Monday, February 17, 2003

So, I finally saw “Killer Joe” last Friday, and boy oh boy. What an amazing theatrical experience.

It’s not a pleasant play. Very intense, very disturbing in places (though laugh-out-loud funny in others). But it’s riveting theatre. It’s definitely not for kids, what with the full frontal nudity (male and female), and assorted acts of perversion and mayhem performed on stage. But for the rest of us, it’s essential Madison theatre.

The basic plot? It’s “Double Indemnity” in a Dallas trailer park. Hotheaded young redneck Chris (David Meldman) is in deep with some local gangsters, and in desperation, conspires with his dimwitted, TV-addicted father Ansel (Doug Holtz), strange sister Dottie (Katherine Jee), and slatternly stepmother Sharla (Cara Peterson) to have his mother killed for her insurance money. To do the deed, they hire scary “bad cop” and part-time hit man Killer Joe (co-director Mark Hisler). (We do briefly get to meet Chris’s mother Adele later on, but she doesn’t have any lines.) Soon, the betrayals among this motley little band of conspirators start flying thick and fast. But I won’t give anything away.

This production is astounding. The actors are all pitch-perfect: they inhabit their parts as though they were born to them, and never condescend to their characters for cheap laughs. Additionally, the Texas accents are nailed throughout – always a detail I appreciate. (See if you can spot which actor is actually British. If I hadn’t known in advance, I never would have guessed.) David Meldman shows both his character’s dangerous level of irresponsibility, and the real pathos lurking underneath his character (for whom nothing has ever gone, nor will ever go right). Doug Holtz is hilarious as the addled Ansel, whose immediate response in any crisis is to turn on the TV. Cara Peterson shocked me with how far she was willing to go as Sharla – she went to some very scary places both physically and emotionally, in an utterly fearless performance. Katherine Jee is appropriately spooky as Dottie, who “hasn’t been quite right” in some time, but whose emotional reactions are the touching heart of the play. And tying it all together is Mark Hisler’s chilling, charismatic performance as Killer Joe, who somehow manages to act as a “civilizing influence” on this family despite being a cold-blooded psychopath. Hisler stepped into the part midway through rehearsals – it’s to his vast credit that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role any better. All five are perfectly cast, and play off each other brilliantly and with great emotional honesty, which is so vital in this story with all its intricate twists and turns.

The intricate sound design, by Mark Penner, and lighting design, by Ron Collins, are superbly and subtly used – Mark and Ron both outdid themselves. Damned if I haven’t forgotten who did the set and props, but they’re brilliantly and realistically “trashy” in their depiction of Ansel and Sharla’s double-wide trailer home, complete with a VERY badly worn screen door, and beer cans that just seem to keep piling up throughout the show. (They must have set aside half the budget for beer and Kentucky Fried Chicken, both of which are consumed in alarming quantities during the play.)

In short – this play will chill you. And it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, as the violence keeps threatening to erupt from beneath the surface. You have just one more weekend (details are at, so get over to the Bartell Theatre. You don’t want to miss this one.

Thursday, June 27, 2002


First off, here’s what you need to know about “The Amazing Race.”

It starts with 11 teams of two, each with an existing prior relationship (best friends, mother and daughter, frat brothers, happily married couples, unhappily dating couples, separated married couples, etc.). They start racing to various points around the world, guided by red-and-yellow route markers that point the way to clues. Along the way, the Racers have to perform various challenges (which range from silly, to scary, to physically challenging, to devilishly difficult) either alone or as a team. Periodically, they come to a Pit Stop, where the last team to arrive is eliminated. The last three teams compete in the final episode, and the first team across the finish line splits a million bucks. Mayhem ensues. It’s as simple as that.

Unlike “Survivor,” basic competence (or lack thereof) counts for everything, and your ability to manipulate the other players through politics, backbiting and mind games counts for nothing. (Not that there’s NO room for mind games or allying with other teams, but it’s definitely not the point of the whole exercise as it is in “Survivor.” Plus, Amazing Race has better scenery, and lots more of it.) It’s like “The Great Race," only better because it’s REAL.

I got hooked on the first season of “Amazing Race” last spring and summer, and got to posting on the online message board Television Without Pity in their Amazing Race forum. The people on TWOP are an amazing bunch themselves – incredibly witty, good writers all, and able to conduct a civilized and hilarious discourse on the finer points of any TV show, good or bad.

Anyway, some dedicated TWOPers in the New York area decided to hold a final episode viewing party in a local bar, and people ended up flying in from all over the country to be there. But I couldn’t spare the time away from work. What made it worse was that, unexpectedly, half of the Racers from Season One showed up at the party! Hearing about the wonderful time everyone had, partying with everyone’s favorite Racers (and some who were our favorite targets during the show, but proved to be wonderful people once freed from Jerry Bruckheimer’s evil team of editors I was determined to make it to the Season Two finale party, by hook or by crook.

So, okay. Background over. I trudged up to the Manhattan Chili Company (MCC), wondering what to expect from all of these crazy people I knew so well, and yet had never met. I shouldn’t have worried.

The first ones I met were the LoCas – the Ladies of Canada, who had impulsively carpooled down from Ontario together (they didn’t know each other either) and who were staying with babyfishfel, a New York TWOPer who had generously opened her doors to them for the week. (I knew all of these people by their TWOP “handles,” and never caught most of their “given” names, so forgive me if this all sounds like it’s written in an elaborate code.) Waiting outside the Manhattan Chili Company were babyfishfel, and raptorgirl, and Rachel RSL, and Zron, and TLB, and Firecat, and others who are probably going to kill me for forgetting their names. We hit it off right away, and they showed me the special Canadian goodie bags they had brought for a few lucky people (mostly those who had organized the event). It still was only 7:30 or so, and we weren’t supposed to go in until 8, but we decided to head in anyway. We were all hungry, and I wasn’t the only one who had been walking around Manhattan all day.

As it turned out, we headed upstairs and found out that we were far from the first ones there. In fact, Jeff (aka Jeffurry on TWOP) was already seated and waiting for the party to arrive. The organizers, as promised, didn’t show up until 8, but the party was clearly already starting! I ordered chili, and the first of many gin and tonics, and sat back to enjoy myself.

This is when I started getting introduced to people from the site, one after another. There was [sic] and lawtalkin’guy and djeber (whom I knew from the “Buffy” and “Survivor” boards at TWOP before “Amazing Race” got started) and ivyb and seemingly hundreds of others, all being introduced to me at a dizzying pace. I can’t remember nine-tenths of the names now, and I apologize to everyone I missed.

Around 8, MissDona and poptart, the party’s organizers, showed up with goodie bags in tow. I had created a “TARCon 2 Passport” for inclusion in the goodie bags – I would reproduce it here, but it wouldn’t make sense to anyone not intimately familiar with both seasons of the show, so I’ll leave it out for now. I grabbed my goodie bag (there were enough for the first forty, but I was guaranteed one since I contributed) and went back to my table to examine the spoils. They included: a hat made from a paper bag (in memory of all the awful hats the contestants had worn in both seasons); little bottles of “Marti” lime-flavored Cuban rum in honor of Danny and Oswald, the beloved pair of gay Cuban best friends from Miami who were everyone’s favorite Racers; some “Boston Baked Beans” candy in honor of Chris and Alex, the pair of best-friend Boston bouncers; some toothbrushes and floss (courtesy of MissDona’s dentist) in honor of brother-sister team Blake and Paige, whose big shiny white teeth would have sent Donny and Marie home in shame; a pack of Doublemint gum for the “Doublemint twins,” identical twins Shola and Doyin, and a bunch of stuff I can’t remember any more.

I hastily refolded my paper hat into a rough approximation of a miter, to better identify myself as my online handle of Pope Buck I (I was going to construct a Pope’s miter out of posterboard before I left home, but with packing, I didn’t have enough time). I stuck it together with extra adhesive nametags, and it wasn’t the most professional job – near the end of the evening, it started to droop and looked more like a KKK hood that had been dropped in a mud puddle – but it sufficed. It went surprisingly well with the Hawaiian lei from the goodie bag, and the roll-on glitter that was being hurled in every direction by ecstatic Danny & Oswald fans. (Long story.)

Before the show began at 9, there was lots of time to enjoy really good chili (and a couple more gin & tonics) and mingle with the TWOP crowd – who were collectively as charming and funny and intelligent in person as they were online, if not more so. A great bunch of people with whom to party, that’s all I can say MissAlli (who writes the Amazing Race episode recaps for TWOP), and Sars, one of the head honchos of the Amazing Race forums and a TWOP goddess in general, were holding court in a prime location where they could see new arrivals come up the stairs, and I shyly approached them to get my picture taken (but was too awed to stay for conversation).

I was also hoping to get drinks bought for me at some point in the evening, and had slyly worked a mechanism for snagging free drinks into my TARCon Passport – as Pontiff of the Grand High Orthodox Church of Whatever, I was in a position to offer a “plenary indulgence” (forgiveness for ALL sins past and present, no questions asked – thanks, “Dogma”!) to anyone who bought me a drink. But as it turned out, nearly everybody saved their Passport (along with the other items of reading material in the goodie bags) and read them only after the party – so I only got a couple of drinks out of the deal. That’s okay, though, because I couldn’t have handled a whole lot more than I ended up drinking anyway.

The show started. To sum up the action going into the final episode: Everyone’s favorite team, Danny & Oswald, had been eliminated in a heartbreaker the previous week. The final three teams were brother and sister Blake & Paige, Boston bouncers Chris & Alex, and “separated couple” Tara & Wil. I was rooting for Blake & Paige more or less by default, but I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming Fan Choice was “Anyone But Tara & Wil.” You see, Tara & Wil had made an artform out of being hateful, argumentative, and abusive to just about everybody who got in their way – cabdrivers, airline ticket agents, random passers-by, the other contestants, and not least, each other – and the whole TWOP community was itching to see them take a fall. (Which, hilariously - but I'm getting ahead of myself.) In addition, Tara was constantly flirting with Boston bouncer Alex, and flaunting this in front of Wil (who harbored pathetic delusions of one day getting back together with Tara), and the two of them together just made you want to pinch them.

Anyway, the show started at the previous Pit Stop in Hawaii, went at breakneck speed through Alaska, and ended up with the contestants in San Francisco just seconds apart, in a footrace through the streets of Oakland. It was spellbinding TV, let me tell you. The executive producer of the show is Jerry Bruckheimer, who makes really crappy movies, but who makes damn fine TV entertainment full of excitement (in addition to “The Amazing Race,” he also produces “C.S.I.”).

To watch this incredibly exciting final episode on the Chili Company’s wall-sized mega-screen, in the company of people even more obsessed about TAR than I am, was a surreal experience. Everyone was psyched, everyone was terrified that Tara & Wil would win it all (they led for much of the episode), everyone had an intensely personal stake in the outcome. It was like watching the Olympic track & field finals with Michael Johnson’s entire family. Or maybe it was closer to watching “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon’s entire families. I must confess, I started the group chants of “1, 2, 3 – SHUT UP, WIL!!!” every time Wil said something truly obnoxious or hateful, which as usual worked out to be just about every time he opened his mouth.

Midway through the episode, there was commotion around the stairwell – the first Racers had joined the party! And best of all, it was Danny & Oswald! Let me explain about Danny & Oswald. They said in the very first episode that they were used to travelling around the world in style, “first class.” We worried initially that they would be snobs, the way Bill and Joe (“Team Guido”) came off last season. But Danny & Oswald didn’t just have style – they had genuine CLASS, and had a special gift for making everyone around them feel as relaxed and comfortable as they themselves were at (almost) all times. And despite their laid-back attitude, they kicked serious ass as Racers too.

An example of “Team Cha Cha Cha”’s style – the contestants had to get from Hong Kong to Sydney. The other teams (there were 5 or 6 left at that point), upon getting the instruction to head to Sydney, took off in a mad frenzy for the Hong Kong airport, squabbling and fretting all the way there. Wanting to avoid “the drama” the other teams were projecting, Team Cha Cha Cha took the opposite tack. They headed to the nearest five-star hotel and the Concierge’s Desk – their experience had taught them a nifty trick, which is that the concierge in a five-star hotel EXISTS to solve problems for people in the most efficient way possible, and there’s very little they can’t do. In typically charming fashion, they asked the Concierge to recommend a good travel agency – the Concierge happily gave them the name of the hotel’s own travel agent. The Chas headed to the travel agency, described their situation, and were told to come back in an hour while the agent did the work. And so the Chas, as relaxed as you please, went window-shopping for Gucci and Prada in the nearest upscale mall.

And then, after all that – after the other contestants had all hopped on the first flight to Hong Kong, all wondering what had happened to them – the Chas were able to get onto a flight that left an hour after the other flight, but which got them into Sydney half an hour ahead of everyone else! That’s the Cha spirit all over. Treat people kindly and politely (a lesson Tara & Wil never did learn), get things done in an efficient and relaxed way, and adapt to wherever you find yourself, without complaint.

Anyway, Danny & Oswald had arrived at the party, and were immediately swarmed with people. What’s more, they were even more charming and lovable in person than on TV, which I didn’t think was possible. They spent the whole evening happily schmoozing with their biggest fans, and charming the pants off everyone in sight. (Later in the evening, I understand they used other, less subtle methods than “charm,” but that’s another story.)

Danny & Oswald were immediately followed by everyone’s favorite Racers from last year, frat brothers Drew & Kevin, who were similarly just as lovable in real life if not more so. The furor and initial flurry of picture-taking over with, everyone sat down to watch the rest of the show, excitement mounting.

The noise level was generally low during the show itself, rising to loud chatter only during the commercials. But as it became apparent the whole thing was going to come down to the footrace, we started SCREAMING. Encouraging the teams, shouting of dismay at Tara and Wil, everything. Shouts of "Nooooooooo!" were also apparent when it looked as though Wil was going to win the race easily. When Chris and Alex got into the footrace, there was a big burst of applause and cheers, and then another one when Blake and Paige belatedly pulled up in their cab and joined the footrace.

And when Chris and Alex ran past Wil, there was a barrage of noise like you would not BELIEVE. Screams. Cheers. Shouts. DIN. My voice was completely gone after a while. (Every time I thought it couldn't possibly get any louder in the MCC, it did.) Cheers when the ousted teams were shown, cheering on the finalists from the finish line. But when Chris and Alex jumped onto the mat, there was pandemonium. I didn't hear the sound from those 5 minutes of the show with Chris and Alex celebrating, because we were all jumping up and down and screaming at the top of our lungs.

Things settled down a little, then erupted again in shouts and jeers when Wil and Tara hit the mat, and then applause when Blake and Paige made it in.

Oh, yeah - Wil & Tara lost COMPLETELY and DIRECTLY as a result of their inability to be civil to another human being for 30 consecutive seconds. When they arrived at the San Francisco airport (did I mention that San Francisco is Wil's home town?), they had roughly a ten-minute lead over the other two teams. But they went on to squander that lead by trying to jump into line at the airport taxi stand. The taxi stand attendant, who will now and forever be one of my heroes, refused to get them a cab until they got into line like everybody else - and instead of just swallowing their pride and doing just as he said, Tara & Wil decided to get nasty and yell at him for some 10 minutes. He refused to budge, and so Tara & Wil lost their lead - ironically, as Rob Matsushita points out, the ONE thing they cooperated with each other on for the ENTIRE race. Chris and Alex ended up winning by mere seconds over Tara & Wil, but if Tara & Wil had behaved like human beings in that one crucial moment, they would have had an insurmountable lead. Behold the Karma Squad - you cannot run! You cannot hide!

And then after that, it just got drunker and drunker out. A whole truckload of Racers from both seasons arrived – most of them had watched the show at the official CBS party at Tavern on the Green, but came over to the MCC right afterwards. I got my picture taken with Brennan, one of last year’s winners – which was especially appropriate since I was wearing an “I’m shy. Come and talk to me” T-shirt from Brennan’s brother’s company, the same shirt that Brennan had worn on the show. Mitchell, the extraordinarily tall and skinny guy from Survivor: the Australian Outback, was also there, for no apparent reason. Blake and Paige were there with their parents – who were as sweet and sincere as Blake and Paige were. Paige was wearing a weird prom-like dress which has gotten much negative comment, but apart from the fashion faux pas, she couldn’t have been nicer. Everyone was lovely and gracious, considering how nasty some of the comments on the TWOP boards got at times. But TWOP is better than a lot of boards at distinguishing between the “characters” we saw on the show, created mostly in Jerry Bruckheimer’s editing room, and the real people we were meeting – and I think all the Racers understood that.

Sometime between 12:30 and 1:00am, I skipped out. I’m now rather sorry I did, since the party only got wilder after that based on what I’ve heard. But I was exhausted and mentally fried. I stumbled back to Jeff’s apartment and collapsed into bed. I knew I’d have to get up the next morning, you see, to meet the winning three teams (Chris, Alex, Tara, and Wil were all no-shows at our party) and host Phil Keoghan at the CBS Early Show taping, which would include the presentation of the million-dollar check.

The description of that one, and of the rest of my trip, will have to wait for NYC: Part 3, which I’ll get to any time now. Meanwhile, my pictures of the event are still at this link - and I hope they'll make more sense now that you know vaguely who the people are. 'Til next time!

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Since I'm getting stuck completing the second half of my New York City trip report, here (to fill those empty hours) is a review of an excellent play I saw last weekend. I'm thinking that local (Madison, Wisconsin) theatre reviews will become a regular part of the blog.


Q: How many Vietnam veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: You don't KNOW, man! YOU WEREN'T THERE!

The Vietnam War, it's safe to say, left deep scars on American culture for generations to come. And almost 30 years after it ended, we're all still trying to make sense of it. Especially the ones who - for better or worse - found themselves there, fighting it.

Now, there's a remarkable play at the Bartell that tries, not to sum up or explain away the Vietnam experience, but just to show it to us, for those of us who "weren't there." "Tracers" is a play conceived by John DiFusco, and written and constructed (through a series of workshops) by the original cast of Vietnam veterans who first performed the piece in 1980 at Los Angeles' Odyssey Theater.

There have been lots of Vietnam plays and movies, most of which have one or another political or social agenda. This one doesn't get into the politics of the war, or what it says about America. It's just individual stories of a handful of men who find themselves in a strange country, dealing with realities they would have thought unspeakable before they got there. They come from all backgrounds. Some volunteered, others were drafted. Some are good at what they do, others (as their drill sergeant ruefully tells the audience) are destined to be "targets."

We get a glimpse into these soldiers' day to day lives: they bond with each other to varying degrees; they go on terrifying patrols; they turn to women, drugs, and Hermann Hesse to escape their boredom, anger, and fear; and basically they try to survive until they "kiss the freedom bird" and head home. Along the way, you get to know these men, and feel for their impossible situation.

Did they survive and get home? The play doesn't make that explicit. Maybe all of them did; maybe none of them did and they are narrating the play from beyond the grave. That isn't the point. And thankfully, the play rejects the John Wayne, "when you stick your hand into a pile of GOO that used to be your best friend!" cliches. When Steve van Haren came on as Baby San, a green soldier transferred into combat from a desk job, I groaned inside because I just knew he was going to be killed, and horribly, to illustrate the horrors of war (most likely leading to a grandstanding speech, either "damn this unjust war!" or "c’mon, men, let's go kill those gooks!," from his comrades) - but no. Nothing happens as you would expect from the cliches of war movies.

The performances are all excellent. Darren Rogers, Caleb Arthur Stone, and Ethan Mutz project ample combat-readiness as the troop leaders; while Steve van Haren and Casey Grimm are the rookies (who are somehow never as innocent as the rookies are in John Wayne movies), and Micheal Herman is the intellectual "Professor" who tries to remain aloof from the group but finds he can't. Al Hart drops in (like a breath of fresh air) for one scene the middle of the second act as "Doc," who dispenses marijuana and somewhat questionable advice, and who is possibly the only really grounded character in the show - or is he? And Douglas Holtz makes a lasting impression as one scary drill sergeant. All of the actors make a fearless physical commitment to their roles, whether in performing a gruelling set of onstage calisthenics in the Boot Camp scene, or conveying the physical and mental tension of patrol.

Cara Peterson has done a marvelous job of directing the action and mood, from the gripping suspense of the patrol scenes to the ennui of a hot day in Vietnam with no action; she is assisted by Steve Montagna's excellent fight choreography. Also of note are the tech credits, led by John Penisten's atmospheric lighting and Ron Collins' (as always) impeccably chosen sound design, full of Vietnam-era music.

Audiences for the first weekend were lower than expected, and DEFINITELY lower than this fine show deserves, so I'm doing my best to get the word out. Don't be put off by the subject matter - this is like no other Vietnam story you've seen before. It's dramatic, it's funny, it's poignant, it's an important theatrical document for our time. Go see it!

Dates: June 6-22
Times: 7:30 Thursdays, 8:00 Fridays, and 4 & 8 Saturdays
Prices: $10 Thursdays, $12 all other shows, $2 discount for students, seniors and vets
Place: Evjue Stage, Bartell Theatre (113 E. Mifflin Street, Madison)
Reservation number: (608) 836-4963

Friday, May 24, 2002

I'm starting this blog out of sheer desperation, to have someplace central to post my trip reports and anything else I may come up with as I go along. Don't expect super-frequent updates, at least not at the beginning. I can, however, be nagged, cajoled and flattered into posting more regularly.

Let's just jump into it, shall we? This blog begins with my recent four-day trip to New York City to meet a bunch of people I knew from the online forum ("Television Without Pity" ). We were meeting for TARCon 2, a somewhat impromptu convention to watch the final episode of "The Amazing Race 2." And with that...

TUESDAY, MAY 14, 2002

My flight was to leave at 7:30, so I left work early (at 4:00 or so) to get to Milwaukee by 5:30. Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be driving straight into Milwaukee’s rush hour traffic. It took just an hour to get to the outskirts of Milwaukee, and then ANOTHER full hour to get through Milwaukee to General Mitchell Airport. (Grrrr.) So I reached the Midwest Express check-in desk just before 6:00. But it turned out okay, since the whole airport looked deserted anyway and there wasn’t a line.

I had exactly $27 cash on me, with no prospect for getting more cash from any source before payday on Thursday, so it was vital to conserve my cash stores. (This becomes important later.) I perused lots of great used books in the Renaissance Bookshop, and was going to get a couple of (cheap) books to read on the plane, but they didn’t take credit cards, so I was out of luck. Whiled away the rest of the time before my flight looking through my NYC visitors’ guidebook (full of useful information, and invaluable for the compact subway and bus route maps alone! Get yours free here today!) and the stuff I’d printed out from the Web. This was very much a spur-of-the-moment trip for me, and I only had two weeks to obsessively collect information about my destination (instead of the months I prefer), so my cache was fairly small, at least for me.

The flight was delayed half an hour because of high winds at La Guardia, so we didn’t take off until 8:05. Once we were in the air, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the great service I got! The seats were only two across on each side of the aisle rather than three (though there were three light bulbs and three fans, indicating they’d retrofitted the plane), and there was ample legroom. There was dinner served, and the food was actually decent – served on porcelain plates and with cloth napkins, yet! And it may have been just that the plane was fairly empty, but the flight attendants were very friendly and attentive. This was my first-ever time flying Midwest Express, and I just can’t recommend it highly enough. If you ever have the chance to fly Midwest Express, they have my personal Seal of Approval.

The flight to La Guardia was uneventful, and we finally spiralled in over the lights of Manhattan (seated on the left side of the plane, I got a dazzling view) and touched down across the river in Queens. (This was also the first time my bags ever BEAT me to the baggage claim area.) I got my 17-pound suitcase and headed out to catch a cab – I’d been practicing my “of COURSE I’ve been to New York before, I’m a jaded New Yorker, so please don’t drive me from Queens to Manhattan through Connecticut or anything” attitude. It was ruined when I gave the driver the address on 7th Avenue and he said “Cross street?” in a thick accent and I didn’t understand him. A real jaded New Yorker wouldn’t have needed to be asked. All the cabbies in the movies are always very talkative, so I was surprised that my driver didn’t say a word to me the whole trip. Of course, he may not have had the English for it. (And here I always thought that was a cliché.)

The cab ride over, I held out my credit card to him. “Oh no, we don’t take credit cards.” The trip (counting tip and a $3 toll for the Queensboro Bridge) was $25.00, which I handed over. For those keeping score, that means I had $2 in cash left to get me through until Thursday morning. Fortunately, the cabs were apparently the only people in New York who didn’t take credit cards.

Once inside my host Jeff’s building, I got past the suspicious doorman (who couldn’t quite pronounce my name, and couldn’t quite make Jeff understand it over the intercom either, until I helped) and went upstairs to meet Jeff. He greeted me with open arms and unfolded the sofa-bed for me. Jeff has a one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea that was quite lovely, though outrageously expensive by any other standards but Manhattan’s. (Let’s put it this way – you could rent 5 or 6 of my Sun Prairie 2-bedroom apartment for the same price.) He had to get to bed, since he was getting up at 5:30 every day for the remainder of the week (yiccch), but he had taped that night’s crucial “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode (the one where sweet Willow went batty with the witchcraft and flayed the guy alive – don’t ask), so I was able to watch that before I went to sleep, around 2:00am New York time.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 15, 2002 – PART 1, MUSEUMS (7am – 3pm)

This was the Long Day. As arranged, Jeff woke me up at 7:00 as he was leaving for work (he teaches mathematics and engineering courses at DeVry Technical Institute); I showered and got ready. I started with breakfast at Eros Café (recommended to me by Jeff), just down 7th Avenue from Jeff’s building. Breakfast was comparable to any diner back home, much to my surprise including the price! (I heard later that restaurant prices were down all over town: whether because of a dearth of tourism or some other factor, I don’t know.)

I then made my way to the subway for the first time – I bought a 7-day Metropass (good for unlimited bus and subway rides) and followed Jeff’s instructions (the 1-2-3 subway line to 86th Street, bus across Central Park, walk up three blocks) to get to my first destination: the Guggenheim Museum. (I had been pronouncing the first syllable “gug” to rhyme with “bug” instead of “goog” to rhyme with “droog,” much to my shame, but fortunately Jeff corrected me before I embarrassed myself to anyone else.)

I was going to the GOOGenheim because it was included on my CityPass – for $38, you get admission to seven different museums and attractions in New York which would normally cost you $85. (Get yours now right here.) Since I didn’t have the money to see Broadway shows (which would have been my first choice), and I didn’t want to just hang around and do nothing, I figured the museum trip was the most cost-effective use of my time and money. Anyway, the main exhibit at the Gugg was a history of Brazilian art; I had also gotten a tip from one of the online people I would be meeting that night that though the Guggenheim usually arranges its exhibits going DOWN the spiral ramp from the top, this one went from the bottom up. More embarrassment saved – it’s good to have friends. I timed it just right, and was at the museum right at 9am for opening, missing the crowds. The Brazilian exhibition was wonderful, ranging from painted views of the new colony by some of the first (Portugese) settlers, to religious artwork covering 200 years of cultural mishmashing (Catholicism, native tribal religions, and African/Caribbean religions like Voudun brought to Brazil by African slaves), to the newest 20th century Brazilian art. Fascinating stuff. I also got to see most of the Gugg’s regular collections, which (needless to say) were cool.

Next it was down another couple of blocks and back onto the bus, back across Central Park (I was disappointed – the buses basically take a modified tunnel and you can’t really see the park as you cross it. I’ll just have to go visit one of Wisconsin’s 44 state parks or 8 state forests, which cover a total of 556,151 acres! Poor me!) to the American Museum of Natural History. This was a little bit of a disappointment after I had been wowed so thoroughly by the Guggenheim. Like Chicago’s Field Museum, there are sections that have been recently updated with cool interactive exhibits and the latest information – and then there are exhibits that look as though they haven’t been changed since 1950. Dioramas and the like. But the new parts were quite impressive, for what it’s worth. The Rose Center for Earth and Space (the new wing of the museum) had an excellent (and psychedelic) new planetarium show narrated by Harrison Ford, and there was a Butterfly Garden exhibit where beautiful specimens would flutter right around you and even land on you! The only thing that really marred my enjoyment of the AMNH was that, it being early afternoon by this time, there were HORDES of school groups touring the place. LOUD school groups. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought all of America’s schoolchildren were kept sedated on Ritalin at all times these days? Obviously, there has been a flaw in the system.

Anyway, I finally ate lunch in the museum cafeteria (the Upper West Side not, according to my guidebooks, being known for “cheap eats”) and took off for Letterman.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 15, 2002 – PART 2, LETTERMAN (3pm – 7:30pm)

The subway took me to within a block or two of the Letterman (oops, I mean the Ed Sullivan) Theatre on Broadway, between 53rd and 54th. I knew the Amazing Race party was going to be at the Manhattan Chili Company, which I’d heard was right in the vicinity of the Ed Sullivan. As it turns out, the Manhattan Chili Company is NEXT DOOR to the Letterman theatre, which meant I would have some serious lag time between the Letterman taping and the Amazing Race party.

But for now, it was just 3pm and time to stand in line for my ticket. I had called a couple of weeks ago to get on the reservation list, not expecting anything to still be open by that time – but then they called back just a few nights before I left, putting me on “Mitch’s Gold List” (as I was instructed to tell the CBS page) and setting me up with a reservation. I now found out that even though I was on “Mitch’s Gold List,” I still had to stand in line with all the other proles waiting for same-day tickets WITHOUT reservations. Fortunately, with the line open between 3 and 4, I was right near the front and so (it turned out) I got a good seat anyway.

Along the way, as we snaked into and out of the theatre in a slow-moving line, we were greeted/berated by a gang of indestructibly perky and fresh-scrubbed CBS pages, all of whom seemed to have arrived right off the bus from Christian Day Camp. But nonetheless, they all thought they were incredibly cool, hip, and New York chic, because they were working for Letterman. I admit, they may have had a point. But still, I’m from the Midwest, and I know Midwesterners when I see them – and there’s nothing phonier than cool, hip, “New York chic” attitude coming from a 19-year-old with Iowa written all over his face.

The actual registration process was as simple as checking my name off a list (presumably Mitch’s Gold List). So I found myself back out on Broadway at 3:15 or so, with an hour and 15 minutes left until I had to report back there at 4:30 to get seated for the taping (at 5:30). An hour and 15 minutes? Not enough time to go back to Jeff’s apartment and change or relax; not enough time to fit in another major tourist attraction; too much time to just hang out at the theatre. And I wasn’t going to eat dinner until the party that night at the Chili Company, so that was also out. (Besides, who wants to eat dinner at 3:15?) So I wandered up and down the streets, over to Rockefeller Center (no NBC tours going on, I checked), the NBC store, and up and down the street looking through the trashy souvenir shops. My friend Rob wanted a T-shirt that said “Feck New York,” so I looked for that – but all the T-shirts these days are Patriotic and We Love New York More Than Ever, etc., so I soon realized there was no chance of finding a “Feck New York” shirt except possibly among al-Qaeda operatives, whom I wasn’t anxious to seek out.

With one thing and another, I whiled away the time until 4:30, and proceeded back to the theatre. My feet were beginning to scream obscenities at me (between walking at the Guggenheim, walking at the Natural History Museum, walking back and forth from bus stops and subways, and doing the Ratso Rizzo Walking Tour of Broadway), so “standing still” was proving to be increasingly difficult. So from 4:30 until about 5:00, I stood still, in line. [Grrrr.] Our tickets were all numbered (according to our place in line that morning; I was #40) and we stood in various sections out on the sidewalk One group of people had “blue dot” tickets – they were in a special line of their own and got let in about 15 minutes ahead of everyone else. (I explained to the people around me that those were the ones who had slept with the producers.)

Finally around 5:00 the doors opened and we filed into the lobby of the Ed Sullivan, only to get backed up into a mammoth line at the studio doors. We were switched back and forth like at Disney World, to use as much space as possible, and it got pretty claustrophobic – not to mention hot and smelly, since everyone else (like me) had been out walking around in the 70 degree sunny weather all day. While we waited, and waited, and waited, the Perky Page Patrol came out in force once again, to drum the following things (OVER and OVER and OVER) into our pathetic, dense little skulls:

1) Cheer, applaud, and laugh a LOT. If you’re not sure whether something was funny, laugh anyway. They actually implied that if we weren’t a responsive enough crowd, Dave would save his best material for another night.

