The moment I stopped understanding how entertainment worked anymore happened when I was invited to a party in Adam Savage’s secret workshop. Adam Savage used to be a MythBuster on the show “MythBusters,” but his passion has always been prop replication. This means he would take his mythbusting money and funnel it into, say, building a perfect replica of the Maltese falcon from “The Maltese Falcon,” using the actual materials they would have used in 1941 to make actual Maltese falcons. I don’t know what those materials are. Vintage falcon malt, I guess. I don’t know. Ask him.
Adam has made Deckard’s blaster from “Blade Runner” roughly nine times: three times on his own and at least six times from other designers’ plans. He makes these things and hides them behind a blank door on a side street in San Francisco, along with Jason Bourne’s identity kit from “The Bourne Identity” and Major Kong’s survival kit from “Dr. Strangelove” and space helmets of every kind. Over by a vintage “Millipede” cabinet stands Admiral Ackbar, but now Admiral Ackbar is dressed in a British naval uniform from the Napoleonic Wars — a perfect replica of Russell Crowe’s uniform from “Master and Commander.” Every January in San Francisco there is a comedy festival called SF Sketchfest, and Adam opens the unmarked door and invites the comedians inside. It is a very popular party, and Adam sits and quietly enjoys himself as all these nerds’ heads explode around him.
I was having a good time at one of these parties, just chilling in a perfect replica of Captain Kirk’s chair, sipping on a whiskey and pushing all the buttons and making all the beep boop sounds. And then I noticed there were not one but two corgis at this party. Not replicas, but actual corgis being held by their owners in the middle of the room. Corgis, of course, are adorable full-size dogs with deformed, miniature legs. Part of the reason they are so adorable is that they always seem to be cheerful and smiling even though someone chopped their legs off, generations ago, through selective breeding. I didn’t recognize the owners of the corgis. They weren’t comedians. It seemed pretty gross to bring dogs to a nerd party just to get attention, and I didn’t like that these corgi owners were getting more attention than I was. So I asked my friend Kevin, “Who invited them?”
“Oh, they weren’t invited,” he said. “The corgis were.” Kevin explained that they were famous corgis on Instagram, and a colleague of his had invited them. This colleague was a fan — a fan of two dogs. One corgi was named Linus, and the other was named Chompers, and I’m going to go ahead and say the first and last names of the man who invited dogs to a party because I want him to be known: Conor Lastowka. Later I would do some research on these dogs. Not surprisingly, Chompers is more famous than Linus: 130,000 followers on Instagram as of this writing, whereas Linus has only around 14,000. On his Instagram account, Chompers does co-branded poses with vacuum cleaners and boutique pet foods. But Linus has the more impressive pedigree: Ch. Misty Ridge Rumblestiltskin is his sire, and his dam is Ch. Brnayr Fancy Pants.
Still, I was not impressed. I was invited to this party because I had just performed in the comedy festival, standing onstage, on only two feet, and speaking words using the power of human speech. Plus, I am able to sweat through my skin, not just through panting. And these guys, sorry, these dogs, Linus and Chompers, were invited to the same party, simply because they are DOGS ON THE INTERNET. That was when I realized that, though at this time I had spent the last decade of my life on television, as the “resident expert” and “deranged millionaire” on “The Daily Show” — plus a variety of mustachioed creeps in several dramas and comedies — I didn’t know what entertainment was anymore.
A few months earlier, I went to the Emmys with “The Daily Show.” It was 2015, the last year the show would be nominated with Jon Stewart as host. It was fun. There were no dogs there. I had been invited to go with “The Daily Show” to the Emmys for several years, starting in 2008. The hosts that year were Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst and Ryan Seacrest. All of them, onstage, talking over one another. It was the first year the Television Academy offered an award for hosting a reality show, and all five hosts were nominated. Reality television had been dominating traditional scripted television in the ratings for a decade, and scripted television had been trying to pretend it wasn’t happening. But this year the academy wanted to show that it was taking reality television seriously, and it did so by treating each of reality television’s biggest stars as one-fifth of a human being.
When I first started going to the Emmys, before you were born, there were only about 100 television shows, and all of them were on traditional television. When a show won an award, the whole house erupted in applause, because even if it wasn’t the show the audience wanted to win, they had at least heard the name of that show once in their lives. But this year, my last year, it was clear how much had changed. Now there was an almost overwhelming number of television shows. To illustrate this point, an acquaintance would ask, “If I told you that Patrick Stewart was currently starring in a brand-new TV show that is airing on cable right now, would you even be able to name it?” In fact I could name it — but mostly because I had been on two episodes of it.
