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A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a second-hand copy of Dragon Age II for $8. It's been on my list for a while, and the upside of coming to games late is being able to pick them up for cheap. As it turns out, I've been getting a lot more than $8 worth of enjoyment out of DA2.

The plot. The world-building. The characters and their short dialogues that are there for no other reason than to develop their personalities and relationships. It doesn't hurt that now, instead of a little laptop, I'm playing on my big, flat-screen TV with loudspeakers and a handheld controller on my sofa. Since I went for a female mage in DA:O (which I'm still yet to finish, for reasons that small laptops aren't great gaming platforms), in DA2 I made my Hawke a male warrior. Personality-wise he's turned out a little serious, the first-born son who has had to take on far too much responsibility too early, but who will quickly drop the diplomatic niceties for snark around good friends, and in the face of evildoers and demons. And I'm having a ball navigating him through a world where politics and social movements are more dangerous than dragons or demons.

Arriving in Kirkwall as a refugee, having fled disaster and strife and losing a sibling along the way, and trying to find ways to get out of lock-out into the city? I played that after seeing the most recent news bulletins on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and Australia's politicians squawking about border protection. The sad history of the elves, most of which is completely lost, and Merrill's obsession to revive her culture, that I found echoing with thoughts I've had traveling through China and Tibet last year. The entire mage/templar issue, which, although I certainly lean on the personal freedom/responsibility side, I completely understand the other characters' disagreement on (read: Fenris). It's an incredible amount of complexity and world-building in terms of story - I made a comment on Twitter that DA2 is like an epic, three-book fantasy novel series, except instead of reading it I get to play and experience it, and not just talk with the characters, but get emotionally involved with them.

I went for Anders. Merrill is sweet but disturbingly naive, which, for me personally, makes the thought of romancing her incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Fenris is far too dark and brooding for my tastes, although I'm curious enough to try an alternate playthrough as a mage and rival-mance him just to see what happens. Isabela is fun, and I can see myself going for her as another female rogue-type character, but on this first play-through she feels like someone works far better as the bantering friend constantly teasing Hawke about his relationships. Which left Anders, and even if I hadn't already gleaned from vague internet references that his romance would be the most interesting/devastating in terms of plot, on a simple character basis he easily became my favourite. He's damaged, yes (and I really have to go back and play DA:O with all the DLCs) but he channels his energy into helping people and social justice. He reminds me of friends working in NGOs and other non-profits, friend who, when they see wrong in the world, are not just determined to change things for the better, but genuinely believe that things can change. Not only that, they can hold onto that belief no matter what the cynics and powerful say, and that's a courage of conviction I both envy and admire. Anders may be intense and sometimes glow-in-the-dark crazy, but in a way I can't help but like. Plus I grin every time when, in battle, Anders brings the lightning and hellfire down on my foes.

That being said, I've just started Act III, and, after catching up on all my companions, reading Anders's Codex entry about his life the past three years was painful. Moved in with Hawke, but struggling - and potentially losing - the battle for his self and mind. The line about him and Hawke still being a loving, fairly open couple and the explicit statement that Hawke is probably the only reason Anders has kept his sanity, particularly struck me, to the point that I started wondering what it would be like to live with a mentally unstable partner, who obviously loves and is loved, but is fighting a mental battle alone. And I'm both impatient and terrified to find out how this is going to play into the story's end. For all that the maps are repetitive and the gameplay sometimes buggy (why am I getting hit by the Arishok when I'm not actually in his strike zone?), I can't find myself caring in the face of such rich storytelling.
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Last week I started a writer's course. Creative Writing 101, since I didn't know where else to start. The class is an assortment of lopsided halves: two men and ten women; one retiree and a couple of students in a gaggle of working professionals; 11 westerners of Australia/European heritage and myself the only obvious non-white face. The first class, as with all first classes, was mostly ice-breaking and getting started. Introduce yourself. What stories do you like to read, what types of books and genres can you name? What about points of view, how does each work, what are their pros and cons? That last was particularly amusing as I realised that I've written every type of POV at some point in my life for fun or fanfic.

