Inside the Colbert Audience

A couple of years ago, while in New York, I went to see a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman. I detailed the experience in an episode of Boxcutters.

To precis, the audience ticket and loading procedure took twice as long as the taping itself and the overall event was hand-clappingly cultish.

During this latest visit, I managed to obtain tickets to the Colbert Report. This single act is no mean feat. Trying to get ticket through the website itself presents a page that apologises and promises to email when tickets are available. I don’t know if the emails are ever sent out or if the addresses are even collected. I’ve never received one and I’m reminded of that Simpsons scene in which the message tubes are used in beaver dams.

The excellent Rilestar pointed me to a Twitter feed that announces when a few extra tickets become available. Sometimes these are very short notice: as in, for that day’s taping. There are no quiz questions to answer and no other hoops to jump through. Being at the right place at the right time is, apparently, difficult enough.

There are still a number of steps from being on the audience list to getting into the studio. Names are checked off lists, queues are formed, names are checked off more lists, tickets with numbers are handed out. People wait in the cold for over an hour. Less bureaucracy and checkpoints are required for entry into government buildings.

Once inside the building and through the metal detector, there was more waiting. The entire audience is only about 130 people strong and we were packed into an antechamber featuring portraits of Colbert, propagandist posters and a video-screen showing highlights of previous episodes.

A staff-member/intern jumped up onto a table to tell us all to remember to laugh, turn off mobile phones and not take any photos. Then another staff member yelled, from near the doors, instructions on how to hand back the numbered tickets when she counted up to that number.

Listening to someone else count up to 130-something is not as fun as it sounds.

Once we were finally admitted into the studio, we found, under each seat a copy of Richard Branson’s latest book about why he’s the best person he knows and how he is single-handedly saving the world by being friends with Peter Gabriel. Branson was to be the guest that night.

After the warm-up comedian, Pete Dominick did a tight fifteen minutes to get the audience laughing and happy. Colbert came out to answer questions out of character. And then they started the show rolling.

It wasn’t just the smaller audience that created the intimacy of the event. There was a very real feeling of us being a part of the Colbert Nation. We were in on the joke. We were witness to a very talented man doing his job exceptionally well and we were also witness to the bloopers and the humanity behind the show.

The Late Show audience is indoctrinated upon entry and treated like ignorant TV viewers, to an extent. To make a taping of the Late Show successful, the audience has to believe that David Letterman is the funniest and best host on TV and that the CBS Orchestra is the greatest collection of musicians who never tour (and never change their hair-styles). The lengthy audience-loading procedure works to dumb-down the audience and fill them with awe at what they are about to see.

The Colbert Report encourages its audience to be smart. It has to be smart to follow the news and get all the jokes. So the show approaches the audience members differently. It builds up a confidence in them that the jokes will not go over their heads. Rather than an awed response to the host, the crew pushes a supportive role onto the audience. The repeated theory is that the show is intelligent, its audience is intelligent, and television needs the show to be successful so that television provides more intelligent content. By the end of this, the audience in the Colbert Report is not filled with followers so much as co-conspirators.

Everything that happens inside the studio is designed to make the audience members feel like they are part of something special. This is their chance to help make a difference.

The set is constructed to keep the audience on-side with Colbert. During the interview portion, which takes place stage left, Colbert sits largely facing the audience, able to gauge whether or not they are with him in a particular line of antagonism. The guest, or subject, is left entirely vulnerable, their back almost entirely to the audience, with no idea of whether or not they are winning. And yes, an interview on the Colbert Report is almost always a competition and it is very definitely rigged. Watching someone like Richard Branson, unaccustomed to losing, enter this arena was almost Roman in its inherent Schadenfreude.

In a way, for the Colbert Report to have a live audience is strange. The programmes it parodies (The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity on Fox News) do not have live audiences. They say outrageous things without any audible response from within the TV set. People watching at home are forced to either think for themselves or just accept what the angry voice in the box just said.

The Colbert Report’s live audience is the knowing wink that the programme requires to make the people at home realise they are watching a comedy show and not just another right-wing polemicist. It’s a compromise that the programme makes to the medium and it’s a lot of responsibility to entrust to 130 strangers.

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