letterman is contracted through 2014, and I predict he’s going to decide not to renew for another two years. As soon as he announces his retirement, which I feel will be sometime later this year, tickets to his show are going to be impossible for a peon like me to get. So I decided to stop procrastinating and act. Here’s my story.
I immediately went to the Late Show website and applied for tickets. You’re allowed to select three show dates up to two months in the future, so I chose two tickets for Monday, March 11th, Tuesday, March 12th and Wednesday, March 13th. There were two reasons for my decision. First, the weather in New York City in March would, hopefully, be better than January or February. Second, if I applied for tickets two months in advance and, let’s say, won them a month before the show, I’d have the time to schedule a reasonably priced trip to NYC.
There are roughly 500 seats in the Ed Sullivan Theater, and thousands of people looking for tickets on any given day, so the chances were mediocre at best that I would win tickets. As the hours turned into days, the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, I lost hope of achieving mediocrity. To make matters worse, you can only apply for tickets once every six months, so I figured by the time I was eligible again it would be too late.
Then, on Wednesday, March 6th, I got the call. I had won two tickets to see the Late show on the following Wednesday, March 13th. My excitement only lasted a short time, however, as I quickly realized that if I accepted the tickets it meant I had a week to plan a last-minute trip. I told the person who called me that I needed to figure out if I could do it. She was very friendly and gave me her number so that I could call her back. So, if you think about it, even if I couldn’t go, at the very least a woman who was probably half my age gave me her phone number. I’ve still got it, baby.
Seeing a live taping of the Late Show with David Letterman is, quite honestly, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t pass it up, but it meant I had a very limited time to put a lot of pieces into place. The first thing I did was see if my wife could go with me. I had entered her name when I applied for the tickets, and the Late Show is very strict about bringing the person you said you were going to bring. No dice. It was too late for her to get out of work. I would have to find someone to go with me.
The second thing was to see if the place where I worked would allow me to take the time off. This was the most difficult hurdle to jump over. It was a busy time and I had tasks to complete and deadlines to meet on the day before and day of the show. Meanwhile, the only co-worker who could fill in for me while I would be gone was taking the entire week off because it was spring break at his sons’ school. Luckily, my co-worker was kind enough to cover me the days I needed to be out of town, and my boss was ok with everything and approved my time-off.
Third, I had to see if I could stay with my mother and step-father in New Jersey. I called my mom and asked if she wanted to go to the show with me. Being so far away I don’t get to see my mom often, so I figured this would be a nice mother-son adventure. She declined. Late-night talk shows weren’t really her thing, she told me, which explained why she didn’t much care for my webcomic. “Why can’t you be a rich doctor like your older brother?” she asked. I reminded her once again that Dr. Phil is not my older brother, much less a member of our family. After consoling my mother regarding not having a wealthy son to eventually take care of her when she’s older, my step-father, who I will refer to in this story as “Mr. V” because it sounds hip, and who is a fan of late-night from the days when Carson ruled the landscape, happily accepted the invitation.
Last, but certainly not least, I had to buy a plane ticket. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone when I say that airfare ain’t cheep and the pickings are pretty slim when you want to schedule a flight only seven days in advance. And a hotel in New York? Forgetaboutit. It would have actually been cheaper to pay Letterman to come see me in Ohio than the other way around. Still, I figured I wouldn’t get another chance at this, so I sold all my possessions and got the cheapest flight I could.
I called the friendly Late Show ticket lady back and told her I was good to go. She was able to switch my wife’s ticket so that my step-father could go. She then informed me that the show taped from 4:30 to 5:30 PM, and we should be at the Ed Sullivan Theater between 2:00 and 3:00 PM. I had my instructions. I was all set.
I’m going to summarize the Tuesday before the show as quickly as possible. Work was extremely busy and stressful. My flight to Philly was delayed due to weather. My layover was in Terminal F, which is quite possibly the worst airport terminal ever. My flight to NY was significantly delayed due to weather. My parents had to drive an hour to get me, wait at the airport until 12:30 in the morning and then drive an hour back to NJ. In other words, not the greatest start to my trip.
On Wednesday Mr. V and I headed to New York to see the show. We weren’t supposed to be at the theater any earlier than 2:00, but at 1:45 there were already a decent number of people waiting, so we joined them. By 2:00 the line behind us was down the block and around the corner. We all stood there for about 30 minutes before we were allowed to enter the theater two at a time to validate who we were. It was only 2:30, so I figured we would have to sit in the theater for two hours before the show started. Not an ideal situation for most people, but I was looking forward to watching the crew put the show together. Well, turns out I’m an idiot. The purpose of lining up at 2:00 was only to get our tickets. Once we had them we had to get the hell out and return at 3:20 to stand in another line to get back in the theater. This is how show business works, apparently.
