Tuesday afternoon, I made a doomed attempt to get into “The Daily Show” as a reporter. Despite talking to a cheerful message-taker a week earlier, I never heard back, so I tried to talk my way in, convention credentials dangling.
Amy Goodman got a friendlier reception from the riot police.
That was fine — I had a fail-safe: tickets for Wednesday’s show. We couldn’t bring in cameras or recording equipment, so to give you the best sense of being there, here’s a time line. It focuses on what you, the viewer, don’t see.
Noon: I’ll get to Jon Stewart’s off-camera jokes soon enough, but no St. Paul “Daily Show” story is possible without describing the wait. It’s basically the longest foreplay you’ll ever experience. There were scattered horror stories of ticket holders getting skunked Tuesday (“Daily Show” officials warn you they overbook), so my wife leaves the house to hold our place.
12:30 p.m.: She hits the line. As it turns out, we’ll be the 202nd through 205th people who get in — for a show that won’t begin by dinner. At least it’s a 600-person theater. She and our friend Linda have packed a picnic lunch. My wife is smart.
2 p.m.: After finishing up a story on an AP photographer who police stupidly arrested, I arrive at the other end of the seriousness spectrum. It’s a sun-splashed, crisp fall day. We’ve lucked out weather-wise.
2:30 p.m.: The weirdness begins. A couple of chipper T-shirt-clad girls show up, handing out breath mints. The box touts “Clean Coal” technology, an oxymoron George Carlin would have mocked if he weren’t dead. This just isn’t the right crowd. One line-dweller wonders if sequestered carbon is inside the candy shell.
2:45 p.m.: The requisite anti-abortion truck comes by — bloody fetus photos, side and aft. In unison, line-goers give the driver the finger. Seems he has made this circuit many times before I arrived.
3 p.m.: Hilarity doesn’t ensue. McNally Smith College of Music has hired a student magician/juggler to keep line-dwellers entertained. But after jokes about lazy Mexicans, folks pretty much wish he would go away. McNally Smith’s vetters are about as good as John McCain’s.
4 p.m.: Fools took free energy-drink samples a few minutes earlier; they now realize that taurene’s stimulants particularly affect the sphincter. This is trouble because now we must be in line to get our seat numbers. Sarah Palin’s “uterus of steel” is legend for that 13-hour Texas-to-Wasilla flight; now my wife’s bladder must duplicate the feat.
4:15 p.m.: Class warfare erupts! The front-of-the-line dwellers watch in disgust as VIPs traipse nonchalantly by. There are probably a hundred of them, wired to the History Theatre, or McNally Smith, or to the DFL (Rep. Keith Ellison, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, state Sen. Dick Cohen). Elitist bastards.
5:29 p.m.: After passing through metal detectors, we’re inside. “Daily Show” audience-wranglers come in two sizes: emaciated, stubbly guys and zaftig, funny gals. One of the funny gals tells us to spit out our gum, turn off our cellphones, and relax.
5:30 p.m.: We’re told Jon Stewart will come out and banter with the audience; the zaftig gal says we’re not supposed to ask “creeper” questions. No one is quite sure what this means. She promises, “There are no bad seats in this theater.” The crowd remains anxious.
5:37 p.m.: We’re in, four rows up, stage right. The stagehand is basically correct about the seats, and the theater vibe is crackling.
5:45 p.m.: Another zaftig woman reminds us there are no bathrooms available at the theater. My wife is impassive.
6:10 p.m.: We’re now badly bored. What the hell is going on? Why have we been left sitting here for 33 minutes? Did anarchists caltrop Jon Stewart’s bus?
6:19 p.m.: Still waiting. We’re asking each other when the last time was that we waited for something six hours.
6:22 p.m.: The audience applauds, fruitlessly.
6:24 p.m.:Finally — ACTION!The show’s warm-up comic, Paul Mecurio, bursts on stage to pump us up. We’re like Pavlov’s fans — we’ll do anything he says: clap, stand, chant “Jon, Jon, Jon” like we’re Xcel delegates at McCain’s acceptance speech. As with any release, it feels good and frustration evaporates.
