Behind the scenes at a double taping of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ in New York City

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The familiar marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in Manhattan, home of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” At about 2:30 in the afternoon on November 15, prospective audience members were already lined up, huddling under the overhang, trying to get out of the pelting rain and snow.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For other posts from New York City, see September 11, 2018 about the 9/11 Memorial and Museum; and February 25, 2018 about the National Museum of the American Indian.

Five times a week, Stephen Colbert bursts out from the theater wings, sprints downstage past the people standing in the first row — slapping their outstretched hands as he goes —  and welcomes his studio audience and television viewers to his eponymous “Late Show.” 

It’s his regular shtick, performed effortlessly and with verve, but it’s only a tiny part of what goes into producing the popular, live-on-tape variety/talk show, which airs at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.

I was in the studio audience of about 400 people on November 15, a Thursday, at the storied Ed Sullivan Theater, for a double taping, which means that I saw parts of that night’s show and the Friday one being recorded. Colbert tapes only Mondays to Thursdays.

(The theater is named after the former host of a long-running variety show that aired Sunday nights on CBS. Ed Sullivan was also a newspaper columnist, and will always be remembered for introducing the Beatles to an American TV audience on February 9, 1964. An astounding 73 million viewers witnessed the beginning of what became known as the British invasion.)

To the home audience, watching from the comfort of the couch or snuggly in bed, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” looks seamless. If you’re seeing it in person, it’s a little like that old adage about sausage-making: Parts of the process may not be the most appetizing, but all the elements somewhat miraculously come together in the end for a pleasing result.

Seated in the fifth row of the center section, my sight line was almost directly even with where the words “Late Show” are on the front of Colbert’s desk. I had an excellent view of the host and his guests, and the only parts that I watched on the overhead monitors were the pre-taped segments.

With its banks of overhead lights, the set is massively bright, giving the blue accents an almost neon glow. Because of the heat the lights generate, the studio is intentionally chilly, so much so that I kept my gloves on and my fleece’s hood up for much of the taping.

(Audience members are not allowed to take any photos, video or audio while inside the studio.)

Lest you think two complete shows were taped in the order you see them at home — monologue, comic bit/sketch, guest, guest — they weren’t. 

And the lead celebrities that were promoted on TV earlier in the day (and week) — actor-comedian Ben Stiller for Thursday, actor Timothée Chalamet for Friday — weren’t the people I saw either. 

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Upon exiting the studio, audience members could pose with cutouts of Colbert in various poses, and buy souvenirs such as mugs and T-shirts.

Colbert performed the two monologues back to back, repeating the top of the show (out from the wings, sprint, hand-slaps, etc.). He knows many of his viewers understand the schedule, and usually includes a “wink-wink” reference to how great the “Friday” night audience is, when, in fact, it is the same as the Thursday one.

The big-name guest at this taping was Oscar-winning actor-producer Michael Douglas, who was publicizing his new Netflix series, “The Kominsky Method.” Colbert seemed genuinely excited at Douglas’s presence, and the actor told a humorous story about one of his earliest parts, in 1969’s “Hail, Hero!”

A brief color clip from the old film was shown, and Douglas acknowledged how clueless he was as an actor in those days, long before landing his breakthrough role on the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco,” and eventually branching out into a lucrative movie career.

That segment appeared on the November 20 “Late Show.”

For the November 15 taping, the second live guest was Jemele Hill, former ESPN personality now with The Atlantic magazine; followed by English singer-songwriter Jorja Smith in a tight black dress, performing “Don’t Watch Me Cry” on a back-lit darkened stage with her accompanist seated at a grand piano behind her. One song, one take, finished.

For Friday night’s show, we saw a humorous interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, pre-taped in Washington, D.C., but not the stand-up comedian Graham Kay, who was recorded with a different audience at an earlier date.

Between set-ups (i.e. commercial breaks), Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, entertained, sometimes coming up the aisles into the audience. Batiste plays with such infectious joy that people were on their feet bobbing to the beat.

Though each segment clipped along professionally, all were not flawless. Several times taping was stopped because Colbert was laughing out of turn or tongue-tied, as when he was talking about Millennial Monopoly for the Friday show. Go ahead, you try saying that fast five times.

He read mainly off the teleprompter, but his safety net is the stack of blue papers on his desk containing that night’s script. If he stumbles and stops the taping, he finds his place in the script and takes it from there. 

One way to tell if segments have been edited from different day’s tapings is to keep an eye on Colbert’s tie. Most nights he wears a solid color, or sometimes a muted pattern or stripes, but if the tie he’s wearing during the monologue is different from the one around his neck while he’s seated behind his desk, then the latter portion was probably taped in advance to accommodate a celebrity’s schedule.

Taping began a bit after 6 p.m. and ran until about 8 o’clock. Like the two monologues, Colbert taped two exits, running up the aisle to the lobby.

