Late-Night Lovin' on Austin: The Sequel
'The Daily Show' tapes in our town, nearly proposes
By Robert Faires,
2:30PM, Thu. Oct. 30, 2014
According to Jon Stewart at the taping of his second episode from Austin this week, 60% of his staff for The Daily Show is ready to move here. That's how much they adore this city. But we hardly needed to be told that since the sentiment was clear throughout the show – and pretty much every minute, on camera and off, all week long.
Much as with Jimmy Kimmel Live at the Long Center during South by Southwest this year, here was a late-night comedy program headquartered on A Coast that went to a helluva lot of trouble to haul its entire operation to this relatively remote spot in the midst of Flyover Country for a measly week of tapings. And the people who had made whatever sacrifices were involved in that devil's bargain could hardly have appeared happier. When Stewart cracked wise about being so full that he "might sleep tonight in a flour tortilla" – one joke in an unending stream based on local cuisine (the bulk having to do with either tacos or barbecue) – the faraway, blissful look in his eyes betrayed not a little sincerity.
That was a gag to open the broadcast, but Stewart was no less fond or generous with regard to our fair city when the red light was off and he was simply addressing the crowd in Zach's Topfer Theatre. Compliments spilled from his lips – about the beauty of Austin, the friendliness of the people, and yes, the food – and he made it sound like any effort was worth a visit to this earthly Paradise. It echoed the commentary from Kimmel and his crew in the spring. They all but made it sound as if they'd been trudging through the Himalayan wastes and stumbled upon the hidden valley of Shangri-La. Of course, truth be told, we locals lap up that shit like queso, and the packed house for The Daily Show got just as puffed up at every piece of praise as the audience for Jimmy Kimmel Live had in the spring.
Indeed, the experience of this taping was in many ways a rerun of the one I had for Jimmy Kimmel Live at the Long Center: arrive two to three hours before the taping, pass through airport-level security to get into the building, get warned about making that final bathroom break before the show, cool your heels for an hour just sitting in the seats with nothing to watch but montages of bits from previous shows on monitors hung around the auditorium, get pumped up by the Warm-Up Guy (for whom the crowd can never be loud enough), and so on. Even the set was an evocation of the Heart of Texas. But where Kimmel's people had cannily duplicated more than a dozen of our most iconic neon signs and hung them around the stage, Stewart's folks had gone for imagery more representative of the state: lots of stars and blue and reds, multiple views of the Texas State Capitol, a windmill, a water tower, … you get the idea. After looking at it for a while – and you get a long time to look at the set while you're waiting for something to happen – it struck me as the love child of the sets for Meet the Press and Greater Tuna.
Of course, there's something to be said for going through that experience in a theatre seating 430 people as opposed to 2,300. Watching The Daily Show tape was intimate and personal in ways that watching Kimmel tape couldn't be. When people from the show came into the audience, their presence was felt. (Best moment in this regard may have been when Paul Mercurio, longtime Daily Show writer and designated Warm-up Guy who's also headlining at Cap City Comedy Club this week, identified a pair of African-Americans in the sea of white faces and decided to have a little fun. "What do you do?" he asked the female member of the duo, as if he was leading into some bit where he could play the Racism Card at the crowd's expense. "I'm running for mayor," she replied to the roar of the crowd, who had already recognized Sheryl Cole. Mercurio looked a little stunned, but to his credit, within a second he was back to exhorting the crowd to be loud, louder, LOUDEST!)
Prior to the broadcast, correspondents Jessica Williams, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, and Jordan Klepper briefly took the stage for a question-and-answer segment with the audience, only in this case, it was the people onstage asking the audience the questions. Williams, for instance, wanted to know where you could find a hotel in Austin that wasn't haunted. They were followed by Stewart, who did a more traditional Q&A. Even given the fact that he must have done hundreds of these by now and may well have set answers to questions that he's asked repeatedly, you had to marvel at his ease with the crowd and deftness in throwing out answers that didn't sound canned or insincere. "Talk about your relationship with Bill O'Reilly," one guy called out. "It's mostly sexual," Stewart replied without letting a beat drop, and he continued not only to riff on that hilariously for a minute, but he also went on to talk seriously about why he chooses to bring Papa Bear on as a guest. (He likened O'Reilly to the crazy uncle you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with: "You talk to him, right?")
The show itself was equally smooth, with Stewart handling the scripted material with all the facility and comedic mastery that he displayed working the room beforehand. His discussion with Joaquin Castro was low-key, but it was fun watching him delve into an interview – digging into the lack of bipartisanship in this case – in person from just a few feet away. And I was far from alone in that feeling. Stewart loves Austin? Well, Austin loves Stewart right back.
The final broadcast of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart from Austin, with guest Spoon, airs Thursday, 10pm, on Comedy Central.