6:25 p.m.: Mecurio goes Don Rickles on one of the few black audience members, who didn’t get up out of his seat. “OK, everyone stands except the black guy,” Mecurio quips. (The man says he’s tired.) “You have the power! You’re here for a reason — to laugh loudly! You need to reach through the television and grab the 2 million people watching this show!”
6:27 p.m.: Mecurio lays into a guy named Chris, and a roomful of cheers erupt. “What? Why does everyone know you?” Mecurio asks. “I get around,” Chris mutters. After establishing Chris met his wife in a bar, Mercurio quips, “Was she one of your tricks?” Then he asks, “What do you do?” “Mayor,” Chris Coleman deadpans. It was probably pre-arranged, but it worked beautifully.
6:34 p.m.: Oh my God oh my God oh my God IT’S JON STEWART!!!!
6:36 p.m.: It takes about 12 nanoseconds to realize that even though “The Daily Show” is wonderfully written, with a b.s.-culling video-tracking system second to none, Stewart is an amazing improv performer.
6:36 p.m. and 12 nanoseconds: An audience questioner riffs on the news that “Daily Show” caterers were told to keep kiwi fruit off their menus. “Not a big fan of the fruit, kiwi,” Stewart quips. “It has all the bad attributes — hair, seeds and it’s green. There is little to recommend it, especially with a banana sitting next to it.” Pause. “I think you are you in the pocket of Big Kiwi!”
6:37 p.m.: What’s the best gift you’ve received for being in Minnesota? “I was given, when I got here, one of your lakes. You still have 9,999 of them.”
6:38 p.m.: What’s the difference between Denver and Minneapolis? After booing St. Paulites settle down, Stewart says, “You have oxygen. Yet with the Republicans here, it’s more difficult to breathe.” Pavlovian response.
6:39 p.m.: After the show, will he see the Rage Against the Machine at Target Center? Stewart laughs. “The only machine I rage against is my Blackberry.”
6:40 p.m.: How should the media handle Palin? “I’m not the media,” Stewart says (which is, of course, a not-so-white lie). “I’m assuming they should handle her with … ridicule?” Eruption.
6:41 p.m.: What’s the best Sarah Palin joke you won’t tell on the air? This one throws Stewart a bit. Finally, noting the Palin speech will be fodder for Thursday’s broadcast, he says, “Watch the show tomorrow night. We’re not leaving anything behind.”
6:42 p.m.: Stewart terms the Mall of America “a mall with another mall shoved up its ass” and remarks on the “explosive diarrhea” he got at Mickey’s Diner in downtown St. Paul.
6:43 p.m.: Stewart ends the standup with an announcement: “Tonight’s guest — Newt Gingrich!” Oohs, ahhs, and applause as the audience contemplates that humor-spiced intellectual slugfest.
6:45 p.m.: I have no idea what Stewart is like behind the scenes, but he is a loose, generous-seeming guy onstage. He shakes his shoulders and bobs his head like a rag doll as the makeup artist approaches, and tells the ecstatic audience he’d like to “powder you up and hump you.” He’s like a one-man jam band of comedy, and if there’s tension elsewhere, none of us senses a bit of it.
6:46 p.m.: The miracle of TV. Stewart informs us the segments will be taped out of order: The first segment will be last, the second first, and the Gingrich interview (usually seen at show’s end) will be second. Stewart apologizes that we’ll have to gin up our big show-opening explosion at the end, but no one cares.
6:49 p.m.: You saw what we saw, only you saw it second: Fred Thompson seamlessly morphing into Foghorn Leghorn, and Joe Lieberman into Droopy Dog. The audience is instantly swept up in “Daily Show” magic.
6:52 p.m.: Armed with devastatingly hypocritical video clips, Stewart absolutely destroys Karl Rove (on the Palin choice), Bill O’Reilly (on teen pregnancy) and conservative moralists Dick Morris and Nancy Pfotenhauer (on media sexism).
