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Friday, 23 January 2004
And tonight, folks, I was there.

Tip: If you know you’re traveling to New York within three months, there is a a form you can fill out to put yourself on the list for Late Show tickets should there be cancellations, which are apparently routine. The tickets themselves are free.

I had actually forgotten that I’d filled out that form when I first learned I’d be coming to New York to cover the LinuxWorld trade show. So I was a bit shocked when my cell phone rang yesterday and the voice on the other end said, “This is Molly from The Late Show.” It didn’t take long for the shock to turn to elation.

I was a freshman in college when Dave jumped ship from NBC to CBS and shifted to an 11:35 start. Initially, my dorm room was the only one around with a TV in it, so when the new show debuted, everyone crammed into my room to watch. I’ve been watching ever since. And tonight, folks, as I said, I was there.

The Late Show doesn’t tape on Friday nights, so they do two shows each Thursday. I was slated for the second taping — the “Friday” show. Molly told me to come to the Ed Sullivan Theater between 4:30 and 5:30. I got there around 5:00 and stood in line in the bitter New York cold for about twenty minutes before I got inside. They checked my name off their list and gave me a ticket, then herded me into an area with about thirty other folks. One member of Dave’s army of interns (or are they pages?) began to bark at us.

INTERN/PAGE: All right! Here’s what you need to know! We’re cutting you loose! At six o’clock, you show up at Roseland! Sir [pointing], ask me a question!

MEEK-LOOKING SIR: Where is Roseland?

INTERN/PAGE: Right! Where’s Roseland? Well! [He holds up a large map.] You are here! Roseland is here, right around the corner! You will know it because it says Roseland on the front of the building, and that’s how you know it is Roseland! Now, what time will you be there?


Roseland, it turns out, is a ballroom across 53rd Street from the Ed Sullivan Theater. When I arrived at six, more members of Dave’s army directed us all — a couple hundred of us by now, I guess — into three large groups. After a while, another minion came out to give us a speech meant both to get us psyched and to lay down rules.

The rules:
  • Laugh a lot, and laugh loudly. No reserved chuckles like you have at home. Clap, too. A lot.
  • No whistling, screaming, or wooooing.
  • No cameras. Cell phones OFF OFF OFF DAMMIT.
  • If you’re not sure something’s funny, pretend it is, laugh loudly, “and think about it on the way home.”
  • Use the bathroom here if you have to; no bathroom-going once we cross the street.
After a while, we cross the street. My group is shepherded upstairs to the balcony, which may sound like a bummer, but it really isn’t. You’d never know it from watching the show, but the Ed Sullivan Theater is absolutely tiny. The main floor only has a dozen or so rows of seats (I’ve been watching the show all this time and would have sworn it was at least twice that deep) and the balcony has about half that. I was in the balcony’s back row, and I could see pretty much everything just fine.

The stage itself is tiny, too. I really cannot understand how they make it look so big on television. It must have a lot to do with how they set up shots, how they zoom in and out to create a sense of depth, and so forth. But it was absolutely shocking to realize that if he wanted to, Dave could damn near spit on Paul while seated at his desk. Equally shocking was how small the “Will It Float?” tank is.

The taping is set to begin at exactly 7:00. Around quarter-till, the warmup guy comes out. I didn’t catch his name, but I assume he’s had this gig with Dave since forever. He was pretty entertaining, and did a great job getting the crowd pumped up. Then all the CBS Orchestra members came out, except for Paul, and started rockin’. They sounded just great. Then Paul came out to very large applause and joined in the jam. Finally, Dave came out around three-minutes-till to chat with the crowd. If you watch the show, you’ll know that Dave frequently refers to things that came up during his pre-show audience chat, leaving the home viewer a bit in the dark. He did so tonight, as you’ll see when you watch tomorrow. Some dude in the audience, a P.E. teacher, said he knows how to cure lower back pain through “stretching and strengthening.” That was enough meat for Dave.

Perfect timing, because now it’s 7:00, and the lights go down, and on the monitors, we see the familiar Late Show opening sequence, and right there in the building with us is Alan Kalter, doing the spoken introduction, and now, holy shit, here we go, here comes Dave, striding right up front, the audience going nuts, me unable to believe that I am really there, and when the commotion dies down, there’s Dave, pretending he’s got a horrible hitch in his back. Time to laugh. Loudly.

And now it feels like you’re just watching The Late Show, which of course you are, but the fact that it is real and happening in front of you is just, well, surreal. I was especially fascinated by the commercial breaks. I’d always assumed that, since they’re taping the show, they wouldn’t really pause for those. But they do. The band keeps playing, and folks run around on stage doing all sorts of things. And you see all the faces you’ve known for years: Biff Henderson, George Clark, Pat Farmer, Tony “Inky” Menendez, Maria Pope. They’re all there. They’re all real. Three-dimensional. Not on a screen. Someone comes out and powders Dave and Paul. Pat Farmer places the guest’s coffee mug on Dave’s desk. We’re coming back from commercial now, so it’s time to applaud. And the show rolls on.

