Later -- November 15
About a week ago, Jenn Solari, the publicist at ABC for Oh Grow Up, called and gave me the news. "The show Later called. They want you to be a guest." That was the first thing I heard. Immediately my mind scanned the late night TV landscape. There was The Tonight Show on at 11:30 on NBC, and Letterman on CBS. Then working my way into the A.M. I recalled Late Night with Conan on NBC and The Late Show with Craig Kilborne on CBS. Still no Later. Then I recalled the old Greg Kinnear show that came on in the wee hours of the morning, 1:30ish to be not-quite-exact. Now you might think that realization would take some of the shine off of the news. But not for a second. The news was not only wonderful, but also staggering. They want me?
I also remembered hearing or reading somewhere that they had a rotating guest host every week. That's where the secret information came in. "Your friend, Nicole Sullivan is going to be hosting the show." Ah... Nicole. How cool is it when your friend picks you to be on her television show? That's something most of us don't expect to experience in a lifetime. But Jenn was on the phone asking me if I wanted to do it.
My instant reaction was a resounding, thundering YES. Talk show appearances, while they may make serious actors cringe, are all part of my Hollywood dream. I mean bring on the Battle of the Network Stars and the Celebrity Golf Tournaments. That's a big part of the package. And appearing on talk shows ranks very high on the list. Of course I want to do it. I would be thrilled to do it. I can't wait to do it.
My next reaction was a resounding, thundering NO, at least in my head. What's worse? Never having a shot at your dream? Or getting a shot and blowing it miserably? Going on national television and telling stories about myself may look good on paper, but I don't think of myself as a story-teller. I really think most of my humor is derived from what's happening and being said around me. Some may call that "making fun of people," I like to think of it as "enjoying my friends." Either way, it would just be Nicole and me up there. Twenty-two minutes of Ducey stories. Yikes.
Of course I agreed to appear and we moved along in the preparation process. The next phase was a pre-interview. Steve, from the show, called me at work one day and we talked for about 20 minutes. He asked me some of the standard Ducey interview questions -- Harvard, pre-Med, day jobs -- and I gave him my standard answers and explanations. That was all well and good, but none of it was all that funny. Sure, I can explain how I spent the summer doing theater one year at Harvard, but there's no punch line to that. And really, how often are the simple facts interesting enough to survive without jokes? On a talk show, almost never. Unless the story ends with me killing a man, it should really end on a humorous note (or both, I guess, would be ideal). So for the last half of our conversation, I just tried to rack my brain for stories, stories that I have told to friends or on dates or at parties. I mentally weeded out the ones that couldn't be told on national television and shared a couple of them with Steve. He seemed to enjoy them and I guess put a few down on the list of "topics to discuss" when I did the show.
Meanwhile, Nicole and I had planned to get together and prepare some stuff for the show but with both of our busy schedules, that was becoming less and less likely. Finally this afternoon, I got a conference call from Nicole and Steve and we ran down the list of possible conversations and streamlined a little bit. That was about the extent of the pre-show prep. I arrived at NBC a little early, as well, and got a chance to look at Nicole's note cards and get a mental picture in my head of how it would go. At this point, on paper, it looked very dangerous. Too many random questions with no punchlines. I decided everything would be OK. And when I say that I "decided that" I mean that there was really nothing else I could do but hold my breath between then and the taping of the show because it was going to happen.
It was amazing. The adrenaline and anxiety levels when I was standing behind the door waiting to go onto the stage were incredible. Here I was, armed with nothing except stories about my life. I had to walk out there and entertain America. Tall order. As I came around the corner onto the set I met eyes with Nicole and felt a wave of panic flow out of my body. Her sweet blue eyes gave off a sense of calm and reassurance and I walked right into her arms to get a hug that said, "Everything is going to be fine. You just survived the hardest part." I collected myself and whispered how nice she looked into her ear, A.) because she did look nice, and B.) that seems to be what Letterman always does when his guests come out. Look at me, slipping into a professional mode already.
We began to talk about nothing. Really Nicole began to talk and for a while I felt like I might just sit there for all 22 minutes. I didn't know when to jump in, when to add my comments, when to take the "story baton" from her and run with it. And I knew that the first little tidbit was supposed to be a discussion of the show Nicole and I did together when we met and how we had no audience one night because we were up against the OJ Chase. And as we exchanged pleasantries and slowly rehashed our theater experiences, I decided to go with a story about old people attending small theater in L.A. Out of nowhere, just a random story. We hadn't run this by anybody in the Later head office. How awful was that? Here we have this list of story topics and we can't even hit the first one. I imagine someone in the booth was beginning to panic at that moment.
We pushed on through the first segment and as Nicole took the show into a commercial break and they went to a clip, I realized that I was actually doing this thing, and doing it pretty well, I might add. The audience was laughing, and when they didn't, the production people knew where they were supposed to laugh and threw in a chuckle or too. So I felt pretty confident and excited and on fire. And then I felt pretty nervous and scared and uneasy again. It's like going on a date with someone and it goes really well and she thinks you're wonderful so the logical thing to do would be to go out again, but instead I figure I'm better off going out on top and not jeopardizing the success of the first date with a lame follow-up. Thus was my situation during the first commercial break. "I did it! Cut to live baseball coverage or something! There's no need to go on!" But we came back....
The rest of the show continued to go well, if not better. The more we talked, the more at ease I felt. Nicole was doing a great job as the party host, coordinating all the different elements of the show, from the segues to the clips to the questions and story-telling. It was great. The final segment reboosted my nervous quotient because I had intended to do a little run on airplane travel and its drawbacks, sort of a bastardized story version of some of my stand-up material. That's what the comics do, you know. And so I launched into it when we came back from commercial and I was pleasantly surprised by its success. And maybe I should have had more confidence in it to not be so 'surprised,' but I did feel relief when it was well-received. It was a lot shorter than I had planned but the show had reached the end and so my routine had to as well.
We came back from the last commercial and Nicole put the finishing touches on the show, promoting my show and thanking me for coming and we were done, done, done. It felt so good, so rewarding and exciting and exhilarating. The challenge was so great, not because it's so hard to do an interview on a talk show, but because the standard to which I was holding myself was so high. I wasn't expecting a pleasant 22 minute conversation, I was expecting a light-hearted, interesting, constantly amusing, thoroughly enjoyable conversation to take place on that stage. And so anything short of that would be a big disappointment to myself. It was my standards that were creating the anxiety. I knew what could be accomplished and I knew it would be a shame if it wasn't. As we walked off that stage tonight, I believed it was. And maybe it's not fair to make comparisons as I come down from the high, but it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and of my life. It was one of my dreams coming true. And it was my good friend Nicole who made it possible. That's just one of the subtleties that makes the event even more wonderful. I was there in front of America on television for the first time, and holding my hand was one of my dearest friends. The only reason it might not have been a dream come true is if I was simply too scared to dream that big.
It was a great night.
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