Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Daily Show Taping

I was in the audience for the taping of last night's Daily Show. I've heard accounts from friends who've been there, and there are plenty of blog articles on the experience, so rather than run it down beat for beat, I'll try to offer some stray observations I haven't seen elsewhere.

As always with TV, the set is crap in real life. The desk is crap. The "newsroom" monitors in the background are cheap, blurry paint-ons. Everything seems small and tacky. I tried to capture the tackiness, below, but via some magic I don't understand, it all looks great in the photo. Chalk it up to lens-versus-eye juju.

Most of the audience followed the beats of the show, swiveling their heads toward monitors to view clips, etc.. I can watch the show at home, so I kept my eye on Stewart and his crew, hoping to see what the process is like for them after so many years on the air. I played a bit with Tony Bennett back in the day, and it was fascinating to watch him approach "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" for the umpteenth time.

As clips play, Stewart positions early for whatever mug he needs to have on his face when the camera returns. He doesn't view the clips - he's spent all afternoon watching them. Instead, he's cupping his forehead with his hand, leaning back apprehensively in his chair, or whatever...and cooly awaiting the camera. It doesn't seem forced or phony, just highly technical and tactical. Like a ballet where all movements have been pre-mapped, and attention's focused entirely on flow and pacing. You feel the pacing much more acutely in the studio than on TV.

Stewart mostly ad-libs; he barely follows his script. It wasn't that he was decorating or riffing off of it; more like he was so familiar with the material (again, he'd been working on it all day) that the script was just a guide. This rang home when, before the final segment, the teleprompter cued up "That's our show. Here it is, your moment of zen", as if he needed that. Stewart seems to do the show mostly by memory, while the script runs for security.

Before the show, Stewart was asked a couple of interesting questions: one was (winkingly) whether he and the staff had gotten together to revamp policies in light of last week's bizarre Jennifer Lawrence interview (which was referenced several times in the show):


He didn't have much insightful to say, but it was abundantly clear that he wasn't fazed in the least. I don't imagine much rattles him. This is, literally, a daily show, rolling forward ala sausage production. I can't imagine Stewart often frets on the drive home about stuff he might have done better. At least not with this gig, which he's been doing for a long, long 14 years. It's execution, period. Tactical.

Someone else asked when his movie would be released, and he froze in an uncharacteristic grimace of pain. I figure he's been killing himself with post-production on the film while doing the show - and he's at the agony point. He couldn't crack a joke about it. He just stood there mumbling something about how the film's not funny and he hoped people like it anyway. Bad moment. If you ever run into Jon Stewart, don't mention the movie.

Between segments, production people approach the desk to say serious-seeming things, to which Stewart seriously replies. You'd imagine they're making last minute tweaks to upcoming segments, but the odd thing is the same bar conference occurred before the Moment of Zen throw. There's nothing to adjust at that point - the show's pretty much over - so I have no idea what the conferencing was about.

The staff's still tickled after all these years. Production assistants line up along the side of the room, genuinely laughing their asses off. And the crew, surprisingly, was into the comedy as well. Even the cameramen, who you normally expect to be unflinching, kept chortling. Nobody's grinding it out.

There's very little cuing. Stewart was given one single time cue midway through the guest interview (with Ian McKellen, who, by the way, has a voice like burnished golden velvet chocolate), and guided things to commercial with no subsequent guidance. Having been at this for so long, his internal clock seems perfectly calibrated.

Woops, I missed the boat on that last part. Now that I've seen the show on TV, I understand that the producer was signaling that they had enough. Stewart let the conversation end organically, then they edited it down later.

Stewart never seemed to let up - not after the interview, which essentially closes the show, nor after the throw to Moment of Zen. Straight through, the energy never wavered; focused, clinical, un-stressed yet nothing taken for granted. No change even as he left the studio after thanking the audience. Of course, he was probably headed to an editing bay for nine or ten hours of film work, poor guy.

As I said, the set doesn't look like it does at home. Same for Stewart's body language. Live, he seems like a guy naturally moving and reacting. It's small and it's organic, though carefully timed and poised. Only on TV did it compose into the familiar animated mugging and gesturing. Glancing up at the monitor, I'd see what looked like the standard Daily Show. Quite a cognitive dissonance.

The guest segment was the converse. You can't hear well in the studio (mics are for broadcast only; voices aren't put through the PA), so I mostly watched body movement. And he and McKellen appeared to be moving way too much; like an exaggerated hyperkinetic ballet. On the monitor, though, you couldn't see any of that. It looked stone-cold natural. Though the mugging blows up on TV, the interview dynamics were reduced - which is, of course, why they intentionally overplay. McKellen's such a pro that he effortlessly matched the movement; the two seemed engaged in a coordinated dance; it was mesmerizing - though, on TV, you just saw a couple guys talking on a TV show. I suppose if they'd had a more normal conversation, they'd have looked like boring 1970's PBS talking heads. That certainly wouldn't cut it, so there's effort made to be extra dynamic for the camera.

From fifteen feet away, 74 year-old McKellen appears to have the body of a 19 year old, and I'll bet he works extremely hard to keep it that way. Movie star obligation stuff.

One thought: for regular viewers, it may seem like Jon Stewart draws from a limited - though highly effective - bag of tricks. But watching it happen live, I get the impression it's more that this is simply who he is, and, appearing on TV four nights per week, he has no choice but to be who he is. How many moves could you or I wield night after night, year after year?

All in all, this is a really lousy way to view a TV show (they make you wait forever, you can't hear much, camera men block your view, and it's over super fast), but a fascinating journey into the appearance/reality funhouse.

Oh, I spotted this in the staff kitchen, and I'm not sure if it's a joke or not:

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