This week: character building. From the obvious what do they look like to personality, beliefs, and background. Fears and loves. My favourite and most frustrating part of story building. And to end the workshop, a writing exercise. In 10 minutes, create a character and write for them a personal ad, "X seeking X". Key condition: NOT YOURSELF. WRITE SOMEONE VERY DIFFERENT FROM YOU. The examples we gave were dating profiles pulled from the internet (unattributed, I couldn't help note). "Girl Seeks Boy for Watch Morning Cartoons and Eat Sugary Cereal" and "Forty-Something Man with Empty Boat Seeks Lady Companion to Make Boat Less Empty." I came up with the following:

Gentleman Arrival

Bonjour.

Male, 47, exile. I am not here by choice, and am feeling rather lost, at least in my understanding of the word. I'm looking for a friend.

What I offer: tales of faraway places, where silk flows like water and fireworks light up the skies. A walking companion, eager to explore your city, if a little reserved. Exotic foods, every night if you so wish and have an adventurous palate. Where I come from, all men can cook.

You: local, daring, patient. Show me your streets, explain to me your art and why the music I hear from windows makes people dance. Male or female matters not. If you understand this notice, all I ask is that you help me forget.


I'm not sure where he came from, but I like him. So did my class when I read my ad aloud, and they immediately wanted to know his backstory imagining a man somewhere in Europe, perhaps from Egypt or Morocco, sometime in the 19th century perhaps, which was almost exactly what I was going for. Certainly my ad was very different from the larger-than-life, apparently cheerful, modern-day characters my colleagues created, all looking for love or fun.

For next week, I have to write a response to a classmate's ad. His creation: a 38 year old man who likes cats and long walks on the beach, wants to travel, and is looking for his soul mate. What I'm going to do with all those cliches I don't know. But I am excited to see what the classmate who has my ad comes up with.
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I don't drink coffee. Something about the taste of it which is lovely on the first sip, but becomes increasingly gritty and thick on my tongue afterwards, followed by a headache and heart palpitations. The only coffees I've enjoyed to the last drop have been uno piccolo in Italy and in tiramisu. I don't mind a coffee when I really one, but I don't get coffee culture or rely on it as a stimulant to get through the working day.

Naps are better. Straight after lunch, no longer than 20 minutes, headphones on, eyes closed. I got into the habit of it when working in Europe, partly because the work culture I was in there allowed for two hour lunch breaks, but mostly because of my boss whose office door would, every afternoon, be shut with a Post-It note saying Do Not Disturb for about thirty minutes. I followed suit, but only during bad weather. In good weather, I would take myself out to one of the nearby gardens (gorgeous, gorgeous green alpine gardens) and nap under a tree.

And it works! Typically after lunch my brain is just wanting to shut down, it can't focus, and it certainly can't work properly. I can if need be push through the low and get to the point that I'm awake again, but by the time that happens it's over an hour of wasted time later and I feel like crap. After 20 minutes of nap I can sit back at my desk refreshed, awake, and actually be productive.

Sadly, there's no nap culture at my new workplace, or generally in Australia. I'm not letting that stop me; there's a park outside my office with plenty of trees, and I still have a private office with a door that shuts. I have my nap routine down pat: after lunch, lie down either on the grass or the floor of my office, and switch on the music. Tracks 1-4 of ChouChou's Narcolepsy album is perfect (surprise) in providing about 15 minutes of dreamy, near-wordless melodies that naturally changes tempo and energy with track 5, which is the signal to wake up. And then get back to work.

Extra bonus: napping doesn't involve spending $50 a week on takeaway coffee.
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I don't remember the first time I watched Star Wars. Like parents or hating maths Star Wars is one of those things that have always been in my life, with no before. Logically I must have been introduced to it through one of the free-to-air television Star Wars trilogy runs which came at least twice a year, but I'm happy with my personal mythology that like DNA, Star Wars has just always been in my imagination.

And boy has it been my imagination. The X-Wing computer games let me fly my favourite starfighter. The Extended Universe books ate up all my pocket money and some of my parents', I shared the books with fellow fan-friends at school to read under our desks in class, and when the original trilogy was re-released in cinemas the only threat my mother needed to get me to behave was that she wouldn't let me see the movies. She did, of course, and bought me the full-size movie poster to boot. I had all the facts memorised, I knew how many TIE fighters an Imperial-class Star Destroyer could carry (72), the name of every alien glimpsed in the Mos Eisley cantina and Jabba's palace, and if you ever ask me to sing the entire film soundtrack from The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi from opening fanfare to end credits I'll do that too.