6:53 p.m.: What you don’t see: There are no applause signs. None needed. And journalistically, there’s simply nothing to dispute here: These are people’s own words. By the way, Stewart nails the segment in one take.
6:56 p.m.: With cameras off, the crew escorts a corpulent former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the interview chair. You don’t realize how squat and puffy many of the nation’s political elite are until you see them in the X’s halls or on the History Theatre stage. While Gingrich cleans up nice, he looks unwell. Stewart is famed as a short guy, but Gingrich is only slightly taller.
6:57 p.m.: Cameras on, with Gingrich seated across from Stewart. Here’s the full interview. Best Stewart line: “So John McCain basically makes his campaign that Barack Obama is dangerously inexperienced, then he chooses Gov. Palin. Is it because she’s intriguingly inexperienced? Excitingly inexperienced?”
7:02 p.m.: As it turns out, the jokes are not what makes your jaw drop watching Stewart. The guy who moments earlier was eviscerating kiwi, concludes with a fairly passionate argument that Palin can tout her daughter’s brave “decision” but says “elect me so I can keep your family from having the same opportunity.” Gingrich parries with talk of an Obama Illinois “infanticide” plan, but Stewart insists Palin remains a hypocrite.
7:05 p.m.: Now we’re ready to go nuts for that opening montage most of us have watched dozens of times. “You always want to do your first segment after the infanticide discussion,” Stewart says drolly. As the lights flash, the audience leaps like dogs after a Frisbee.
7:06 p.m.: A green-screen is wheeled out on stage.
7:08 p.m.: As it turns out, it’s the backdrop for an absolutely crass yet delicious segment on why Republicans came to Minnesota, a state they haven’t carried since 1972: nonstop gay sex. Yes, it’s the Larry Craig bathroom, but really, that’s only the jumping off point.
7:09 p.m.: On stage, correspondent John Oliver insists, “The cream of the Republican Party” — peals of laughter — “is deciding this country’s future while simultaneously gorging themselves on manflesh, human offal — and of course, the cream of the Republican Party.”
7:10 p.m.: We can’t see the other correspondents covering the deeper depravity in the handicapped stall and elsewhere. It’s a reminder that for all the high-minded praise, “The Daily Show” is written by folks who need a release, too.
7:12 p.m.: Jon Stewart really does draw on his script paper, even when the cameras aren’t rolling.
7:13 p.m.: One of the fun things about being there is watching Stewart mug his way through the taped segments, even when he won’t be back on camera for a while. It’s not “look-at-me” — it’s between him and the monitor. He’s that into it.
7:18 p.m.: It’s all denouement. For some reason, Stewart has to tape an intro for CNN International. “So obviously, you don’t have to clap as loud; what do we care about viewers in Burundi?” he jokes. Believe it or not, the audience doesn’t clap as loud.
7:20 p.m.: Wait! It’s not over! A stagehand comes out. Stewart says, “Can we have a little music so he and I can talk shit about the audience?” Laughs, but also murmurs.
7:21 p.m.: Stewart explains: The end of the Foghorn/Droopy segment went 30 seconds too long, and he’s opting to keep the full Gingrich interview. The audience boos, but what’s a journalist-satirist to do?
7:22 p.m.: We pick up the segment at one of the final video clips, and Stewart again nails a punch line he nailed a half-hour earlier. The audience lets loose a bigger cheer.
7:23 p.m.: So what was edited out? In the original version, Stewart went on an extended and very funny riff on how Lieberman slaughtered his punch line, and then — in true Droopy Dog fashion — dug the hole deeper by morosely explaining the joke … twice. It points up one flaw in the “Daily Show” system: The longer version should be on the web, where time isn’t an issue.
7:30 p.m.: It’s done, we’re out on the street, fulfilled, with no demonstrations trapping people in the building like the night before. Was it worth the endless, anxious clicking back in May to get the free tickets, or the absurd wait exposing us as the giddy fanboys and fangirls we really are? If you remain envious at this point, you know the answer.