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President Obama on Letterman: A view from the audience

[Note: posted in haste with not enough workable wifi to check name spellings, etc.]

I got to be part of the studio audience watching the David Letterman show tonight, on which the sole guest was President Obama. (I have a friend who works there.) It was sort of awesome. I took notes, but since I was scribbling in the dark, and you can watch the show tonight, I’m not going to post about the actual content.

I’ve sat in a number of studio audiences in my life, including at The Daily Show a few years ago, so the following will sound especially stupid, but: The Late Show with David Letterman is an impressive operation. These folks are professionals. Lots and lots of professionals.

One reason I was particularly impressed with The Late Show: The CBS Orchestra (aka the Paul Shaffer band) is spectacularly good. They played a couple of songs before the show started, and then during the breaks. Great arrangements, stellar soloists, tight as the last pistachio.

I got there at 2pm for a 4:30 taping. Even that early, the police were putting up crowd-control barricades two blocks in every direction. They told me that at 3pm they’d be shutting the place down. In front of the Ed Sullivan Theater there were lots of obvious Secret Service folks with their black suits, curly ear pieces, and their damn equitable politeness. Also a cop with a black labrador trained to sniff out evil doers.

Having cleared the metal detector — backpacks were temporarily confiscated — we waited in the lobby in neat lines. Eventually a personable page gave us a stern lecture couched in jokes and lightness. She had us practice laughing by telling us “the single funniest Late Show punchline: Donald Trump’s hair.” The lobby exploded in raucous laughter and applause. Even though I was directly in front of the cheerleading page, I could not bring myself to do more than smile; I have an unhelpful anti-authoritarian streak.

She gave us the rest of the rundown: No woo-woo’s, no boos, no calling out. No food or drink. No sunglasses because they reflect light. No photos or recordings. Turn off your phones. Infractions will result in ejection. Now let’s practice that laugh again!

We went inside. I had a great seat in the front row of the balcony. (You can see me, I’m told, when they pan across the audience when the President arrived.) The theater is surprisingly small. It holds about 420 people, but the audience sections are shallow. The cityscapes that are the stage background are more three dimensional and charming than they appear on TV. We watched the band rehearsing the tricky parts while the floor received a last-minute buffing. The warm-up comedian told us pretty good jokes about regional accents, but not good enough to get me to give in, follow instructions, and laugh. They showed us a couple of videos: Biff Henderson on the road, and a charming “orientation film” narrated by Alec Baldwin. Then the warm-up guy had us practice our roar for when Dave appeared.

A couple of knockout numbers from the band. Two minutes to go and Dave literally runs in without a jacket, asks how the Secret Service guys were, and then gives us a hint for how to enliven a party: Drop a mic on the floor repeatedly while holding its wire. He cracks a joke about getting rid of the cockroaches that way. He goes back stage and about one minute later, he’s out on stage doing his monologue, which begins with a reference to cockroaches that no one outside of the live audience will understand.

The monologue was funny. I’m actually laughing now. And clapping, as they’ve encouraged. I’ve oftent wondered when watching at home: when did clapping replace laughing? How did that happen?

As they’re going to the first commercial, they run a teaser video showing Pres. Obama coming out on stage. I have no idea when they filmed it. I think we’ve been sitting in the theater longer than the President has been in the theater. Was it from the last time Obama was a guest? Life’s mysteries. (I have similar concerns about how they do the cutaways in reality shows in which contestants reflect on their nervousness about the outcome of a judgment that is about to be delivered. Sometimes they have different facial hair. Wormhole?)

It was a typical Letterman interview of this sort: some silliness, some seriousness, some seriousness disguised as silliness. I thought Letterman did a great job. As for Obama, I am ever impressed with his poise, humor and dignity. I came in a fan and left an even bigger one. (Wow, that sentence can be read in some incongruous ways! Is it a vase or two faces? I’m going to leave it as is.)

From a political point of view, I was particular impressed with President Obama’s handling of the 47% question. He talked about the need for a president to represent all the people, a response that was positive about the presidency while purposefully casting a high contrast light on Romney’s comments. Obama also talked about all that we as Americans have in common. Great.

During the breaks, President Obama chatted with Dave. Very relaxed. They made each other laugh. Obama would also listen to the band, bopping his head in time. When the band struck up “Baby, I’m So in Love With You” (ok, so that’s the lyric, not the title, but it’s the song he sang a little of a few months ago), he smiled at Felicia Cohen, the guitarist who was also doing the vocals (superbly, I might add).

The last segment was about the Libyan riots that have spread across the Middle East. Not a lot of jokes.

Then it was over. The President shook the hand of just about every worker, from the executive producer to each of the camera people. He posed for a picture with Biff Henderson. Sid McGinnis was playing an insane riff and with his pick hand gave the President a “howdy” finger point.

Now I’m on the Amtrak train coming home.

A TV show inevitably is a weirdly artificial environment. It’s thus hard to learn much about someone by watching how s/he behaves on it. So I offer the following tentatively.

We know that Obama is smart and articulate. We know that he accords everyone dignity. We know he has a sense of humor. Watching him for 50 minutes on stage, I was struck by two things. First, there were no sycophants rushing up to him during the breaks, encouraging him or whispering clever rejoinders in his ear. It was him and Dave.

Second, there was no visible difference in how he behaved or who he was when he was on or off camera. He and Dave continued to talk. Of course he wasn’t facing the cameras during the breaks, and I presume he was talking more informally. But, my impression was that this was the same centered person throughout.

Of course, I am a fanboy.

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