I went to the midnight premieres for all three of the prequels, the last one while costumed as Queen Amidala in her first Episode 1 dress and I was photographed for the local paper. No, I don't love the prequel trilogy the way I do the original trilogy, but neither do I hate it the way everybody else does. I'm aware that my memories of the original trilogy are coloured by nostalgia, that the originals were originally made for children, and those children-now-grown-up had ridiculous expectations married with grown-up tastes labeling the prequels as crimes against humanity rather than just mediocre movies. Plus the little kids I know who watched the prequels love the prequels the same way I love original trilogy.

Hearing the Disney had bought Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars hit both the cynic and hopeful fan in me, because oodles of profit off the biggest movie IP in history aside, if Disney's hands-off approach to Pixar and Marvel was anything to go by Disney owning Star Wars could work out. As I understood JJ Abrams to be much more of a Star Wars fan than Star Trek, him being slated to direct Episode VII didn't faze me. And then the cast list of a young woman, Moses from Attack The Block and the original actors and writers and John Williams himself ... I let myself hope. Hesitantly. Other than those news headlines I paid little attention to the production's development - but then the teaser trailer dropped. And all I needed was the Millennium Falcon soaring over desert and the John Williams Star Wars fanfare to be grinning like an idiot.

SPOILERS )

Bring on Episode VIII.
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The Grand Hotel Giessbach at Lake Brienz (Copyright JZ Ting 2014)


Growing up in the southern hemisphere, my first exposure to European history, culture and geography came through classical music and literature. In Switzerland I'm living in the city of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the list of places I want to see in Europe has formed in large part around books and music: Berlin for Beethoven, Vienna for Vivaldi, Paris for Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, London for, well, everything. One place in Switzerland has been on my list since day one because it's so close, and yet because it's so close I never got around to visiting it. That place is the Reichenbachfalls near the village of Meiringen, put on the map of popular imagination by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

A writer friend who shares my love of classic Sherlock Holmes was my final kick to get out to Meriringen, and very kindly made all the arrangements hiring a car to do so. With the two of us and two other friends we made it a party of four on a day trip into the Swiss countryside. The drive from Geneva to Meiringen is maybe two and a half hours, mostly because it involves driving along winding roads squeezed between mountains and a lake. It wouldn't be a drive through Switzerland without mountain roads. Although autumn has been steadily moving over Europe, the day we headed to Meiringen the last of summer was making a show of its farewells with clear blue skies, sunny temperatures that never got too hot, really just perfect, perfect hiking weather.

Meiringen is in the German part of Switzerland, which means somewhere before Berne I go from being able to read and understand all the roadsigns to suddenly not, and in restaurants I'm once again reduced to placing my orders in English. Not that I was required for navigation, actually I spent most of the drive asleep. I woke up just as we got to Meiringen close to noon and we knew we were at the right place because there in the square beside the main road was a statue of the great detective himself. Then there was the hotel Sherlock Holmes, a London Baker Street sign ... all right, Meiringen, we get the picture, you have a claim to international literary fame. After parking the car we found coffee and a patisserie to buy a packed lunch, and then my friend and I made a beeline for the Sherlock Holmes statue. Because of course we were taking photos with one of our heroes of English literature.

The Reichenbachfalls themselves are to the west of Meiringen, and you can hike all the way up, or, if time or effort are wanting, take the furnicular. In the interest of time we chose the latter, and very soon found ourselves halfway up the mountain and at the foot of the falls.

In The Final Problem Dr. John Watson described the falls as "a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamor." In the story Holmes and Watson visit the falls in May, so springtime when the falls would be swollen with snow-melt. For us coming at the end of October and beginning of autumn, the waterfall was reduced in strength but certainly still powerful. Just as Holmes and Watson (or rather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) did on their visit, we "stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss." And then took photos.

