What it’s like to attend a late-night show taping

Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to attend four late-night talk show tapings. Because tapings are free and usually take place in NYC, they’re the perfect outing for a cheapskate like me who lives in close proximity to Manhattan.

Each show is unique, as is each individual taping. While there are some commonalities across all four shows I have attended, I will say that each show has a distinct vibe, thus making some experiences better than others.

I will write about my personal experiences, but bear in mind that they maybe not necessarily be representative of what every taping is like.

[For each of these shows, you have to reserve tickets online in advance. Tickets are released on specific days — which are usually announced on the respective show’s Twitter — and usually ‘sell out’ very quickly, so you have to act fast. ]

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, June 2014

During May of my senior year of high school, I skipped school to go see Jimmy Fallon with my best friend. This was our first taping, so we didn’t know what to expect, but both of us had certain hopes for Fallon. We quickly learned that NBC has a strange and suspicious way of organizing the whole ordeal.

On the day of the taping, you bring your reservation and wait in line at the NBC Experience Store. From there, you are given a ticket with a specific letter or a number, and I have a feeling this is somehow determined by your age and/or appearance. People with certain tickets are grouped together and told to return at specific times. The people who are grouped together stand in multiple lines throughout 30 Rock for extended periods of time. The NBC pages are very secretive and efficient, but the waiting process (which probably lasts around 3 or 4 hours) is truthfully exhausting.

When it’s time to enter the actual studio, it seems as though younger and/or better looking people are seated closer to the front. My friend and I were 18 at the time, which made us some of the youngest people in the audience, and we were seated in the second row, next to the aisle.

Once the taping began, everything happened so fast. The house band, the Roots, were very solid and entertaining between segments. Jimmy did his monologue (in which he read off cue cards instead of a teleprompter — an homage to his SNL days) and interviews, and the crew members quickly reconstructed the set for a trivia game. The standup act, Iliza Schlesinger, was definitely the highlight of the show.

All in all, I must say I was somewhat disappointed with Fallon. I had expected him to come out and introduce himself to the audience before the show, which he didn’t do. He was also far less bubbly and more predictable that I thought he would be, but maybe it was just an off day for him. To top it all off, one of his guests was reality star Honey Boo Boo and her mother. Their interview was really awkward and uncomfortable, yet the audience was forced to clap and fake laughter throughout. However, because our seats were near the aisle, we did get to high-five Fallon, who had very cold hands.

Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jan. 2015

Last winter, I went to see Seth Meyers, of whom I was a big fan since his Weekend Update days on SNL. His show is also taped at 30 Rock, so the ticketing and line-waiting situation was similar to what we experienced for “The Tonight Show”.

This time, my friend and I lucked out and got seats in the front row, directly across from Meyers’ desk. Likewise, the producer’s table was directly below us, so we got a peak at the behind-the-scenes workings of the show, as Seth often came over to talk to him between segments.

Meyers was everything I had hoped Fallon would be. He came out and greeted his audience before the taping, appeared to be more affable and good-spirited, and took questions from the audience during set changes. The 8G house band, which includes band leader Fred Armisen, was also great. Likewise, the guests — which included Jane Lynch and Lucy Hale — were far more polished and less uncomfortable than Honey Boo Boo.

(I also personally had a fangirl moment when Meyers briefly spoke to me before introducing the musical guest while standing next to us.)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jan. 2016

This past winter break, I got to see Stephen Colbert, who recently took over the “Late Show” from David Letterman. His show tapes at the Ed Sullivan theater, the interior of which is very beautiful and impressive.

Unlike for the NBC shows, we had to wait in line outside of the theater for this taping. It was a pretty cold day, so we wore layers and brought tea to drink while waiting.

The seating arrangement was first-come, first-served, so we were sat in the third row on the ground floor, directly across from the band. (There is also a balcony which has a better view of the domed ceiling.) I cannot say enough good things about the Jon Batiste and Stay Human. They had excellent showmanship, entertaining the audience before, throughout and after the taping. (All of the members were also very good looking.)

Also, the set was impressive and gorgeous! (“It looks so HD!” I had exclaimed to my friend.) Among the VIP members in the audience was a professor and his media studies class.

Before the taping, Colbert did a quick Q&A, and generally came across as a sweet and funny fellow. He had an interesting array of guests, including an actress, the CEO of Yelp, the creators of “Making a Murderer” and a Grammy-nominated musician.

Overall, the combination of an excellent band, a beautiful studio, a lovely host and fascinating guests made the “Late Show” taping a wonderful experience.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Jan. 2016

The “Daily Show” taping was by far the most laid-back experience. The day we went was one of the coldest days of the year, which meant that no one in their right mind was going to stand outside for several hours to get their tickets. In fact, my friend and I showed up quite late and still managed to be the first two people on line.

Because it was so cold, the Comedy Central pages took pity on the small crowd that was waiting outside the studio and gave us our tickets early so that we wouldn’t freeze to death out in the cold.

Like the “Late Show”, “Daily Show” seating was also first-come, first-served. Thus, my friend and I sat in the second row, behind the VIPs. (Incidentally, three young SNL interns sat in front of us, and I was very curious about why they were there.) The studio was also the smallest of the four I’ve been in.

Trevor Noah did a Q&A before the show, and his answers were quick and witty. Throughout the taping, he danced a lot and often interacted with the audience between segments. It was interesting to watch his correspondent, Jordan Klepper, report in front of a green screen that was supposed to be a bar in the UK.

This was the only show where audience members were allowed to take photos before the show began. Thus, I was able to get a few photos of the empty set.

The “Daily Show” was by far the most fun and relaxed taping I’ve been to, though it was also the shortest. The host was lovely, the pages weren’t condescending, and we weren’t constantly forced to fake laughter or applause.

In essence, late-show tapings are a fun experience, and it’s really interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes of some your favorite shows. If you ever have to opportunity to go, make sure you bring a friend who can entertain you during the long waits in line.

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