It was especially cool to see the wonderful Friday night “cape” routine unfold in its entirety. For those of you who don’t watch the show, each Friday, toward the end of the hour, the band breaks away to commercial playing “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Paul does the vocals. And as we come back from commercial, he stumbles out to center stage to deliver the final, anguished verse. In doing so, he always falls to the ground, despondant, crying out, “I looooooooooooove you!” at which point an unbilled guest comes out holding a cape. Said guest proceeds to wrap said cape around Paul, standing him up, giving him “there, there” pats and generally trying to console him. Paul, crazy from grief, breaks free to return to the mike, and the guest on cape duty looks back at him, eyes sad, head shaking, before slinking offstage. Cut back to commercial again.

Ninety percent of the number happens during the commercial break. It is a musical event, I am here to tell you. Tonight, Mayor Bloomberg was manning the cape, and as he left the stage, Paul sang out, “Bloomie, I love you! Bloomie, I love you!” causing Dave to remark, once we came back from commercial again, “Paul, were you singing ‘Blew me, I love you’ just now?” Which of course brought the house down.

Other observations:
  • The “Will It Float?” Grinder Girl is even hotter in person.
  • Dave’s affection for both his crew and his gig is palpable.
  • Dave apparently hates it when things go wrong. Tonight’s musical guest (Phantom Planet, thumbs down) had a false start — one of the electric guitars lost power just as the act began. Dave was visibly annoyed.
  • The crew all wear sweaters and such, because Dave keeps it so cold inside the theater. I don’t think it was much more than fifty degrees in there. Dave does this deliberately. Sometimes the guests even complain on camera.
  • The intern/pages all wear letterman jackets bearing the logo of Dave’s production company, Worldwide Pants. The jackets are blue and gold (Go Bears!) and are quite something.
posted to /life at 7:22am :: 7 responses

dave had this to say (01/23/2004 03:52:31):
I'm feeling EVIL! (enough of that for now, & thanks!)

The theatre is tiny, but they shoot it with wide-angle lenses so it looks bigger. This is most exaggerated in the boom shot at the opening of the show, where they sweep the boom out over the audience.

Grinder girl is indeed hot, but the question is: are the Will it Float Models even skankier in person?
/\/\/\/ had this to say (01/23/2004 09:47:43):
EVIL? I don't get it. Will it Float Models: No, this shocked me: They seemed classier in person!
ignatz ratskiwatski had this to say (01/23/2004 10:19:41):
So Matt, you realize that you were not only in the Ed Sullivan Theatre where your Beloved Beatles played, but also in Roseland, where you have a CD of Radiohead playing?
Ah, it sounds like fun.
dorcas had this to say (01/23/2004 11:27:19):
did they open up the good, ole CBS mail bag? were there any good letters? (sacks and sacks of letters!) do they still do that bit on fridays?
/\/\/\/ had this to say (01/23/2004 21:04:23):
Ignatz: Oh! *That* Roseland! Holy shit! Dorcas: No, they do mailbag on Wednesdays now. Usually, Friday features "Know Your Current Events," but this time around, they did "Stump the Band" instead.
katya had this to say (01/26/2004 09:56:57):
I'm not a huge Dave fan, but when I was in NY we went to his show (yeah, I know - the tickets were wasted on me). We just happened to be in Times Square when someone from the Letterman show was giving away tickets. (Oddly enough everyone was ignoring him as though he was just one of the usual crazies yelling on the street.) Anyway, I heard him and we got the tickets for that night's show just by answering a trivia question. (I think it was: What is the color of the announcer's hair?) Some other friends of mine got some tickets to the show recently the same way, so if you're ever in NY look for the Letterman show barker in Times Square offering tickets.

We also had a choice for two shows on Thursday and took the "Friday" show. We were bummed later because the "Thursday" show had an A list celeb (I forget who) and Dave went into the audience for Stump the Band. Meanwhile, our guest was Zach Braff of Scrubs (who seems nice enough but I don't watch Scrubs), and Dave stayed clear of the audience (except for the 3 minutes before the show).

We saw the cape routine (Dave came out and put the cape over Paul), and to be honest I didn't understand what was going on (I don't watch Letterman very often) and it wasn't funny to me. The blowtorch girl (or something like that) was also there. Is she the grinder girl?

We got to stand in the rain before the show to get in, and the coolness of the theater felt really nice in the summer heat. Our seats were in the back row of the bottom section.

It was an interesting experience, but what put us off the most was Dave's team of interns. We also heard the "if you're not sure if it's funny, laugh loudly and think about it on the way home" line. I felt like a tool with the laughing and clapping.

I now know when I watch the show the following key to when a joke is funny:

real laughter = funny
clapping and no laughter = not funny. at all.
katya had this to say (06/14/2004 15:21:10):
I was watching Letterman on Friday night and noticed that Paul Anka was paying tribute to 2 years of the cape routine. "Wait a minute there," I thought. "I saw the Late Show the second week of June 2002, so that means I probably saw the very first cape routine!" No wonder it made no sense to me! ;) (Futhermore, since Dave put the cape on Paul I find it likely that it *was* the first cape routine.)

Totally wasted on me. Too bad you weren't there for it instead.

Stangely enough if you do a search on Google for Letterman and "cape routine" you find my previous comment!

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