The hiking path goes up to the right of the falls to the falls' upper tier. At that time of year it's a wonderful walk under autumn-gold foliage, and we made our way up and around to the other side of the falls where "[t]he path has been cut half-way round the fall to afford a complete view, but it ends abruptly, and the traveler has to return as he came." At the end of the path you can look all the way into the bottom of the falls where Moriarty lies, and indeed there is a plaque on the cliff placed by the Reichenbach Irregulars of Switzerland that says in German, French and English, "At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891." Close by in a little nook I found a wreath laid by an ardent fan for Holmes's fictional century birthday. My friends and I took more photos not just of the plaque but at the end of the path pretending to be Holmes and Moriarty locked in a fight to the death. Only when we had all had a turn did we continue the rest of the way down the mountain, eventually walking trough the lush fields of various Swiss farmers (this is perfectly allowed as long as you stay on the marked path, and are polite and considerate closing any gates behind you to make sure the cows/goats/sheep don't escape) and back towards Meiringen.

At this fearful place ... (copyright JZ Ting 2014)


Meiringen has more to hike through than just Reichenbachfalls. The other big attraction there is a gorge that was carved out by glaciers in the last ice age. Part of it is narrow enough to force some people to walk sideways, but afterwards it widens out to an impressive and deep ravine a nearly two kilometres long. We walked the entire length of the ravine there and back, which didn't take that long even with frequent photo stops. Interestingly there are wooden boxes placed at regular intervals along the route that say in German, French and Italian, 'Open In Event Of War'(!). Historically in the Second World War the gorge was used as an Allies arms depot, and in the 21st century rumour has it that should Switzerland ever be invaded by land the Swiss armed forces can be ready to defend and/or blow up all the mountain passes at a moment's notice. Most of the wooden boxes were firmly locked, but the ones left unlocked were unfortunately empty. At the end of the ravine we found a cow-field half of which was being used as a landing site for para-gliders launching themselves off the nearest mountain. We watched them float down through the sky like so many colourful dandelion seeds and land on the green grass watched by a small herd of cows, whose bells around their neck jangled softly as they chewed.

Even after a waterfall and a ravine, there was still plenty of light left in the day. Upon returning to the car we decided to add one more stop to our day-trip, namely the Grand Hotel Giessbach at Lake Brienz. It takes some getting to as the only access is either by a boat across the lake then a furnicular, or coming down the mountain behind the hotel which unless you're a guest only takes you so far, as beyond a certain point cars aren't allowed. We did the latter, parked at the gates, and from there proceeded on foot. There was another waterfall even grander than Reichenbach with four tiers - and there at its foot was the Grand Hotel. Perched on the mountainside in red and white against the blue sky and autumn-green mountains that in a few weeks will turn white with snow, looking west over the lake and sunset. It's all ridiculously picturesque and Swiss and romantic, and the four of us took photographs until our batteries were in serious danger of running out (mine did). Despite not really being dressed for such a place we got a table on the terrace and ordered some beers and food (or dessert, in my case, a Meiringen meringue with homemade ice-cream and fruit wasn't to be missed), relaxing as we watched one of the most beautiful mountain sunsets I've ever seen.

Sunset over Lake Brienz (copyright JZ Ting 2014)
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Getting to see what I had dubbed the Daily Show host trifecta was one of those dream 'if only' things to do in New York City. I was lucky enough to get tickets to both Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart a couple of months ago, which in hindsight wasn't that hard in that the shows were both in work schedule rather than on break, and they do four shows a week. Getting a ticket to John Oliver, the brand new so-hot-right-now show that's only on once a week on Sundays, and I had exactly one Sunday in NYC? That was far dicier. The tickets for each show are made available online three weeks ahead of time, and disappear in minutes. Being in Switzerland my attempt at signing up meant discreetly ducking out of a friend's dinner party for a few minutes, but while I got through the sign-up process all I received was an email that essentially said, "Thank you, we'll get back to you if you get a ticket but if you don't hear from us by two weeks before the show you haven't got one." Which wasn't heartening.

I didn't end up getting an email. Then again I had a lot of other things to deal with - packing, moving, finishing up at work, etc., I chalked it up with an "oh well maybe another time" and jumped on the plane across the pond to JFK. I went straight out for dinner with my brother, then drinks with friends who had just arrived for their first USA trip, and then more drinks with said friends who I met again the next morning bringing brother along. Despite the rain my brother and I took them to check out Fifth Avenue and after lunch brought them to T-Mobile in Times Square to sort out SIM cards for their upcoming travel adventures. While that was being organised I logged into T-Mobile's free wifi to check emails, and then I saw it.

"We just got some more cancellations than expected. Sorry for the very last minute notice. Please get back to us immediately or as soon as you can to confirm or cancel [your ticket request for Last Week Tonight]."

