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Columbus, ''The Daily Show'' and A Lack of Beef

By RD Heldenfels Published: November 1, 2006

''Before you place your order,'' the counter worker told me Tuesday night, ''you should know that we're out of beef.''

I was in an Arby's where, as you know, the ''by'' stands for beef. It was before 9 p.m. The Arby's was right of I-71, where you would expect them to be ready for a steady flow of customers.

But that was pretty much how Tuesday went, a day that included reminders both of my having a cool job and my having an unexpectedly busy job.

The cool part was going to Columbus for Tuesday's taping of ''The Daily Show.'' (My story can be found here.) The unexpected and busy part was also going to Columbus, one of those decisions that was made around midday Tuesday and found me scrambling for access and a laptop, getting driving directions from Yahoo and figuring out the best way to modify some plans the bride and I had.

Fortunately, the bride can be very cool in a crisis. And the people at Comedy Central and at Ohio State University were very helpful with everything from pointing me toward parking, getting me into the taping (which looked iffy at first) to finding me a place where I could file my story from.

The people in line for the show also seemed in good form, especially when you consider that they had to stand in line in the rain for quite awhile. It was plenty splashy; later I saw people with their pants legs soaked from the ground up six inches or more.

I was outside part of the time, doing the local-angle prowl, walking along the line calling out ''anyone from the Akron area? Canton?''  (Hey, it worked on the '"American Idol'' lines.) One woman generously offered to pretend she was from Akron, but other than that I got no takers. So I opted instead for the people in front of the line before going indoors to gather string for my story, work out logistics of filing and just wait.

The actual taping, and the warmup to it, offered several reminders of how entertainment works. First, that the show's set is smaller than it looks on TV -- but most sets are smaller than they look on TV. Next, that the whole thing uses TV magic; those ''location'' reports supposedly from Cleveland and Toledo are done right in the studio, in front of green screens.

While it's nice to be close to the action, and to be a part of all the off-camera stuff, the show itself is better seen on your TV screen at home; in the studio, even in good seats you can end up trying to see around cameras -- or just watching on the monitors overhead. On the other hand, sitting in the studio means that you hear everything without bleeps.

Also, there is a big difference between a funny amateur and a funny professional. During the pre-show chats with warm-up comic Paul Mercurio and with Stewart himself, one guy in particular kept trying to make jokes; he thought he was a lot more clever than he actually was, as became clear every time the pros bantered with him.

Finally, Jon Stewart is personable, funny and quick-witted -- all things you can tell from watching him -- and very disciplined when it comes to ''The Daily Show.'' But as focused as he can be on the work, he also makes an effort to recognize the audience, including thanking them after the taping was done.

The taping ended around 7, and I had my story finished and filed in about an hour. Then it was back on the highway, with a few cell-phone calls back and forth to the office about some details in the story, and, along the way, my bizarre encounter with the out-of-beef Arby's.

When you get to that point, all you can do is laugh and roll your eyes, and know that if nothing else you have a good story to tell at the office the next day. And that there's a Burger King down the road.

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