There is no television anymore, but also there is only television. And now at the Emmys, there weren’t huge applause moments anymore. Just isolated pockets of clapping, like small fireworks cracking over distant hills, far on the other side of the valley, briefly illuminating neighboring towns you were never going to visit. Here is a nomination for Coach Friday Night Lights for his work on a streaming show that is about a family sitting on a Florida dock with their feet in the water, I guess? the announcer might say, and then: clap, clap over there in the mezzanine. Here is a nomination for the star of the prison show we called a comedy last year, but this year is a drama because categories are meaningless now and we don’t know what TV is anymore! Clap, clap somewhere behind me. Clap, clap. Here is a win for Tilda Swinton’s secret talk show filmed in the International Space Station and shown exclusively on the seat backs of Japanese bullet trains! (That’s not a thing, but it will be.) Clap. Clap.
It was like listening to the culture fragment in real time. There were only three moments I recall when the house really exploded with applause. One was when Jon Hamm finally won the Lead Actor Emmy for “Mad Men” after eight nominations. The second moment wasn’t even an award. It was when Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard were introduced as presenters. This was at the very beginning of “Empire,” and the bomb cyclone of cheers in the room reminded us that, at least for now, there was still a thing called broadcast television, and it reached a lot of people. And the third was Jon Stewart. Jon had already handed the show over to Trevor Noah at this point, but “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” was still eligible for the work of the previous year. This was the last time he would be in this room for this job, and it was not a surprise that he won.
Normally, the cast of “The Daily Show” would never go onstage to accept an award. That honor is reserved for the writers and producers — and I’m talking the regular, full-time correspondents, not just the once-a-monthers like me. This never bothered me. But tonight we had been warned that if we won, Jon wanted us all onstage. When LL Cool J announced the winner (us), the applause was huge. It shuddered through me, vibrating the hairs on my neck. It was the final round of Emmy applause for Jon’s 16 years’ hosting the show. It was unquestionably his moment, and we were shy now about joining him onstage. We hesitated. But he looked at us like we were dummies, and he waved us on to follow him, and we did.
There were a lot of us: correspondents, contributors, writers, producers and Jon. It took a long time for us to file up onto the stage, and by the time we were all gathered up there, our walk-up music had long since ended. Our good shoes clopped hollowly on the stage as we assembled ourselves around Jon, and that’s when I noticed: The applause had ended, too. Jon rescued the moment, of course. “Without the music, it really feels very judgmental!” he said. “It’s been 10 seconds,” he said, channeling the audience’s unspoken mind. “Entertain us!”
And that’s how he won them back and said the rest of whatever words he said. You can find them on YouTube, just the way I did. I couldn’t have remembered any of them otherwise. I wish I could tell you what it felt like to look out from that stage into that huge audience, into the millions of eyes behind the camera lenses, but I don’t remember that either, because I was standing in the back. What I could see were my friends’ backs and shoulders. Unlike them, I was always freelance. I would stroll in for a few days every third week or so, hang around and write and eat a free lunch and then get dressed up in a suit or a “Tron” outfit or whatever they wanted me to wear. I would say my words and make my faces and then go home. I was never there day to day, every day, making the show run. So I nestled myself in the background, near LL Cool J, where I belonged.
I did not expect to get emotional remembering this part. Until just now, I simply remembered it as a good night, a grace-note premise to get to the next part of the story, the part with the Property Brothers. But here I am writing this moment, and I am stuck in it, almost crying. I had entered the “Daily Show” office almost exactly 10 years earlier with no television experience, a true impostor, and they welcomed me and encouraged me and taught me. And now it was over. Jon’s final show was a few weeks before. We had all said our goodbyes. But we knew then that they were fake goodbyes, because we would be back together, one more time, at least, on this fancy field trip to the Emmys. Now, as Jon was wrapping up his words, this was over, too.
“Thank you so very much,” Jon said finally to the audience. “You will never have to see me again.”
We were ushered offstage. As we stepped behind the curtain, LL Cool J touched my shoulder.
“Congratulations,” LL Cool J said to me, of all people.
“Thank you, LL Cool J,” I said.
They took us to a backstage celebrity lounge. It was full of sofas and throw pillows and French fries — bags and bags of McDonald’s fries, arrayed on a huge table. Someone explained that we would go into the next room shortly to take questions from the press, but in the meantime, please enjoy these French fries from McDonald’s. I noticed that whenever any one of my famous friends ate a French fry, someone would sneakily take a picture. Then we were brought into another room. The light in this room was bright and harsh, and there were no sofas or fries, just dozens of cruddy folding chairs full of reporters, who were nonfamous and therefore nonhuman.
