In 1999 My Uncle D, an architect, was working in New York City. He invited me to spend the Christmas holidays with him and I jumped at the chance. Not only would I see NYC for the first time, I would see it all dressed up and sparkly. And I would be in Times Square when the 19s gave way to the year 2000. The problem was, I was dead broke and languishing in retail hell. But with a little help from Uncle D, it all worked out. I headed to the airport on December 21st, passport and airline ticket in hand.
My retail job had been Holiday Season crazy, so I hadn't had much time to think about what I would actually do when I got to New York. And even if I did think of things to do, I had no money, so it would all have to be free or close to free if I was going to do it.
As my plane took off, I was oddly detached from the whole experience. I felt more pleased that I didn't have to go back to the Madhouse-Christmas-Rushy-Store than I did about going to the Big-Apple-City-That-Never-Sleeps.
I had one connection to make in Minneapolis. Once I was aboard my connecting plane I settled into the second leg of my journey, still not thinking much beyond the free in-flight meal. That all changed when I heard an excited intake of breath from another passenger. I turned to see a young woman looking wide-eyed out the window to something down below. So I looked too. Yep, there is was. The Statue of Liberty. Even a non-American like me cannot help but be awed. As the plane descended I was looking right down at one of the most famous, iconic symbols of America. I started to get tingly. NYC. I was here. NY damn C.
I arrived quite late at night, so there was really only time for the drive into Manhattan, a catch up with Uncle D, and then to bed.
My Uncle had to work in the morning, so I took the subway into lower Manhattan with him when he left for his office. We got off the train near Times Square. Uncle D gave me some suggestions, maps and guidebooks, we agreed on a time and a place to meet later that evening, and he went off to his job.
And I found myself standing alone, on a street corner in Lower Manhattan, with no idea of what to do with my day.
I am not proud of this, but after a visual scan of my immediate surroundings, I spotted a Starbucks and decided to start my NYC adventure with a latte in a coffee shop chain that practically defines the city I had just fled. But it was familiar, so....
Once in the Starbucks, mug in hand, I started to peruse the guide books. I flipped through a few pages and noticed The Ed Sullivan Theater was within a few minutes of where I was sitting. I am a long time David Letterman fan so I thought I'd wander over, have a look at the theater, and then take it from there.
I walked over to the appropriate block and there it was, The Ed Sullivan Theater, looking just as it does in the opening of The Late Show. I felt like I did when I saw Buckingham Palace for the first time in real life: it is amazing to be right there, but it is also fascinating to see an iconic location in its mundane everydayness. When I saw the Palace I was amazed at how it is close to the busy road, with routine city life just going on all around. The theater is all lit up and flashy, but everyday New Yorkers walk right on by without turning their heads or taking notice of the dorky tourists having pictures taken in front of the marquee.
I crossed the street to get a closer look.
A little crowd was gathered around the main entrance to the theather, where there were notices posted about how to get tickets to a taping of the show. As I assumed, if you wanted a coveted seat in a Letterman audience, you had to write in and request tickets weeks in advance of your visit to the city. Clearly, I had not done this. Someone in the crowd was going on and on about the tickets they had arranged by mail, and others were complaining about not being able to get in because they had not known the procedure. I wandered away to explore the block.
Now, anyone who is a real fan of Letterman will know that part of the great genius of his show is the way he incorporates NYC, and in particular his immediate neighbourhood, into his regular schtick. I was delighted to walk into "Rock America" and see Mujibur and Sirajul selling hideous souvenirs, just like on TV. Around the corner was Rupert Gee's Deli, just like on TV. Across the street was the Winter Garden Theater, just like on TV.
And right on the corner was the CBS Store, where one could buy all kinds of CBS stuff, including Late Show merchandise. I decided to go in.
I walked into the CBS Store to discover the clerk in mid-conversation with a man who appeared to be in his 20s, and that same man's parents.
"We gotta get in to see Dave" the young man was saying to the clerk, in an annoying, plead-y tone.
"No way, man," said the clerk. "You need to write in for tickets weeks in advance."
"Is that the only way to get tickets?"
Then something outside on the sidewalk caught the clerk's eye and he said: "Or you could talk to that guy."
Before I'd even had a chance to look for "the guy" the family had bounded out and were talking to a young man with a clipboard right outside the store. I went out onto the sidewalk just in time to see the family happily thanking the clipboard guy. The CBG said: "and you're gonna be solid, right? You're gonna be solid for Dave?" The young man, gleeful, said: "You know it!" The excited family rushed off leaving just me and CBG on the corner.
