It was only seven days before Christmas. I wasn’t in a cheerful mood. Bleary-eyed from an hour-and-a-half sleep, I drove my wife to LaGuardia airport. Annoyed that I had wiped her lip-gloss off after she kissed me goodbye, she closed the door and flew off to celebrate the holiday without me.
Returning home I spent more time looking for parking then I had spent sleeping the night before. It was cold. I was tired. I was one month sober that very day and I was in a foul mood. Six hours later I would lose a job that I loved and my favorite TV show would end forever.
This was going to be one of the best days of my life.
It was already dark at five o’clock that night as I turned off of 10th Avenue into the throng on West 54th Street. Pushing my way past gawkers, paparazzi, reporters and cameramen, I made eye contact with a security guard and was escorted inside. This was the last time that I would check in to my job as the warm-up comic on The Colbert Report.
I knew going in that tickets to the final taping of The Colbert Report were the hottest tickets in town. Celebrity audience members were not unusual and I was sure that there were going to be a few notable figures in attendance that night. There was a cocktail party happening in the area outside the Executive Producer’s office. As I mingled my way past clinking classes and canapés, I was struck by how many faces I recognized.
Katie Couric chatted with Ray Odierno. In front of the bar Doris Kearns Goodwin was holding court. I had to ask Bradley Whitford to step aside so I could get a cup of coffee and then almost spilled that cup of coffee when Ken Burns bumped into me. It became clear that here were not going to be merely a few notable people in the house. There were going to be scores of some of the world’s most fascinating people in the house.
As cool as the cocktail party was, I preferred to head downstairs to the studio to soak in the final rehearsal. I’ve always made it a point to get to the show early to watch rehearsal. Being a fly on the wall as the entire production staff snapped all the puzzle pieces involved in the night’s episode fascinates me. I have so much to learn. Those rehearsals were a wonderful classroom.
Killing time on set of The Colbert Report don’t tell @StephenAtHome pic.twitter.com/Mx78v02XBw
— Kevin Bartini (@KevinBartini) October 29, 2014
I do my best to sit quietly and not to disturb anyone. I remember once, not too long after I had been hired, sitting in the audience during rehearsal. There was a down moment as a technical aspect was being reconciled. Stephen Colbert sat at his desk and with a giant grin began to wave hello to someone in the stands. After about thirty seconds Mr. Colbert announced “I keep waving hello to Kevin Bartini but he won’t wave back.”
I was thrilled that he was waving to me, while at the same time, mortified at the thought that I had ignored his greeting. I was sitting next to producers, writers and a few network executives. My ego would never in a million years allow me to believe that Stephen Colbert was waving to me out of all those people. But Stephen Colbert is a down to earth, nice genuine guy who was just waving me hello.
Although more crowded and hectic, the final rehearsal didn’t feel all that different than any of the previous. No one was crying. Nobody was hugging. Yet. Jokes were being punched up and camera blocking was being locked in. The purveying sense of melancholic nostalgia was less powerful then the cohesion of that staff. True professional until the end.
Of course now everyone knows about the menagerie of dignitaries, celebrities, newscasters, musicians and Muppets that gathered on stage that night to sing a farewell to the Colbert Nation. Backstage was completely surreal and exhilarating. Standing with my back to the wall just in front of the stage door Willie Nelson walked past me followed by Henry Kissinger then Kareem Abdul-Jabar, with Barry Manilow closely behind.
During the audience warm up segment I talked to a man in the audience who looked a bit like Larry David.
“What is your name?” I asked him.
“Ben” he said.
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I lick things,” he replied with a smile.
“I’ll handle the jokes,” I thought to myself. But I asked him to explain what that meant. It turned out that nice man who looks like Larry David and licks things for a living was Ben of Ben and Jerry.
I was awestruck. In my line of work I have met a lot of famous people and by now have known my fair share before they got famous. But this is Ben from Ben and Goddamn Jerry! For me to get star struck you need to either be in the E Street Band, on The Simpsons or Ben and/or Goddamn Jerry.
After I got off stage I made my way over to meet Ben and Jerry in person. I extended my hand as I said hello. Neither man would shake it. Instead, Ben grabbed me for a hug and actually licked the side of my face. Jerry settled for just a hug. We chatted about what flavor of ice cream they would concoct and name after me. Hopefully one day you will be able to go to the freezer department of your grocery store and pick up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Kevin Bartini Martini.
During the actual taping of the show I floated from the dressing room to the green room. Just trying to find a space where I could watch a monitor and not feel so conspicuously out of place. The occupants of the dressing room including Tom Brokaw and Neil Degrasse Tyson were dividing their attention between the TV monitors on the wall and the small talk generated by Jon Stewart and Bryan Cranston.
Once all the people who had accomplished things with their lives vacated the dressing to take the stage for the grand finale I was able to have a few moments to myself. I was feeling a sense of a sense of pride that I was able to be a part of something as special as The Colbert Report.
The wrap party was a mix of old friends, office mates and some of the most influential people in the world. A projector ran a continuous slide show featuring some classic moments and memorable guests from the show mixed in with candid staff photos.
I made a point to talking to as many of the guys on the crew that I have come to know over the years. Many will be going to the CBS show this summer but nothing is guaranteed. For this reason the wrap party didn’t feel as much as good bye as I’ll see you in a few months.
At midnight I had a nice surprise that put a button on the night. My friend Jeff from Chicago had just watched the finale at home and saw that I was given an on screen credit. To have my name listed on the credits was a wonderful surprise which had never happened before. It is not customary that the warm up comic is listed in the credits. This was a kind gesture from the boss. I was glad that Jeff had sent me a text message alerting me to the honor while I was still at the party. It gave me the opportunity to thank Stephen Colbert any his Executive Producers personally.
Not long after Mr. Colbert took the stage at the wrap party to deliver an impassioned thank you to everyone who helped make the show possible, he and I shared a few moments. He greeted me with a warm smile and a bear hug. We chatted not as boss and employee, legend and peon. We spoke as one comic to another. I congratulated him on consistently crushing it for the entire run. I thanked him for the honor of letting me be a part of his show then we chatted briefly about the new show.
And with that a chapter in my career that I will always rank amongst the top came to a close. Swinging my swag-bag by my side I walked through the cold early morning streets toward the C train. I couldn’t help but to keep scrolling through the pictures in my iPhone, just to convince myself that everything over the course of the last few hours had really happened.
Kevin Bartini is a stand-up comedian. He has warmed up audiences for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. On his podcast The Movie Preview Review he and guests review movies based on only their previews. He has written for HBO, Comedy Central, MSNBC and The Readers Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KevinBartini.