I was sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas when the call came from my publisher in New York: The! Daily! Show! Wants! To! Talk! To! You! About! Your! New! Book!
“Wha? Wha? Wha?” I breathed into the phone. I went all numb and tingly.
“Are you okay?” the press publicist asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, eventually composing myself. “Talking to smart funny Jewish guys—this I think I can do.”
“Oh no,” my husband said, looking stricken. “What if I go into a-fib”—that’s atrial fibrillation, a benign heart condition he has—“when we get there? What if I ruin everything?”
Anxiety–it’s like the Jewish champagne. Something to celebrate? Pop the cork and let the neuroses bubble up!
Six days later, we are in New York City. I’ve studied the Daily Show set and bought a new red dress in a classic Diane Von Furstenberg wrap style to match. Husband is with me, and we both keep pinching ourselves to snap out of the unreality of the situation. THE DAILY SHOW! JON STEWART! The MAN!
Thursday morning, we scoot about town on various book-related appointments and errands, and as the clock ticks closer to five o’clock, I feel the nausea beginning to descend. I usually prep quite extensively for any radio or television I do, and I have a pre-interview with a producer that helps me anticipate what the show will be asking, but this time was different. On the phone, the producer told me, “I really have no idea what he is going to ask.” In my head, I run through the important notes I’d like to hit and think about ways to avoid the most unproductive avenues of discussion as well. My dear friend Claire reminds me not to put too much pressure on myself. “You’re human, dear. Be human!” She’s right. And nothing else is sticking. Back in the hotel room, I try to handwrite out a few main points to get my head focused. But the focus does not happen.
Husband David is getting ready too, and I ask him to put some music on. He’s always bringing the good stuff to the family equation, especially food, sports, laughter, and music. That’s his department. (Nagging, to-do lists, homework, chores, and urgency—that’s my department.) He dials his iPhone to some early Dr. Dre and Snoop songs we both love, and that helps me channel my nervous energy into a better place. We bounce our heads to the hip-hop, smiling totally crazy luck we’ve found ourselves in. THE DAILY SHOW! JON STEWART!
At 5:15 we get into the car and go to the Daily Show studio on the far Westside of Manhattan. As we pull up, we see the lines of people in front for tickets. “Last night they got to see Chris Rock,” I joked to my husband. “And tonight it’s like—who? Joanna who? Book of Mormon what? Poor suckers!”
We enter the studio at a little side door and head for the green room. (That’s what they call the place you sit and get nervous before the show—whatever show it is. Rarely is the room actually green.) The Daily Show has the nicest green room I have ever seen. There is a couch and television and cute vases and a stylish coffee table with a giant bowl of candy on it. There is a schwag bag waiting for me with beauty product samples, gourmet bite-sized cupcakes, and Daily Show gear. And my name is in a frame by the door. I stand in front of the sign and make a goofy face. David takes a picture.
In the room, the press publicist and my editor are waiting with me and David. I work with some truly lovely people at the Free Press, and my editor Leah had made the bad Mormon dessert—the strawberry jello pretzel dessert with the recipe at the back of my book—to celebrate. We settle in, and I start pounding mini Reese’s peanut butter cups from the giant candy bowl.
The producer comes in and greets us. I thank her for the chance to be on the show. She says, “Jon really liked your book.” Which makes me, of course, stoked. And I tell her that in studying the Daily Show website prepping for the show, I notice that he regularly has on women authors from underrepresented backgrounds to talk about their serious books, and how I saw that pattern, and I knew it reflected a conscious effort, and how much that means to me. The producer tells me they do really try to get women guests—it’s a priority for them. And that it can be hard to find women who write non-fiction on the kinds of subjects they cover, but they try. So, take heart, brainy women—there is a place in popular culture for us. And it is the awesomest place–The Daily Show.
The producer turns on the television and excuses herself. The clock says 6 o’clock. The opening graphics for the show roll, and we think for a moment we might not get to meet Jon Stewart. That on this night, of all nights, he is too busy to come back and see us. Alas! But then, from the end of the hallway, I hear that unmistakeable voice singing a boisterous “HAVA NAGILA HAVA NAGILA HAVA . . .” and clapping along.
Oh. My. Heart.
He is short—but not as short as you may have heard. He’s about 5’7” or 5’8”. About the same height as my husband. Which I’ve always thought to be the perfect height, but I’m biased. And 5’3”.
He is also very intense, but in a powerfully good, generous, funny, and deeply intelligent way. He was in the green room exactly the mensch you see on your television screen.
He gives us a huge hello, shakes hands with everyone—me last.
“I bring greetings from the Mormon feminists of America,” I said, “who adore you, and they send these pioneer bonnets as a token of their adoration!”
And I handed him the bonnets made by feministmormonhouswives.org founder Lisa in festive star of David and Hannukah fabrics–with ironed on Feminist Mormon Housewives labels–and he chuckled and smiled and examined them with appreciation. And then I handed him the bonnet made in a fetching blue wool by Reese Dixon. “This one,” I said, “My friend Tresa made to match your handsome suit.”
He was delighted.
And then he spied the bad Mormon dessert on the table.
“What is this?”
“It’s a bad Mormon dessert,” my editor explained. “Strawberry jello pretzel pie.”
“I want to taste that!”
I started fishing around to set him up with a spoon and a plate and he took a big bite of the Jello-Cool-Whip concoction and says, “That’s not bad at all! I like that!”
Someone jokes about the Jello-Cool-Whip Mormon thing, and David vocalized his usual complaints about the yucky goyishness of the food, to which Mr. Stewart replied, “And you think kasha varnishkas are any better?”