This is when my NYC mojo kicked in.
"I can be solid for Dave" I said, super casually.
CBG looked up from his clipboard, amused.
"Yeah. I can be solid."
CBG glanced at me, and then said: "Nah. We only want hardcore fans."
"I've been watching Dave for years," I said, truthfully. Then, to add credibility I said: "I watched him on NBC, and then when he switched to CBS."
CBG said: "Okay, if you can answer a trivia question, you're in."
"Lay it on me" I said.
So this was my question:
"What is it that Dave just can't switch off?"*
Oh. Em. Gee.
I had no idea!
But my NYC mojo wasn't about to fold after the first round.
"You have to give me another question" I stated. I say I stated this because I did not plead, I stated.
"Nope, no. NO way" said CBG.
"I'm from Vancouver!" I wailed, as if this means anything, "one more question."
CBG, sighed, and said: "Okay, where is Paul Schaeffer from?"
Ding, ding, ding.
And we have a winner.
"Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada" I said as if it was the ultimate answer on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In my mind really big confetti fell from the sky at that moment.
And then , for some reason, I said: "I know his parents!"
I SO don't know Paul Schaeffer's parents.
CBG looked at my suspiciously, and then asked another question: "What colour is Alan Colter's hair?"
And suddenly we were in a lightening round.
"Who is Biff Henderson?"
"The Stage Manager"
"Pat and Kenny?"
"Alright, you're in" said CBG decisively. He handed me a voucher and told me to come back to the box office at a specific time to pick up my ticket.
I wandered away, stunned. Thrilled! Then the suspicion crept in. Who the hell was that guy? He was some guy with a clipboard. What if he was just some dude who gets off on making geeky tourists think they're going to see Letterman?
I wasn't sure what to do next. So I went to some massive theme store, found a payphone, and called Uncle D to tell him I couldn't meet him at the agreed upon time. Then I called all of my family and instructed them to tape the show.
I went back to the box office at the appointed time. There was a small line-up, and the people directly ahead of me had the same story as I did - they had also met CBG and were also convinced they'd been scammed. But, once we make our way to the wicket the staff willingly handed us our tickets with a number scrawled on them in black felt pen. They told us to go to the Roseland Ballroom, right around the corner, and line up outside. So it wasn't a scam at all. I was in.
This had been a pretty glorious December day, but as the sun faded it changed to ass-breaking cold. So our line-up was quickly hurried inside the ballroom (a big music venue) to avoid freezing. Once inside, a staff member approached me and in a super-friendly manner asked for my ticket, looked at the number written on it, and explained that this number holds my place in line. "You need anything?" she asked.
"Actually, I really need to pee" I said.
She directed me to the washrooms, and after I'd taken care of business I found my place in the quickly growing queue.
And it was at this point we audience members realized we had landed firmly in the capable hands of expert crowd control specialists.
What the television audience doesn't get to see is the remarkable show before the show - the carefully orchestrated, wildly entertaining warm-up that renders a mere mortal helpless with giddy compliance. These people - these Letterman warm-up people - whipped us into a heady frenzy of roaring goodwill and gleeful anticipation.
I quickly became a confirmed member of Cult Letterman. If they'd offered me Kool Aid I'd have downed it.
The details are a bit fuzzy about this part of the experience, because I was a bit over-excited. But I remember there was shouting, fist pumping, music, and "are you ready for this?"ing. The only truly clear memory I have of the Roseland stage show is the part where they went over and over the THREE RULES we were to follow - 1. Dave is listening to the audience from the moment we step into the Ed Sullivan Theatre so BE AWESOME from the second you enter the building 2. No high pitched Whoo noises 3. Even if you don't think something's funny, laugh, laugh, laugh. We went over the rules several times, and we were pumped and primed.
We were marched across the street en masse, and if any audience member seemed less than frothed up and ready for the show a staff person stationed along the route was on it - "you okay? what's up! Cmon! You're about to see Dave!"
The next order of business was a kind of holding pen situation. We were led into a lobby where ropes kept us in an orderly line. Kind of like a bank. This was the one time we audience members really had a second to chat with one another. The couple in front of me were from NYC and had put their names in for all the locally taped TV shows. So far they'd been to SNL and a few others that I can't recall. There were other Canadians, and other people who'd come by their tickets as I had - that day, right out on the street.
And then it was time to move again, this time into the studio itself.
The Letterman studio is famously cold, and for a fan like me, to walk in and be slapped in the face by Dave's famous fondness for a chilly work space was a geeky thrill.
