Category Archives: The Daily Show

Your Moment of Zen

DailyShowOnly a little more than two weeks ago, I received word from the publicity team at Random House that it was “extremely likely” that I would be booked for an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about Jim Henson. My chin hit the floor as David Moench, the publicist assigned to me at Random House, told me the news. I think I responded with something clever like, “Gwah?” “Congratulations,” David told me, “but don’t get too excited yet. Until we get official confirmation, things could change.”

Well sure. After the constant scheduling and rescheduling of the Today show, I wasn’t going to get my hopes up and get stung again (though I should add that the Today show will, indeed, now happen). But there was another problem, too: the date The Daily Show was setting aside was Thursday, October 10 — the same day I was scheduled to appear at the New York Society Library. That event was scheduled to get underway at 7 p.m. — and if things went as planned, I wouldn’t be getting out of The Daily Show until that same time. We went to the NYSL, hat in hand, to see if we could get the start time pushed back even 30 minutes, though the mechanics of getting me across town at that time of night were going to mean cutting things very, very close. Unfortunately, none of us could figure out how to get it to work, and Mark Bartlett and his staff at the NYSL were incredibly generous — and very understanding — and graciously offered to reschedule the NYSL event for another time.

On October 1, then, came the word we (meaning me and David and the publicity team at Random House) were waiting for: I had been officially confirmed. The seventy-five minutes between 5:45 and 7:00 p.m. were blocked off on my schedule on Thursday, October 10. And while it was still nine days away, that was nine days I had to be an anxious mess. And man, was I nervous.

On the afternoon of the 10th, then — a somewhat cool and overcast Thursday — my wife (Barb, thank goodness, came along as moral support) and I sat in the lobby of our New York hotel, while I nursed a beer and nervously bounced my knee up and down. The Daily Show takes good care of you from moment one, and a car came by the hotel to pick us up and whisk us away to their studios—one of those experiences where you’re excited at the idea of riding in an Actual Private Car — with a driver barking his estimated arrival time into a walkie talkie the entire way — but still vaguely embarassed that someone is holding a door open for you.

We were brought up to the back door — a blank door in a blank wall with no sign whatsoever of what was behind it — and met by Hillary, the producer for my segment, who escorted us down a little jog of a hall to an open door with a sign next to it that read BRIAN JAY JONES.  Nice.

Next to the sign was the Green Room — which is actually not green at all, but rather a cozy, living room-like space with stuffed chairs and a comfy sofa where guests wait until needed — and here I was met by my editor Ryan Doherty, and the ever-patient, ever-present David Moench. Barb and I sank onto the couch in front of a large, hi-def television on which The Daily Show logo was visible. I bounced my knee again as I sat down, though a bit slower now, and we all chatted about what a surreal experience this was until I was taken away for a bit to go to makeup (mostly to reduce the glare off my bald head) and fitted with a remote microphone.

And suddenly, poking his head into the Green Room, was Jon Stewart.

My wife — a big fan — pointed and gasped. “No WAY!” she finally said, and Stewart laughed that quick high-pitched giggle of his and said, “YES WAY!”  We all shook hands and he stood with his arms folded as we chatted briefly for a few minutes — he was particularly fascinated by Jim’s memorial service, which he had recently viewed on YouTube. Then he disappeared to get to work.

We all watched the show on the hi-def TV in the Green Room. There was no noise, no sounds, no indication that a TV show was being taped anywhere in the building; we could almost have been sitting in our own living room.

Shortly after the second segment concluded, Hillary stood in the doorway and said, “Ready to go?” Acting much less nervous than I actually was, I followed her through a maze of corridors, each one darker than the next, until I was  standing with a dark curtain to my right and looking at Jon Stewart at his desk about ten feet in front of me. The desk was on a platform about a foot off the ground, and I was  considering the various ways I could miss that step and face plant on national television when Hillary jolted me back to the present. “He’s getting ready to introduce you,” she said matter-of-factly, like you hear Jon Stewart say your name every day. “When I say, ‘Go!’ you go — and have fun out there.”

