After an hour of sitting on the floor bored out of our minds, an NBC page finally rounded us all up. In small groups we were herded into the three elevators that took us up to some unknown floor. We walked out into a labyrinth of offices and filing cabinets. Several NBC pages pointed us through a maze of several hallways and finally through some large metal doors. Even though we were one of the first people to show up to 30 Rock, sadly we ended up in the back row of Studio 6A.
The stage set was very blue, a deep blue, like the nighttime sky, appropriate for a show that airs around midnight. In the left corner was the band section and a drum kit on a raised platform. At the back wall of the stage on a blue platform were musical instruments, which I assumed belonged to the Barenaked Ladies. Next to the stage was Conan’s wood desk and two chairs for guests. Behind the desk was a window facade of the nighttime NYC skyline. On the far right were fire doors that were open with people going in and out. Three large TV cameras were positioned opposite the set. There were already several people working around the cameras and moving wires behind them. Above us televisions hung down from the ceiling rafters. Below each TV was a white sign that said “Audience” in red letters. These TVs would broadcast the show to us as it happened. Since we were sitting in the last row with the stage far below us, those TV’s would come in handy.
Just as we were about to fall asleep waiting for something to happen, a stage manager, clipboard in hand, introduced a comedian. He said the comedian had been on Seinfeld, but I had never heard of him. He told a few jokes, but nothing particularly entertaining. Finally an announcer, who we couldn’t see, got things rolling by introducing the Late Nite Band, The Max Weinberg Seven. He introduced Max first and Max ran out through the open doors, across the stage to the drum kit, jumped onto his stool and began banging away. Better know as the drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, he played a fast jazzy beat with a goofy smile on his face. One by one each band member was introduced and then came running out to his place in the bandstand. When they arrived at their place, they picked up their instrument and began playing, each member building on the previous sound. With all seven band members introduced Weinberg kept things moving with a frenetic swing beat while the horn section blared away. Most impressive was the trumpeter who blew a continuous note for one whole minute.
With the pre-show off to a bang, Conan sprang through the fire doors. Upon his introduction, he not only came out onto the stage, but ran up the first few steps into the crowd and sang a rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” with the band backing him. His 6'4" frame towered over a woman in the third row as he serenaded her with "hunka hunka burning love!" She shriveled away from him, laughing hysterically. His performance was amazing and the crowd roared with applause when he finished. Finally some real entertainment!
As Conan settled on the stage receiving a touch up of makeup, the stage manager explained how the show would work: The show was shot in real time including commercial breaks and that every time the red light above the TV was lit, the show was live. Also when the audience sign lit up, we should be as “exuberant” as possible. Lastly, we were to have lots of fun. Then the countdown was on…four, three, two, one.
Simultaneously the red light and audience sign lit up and the Max Weinberg Seven began playing. We yelled and clapped as loud as we could, even though we still had no idea who Conan’s guests were. Then the unseen announcer began:
“It’s Late Nite with Cooooo-nan O’Briiiiii-eeeeen! And the Max Weinberg Seven! Tonight’s guests are Scott Thompson and from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shaaaaaannon. Musical guest, Barenaked Ladies!”
We continued “exuberantly” clapping and hollering until Conan asked us to stop so he could deliver his monologue. Conan went through his jokes, which were quite funny, and then the show went to the first commercial break as the band played. They played through the entire two minutes while Conan had his make up touched up some more. During the commercials, there was a countdown clock on the TV monitors so we would know when to be “exuberant” again.
The first guest was Scott Thompson, who was hilarious, expletives and all. One benefit of being in the studio audience was hearing the inappropriate words that would get edited out later, like being in on a private joke. Thompson was on the Larry Shandling Show at the time, but was probably better known for being a member of “Kids in the Hall” with Dave Foley. Conan and Thompson took the time to celebrate the Central Time Zone New Year (since the middle of the show occurs at midnight in the Central Time Zone) complete with confetti and balloons and the band playing Auld Lang Syne, which we all sang.
After another commercial break the next guest was Molly Shannon. At the time she was a new member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She spent most of her interview telling a terrible story about her encounter with actor Gary Coleman in Los Angeles. The story was awful and so outrageous, I had doubts it was even true. Before the show went to its final commercial break a bright light came on behind my mom and me. Surprised, we turned around to find a camera in our faces. We were on TV!
The Barenaked Ladies provided the finale for Late Nite by playing their song, "Brian Wilson." The song’s refrain was “I’m lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did…” My mom leaned over and whispered, “Are they saying ‘Brian Wilson’?” I told her yes. She said she thought so. I waited for the next question (why are they singing about Brian Wilson?), but it never came. Good thing too because I had no idea how I was going to explain that.
The show ended around 6 p.m. so we had plenty of time before midnight and Times Square. We ate dinner at a restaurant nearby thinking we were close enough for the New Year’s Eve ball drop, but we were wrong. We didn’t get within ten blocks. The streets were packed with people or closed off by police barricade. Several hours later after squeezing ourselves between as many people as we could, we managed to see a tiny white dot sink between two buildings and heard cheering in the distance, so we assumed it must be midnight. Feeling rather anti-climactic we squeezed back through the crowd and then walked down Broadway toward our hotel. Just as we approached the southwest corner of Central Park, a firework show began. Pleasantly surprised, we enjoyed a 15-minute firework show that was far more exciting than being squished between thousands of strangers watching that tiny little dot.
When the fireworks show ended, we went back to our hotel arriving just in time to watch the NBC broadcast of Late Nite on television. The show was even better on TV then when we were in the studio. The crowd sounded louder and the jokes were still funny. The best part was seeing us on TV when the crowd shot was shown before the last commercial. And we thought sitting in the back row was bad thing!
You too can be a member of a studio audience - You can find information about tickets for all kinds of TV shows either through their website or through the website of the network on which they appear. However, keep these things in mind: Be sure to request your tickets far in advance of your visit to guarantee you get tickets in the first place. To ensure a full house, TV shows give away more tickets than they have seats, so you must arrive several hours before taping, tickets in hand, to guarantee your spot. Be aware most TV shows don’t even tape during holidays, when most of us regular people do our traveling (TV people need vacations too!). The best months for seeing major celebrities on a talk show are the “sweeps” months of November, February, May and July. No recording devices of any kind are allowed (that's why I have no photos of Conan to show you). It’s interesting to see how TV shows are made and if you have the opportunity to get into one, go for it. Remember to be flexible, patient and, most importantly, exuberant!
If you are in New York City, something else that’s fun to do is wave to the cameras at the Today Show, which we did the day before New Year’s Eve. The studio is on the corner of 49th and Rockefeller Plaza. Be sure to dress for the weather. Back then, the Today Show was only two hours long; it’s now four hours long (that’s a lotta standing). We got up at 4 a.m. and arrived at Rockefeller Center around 5:30 a.m. We were nervous about walking around while it was still dark, but there were several shops already open (we bought orange juice and bagels on the way). There were several homeless people sleeping on the streets, however, police officers came around and woke them up telling them to move on. Shop keepers were washing off the sidewalks with hoses and garbage trucks were picking up garbage bags. The city was being cleaned up as we watched, homeless and all. At the time, I thought standing at the Today Show was the silliest, most touristy thing I had ever done, but I had fun. I admit I even made a sign for the cameras. After the show was over, we got a photo with Matt Lauer and his autograph.