Last year, shortly after the release of my book, I got the most exciting news a writer in modern-day America can get. My publisher told me, ecstatically, that I'd been invited to be a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Some embarrassing dancing followed.)
A week later, I was in a car on the way to The Daily Show's studio on the west side of Manhattan, where I was ushered through an unmarked door and into the show's green room. It's one of the stranger green rooms I've ever been in. Instead of the usual fruit-and-muffin spread, it has a hulking candy bowl on a table. Next to a closed-circuit TV that plays the show while it tapes, there's a large Lucite box filled with board games. Over the past 15 years, countless celebrities, heads of state, and emblems of authority sat on the sofa in this room, eating Kit Kats while awaiting their turn across the table. And then, all of a sudden, there I was.
(Note: it's impossible to write about going on The Daily Show without sounding insufferable, but I'll do my best.)
But the weirdest part of The Daily Show green room experience wasn't the candy, or the board games, or imagining myself in the seat where Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bono had once sat.
It was the gift bag. The amazingly weird gift bag.
Like some other major talk shows, The Daily Show treats all of its guests to a tote bag filled with free goodies. Back in 2010, former guest Ethan Watters wrote that the contents of his swag bag included a "Monopoly board game," "one huge bottle of Cherry Flavored Vodka," and "a package of those Nespresso packets."
But mine didn't have any of those things. Instead, here's what it contained:
A pack of vegan, gluten- and sugar-free "EatWhatever" breath freshener ("2 Steps to Kissable Breath"), a multi-pack of Focus gum, and two containers of SkinnyEats salad dressings (blue cheese and honey french flavors), which you spray onto your salad out of a pressurized can.
A pack of Serendipity 3 frozen hot chocolate, a pack of mini-cupcakes, a huge package of peanut brittle, a "cake in a cup," and some coupons for free key lime, strawberry, and chocolate milk-flavored vodka.
A coupon for more free peanut brittle, and a bag of popcorn.
And finally, some actual swag: a Daily Show t-shirt, hat, and gym bag.
Except for the apparel, none of the gift bag items made much sense. It seemed like a random assortment of old foodstuffs the show's producers had wanted to get out of their office pantry. (More likely, it was a random assortment of old items that the show's producers had gotten for free from vendors hoping to promote their products to The Daily Show's more elite guests.)
Since that night, I've been asked a lot what it's like to meet Jon Stewart and appear on his show. As you might expect, it's pretty great. (I spent about 80 percent of the night in an anxiety blackout, but the portion I remember was incredible.) Jon was charming and funny, his staff was kind and professional, and the questions I got were markedly more thoughtful than any I'd been asked on my book tour.
It's sad to see Jon Stewart step down from the desk, not least because it will mark the end of one of the great capstone experiences of American book publishing. His retirement means that no more authors will get the bizarre, memorable experience of sitting on his green room sofa, nervously chewing on gifted peanut brittle while awaiting their time on stage.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but the Daily Show gift bag represented, to me, the posture of the show at its best – quirky, unselfconscious, a little unhinged. It was the perfect thing to peek through as I was trying to calm my fraying nerves backstage. And long after tonight's finale extravaganza, I'll wonder if Bill Gates, George Clooney, and Madeleine Albright still have those giant, pressurized tubes of salad dressing sitting untouched in their pantries, as they are in mine.