Sunday, October 7, 2007

My brush with greatness

Sure, I've learned to say with the practiced weariness of a slightly jaded celebrity, I've done Letterman. True, I was in the audience, not up on stage sitting in the chair next to Dave, but if you were watching on April 16 and looked quickly as the camera panned the audience about halfway through the show, you would have spotted me. It was over in a nanosecond, but I was there.

Here's how I got my big break:

It was a chilly, overcast morning in Manhattan as I made my way up Broadway at about 11:30, fully intending to visit the Museum of Modern Art. But a sign outside The Ed Sullivan Theater stopped me in my tracks. Tickets were available for the 4:30 p.m. taping of "The Late Show with David Letterman." The guidebooks I'd read before going to New York advised me not to try for a ticket because they were handed out months in advance. Now, by some quirk of fate, I had what was practically a personal invitation from Dave.

I had to fill out an application and be interviewed by a woman from Dave's production staff. She explained that there'd be a lottery for tickets and I'd receive a phone call between noon and 1:30 if I won. Then she asked me about my favorite part of the show. I said "stupid pet tricks," then I thought to myself, "Oh no, do they even do that anymore?" (Sorry Dave, but I have to admit it's been awhile since I watched you regularly.) Trying not to sound panicky, I asked my interviewer whether they still had that segment. She assured me that they did, but apparently, it's getting increasingly difficult to find pets that do stupid tricks.

About 12:30, I got a call that I won the lottery! I don't usually play the lottery, and I think this is the first time I've ever won something. I went back at 2 to pick up my ticket, which the Letterman staff gave me after checking my driver's license. Then I had to meet my fellow audience members at 3:30 at The Roseland Ballroom on 53rd Street, around the corner from the theater.

At the ballroom, we lined up in numerical order. (The theater seats 400). The young staffers from Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, spent about 45 minutes giving us a pep talk and urging us to use the facilities there, instead of at the theater. We were assured that Dave had a great show planned for us, although we weren't told who the guests would be. (Apparently, this is done on purpose, to keep people from leaving if they don't like the lineup). But I'd checked the Web site, and I knew I'd be seeing Kelly Ripa and British actor Simon Pegg, promoting his new movie, "Hot Fuzz."

We did lots and lots of practice cheering. Dave doesn't use a laugh track - he depends on his audience to provide the real thing. The more we cheer, the more pumped up Dave will get and the better the show will be. We were told that this would be a special show because it was Dave's first since celebrating his 60th birthday. We were told that if something strikes us as funny, but we're not 100 percent sure, we should laugh first and think about it later. We were also told to refrain from making whooping noises and shouting out things like "Bon Jovi rules!" because the microphones are very sensitive.

Finally, around 4:15, we marched over to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the same place where The Beatles performed on Feb. 9, 1964, during the band's first U.S. tour. It was pretty thrilling to be in a place with so much history. Seeing the set from The Late Show in person that I'd seen on television so many times was pretty darned exciting. I noticed that the chairs are a little more worn out than I'd realized. Music was playing and a warmup comedian told some jokes. We were shown a brief, funny video of Dave working at a Taco Bell drive-through. Then Paul Shaffer and the band came out and played for a few minutes. Then, finally, Dave, without his jacket, came out to say hello and take a question from the audience. (A tourist from Vancouver asked him whether he'd be visiting the city for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Dave was noncommittal).

At 4:30, the taping started with announcer Alan Kalter intoning, "From New York, the greatest city in the world! It's The Late Show with Daaaaavvviiiid Letterman"! Wow, I can't even begin to tell you how excited I felt. Now I understand why Oprah's audience always seems to be in perpetual scream mode. (And we weren't even going home with new cars!)

Dave blew a big kiss to the audience. He joked about how it had rained for the past three days in New York. "It was so wet today that Barry Bonds tested positive for mildew. " He joked about Larry King celebrating his 50th anniversary in broadcasting. "Tonight they're opening the program with a montage of his wives." He did a Top 10 list of answers to the question "How rainy is it?" The number-one answer: "It's so rainy, you're stuck inside watching this lame Top 10 list."

By that point, I felt so pumped up that every word out of Dave's mouth was the funniest thing I'd ever heard in my life and I screamed and clapped and cheered like Pavlov's dog. Dave was counting on me, and I did not want to let him down.

It was interesting to see what happens during the commercial breaks, how a bunch of people from Dave's staff crowd around his desk. He gets the props for the next segment of the show and someone touches up his makeup. One thing you don't get by being in the audience is a great view of the show, because the cameras are often blocking your view. It's easier to look up at the monitor above your head.

While I'm glad I did it, I don't think I'd go to a television taping again. It just takes up too much time. Kelly Ripa and Simon Pegg were funny, (Kelly is very small, very tanned and wears very high heels) but the guests were almost beside the point. I was there for the experience. And when the camera swung around to pan the audience, I'm just glad I was ready.

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