Learning our lesson from earlier, we arrived back at the Ed Sullivan Theater twenty minutes early. There were already two huge lines of people in front of the theater. “Doesn’t anyone follow directions anymore?” I asked out loud to everyone except myself. But, we had really low ticket numbers, so I figured we were fine. I asked a Late Show page which line we should get in. His answer was “neither.”
It turns out that the people in the two lines were supposed to be there before the rest of us because they were special. The first group had VIP tickets. These were men and women had important connections to important people at CBS. It didn’t matter whether or not they cared about Letterman’s comedy or the variety of entertainment provided by the late-night television format, they knew people, so they were allowed in the theater first.
The second group was comprised of people with “green dot” tickets. These people looked and acted a lot more like they were going to enjoy the Letterman brand of comedy. I was never able to figure out who you had to be or what you had to do in order to get a green dot on your ticket. As I watched them enter the theater second it was obvious that, while they were less special than the VIP’ers, they were a lot more special than the rest of us. I wish I had been in one of those two groups, but it was ok. I figured that since my ticket number was so low, I’d still get a pretty darn good seat.
The rest of us then lined up in number order outside the theater. We stood for about twenty minutes and then were let in. Finally, I thought, he we go, into the famed Ed Sullivan Theater.
While the VIP and green dot ticket holders were in their seats, the other five hundred of us stood crammed together in the lobby. It was there, for over thirty minutes, that we listened to two Late Show pages instruct us over and over and over and over again about three very easy to understand rules. Here they are:
Rule #1: No photographs. If someone sees you even holding your phone in the theater you will be thrown out immediately and most likely beaten with a taxi.
Rule #2: This is a live taping. Don’t do anything stupid or disruptive. If you do, you will be thrown out immediately and most likely beaten with a taxi.
Rule #3: Above all else, laugh your ass off at everything. They call this the “Laugh now, think about it later” rule. There’s no laugh track, so the audience must perform this task manually. Dave feeds off laughter, it makes him a better host, so laugh as loud and and hard as you can.
So, after they were satisfied that the rules had been beaten into us and our practice laughs were satisfactory, they opened the doors and let us into the theater.
Having watched the Late Show for a number of years, I didn’t need to focus on the grandeur of the set. It is pretty grand, by the way. Instead, I zoomed in on what seats were available. As I suspected, the first five rows of the center section were filled with VIP and green dot ticket holders. No problem. Sixth row center would be more than fine. So, where did the Late Show page seat me and Mr. V? Let me show you with these shots of the audience that were taken during the taping when they announce who will be on next evening’s show:
Here we see the stage left and half of the center audience section. I’m not here.
Here’s a great shot of the audience members who got to sit in the center audience section. Look at all those happy VIP and green dot ticket holders. Jerks.
You can kind of see half of the center and most of the stage right audience section. We’re almost there.
There we are, under the huge red arrow.
That’s right folks who have patiently read this far into the story. Despite making a Herculean effort to get to New York, despite how much I inconvenienced my wife, our cat, members of my family and co-workers, despite getting in line early and waiting patiently near the front, despite being such a fan of late-night television that I’ve devoted the last four and a half years to the publishing of a webcomic about a late-night show, and despite there being hundreds of seats available in the center section when I walked in, despite all of that, a Late Show page directing traffic randomly assigned us seats at the far end of the fourth row on the stage right side of the theater. Meanwhile, people who had shown up a lot later and had considerably less dedication to the late-night cause were seated, again at random, in the center.
From our seats we had an excellent view of some very large speakers, some camera equipment and a profile view of part of the band area. If we looked to our right we had a decent view of Letterman’s desk and couch. I say decent because they were just about as far away as they could be without being outside the theater.
After everyone was seated we watched a video hosted by Alec Baldwin. Remember the three rules we learned about earlier? Well, we learned them again, just in case we had forgotten them during the ten minutes we all walked from the lobby to our seats.
The video was actually quite entertaining. It contained the same dry wit as Letterman’s show. If we had just watched this twice instead of listening to the Late Show pages in the lobby I think we would have been much happier.
As soon as the video was over the warmup comedian came out. What did the warmup comedian do? The obvious answer is to tell a few jokes to warm us up before Letterman comes out. He did do that, sure, but his main goal was to once again review the three rules. I’m not kidding. If there was any chance that someone had not been paying attention in the lobby or during the video, then this guy was going to make damn sure we heard, comprehended and agreed to the rules of being a Late Show audience member.