We were decisively marched to our seats, and to my delight I was really close to the stage (albeit behind a camera - but WHO CARES! That's how good the staff was at priming me. Could not have cared less.) Immediately, I began to notice familiar faces casually setting up for the show - there's Barb, there's Biff, there's Pat and Kenny!
Once everyone was seated, monitors overhead burst to life and a video called: "Dave Talks to the Kids" played. I'd seen it before, but it is hilarious and got us all roaring yet again.
After the video there was a funny warm up comic, and once he'd finished a set he introduced the band.
The Band! One by one the familiar faces of the CBS Orchestra were intro-ed and took their places at their instruments. Paul Schaeffer was introduced last, and he is a guy who knows how to make an entrance. Once his name was called he stepped in, struck a pose, and then jumped right over to the keyboard, counted the band in and they were off - they launched into a sh*t kicking mini-concert that blew our minds.
Next Alan Colter sauntered in and was ribbed by the rest of the cast and crew for being late - a common occurrence, apparently.
I can't remember who introduced Dave. We had been promised that he would take a few audience questions before taping began, and that is exactly how it went down. There was a sudden introduction, the curtains parted, and he came running out.
Here's something about David Letterman that doesn't read on TV. He moves awkwardly. Like, really, really, strangely awkwardly. He ran out in his shirtsleeves and tie, pants and signature loafers with white socks. I remember he sort of "jogged" out and he was all weird angles and bounces.
Dave took some very quick questions. He was funny and concise. Anyone who watches his show will know that these pre-show Q and As are mostly so he can refer back to them while live and give a sort of "inside joke" vibe on camera. During our Q and A he was funny but seemed distracted. He mentioned that he wasn't feeling well. He had indigestion and his chest had been hurting all day. Then he bounded off and we were told that the taping was about to begin.
The band struck up the theme music, Alan Colter introduced the show, and Dave bounded back out again, this time with tape rolling. He had put on his jacket. He went right into the monologue.
I don't remember anything about the monologue. I have the episode on VHS somewhere, so I'll have to dig it out some time and refresh my memory.
Here is some observations and details about the taping itself:
- Dave cold called the Butterball Turkey Hotline and it was hysterical. He is a master at that game.
- During the open at the desk he, several times, talked about his indigestion. He and Paul chatted easily, and as expected, he referred back to the audience Q&A.
- There was a comedy bit with blue screen that was interesting from my audience perspective. Biff opened the side door of the theater to show a crazy big full moon. Biff was about five feet away from me, and when he opened the door there was just a big blue screen. So, I had to wait until I watched the episode later to understand the gag.
- I don't remember the Top 10 List topic.
- During commercial breaks, as soon as the camera stopped rolling, Dave would leap up, the band would kick into high gear, and important looking business people would swarm Dave's desk. Then everything cleared in time for the show to go back to taping.
- The first guest was Heather Mazzarato (Welcome to the Dollhouse). At commercial breaks Dave did not interact with her. Marv Albert was the next guest, with his videotape of the "Sports Bloopers of the Year." Dave seemed delighted by the bloopers, and chattered all the way through. Dave didn't interact with Marv much, if at all, during the break. The final guest was a singer I'd never heard of who performed a number called "Phantom Limb." Funny how I can recall the name of the song but not the singer.
When the show was over we were asked to exit out the side door. We had been strictly instructed that photography was a serious copyright infringement, but many people pulled out cameras as we were exiting and the staff, heretofore perfectly courteous, turned into cursing New Yorkers: "Put away that @!*! camera. Great, you got your illegal photo, I hope the rest of your vacation #*&!ing sucks." I guess the show was over for the staff, too.
And with that I was back out on the sidewalk.
The Late Show tapes in the early evening, so I was out of there by seven o'clock.
In a kind of fog I walked to the wine bar where Uncle D and I had agreed to meet, and I told him the whole, crazy story.
About two weeks after my date with Dave, he famously underwent heart bypass surgery. When I heard he had been operated on I immediately recalled how he had been complaining of chest discomfort during the taping I attended. Weird.
My Letterman experience really made me understand why New York City is truly magnificent. That place just grabs you by the hand and you barely have a chance to think before you're in the thick of experiences you never thought you'd have. This all happened on my FIRST day in New York. And it cost me the price of a subway fare, and a Starbuck's latte.
Told you it was a cool story.
* The question I missed? What is it that Dave just can't switch off? Turns out, it was "the Christmas Spirit."