Suddenly, I heard Jon Stewart — Jon freaking Stewart! — saying my name, Hillary said, ‘Go!’ and out I went. The music played, the audience applauded, and I didn’t miss the step. Then I shook Jon Stewart’s hand and sat down. And just like that, I was on The Daily Show.  No rehearsals, no walk-throughs; it’s a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine, and you’re doing it in real time, one take. Wow.

It took me just a split second to get going — the best advice Hillary had given me in our pre-interview conversation was, “Don’t be afraid to talk, and don’t worry about stepping on Jon while he’s talking. He loves guests who talk.”  — and it took me just a moment to realize why Stewart is a great interviewer: he doesn’t really ask questions. Instead, he throws out comments or a bit of a conversation starter, and then lets you take things where you will.

Somehow, once we started talking, I wasn’t nervous — and it was over almost before I knew it.  And have you seen that moment just after the  interview where Stewart puts his head down near the desk and he and the guest have a brief bit of a conversation? It’s actually a very clever way of ensuring the guest doesn’t start to bail out of their seat before the camera cuts away. Instead, Jon Stewart leans in and stage whispers, “That was great, thanks so much — you did a great job” –and you lean in to listen, straining to hear, which keeps you in the chair until the fade out.  Very smart.

After shaking his hand again, I stood up, and was steered back to the Green Room by Hillary, where we all watched the final piece, a nod to a departing long-time producer. Then we all said our goodbyes, and went back to the waiting car to be whisked away again.  All told, it took about 75 minutes, just as promised. They’re really, really good at this, and I had a really, really good time.

And now, here I am on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I’ll never forget.

Willie, Washington, and Jon

So, remember that Today show appearance that was on the schedule, then off, then on, then off again? Well, it’s back on — but I won’t be live in studio.  Instead, I spent most of the day yesterday working with a crew from NBC, being interviewed on camera by Willie Geist for a longer feature they’ll be doing on Jim — and his biography — for Today. I was also very fortunate to have Frank Oz with me — and while we won’t be sitting on the couch together, he very graciously sat for a 40 minute interview, and said lots of wonderful things.

Afterwards, we spent the rest of the afternoon over at The Jim Henson Company workshop and archives, where Karen Falk and I talked about some of the countless terrific items Jim kept and filed away, which were invaluable for my research.

It should be a fun piece — Willie Geist is a big fan of Jim’s — and I’ll let you know when it’s going to run.  Right not, they’re aiming for October 15, but that could change, depending on how fast they can edit everything together.

That was yesterday. Then this morning I was up early to head over to a nearby studio to chat remotely with an NPR station in Boston to talk  about . . . (wait for it) . . . Washington Irving. The new Sleepy Hollow TV series (which I dig) has sparked something of an Irving revival — and is apparently driving lots of gawkers toward the little town on New York’s Highway 9 — so we spent the morning comparing Irving’s tale with the the TV show, and speculating on whether Irving would enjoy it (as a great nicker of other people’s tales, I think Irving would get a kick out of it, actually).

The real question, however, is this: is the Sleepy Hollow TV series taking place in some alternate universe where Irving never existed or even wrote the original tale? I mean really, when Crane introduces himself to someone in the show, no one ever goes, “Ichabod Crane? Yeah, right.” (On another tangent, I keep hoping we’ll find out Irving himself is part of the underground movement to protect the world from the forces of evil, and wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” either as a way of debunking one of the four horsemen, or perhaps sending some sort of coded message to future generations of protectors on how to fight the horsemen . . . Fox producers: Call me!)

I’m not at all surprised by the revived interest.  One of the leading search terms driving people to my website — after “Jim Henson,” of course — is “Is Legend of Sleepy Hollow real?” (which keeps sending people here).

Finally, in just a few hours I leave for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Holy cow.

Yaaaaaay!! *Kermit arm flail*

Two big announcements:

First, it’s official: at the end of its first week in release, Jim Henson: The Biography is now a genuine New York Times Bestseller.

Do it with me:

Thank you, Muppet and Jim Henson fans, for making Jim Henson such a success.  It was your enthusiasm that helped shoot us right out of the blocks, and I appreciate your excitement and support.  Really.  Thank you.

Second, on Thursday, October 10, I’ll be appearing on The Daily Show. And that’s really all I can say, as I’m still trying to pick my chin up off the floor.

Believe me, more to come.