It truly amazes me that the Late Show pages didn’t hand out paper contracts for us to sign saying that we understood and were legally bound by the three rules. Instead, the band came out, picked up their instruments and played a couple of songs for us. The music was loud and clear thanks to that huge speaker I mentioned earlier. At the same time, the Late Show pages popped up in front of the audience and kept us energized by making us clap.
Then the big guy came out on stage. I know I’ve ragged on the show’s procedures a lot so far, and deservedly so, but when Letterman showed up none of that no longer mattered. It was simply awesome to see him talking to us just a few feet away. The theater was big, but he filled effortlessly with his presence. His charisma and easy manner both warmed us up and relaxed us. Isn’t that weird? It is weird, but that’s what it felt like to me.
Letterman didn’t have a lot of time, so he made a few jokes and only took one question from the audience, then it was time to start the show. He went back stage, the opening music started, Alan Kalter started talking and the show was suddenly underway.
If I had been watching from home I think I would have laughed at maybe one or two jokes in Letterman’s monologue, but being there in person I have to admit that I laughed at almost all of them. You might be thinking that I was just following the most important of the three rules, but I assure you that wasn’t it. It was a completely different experience seeing Letterman performing jokes live on a stage as opposed to on television. Everything just felt a lot funnier.
After the monologue was over I learned that taping only stopped for exactly the time of the commercial break. Since the show wasn’t live, I had always assumed that when one segment completed, the next one began after however long it took for everyone to set it up. Or, if no time was needed, they would just end one segment and immediately start the next one. Instead, while the home audience is watching commercials, people are running around and talking to each other on stage while the band entertains the studio audience with a song. Then, once the commercials are over, the show starts right back up with the next segment. It was neat to watch.
Another surprise was how much of Letterman the audience can actually see during taping. Naturally, the cameras are setup so that the millions of people watching him on television get the closest and clearest view of him. This, unfortunately, prevents certain sections of the studio audience from seeing Letterman as a result. When the show began Letterman stood near the front of the stage to do his monologue. The cameras were only a few feet from the front row of the audience, so for the most part the entire audience was able to watch him. For the rest of the show, though, while he sat at his desk the cameras and other equipment moved in and took over the stage in front of him. I would imagine that this blocked quite a few people in the audience from being able to see him consistently. Luckily, from our seats, even though he was far away, our view was unobstructed for most of it. When it was blocked, we could look up at the televisions and watch the show just like a home viewer.
I was also really impressed with how smoothly the show ran. There were a ton of moving parts to make this show happen, and I couldn’t detect a single hiccup. Everything went like a finely tuned watch, which I guess makes sense when you consider they’ve been doing this for thirty-one years now.
The comedy segment was New Books and the Top Ten Rejected Pope Names. Again, I would have thrown both bits a few chuckles from home, but seeing them live just made them a lot funnier. I wish I could explain it better. Instead, here are the bits. If you concentrate really really hard you can hear me laughing and clapping.
Jim Carrey was the only couch guest. He was promoting the new film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The interview was pretty good. I really like Jim. I think he’s a hilarious guy, and I was very happy when I learned that he was the guest when I’d be in the audience. Jim was funny, entertaining and told some amusing stories. Amazingly, though, while he was energetic and made as many jokes as possible, he couldn’t come close to stealing the spotlight from Letterman who was laid back and spoke softly. It was fascinating, and it probably doesn’t translate on camera since most of the focus was on Jim, but live in the studio it was no contest. Here’s the interview:
Richard Thompson was the musical guest. He gave a nice performance. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see most of it because the Late Show band’s area blocked most of our view. That was ok, though, as we could see him on the televisions and hear it quite clearly.
After the song was over Letterman said goodnight and the show was over. He thanked us for coming and walked backstage. At the same time the Late Show pages appeared and told us to get the f**k out. Mr. V and I exited the theater and the adventure was over.
All things considered, the whole experience was terrific. Sure, I wish we hadn’t had to stand in line for a few hours, been forced to listen to the rules repeated a ridiculous number of times and been sat as far away from Dave as possible, but none of that overshadowed being in the Ed Sullivan Theater, seeing Letterman and watching a live taping of his show.
A lot of people made this possible for me, and I hope they know that I will be forever grateful to them for it.
Thanks for reading.
Want to read about my other late-night audience member experiences? Well, if you ever change your mind, here they are: