It’s not easy to follow in the footsteps of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, but someone had to do it. That someone was supposed to be handsome Aussie actor Sam Worthington, but due to a last-minute cancellation, that someone became me.
I’d been on The Daily Show’s “short list” of guests to book for Jon Stewart’s brilliant late-night show, but Worthington’s cancellation bumped me to the top of that list. In a whirlwind change of plans, I found myself bunking down in Manhattan’s gorgeous Hudson Hotel last week. I was a little nervous about my stint, because if I screwed up, not only would there be 250 real, live people in the studio audience, but I’d also have the other 2.5 million home viewers to worry about.
I decided to watch The Daily Show from my room that night, in part to be entertained by Stewart’s genius satire and wit, and in part to see what the week’s first guest would be doing. I would be going on the next day as a mere author – not a celeb-author, not a sports-author, just an author-author. My book, Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, had attracted the attention of the dog-loving Stewart and his dog-adoring staff, so it was a comfortable setup with all that dog-friendliness going on. But his list of guests can make an author-author feel as small as an ant-author.
Among the guests he’s had on the show in the last several months: Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, Betty White, Dolly Parton, Bill Clinton, Martin Scorsese, Diane Keaton, Tom Brokaw, Condoleezza Rice, Calvin Trillin, Tony Bennett, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, and Jennifer Aniston. I took a sip of my wine, and tried to forget that all these greats had sat in that very chair I’d be sitting in the next day.
But when Shaq sauntered out on stage to vast cheers and picked up – physically picked up – Jon Stewart as if he were a toy, and the audience went wild, I started thinking about how nice it would have been if Air Force Master Sergeant Antonio (Arod) Rodriguez had taken me up on my offer. I’d told him I’d give him a wig and a nice outfit if he would pretend to be me. This most helpful and generous military working dog leader had been there for me from the very first days of this book, so it only made sense that he would be there now.
But for some reason, Arod didn’t take me up on my offer. So I was left to follow in the footsteps of Shaq, and to precede the footsteps of this week’s other phenomenal guests, including Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, and the MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow.
It’s not as if it would be my first national TV appearance to publicize this book, which had been out for less than two weeks. I’d enjoyed some other appearances and had not overly fretted. But this was Jon Stewart, iconic, ironic, and revered by millions. I managed to sleep that night (thank you, glass of way-too-expensive hotel wine) and get through the next day by spending time with my wonderful Dutton publicist Katie Burns, and my brilliant Dutton editor, Stephen Morrow.
At 5:15 pm Tuesday, a cab dropped Katie and me off at Stewart’s midtown Manhattan studio. As we walked in, any residual tinge of nervousness disappeared. Maybe it was the fact that we were met by a dog. Many employees bring their dogs to work. Stewart loves dogs, and has two himself. An affable fluffy black dog first came up to me, and later a beautiful golden retriever-ish dog visited, rubbing his blonde fur all over my black pants. Ahh, just like home, with my yellow Lab, Jake! Only these dogs were involved in some kind of canine love triangle. (I’ll talk about that in a future post.)
Upon arriving at the greenroom, I was greeted by a framed sign with my name in it. That was pretty startling, and rather fun to see, even for someone more comfortable behind the scenes than in front. Not being a celeb or luminary, I took a photo. I doubted Barack Obama had taken a similar photo when he was last there in 2010
The greenroom was incredibly spacious and comfortable. I had been in greenrooms before, and in fact two weeks earlier had shared a small greenroom on Fox with some Jersey Shore stars. Their celeb status was lost on me, because I had no idea who they were. The Daily Show greenroom was larger, and since Stewart has only one guest per night, Katie and I had it to ourselves. It featured the usual array of snacks and drinks, and a large bottle of Vodka. It was half empty/half full. I was wondering which guests had had a tipple or two when the lovely makeup artist, Jody, came and got me.
This was supposed to be “touchup” makeup, but it took her a good half hour to get my face just right for TV. She took her time because we were early. In real life, TV makeup is not a good look, but TV cameras need it. If people went out there in their more natural states, it wouldn’t probably wouldn’t be good for ratings. That said, Jody told me that Shaq had wanted only powder at the most. And when Shaq doesn’t want makeup, Shaq doesn’t get makeup.
When I had a good coating of about 15 different products on my face, who should walk in but the man himself? Jon Stewart joined me in the makeup room while Jody was running an iron of some sort (flat? curling? One doesn’t notice these details when Jon Stewart walks in the room.) through my hair. He was really easy to talk with. I had decided to consider him a friendly colleague or even a classmate, rather than a mega star. It helped that we both graduated from college the same year. Heck, he could’ve been one of the goofy guys from my dorm!
I had somewhat tricked myself, and in doing so, was very comfortable speaking with him. We talked dogs, college, life, kids, and dogs again. He got a little touchup of face powder from Jody, and went off to do the show. I went back to the greenroom and watched. And laughed. He is so funny – too funny when you’re wearing non-waterproof eye makeup, as it turns out. Jody had to do repairs before I went on.
Finally, show producer Hillary came and got me. I said good-bye to Katie, realizing that the next time I saw her again I’d have either done well, or crashed and burned. I prayed for the first option. I didn’t want to screw up, in part because I was there for the dogs. I wanted to do the military working dogs and all their people proud. And I also didn’t want to become one of those viral “OMG what an idiot!” videos the next day.
Hillary walked me to the stage. I stood behind the thick blue curtain, and my heart started beating faster when I felt the cold air from the stage (studios are kept chilly), and heard the cheers of the audience. My shy writer half wanted to stay behind the curtain, maybe peek out, and march right back to the greenroom. But when he announced my name, all bets were off. I strode on and didn’t look back. And I had a blast. I blocked out the idea that millions of people were watching, and lived in the fantasyland that it was just Jon and me. It worked, and miraculously, I wasn’t at all nervous. Here’s how it turned out.
I thought we’d just started, but suddenly it was over. He introduced me to the audience during the commercial break, and they cheered loudly and enthusiastically, and I waved excitedly with both hands as I walked off. It was over. And I was high with happiness.
As Hillary was walking me back to the greenroom, telling me how well he segment went, I tried to remember what Jon and I had talked about. And I couldn’t remember a single thing. Nothing. That was a little disturbing. Had someone done a mind-wipe ala Artemis Fowl as I walked off stage?
Katie greeted me very happily, and we hugged, and she said how wonderfully it went. I didn’t tell her about the mind-wipe, and racked my brain for any detail. She mentioned a few things and they kind of came back to me. We went out for a celebratory beer at the nearby Pony Bar with my editor’s terrific assistant, Stephanie Hitchcock. I realized in horror that I was still in my TV makeup, but oh well. There were no small children in the bar to scare.
Afterward they went home, and I treated myself to the reward I’d been dreaming of: A giant slice of NY pizza and a root beer, followed by a chocolate glazed doughnut from Dunkin Donuts. (We don’t have Dunkin Donuts in San Francisco, and we certainly don’t have NY pizza.)
I got back to the hotel in plenty of time to catch the show on TV. I don’t like watching myself on TV, so I glanced up only on occasion. But I was relieved to find out just what we’d discussed, and that it had definitely gone well. Military dogs would not be hanging their heads in shame.
But the mind-erase thing was a curiosity to me even a few days ago, when I inquired about it with Bettina Devin, an acting teacher and actress I know. Was I crazy, or was this something that happens sometimes? This is what she wrote:
“It’s a common occurrence with actors/performers. When you are truly in the moment, you are not thinking, conniving, trying to have a certain “effect”, you are just there 100% present. That’s why so many great performers (improv especially) have no idea what just happened on stage and can’t remember it.”
Whew! I was not losing my marbles. I was just one with the moment. Just like a dog.
Maybe Jake (Mr. Zen) can take my place for my next TV appearance.