2) Don’t yell out anything idiotic during the show like “We love you, Dave!” Although to the best of my knowledge, someone has shouted out something idiotic like that at roughly 60% of all Letterman shows.

3) Don’t make the high-pitched “woo” noise or the high-pitched hooting noise or the Arsenio dog-bark noise, because the audience mikes will explode or something. Yell “Yayyyyyy!” if you want to cheer, but nothing high-pitched or lives will almost certainly be lost.

4) You’ll be seeing a warm-up (described below) followed by Mr. Letterman taking a couple of minutes to come out take questions from the audience. Don’t give him a standing ovation because he really only has a couple of minutes.

5) Cover items 1 through 3 again. And again. And once more for good measure.

Finally we filed into the theatre and took our seats. I was seated in the second or third row, way over to the audience left, right behind the band. I immediately slipped off my shoes and felt Utter Bliss as my feet sank into the carpeted floor. Or it may have been a bare concrete floor, I couldn’t tell by that time. It felt luxurious enough to be carpet to me.

By that time, there wasn’t much lead time left for the warm-up, so it got started as soon as everyone was seated. It started with an introduction from Steven Brill, the show’s designated warmer-upper (who has also appeared on the show as a stand-up, or so we were told). Then we saw a video clip package on the studio monitors, which got everyone further into a good responsive mood. To help the responsive mood along, the Perky Pages were stationed along each aisle like Gestapo agents, making sure we whooped it up at a proper level of Funtasticness and Super-Appreciativity. Seriously, I accidentally went “woo!” once as one of the band members was introduced, and the page nearest me (a dark, close-shaved preppy sort who would have been right at home in the Hitlerjungen) GLARED at me in a way I hadn’t seen since the substitute teachers enforced Quiet Time in elementary school. I wouldn’t have been surprised if audience members had been dragged out and beaten in the alleyway – it may even have happened. Like a loyal German citizen, I looked the other way and concentrated on clapping harder.

After the video clip package, Steven Brill did a short stand-up routine, and then introduced each member of the band, finishing with Paul Shafer. Then Dave himself popped onto the stage as though he had been fired out of a cannon – seriously, I’ve never seen him act with such energy before! (I did a moment of the “we’re not worthy” worshipful arm motions before Herr Preppischjunge stopped me with another Death Glare. Was it my fault that wasn’t on their Verbotenliste?) Dave did a quick Q&A session with the audience, welcomed everyone there, and before we knew it, it was time for the opening credits to roll on the monitors – they wasted no time in starting up.

The show itself was pretty fun. (And the Gestapo Pages eventually retreated to the back, apparently satisfied that our conditioning was in place for at least the hourlong taping.) They never did pan the audience, but I was so far over to the camera-right that I probably wouldn’t have been shown anyway. During the “Who Asked For It?” segment, the audience members’ mike was set up just five seats away from me, but again, the camera never panned far enough. And when Alec Baldwin, in a quick gag appearance, ran out of the studio and made for the bar next door, it was the Manhattan Chili Company he went into!

During the commercial breaks, we listened to the band play while the studio monitors showed more clips packages, these consisting entirely of sight gags so they wouldn’t have to compete with the band. They only stopped rolling for a minute or two during the breaks, which surprised me.

The taping finished almost exactly on time at 6:30, and once again I found myself at loose ends. The party wasn’t due to start until at least 8:00, and we’d been specifically warned not to arrive TOO early, lest the waitstaff get angry at us for inhibiting table turnover. So I wandered the mean streets yet again, it being a nice afternoon and just starting to get closer to dusk. My feet had just forgiven me for the first two-thirds of the day, however, and were in no mood to be trifled with. So I walked SLOWLY up and down Broadway, looking at more shops, stopping in at the Sheraton to use the restroom and change my shirt (if I’ve learned anything from Danny and Oswald, the most stylish contestants on the Amazing Race, it’s that good hotels are ALWAYS the best places to go!) and generally puttering about.

Finally it was approaching 7:30, and I lost my patience and made my way back to the Manhattan Chili Company. There was a small knot of people at the front door, and I wondered whether these people were from TWOP (Television Without Pity). I didn’t have to wonder long, as one of them held out a red-and-gold flag (the colors of the show’s ubiquitious flags pointing out clues and destinations) and greeted me. I had met the TWOPers at last.

Coming in Part 2 – the party itself, the aftermath, and the rest of the trip report!