I, for the record, really like kasha varnishkas.
And I like Jon Stewart.
He recommends a Romanian restaurant in town where there is real live schmaltz on the tables. He and my husband pose with the pie. He and I pose with the bonnets. There are photographs.
Then he starts monologuing to us about religion: “You know, it gets inside you like a resin, and it never comes out. It always makes you feel different. More responsible. When I was a kid, my neighbors were all Italians and at Passover I’d go to school with my hardboiled egg and my matzah in a bag and Johnny so-and-so would be eating pizza and he’s ask, ‘Why you eating crackers for lunch?’ and I’d say,” he put on a forlorn and quizzical voice, “’my ancestors were slaves?’ And years later I’m sitting in college getting ready to light a bong and feeling so guilty inside and why? I’d say to myself,” he reassumed that forlorn and quizzical voice, “’my ancestors were slaves?’”
Genius. There were some more friendly words about how much he liked the book, and some talk about 1980s Mormon end-times tuff, and then BAM he was off to start the show.
We watched the first segment from the green room—oh heavens—he really took it to Mitt Romney. Jon Stewart was on tonight! Amazing timing. Amazing energy. He was just ripping giant holes in the ridiculousness of the 2012 campaign, especially the bickering of the last few weeks. But I was in a panic, seeing that intense energy. What if I had to come in and pick up the pieces for poor Mitt? I left the green room and started pacing the hall, trying to do yoga breathing, trying to find my stillness, and praying my “please-give-me-the-right-words-to-say-and-let-me-not-screw-up-too-bad” prayer. I like to think of myself as a normally sort of calm person, but I gotta say, I was in a bit of a spell. David came out to check on me and make sure I was okay. “I can’t watch right now,” I told him.
The second segment was a wild little story about “Redneck Olympics” in Maine, that included a bawdy detail or two. Note to self—David and I thought—call his parents back at home and tell them not to let the girls watch segment two!
Then, it was my turn. The producer materialized at the door, smiling. The make-up lady put one more dash of powder on my face and we started down the long and winding hallways through the Daily Show offices and sets. Halfway to the stage, we encountered a dog—the Daily Show is the dog-friendliest workplace in the world, they say, with lots of staffers bringing their dogs to work. Here was this darling black terrier-border collie mix, just standing there in the hallway, and being a dog person, I gave it a big pet and tried to absorb that canine calm. We continued on down the hallway, and as we rounded the corner I saw the red and blue lights of the set, and heard and felt the energy of the crowd. He had a big rocking Nickleback (I think) song pumping, and the energy was intense and masculine. It was nice to have a crowd there. I lecture to 200-person halls all the time on my day job, and I enjoy the give and take of the energy. It’s so much better being able to feel and read that energy than being in an oddly quiet studio with a host and a camera, and cameramen counting down, and invisible television beams shooting out across the miles. Too quiet! I like human crowds better.
And so BAM! He’s back from break, and he’s reading my short bio! And all of the sudden, I’m walking across the stage with a big smile and taking my seat at his desk. There are about 215 people in the audience, including a posse of Mormon friends, and as I walk out I am trying to look out at the audience for my friends. The energy is so positive and enthusiastic, I want to wave and make goofy peace signs and say, “What is up, everyone! CAN YOU BELIEVE A REGULAR MORMON GIRL IS DOING HER THING ON THE DAILY SHOW! This is just CRAZY!” But instead I concentrated on making it to the chair. I did not trip! I did not hurl! Hallejullah!
And what happens next I don’t really remember, except being right there and saying to myself, “Yes, this is Jon Stewart, and I AM ACTUALLY TALKING TO HIM ABOUT A BOOK I WROTE.” Wow. Just wow.
I also remember registering the energy in that chair as being way, way, way more intense than any energy I have experienced elsewhere in the little bit of radio or television I’ve done. It was like having 1000 laser beams on you. DUDE IS INTENSE. In a very good way. He’s just brilliant. He knows the narrative arc he wants to achieve, the argument he wants to frame, and he knows how to do it in exactly the right time frame for the episode, with timing and jokes, and energy. BAM. Super, super impressive.
It took a question or two for me to warm up. And some of the best stuff happened in the web section. We covered all the important stuff: Word of Wisdom, Joseph Smith story, gay Mormons, dance festivals, food storage, and Mitt Romney. . . .and more.
Can you believe how supportive he was of The Book of Mormon Girl? Again, what a mensch. So generous. And when it was over, he leaned across the desk to me and said, “You know, the point is to demystify. Demystify African-Americans. Demystify Jews. And that’s what you’re helping do with this book for Mormons.” He patted the book appreciatively. Yes, I thought, I hope people can see us as human beings. I love the mystery of faith, but its humanity is just as important.
I shook his hand. And smiled and walked back off stage, with lots of energetic cheers from the audience, and this time I did wave, I think. I felt full of smiles and I thought of that sound a gymnast’s feet make when they strike the mat squarely after a good routine. I was quite relieved.
Everyone was extremely nice as I walked back down the halls—the dog was standing in the exact same spot, and I gave it a quick pat of appreciation for chilling me out. I met my smiling husband and editor and press publicist, and then it was time to gather our schwag and head out into the muggy warm Manhattan night, where I met my dear friends Russ, Travis, and Eric at the stage door exit. All smiles. All around.
Big old thank yous the folks at the Daily Show and all my friends who were pulling for me—especially my Mormon feminist posse, who I know were pulling deep. Gratitude! And enjoy the book. Good things can happen when we tell our stories.