I hit 'reply' so fast I made a typo in the confirmation header and had to resend it. Within minutes I had a reply saying "Confirmed! We look forward to seeing you at the show tomorrow!"

There may have been a little victory dance in the T-Mobile store as I triumphantly showed the message to my friends and brother.

* * *

The rain of Saturday morning had disappeared completely by the afternoon and left Sunday with clear blue skies, perfect for heading over to Brooklyn for lunch at Smorgasbord. We ate ramen burgers and ice cream sandwiches by the water and worked it off walking across the Brooklyn Bridge back into NYC. It tired me out enough to catch a nap in the afternoon before bouncing up again to head to the Last Week Tonight TV studio on 57th Street.

The email confirmation said line-up was from 5:15-5:30p.m. Unlike The Daily Show and The Colbert Report which overbook ticket numbers meaning you need to line up at least two hours ahead of time to be sure of getting a seat, the tickets for Last Week Tonight are guaranteed entry. That being said, I turned up at 4:30p.m. out of curiosity only to find that the queue was already going through security, so I quickly joined in and passed the time chatting with other people in the queue until we were called into the studio to be seated. The advantage of attending TV show recordings solo is that the floor managers often use you as a tiny Tetris piece to fill any spare single seats, which in my case meant a spare single seat front row and centre. I did a little squirmy victory dance in that seat. Once the studio was filled the audience was told the usual ground rules: no photography, no recording, turn off cell phones, no walking onto the stage, and emphatically no sitting at John Oliver's desk.

The warm-up comedian came out to get the party started by picking out members of the audience. The first fellow he picked turned out to be a fellow Aussie who was in New York City working in banking, the second was a woman from LA - and then there was me. I had been trying to point to the woman beside me who had her hand up but no, bad idea, that put me in the spotlight especially as I was sitting in the front row with an obvious red hat. So I ended up explaining from-Australia-via-Switzerland to everyone in the studio, and, in reply to the comedian's comment about how everything in Australia can kill you, deadpanned that kids in the Northern Territory get lessons on how to get away from crocodiles while schools in Sydney have classes on swimming away from sharks. It took him a moment to realise I was joking.

The warm-up for Last Week Tonight also involves a t-shirt gun being fired into the audience. I didn't get one, but that didn't matter because with once the t-shirt shooting range was over that was the signal for John Oliver himself to come out.

He bounced. Literally. I had seen John Oliver do stand-up comedy in San Francisco years ago when he bounced in jeans and a t-shirt, now on Last Week Tonight his hair was slicker and he had a sharp business suit on, but he still bounced. And looked at us cheering with the biggest grin and air of disbelief that he this bespectacled Brit really is headlining his own successful show in New York, the United States of America. It's incredibly adorable and also an interesting contrast to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report is playing a character and it's emphasised how much he needs and psychs himself up with loud audience support so he comes running out into the studio; Jon Stewart on also needs the audience but has been doing The Daily Show for well over a decade so there's a sense that he's seen it all. Last Week Tonight being a brand new show in its very first year, and a very successful first year? John Oliver probably pinches himself every morning to make sure he isn't dreaming.

To our cheers he grinned, he did a little awkward dance (still so British) and thanked us all for coming was there anyone who wanted to ask him questions. Me being front row and centre with a red hat shooting my hand up like Hermoine at Hogwarts, I got the first question. I said hello from Australia (reply, "G'day, mate!"), thank you so much for the gun control piece you did while you were at The Daily Show and also for the hilarious Last Week Tonight piece on Prime Minister Tony Abbott (I made him laugh to remember it), and pleaded please please pretty please do another piece on Australian politics because we have so much to make fun of right now. (I may have mentioned that Tony Abbott is Australia's politico-cultural equivalent of George W. Bush). John Oliver replied that actually, yes he and the show's team have been following what's happening in Australia (his sister is moving to Melbourne) and there's a good chance they'll do another Aussie piece in future.

There were other questions about The Bugle ("No, I'm not doing anymore puns!") and what Backstreet Boy are you, which was hilarious because it meant John Oliver started trying to awkwardly, adorably dance like one. He also pointed out that the cityscape behind him has the castle of King's Landing from HBO's Game of Thrones. (They originally wanted Hogwarts but Disney didn't let them.)