Before taping began, warm-up house comedian Paul Mecurio spent about 30 minutes joking and explaining what was to come, encouraging us to be an enthusiastic audience, and saying that Colbert and his guests would get a buzz off our energy level. 

Mecurio called on several audience members to come onstage, and then riffed off them. He had a particularly good time with two women from Australia, now living in New York, mock-yelling at them that an actor-dancer from Oz named Paul Mercurio (note the first “r”) was the reason the comedian had to change the spelling of his name when he joined the union because Mercurio was already taken.

We were also taped practicing applauding on cue, “woo-wooing” and shouting, and providing laughter as prompted.

When Mecurio was finished, stage manager Mark McKenna reiterated how important our energy level was, and that we should respond noisily when he waved his “festive paper roll” as Colbert appeared onstage. 

About 10 minutes before taping began, Colbert, wearing a blue suit, came out to meet the audience. No diva behavior here, as he sat on the front of his desk and took questions.

The first person called upon was a woman, who stood up and said simply: “Stephen 2020.” 

The bespectacled Colbert paused ever so briefly, and started to make a joke about his poor eyesight before changing gear when he realized that she was encouraging him to make a presidential run. 

In numerous opening monologues and biting comedic bits at his desk, Colbert has been quite vocal in his criticism of the current occupant of the White House, so it came as no surprise that his answer took a shot at the president.

“Will the craziness end?” Colbert said, and added “the fabric of reality has stretched out … like a toddler’s sweater” resulting in a fraught political climate. But as for being a candidate himself? Not likely.

The next person asked Colbert who he would most like to interview, “dead or alive.” 

“Jesus Christ, which covers both dead and alive,” he quipped. Colbert, a practicing Catholic,  also mentioned the late author J.D. Salinger  (“The Catcher in the Rye”) and groundbreaking comedian George Carlin, who died in 2008.

As for which guests intimidate him, he cited musicians because “what they do is so cool to me. I’m in awe of musicians.”

And as a quick afterthought: “And [British actress] Rachel Weisz, because she’s so damn pretty.”

All the preliminaries complete, it was showtime. Cue Colbert in the wings.

Now for the downside of the experience …

The lengthy wait to get into the theater was a lot less fun, and to some extent downright baffling. 

A third-party booker handles ticket requests online. Prospective audience members can sign up about five weeks in advance for two free tickets for their date of choice, and join a “wait list.” Be advised that you may not know until a day or two before your selected date if tickets are available.

In my case, on November 13, I went from being informed via email that no tickets were available for November 15, to receiving another email about four hours later that said that not only could I get tickets, but that I had “priority” status. 

“Priority” is better than “general,” because it assures admission but not an assigned seat. If you’re in the “general” line, seats are on a first-come, first-served basis, you have to wait outside a lot longer and you may not get in at all. 

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Here’s my e-ticket, which granted me a place in the “priority” line, and the wrist band that an “audience coordinator” put on me after I checked in on the sidewalk in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater.

For priority holders, the earlier you get in line on the day of taping, the better your seats are likely to be. I was in line before 2:30 p.m., even though the instructions on my printed-out e-ticket said I didn’t have to show up until 3:30. If priority holders haven’t checked in by the stated time, they’re automatically bumped to the general line.

After presenting my printed-out e-ticket and a photo ID, both of which were scanned, an “audience coordinator” loosely fastened a red-and-white paper “Late Show” band around my left wrist. Post-check-in, we were told not to leave the line. 

November 15 was an unpleasant weather day in New York, bitingly cold with blowing, wet snow and rain. The thought of asking someone to hold my place in line while I ran across the street to get coffee from Starbucks was mighty tempting. The accumulating slush on the streets and sidewalks and the general conditions quashed the idea.

After waiting an hour huddled outside, we passed through a metal detector and queued in the lobby, where we stood for another 90 minutes. (Ticket-holders are forbidden to bring in any food or drinks, not even water.)

At least we were out of the elements — the “general” group was still outside — but were treated like kindergarteners, allowed to go to the restroom just once, and only in small groups.

We were told we could not leave the taping to use the restroom and that the facilities would be closed after the show. 

(As the hours of taping ticked by later, it was just as well I hadn’t downed a warming cup of coffee.)

Meanwhile, as we waited to be seated, we chatted among ourselves, wondering why we were still standing in the lobby. No one was rehearsing inside the studio — we’d have heard the monologue or the band warming up.

These procedures were likely their routine security, but they made no sense, especially since we’d all shown ID, our e-tickets and been through a metal detector hours earlier.

Shortly after 5 p.m., at last settled into our seats, it was finally time to be privy to the magic of television.

Quick reference: “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is taped Mondays to Thursdays at the Ed Sullivan Theater, 1697 Broadway, New York, New York. Full shows, clips and other information is online at www.cbs.com/shows/the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/. To request free tickets (two is the maximum), go to https://colbert.1iota.com/show/536/The-Late-Show-with-Stephen-Colbert. 1iota also books for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and many other shows.
https://1iota.com.

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