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Waiting for the punchline: In the audience at ‘The Colbert Report’

Stephen Colbert enjoys a taping of “The Colbert Report” in New York.

Scott Gries/Picturegroup/File 2010

Stephen Colbert enjoys a taping of “The Colbert Report” in New York.

NEW YORK — Television isn’t real life. That’s what I was telling myself, anyway, as I prepared with the rest of a packed studio to yell a phrase I would never utter on my own: “Kill these kittens!” One rehearsal, and we weren’t loud enough. Another, and then, about 30 minutes later, I was bellowing on camera, calling for the execution of two adorable little felines that would air that night on “The Colbert Report.”

As fans of the multiple-Emmy-winning program know, “The Colbert Report” is satire. The cry, of course, was specious, and the kittens left the studio unharmed. But that moment — and the hours that led up to it — epitomized the topsy-turvy experience of witnessing a taping of the half-hour show, which is broadcast by Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

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That day had begun months before, when a random click on the program’s website (www.colbertnation.com) showed that a new batch of tickets had been released. These tickets, which are free, are generally released two to three months before tapings and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, by e-mail. In order to guarantee that all of the studio’s 150 seats are filled, however, tickets that have been relinquished are frequently posted closer to taping dates, and fans may sign up for standby tickets at the studio, starting at 4 p.m. the day of a taping.

In all the follow-up e-mails, stating conditions, is the warning that having a ticket does not guarantee admission, as each 7:30 p.m. taping is overbooked. Ticket holders are required to be in line at the West Side studio by 6 p.m. but are advised to arrive at least 15 minutes earlier. At 4:30 p.m. the day of our taping, there were approximately 25 people already there and the line, which is outdoors but under a canopy, quickly grew. Close to two hours later, the line began to move, as we worked our way through a metal detector, received numbered tickets, and packed into a small waiting room, where tapes of the show were drowned out by the anticipatory buzz of the crowd.

That excitement was soon to be stoked. Participation in a taping is quite different from passive viewing. “Remember, Stephen feeds off your energy,” the staff said. Comparing “The Colbert Report” with “The Daily Show,” which spawned it eight years ago, they reminded us “Stephen does this show by himself.” Cheer loudly. Laugh louder, we were told, “Stephen eats that [stuff] up.”

By the time we were ushered into the surprisingly small studio, sometime after 7, we were primed. Which was just as well, as the warm-up comedian, Jared Logan (who alternates with Paul Mercurio), basically confined himself to asking where people were from. The stage manager came out with some final directions as staffers and camera operators scurried around.

The payoff for all the waiting had arrived. Before each taping, Colbert holds a brief question-and-answer session with the audience. After being repeatedly reminded that Colbert, the actor, is not Colbert, the “high-status idiot” he plays, this was our chance to see the difference. “I’m not the horrible person I play on TV,” said the actor and political satirist, who answered one query about childhood pets (he had a snail) and talked about his alma mater, Northwestern, with a prospective student. Colbert has famously sung duets with such guests as Barry Manilow and Tony Bennett, and one query he fielded asked who his dream duet partner would be. “Jesus,” the host replied, thoughtfully, as if musing over the question. And then, as is fitting for a veteran of Second City’s improv comedy, he ran with it, doing a bit of song and dance from “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”

Before each taping, Stephen Colbert holds a brief question-and-answer session with the audience. . . . ‘I’m not the horrible person I play on TV,’ said the actor, who answered one query about childhood pets (he had a snail).

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More than three hours had passed by the time the taping began, but the full immersion into the Colbert world paid off. As the star reentered for the camera, bounding around the small set, the crowd went wild, nearly drowning out the opening jokes. When Colbert, in character, appeared to praise New York mayoral candidate Joe Lhota for a tactless comment, we were ready. A few days before, a subway line in Brooklyn had been halted temporarily when kittens had been spotted on the tracks, a move Lhota had vaguely decried. Seated at his desk, Colbert, whose character is both right wing and clueless, offered to endorse Lhota — give him “the Colbert bump” — if he would simply make good on his words. The tiny felines, which had been rescued, were produced and Lhota invited to — yes — “kill these kittens.”

The humor progressed from the local to the national stage, and the show wound up with an appearance by musical guest John Prine. Software problems caused some delays, and the studio was treated to a couple of songs before the on-air version was successfully taped. Several lines that the host had flubbed were retaped as well. Without much coaxing, the audience laughed at the repeated jokes, enjoying the insider status. And then it was over. We walked out into the night. Back to real life.

THE COLBERT REPORT  513 West 54th St., New York. Tickets are free and available at www.colbertnation.com. Up to four tickets may be requested at one time. Sign up for standby tickets on taping days in front of the studio at 4 p.m. Tickets are nontransferable. Ticket holders must be 18 years old. Ticket releases are tweeted @Spiffomatic64.

Clea Simon can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.
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