And then the show began. The role of the audience is to cheer and laugh as much and as loudly as possible, and generally enjoy John Oliver do his thing. Which he does, and all that experience at The Daily Show and his stint behind Jon Stewart's desk comes through wonderfully well. John Oliver ran through every segment without a slip, except one small one where he jumped a line or something whereupon he swore and collapsed into laughter on his desk. And then got it together in a heartbeat to do a second, flawless take.

The long-form piece was on civil forfeiture laws in the United States. Like all the long-form pieces John Oliver has done it's fantastically executed and horrifying in the subject matter it explores. But it did include a sketch video Law & Order style where they teamed up with the actual *Law & Order* cast to create "Law & Order: Civil Forfeiture". I had to rewatch that segment when it aired because when it was playing in the studio I spent most of it watching John Oliver who again, adorable, was laughing trying not to make too much noise at his own desk because he was just that pleased with what he had created. The only thing more adorable than John Oliver? John Oliver holding a King Charles Cavalier spaniel wearing a crown on its head. Yes, that is a thing and it's more adorable than all the kittens on the internet.

Then it was over. John Oliver thanked us all and bounced out, and we the audience patiently filed out of the studio and back onto the streets of New York. I found the King Charles cavalier spaniel guest star hanging around outside and had a moment to play with him and chat with his handler, which was a great way to end the show. Every time I visit New York I find people are happy to chat and say hello welcome to our city. To be able to say to friends and family back home that I've had the opportunity to watch and speak with John Oliver in person is the icing on the cake, and with The Colbert Report wrapping up I'm glad to have Last Week Tonight on air, and hope to be watching it for years to come. Possibly in person again if I can manage it!
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In going to see The Daily Show With Jon Stewart today I soon realised that The Colbert Report a fortnight ago had inhaled all the excitement at the newness of the experience, leaving me with more restless anticipation for *The Daily Show* than bouncing off the walls. At the same time I had learned from my previous experience and turned up to to *The Daily Show* studio better prepared with a bottle of water, a bagel, and a book to pass the time. My sibling couldn't believe I was going to line up two and a half hours early, but as it turn out I wasn't even the craziest - even that early there were already people queuing ahead of me.

The outdoor waiting area for The Daily Show isn't as comfortable as The Colbert Report. Whereas The Colbert Report has you waiting alongside the building off the street and under shelter, The Daily Show queue is on the busy sidewalk of busy 11th Avenue. Getting there as early as I did I managed to sit against the wall in the shade of the overhang and the 'Abandon News All Ye Who Enter Here' sign, which in summer wasn't too bad but I imagine would be rather unpleasant in snowy winter. As the clock ticked down the queue numbers went up until the queue stretched to the end of the block and doubled back in on itself.

Eventually and much to everyone's relief (with the exception of the people anxiously hovering on standby) the tickets were given out (my ticket: number 8) and we were filed through security into the waiting room. It's smaller than the waiting room at The Colbert Report a block away, and more stark, with the decorations being pictures of the correspondents and show alumni in some of the more hilarious costumes they've used for pieces: Jon Stewart in a fat-suit, John Oliver as a Dickensian chimney-sweep, Jason Jones as a mariachi, Samantha Bee as a banana. (There's also an audience Release sign, notice of which is given before you enter the studio, and which I had great fun reading.) The Daily Show waiting room is also smaller than the one at The Colbert Report, so if you're holding a ticket above 40 you have to wait outside.

Size goes the other way inside The Daily Show studio which fits about 240 people, more than double the capacity of The Colbert Report. My seating luck didn't correspondingly increase, and despite having ticket number 8 I ended up sitting in the middle of the fourth row of the middle block, with a great line of sight to the desk. Unlike The Colbert Report, you are allowed to take photos inside The Daily Show studio to your heart's content inside as long as you stay in your seat. No going onto the set, and definitely no sitting at Jon's desk for a selfie (there went that idea for a new Facebook profile picture).

The format of the tapings is by and large the same. Once we were all seated a studio crew member came out to welcome us and run through the audience dos and don'ts (no photography during taping, turn off all cellphones, laugh and cheer loudly, etc). Following her was the warm-up comedian who much to my amusement was the same comedian from The Colbert Report warm-up - it's easy enough for him to do both shows since the studios are literally around the corner from each other. His routine was the same as before, and he had some fun with some Canadians in the audience before he got us cheering for Jon Stewart to come out on set.

