The email came while I was nearing the end of my weekly trip to the supermarket, standing in the organic dairy section deciding what kind of yogurt to buy the kid:
If you are in NYC TODAY or can be, we had some seats become available to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for Today/Sunday’s show — Sunday, September 30th.
The email was long and full of rules – no repeat attendees; no white clothing; no hats or large logos; no video or camera recording – but I didn’t read any of it at the time. I took a screenshot and texted it to my wife, who was a day shy from being 39 weeks pregnant.
She was excited, but cautious. She asked what I thought and I texted that I’m an unequivocal yes, but that I’m not the one currently growing another human inside me so the decision is really up to her. Once her sister was able to watch our daughter for the evening, her decision was made.
It was fitting that it happened.
During the third trimester, my wife’s go-to show was Last Week Tonight. She watched it while cooking and while painting hot air balloons on the wall of the nursery. She watched it in bed when she couldn’t sleep and she watched it while eating another bowl of oatmeal. John Oliver’s voice became the soundtrack of her pregnancy. One day, she said to me, “We should try to get tickets.” I explained to her that I had been trying to surprise her with tickets for months but it’s so popular that I wasn’t optimistic.
Needless to say, the Sunday morning email was a surprise.
I still couldn’t believe what Waze was telling me.
“Fifty minutes to go eight miles?” I asked, incredulous.
“You know that’s how it is,” she responded.
I’ve lived in northern New Jersey for over four years and I’m still dumbfounded by how long it takes to go such a short distance. We were sitting in traffic headed towards New York City and I was sure we weren’t going to make it. I had thought that ninety minutes would be enough time to get there – after all, it was Sunday afternoon – but it wasn’t looking good.
The traffic going towards the Lincoln Tunnel was just as deadlocked, if not more so, than it is on a Friday or Saturday night, when the bridge and tunnel crowd go live it up in Manhattan for the night. Stuck behind a bus going eight miles per hour, I watched as the estimated arrival time surpassed the time the doors would close.
After some aggressive driving and a lot of profanities, we found a parking garage a block from the CBS Broadcast Center where the show is recorded. We exited the garage with four minutes to spare and my wife walked as fast as she could, daring any car waiting for her to cross the street to honk at her. As we approached the studio, a woman with a headset told us we had plenty of time and then asked for my name. Then, when she saw my wife, she spoke into her mic: “We have a woman here who is substantially pregnant.”
We liked that. Substantially.
We went inside and were seated in a waiting room that looked like a very clean bus station. After about twenty minutes of waiting, a production assistant came in and made an announcement: “We’re about to start filling the studio. There are no cameras or photographs of any kind. Please turn your phone to silent and don’t take it out. John Oliver will do a brief Q&A session, but please keep your questions on the topic of the show.”
We were one of the first groups chosen. We rode the elevator and were directed to our seats: first row, on the far right (if looking from the stage), next to the alcove where the showrunner and writers sit in front of a couple of monitors. Directly in front of us was a blue curtain blocking the area to the side of the stage where sometimes Oliver does bits away from the desk, like when he unveiled five wax presidents or performed a parody of a multilevel marketing presentation.
As always with television, the set is much smaller than it appears on screen.
We sat, watching others walk in, stare at the set, and then file towards their seats. We sat. And sat. And sat. Since no phones were allowed at all, people actually had to talk to one another and observe their surroundings. No one had their head bent staring at a screen.
The show was scheduled to begin around 6:30 pm but nearly an hour later we were still waiting. It turned out there were some items that the legal department was working on to ensure that the show was not at risk of a lawsuit.
After the warm-up guy made some jokes, asked people where they were from, and deployed the t-shirt cannon – even hitting one of the lights – the host and star emerged from behind the curtain. John Oliver looks exactly the same in person as he does on television: nerdy and thin.
He spoke for a few moments and took some questions, one of which was on Jon Stewart’s acting ability, which Oliver took glee in teasing. “He’s got a brilliant mind and he’s very funny, but he’s just not good at that.” Even after he sat down and prepared to start the show, he continued, mocking Stewart’s role in The Faculty before bragging (tongue-in-cheek) that he’s a movie star now that he’ll be Zazu in The Lion King next year.
The warm-up guy, the stage manager, and Oliver himself all asked that the crowd laugh out loud, acknowledging that asking us to do so is pandering, but also explaining that the audience laughter is not enhanced.
So when you watch TV and wonder why people are cackling like insane witches, that’s the reason: they were asked to do so.
While our view was partially obstructed by a camera that was used for the final segment (which took place right in front of us), it was dope to see what Oliver does when he’s not on screen and a clip is rolling. He touches his glasses, rocks back, and then leans forward getting ready to speak again.
It was awesome to witness. The most incredible part is that he did the entire 29 minutes and 11 seconds in one take.
That’s not exactly true. After the final segment ended, he kept looking over to the showrunner next to our seats, and several times asked, “Are we good?”
He walked over and they began going through the script. After a few minutes, he bounded back on the stage and explained that they had gone long because he had drawn out the joke about different female names longer than he should have.
“We don’t want to delay a repeat of Ballers,” he joked.
So he went back and redid one section between clips, again nailing the first try. Finally, he had to cut a quick clip for an anti-bullying campaign, which he asked us not to laugh at. That’s when he stumbled over a word for the first time all night: his own last name. He got it on the second try, admitting afterwards that complete silence, even when requested, is painful.
We gave him a standing ovation on his way out and were quickly out the door and heading towards the garage. Naturally, the ride home was much faster than the ride there. On the way, we picked up Five Guys (pregnancy diet!) and the nearly comatose kid.
After putting her to bed and locking up for the night, I was ready to go to sleep but had to do one more thing. I grabbed the remote and set the DVR to record Last Week Tonight…but not the repeat of Ballers.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.