Jon Stewart really is as short as various sketches and jokes have made him out to be. He just walks onto the set, no running out seeking high-fives the way Stephen Colbert does, and picks up the mic getting straight to business welcoming the audience and taking questions. Kudos to me, I managed to get his attention to ask the first question. I said I'm from Australia, we love the show - he asked how I watch the show in Australia and I answered I watch the clips on The Daily Show website (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report aren't licensed in Australia other than on cable TV that hardly anyone uses, and I certainly wasn't going to say Australians torrent the show) - and how does it feel to take over television with smart politically-aware comedy not just with his show but by unleashing Stephen Colbert and John Oliver? He answered self-deprecatingly that they hadn't tried to take over television, they've just been lucky enough to find some incredibly talented people. Unfortunately for The Daily Show when they put said talented people in front of the camera, other networks notice how good they are and headhunt them offering to pay twice as much as what Jon can pay. That being said, Jon is extremely proud of all of them (AW <3).

The questions that followed were a mix about some of Jon's past work, other shows, and how did it feel to get cancelled by MTV back when he was doing the Jon Stewart show? To that question Jon joked about drinking a lot, but then gave a serious answer that I loved: the best thing about failure is realising the next day that there is a next day, that failing isn't the end of the word, and you can still wake up every day and write. It's an answer I'm going to remind myself of every time I fall into a terrified fear-pit of failure.

And with that last answer, they launched straight into taping.

The taping itself went incredibly quick. With only the barest of announcements from the floor manager, the screens rolled the opening date announcement and credit music. In that short space of time the floor crew had moved cameras into position with, Jon sat at his desk, and the floor manager was signalling us to cheer which we did. There had been no instruction as to who to look to or what signals were going to be used, or even an introduction for the floor manager, the floor manager just appeared and did it. The Daily Show is a show that has been running for a very long time, and the absolute professionalism and efficiency of the crew was fascinating to watch in itself. Even more amazing was watching Jon Stewart doing his thing. Each segment, the monologue, the correspondent chat (we had a bit with Larry Wilmore who I didn't even notice appearing, I just looked up at the screen above me then back down to the desk and he was there), the interview and Moment of Zen, each segment was done in a single take, no pauses, and no reshoots necessary. Out of all TV shows I've been in the audience for, The Daily Show has been the most efficient.

It also, despite being a comedy show, feels more serious than The Colbert Report. The personality-based nature of The Colbert Report makes it more of a crowd-pleaser to watch live, especially when everyone is at pains to emphasise that Stephen Colbert needs an energetic audience to bounce off of. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show on the other hand is a different beast: Jon Stewart doesn't play a character, he's on the show as himself, and it's his own voice and emotion that comes through on the show. Whereas Colbert does faux-outrage on his show through the lens of his character, Stewart's disbelief and outrage at the news and news media, even when he's making fun of it, is his own. That outrage and disbelief comes through loud and clear on a television screen, and it has even more force to see in person.

The taping wrapped up just after 7pm. Jon Stewart announced the Moment of Zen, footage played, then the music rolled and the lights went down. Afterwards he came back on to bow and thank us all for coming, and that was it. He went backstage to oversee editing for tonight's show, and we all filed out back onto the streets of New York. I'm so glad I went, but compared to bouncing out of TCR, I came out of TDS much quieter and introspective. I'd certainly like to go again, even better if I could manage to go during an Indecision election year. Next time!
tingjz: (Default)
I've been the biggest fan of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart for years and long dreamed of attending their shows live. With two weeks vacation in New York staying with family, the biggest challenge was going to be getting a ticket to either of those shows because those tickets disappear *fast*, especially with Stephen Colbert wrapping up his show at the end of the year. I ended up following a Twitter feed that sends out ticket alerts to no avail, and flew into New York resigned to seeing neither show.

Then yesterday morning, my very first morning waking up in NYC, I saw the Tweet alert for one ticket tonight. One ticket. And I managed to get it.

The taping for TCR starts at 7:30 p.m. however it's recommended to get there by 5:30 p.m. to line up for tickets. The reservation on the website, should you get one, does not guarantee entry as the show purposely overbooks studio audience numbers. Each ticket is numbered and going by the girls I chatted to afterwards who were the very last ones, there's at most 110 seats. If after reserving a ticket you arrive and you're number 111 in the line? You don't get in. I arrived at the studio to line up at 4:30 p.m. Even at 4:30 p.m. there were dozens of people already ahead of me - 74 people, actually, going from the ticket I was handed.

A ticket in hand, the next gate is security. All bags are checked for cellphone, weapons (why a weapons check? America), drugs and other suspicious items. Having cleared that I then milled about with the rest of the audience in the waiting room which is decorated with various posters and pictures of the show from the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear poster to a portrait of Grand Moff Stephen Colbert with Darth Vader. There was even a life-sized cardboard Stephen on the wall obviously placed there just for people to take pictures with him, which everyone did sometimes making new friends in the process. As chance would have it I ended up in conversation with two young women discussing the Weeping Angels from *Doctor Who*, which wandered into a conversation about anime and manga and then the American television/pop-culture industry and copyright law, so the waiting time went very fast.

The doors to the studio opened about an hour later. Going inside and getting seated is done by ticket numbers ten at a time, with tickets 1-10 seated first, then 10-20, etc. Holding ticket #75 I was resigning myself to being seated up the back but as it turned out, since I was there solo the floor manager directed me to fill up an odd single spare seat in the very front row. If photography was allowed inside the studio there would been one of me grinning like a lunatic. As it is, when I watched the episode later that night I realised I could see myself bouncing up and down in the opening credits sweep.

Once the studio was filled out came the warm-up comedian to get everyone ready for the main event. His approach consisted of picking members of the audience to ask them about their home town, work or family and make fun of their answers. This being an enthusiastic Colbert Nation audience everyone was happy to play along, and promised to abide the basic rules for audience conduct: no photography, turn off all cell-phones, emergency exits are that way, and finally, Stephen feeds off the audience energy so be very loud, very excited, and *applaud wildly*. The floor manager had us practicing our cheering, and only once we had proven our enthusiasm to his satisfaction was it time for Stephen Colbert himself to appear.

Stephen Colbert came out running to massive cheers and high-fived the entire front row. That would have been more than enough to make my night along with all the shouting and clapping of 'STEPHEN, STEPHEN, STEPHEN!'. (The chanting is somewhat annoying when I'm watching the show on a screen, but there in energy of the studio is *incredibly* fun.) Somehow he got us to settle down a notch enough to have a Q&A as himself out of character. 'Stephen Colbert' is loud and strident and obnoxious. Stephen Colbert himself is calm, softer-voiced, and all in all lovely. Sitting in the very front row with my characteristic red hat I managed to get Stephen's attention to ask him a question. I beamingly told him I was from Australia where he has a great following, thank you so much for your show we're going to miss you when you move to *Late Night*, and how does it feel to know that there are so many people around the world who get their insights into American culture and politics from him and Jon Stewart? The answer was simple - "Like I'm winning :D" - and was followed up with me catching one of Stephen's WristStrong bands which now sits in my travel memory box.

The taping itself is was impressively quick. Like Top Gear the professionalism of a top-tier TV show is great to see in action, with most segments done in one take and usually needing no more than a second when called for. The complete video can be seen on the TV screens around the studio complete with the graphic overlays and news-clip excerpts, however I made a point of watching Stephen himself as much as possible (at least when there wasn't a cameraman directly in front of me). In the rare moment Stephen fluffs a line he immediately drops character and makes a sad face, which is adorable to watch, before snapping back into character to get the second take in the can.

The guest that night was Stephen M. Wise, a lawyer advocating for the legal recognition and protection of intelligent animals - chimpanzees, apes, dolphins, elephants. Being an elderly lawyer and not an actor or politician used to being on camera, he gamely made an effort of his interview which I, also being a lawyer, found highly interesting. And watching Stephen Colbert do his thing completely improvised and unscripted was amazing in itself.

And then it was over! We cheered and applauded Stephen for another great show and I danced out of the studio at about 8:30pm over the moon and swapping contact details with the audience members I had been chatting with before heading home. I get to do it all again when I see *The Daily Show With Jon Stewart* in a couple of weeks, and only the knowledge that I still have two weeks to spend enjoying New York City is curbing my impatience.
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