We gathered around Jon in front of a black scrim as he took some questions. Many of them were about Donald Trump, who was running for president at the time. Do you remember that? How there was a time before this time? When we thought we understood what politics was, what entertainment was and what the difference between them was? I recalled the reporters asking if Donald Trump’s running for office meant the end of satire. Jon said no. The reporters asked if Donald Trump were elected president, would Jon come back to television? “No,” he answered with clear and utter finality.
I understood how Jon felt, or at least I knew how I felt. A few years earlier, I changed my persona on “The Daily Show,” from the “resident expert” to the “deranged millionaire.” I did this in large part to make fun of Donald Trump. Because even back then, Donald Trump was appearing on cable-news channels to peddle conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s religion and place of birth. It was 2011. “The Apprentice” was winding down and struggling. Like anyone, Donald Trump wanted to stay on television, so he was trying out some new ways of doing so, such as maybe-joking about running for president and/or just wandering onto cable-news sets to tell obvious lies without any credentials other than that he was a wealthy person who wanted to talk right now. I told “The Daily Show” that we should have our own entitled, wealthy, lunatic white male monster, and that person should be me, and they agreed with me.
That bought me several years of happy work, but I very quickly learned I had made a mistake. My comedy, such as it is, has always been based on taking existing fact and stretching it out to its most absurd possible iteration. But Donald Trump was already doing that. He had been doing it his whole life. By the time of the Emmys — after he started his actual, no-joke presidential campaign by gliding down a golden escalator to accuse Mexico of rape — I had realized that there was no joke I could make that could keep up with the long-form improv Trump was laying down.
A running question I recall from my time on “The Daily Show” came from columnists and pundits musing, Why is there no right-wing “Daily Show”? And we would glibly, pridefully answer that the right could not be funny because it was, by nature, authoritarian, prudish, untruthful and dull. This was a comforting lie. Now we know that Trump was the right-wing “Daily Show” all along, but in a highly sophisticated form we never expected. We never expected that the right-wing “Daily Show” was going to be Andy Kaufman. We didn’t expect it to be a single, intensely weird and ultimately unknowable performance artist who would never break character. And he would not have his own television show but hijack all the television shows as well, as well as all those apps, streams and formats old TV didn’t understand, to surround us all in a MAGA-themed immersive theater experience the size and shape of the whole country. I didn’t understand all of that then, at the Emmys. All I knew was that Donald Trump was better than I was at Donald Trump jokes.
But let me back up a bit, because the moment when I best understood how entertainment had changed that night happened before the ceremony even began. I was walking along the front of the stage, near the rows where the most famous people sit, when I heard twin voices call out. “Hey, John!” they said. “Hey, John!”
It was Jonathan Scott and Drew Scott, a.k.a. the Property Brothers. I do not need to tell you who the Property Brothers are. I realize that now. But just in case you don’t know, they are two very nice and friendly Canadian identical twins who renovate and sell homes on TV (and in real life). I knew them a little bit from Twitter. But I did not expect to see them here at the Emmys, dead center in the third row, smiling, one in a cream dinner jacket, the other in a green tuxedo. (No. They do not dress alike. They know what they’re doing.)
“Hey, John!” they called.
“It’s the Property Brothers!” I called back.
“Are you here with ‘The Daily Show’?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
I knew they had been nominated for Outstanding Structured Reality Show, but that was awarded the previous weekend, along with a lot of the technical awards the academy relegates to the junior prom-ish Creative Arts Emmys. I also knew they had not won their category.
“Are you presenting an award?” I asked.
“No,” they said. “They just invited us!”
“Oh,” I said. I had clearly underestimated just how famous the Property Brothers were. I had thought they were just nice guys on Twitter with a little reality show. Now they were front and center, while “The Daily Show,” the liberal conscience of cable television for 16 years, was exiled to the distant tundra of far house left, along with the likes of me. The Prop Bros had no purpose here, no job other than to sit third-row center and glow in the light of the stage, just where the Emmys wanted them. I said goodbye and started my walk back to the “Daily Show” seats. I walked and I walked and I walked, until Jonathan and Drew were just likable cream and green specks near the stage.
After the whole ceremony was finally over, everyone in the theater trooped over to the Los Angeles Convention Center for the Governors Ball. Andrea Bocelli sang from atop a tall, rotating circular stage, but it was the Property Brothers who were the center of attention. Everyone wanted to hang with Jonathan and Drew Property. They took selfies with Tina Fey and Kristen Schaal, and at some point I saw Jon Hamm making out with both of them (I’m kidding, Hammy — just making sure you’re reading). They were genuinely nice and happy to be there, like a pair of famous corgis — but with actual real estate skills. At one point, Jonathan sat down at my table to talk, and I felt my stock at the Governors Ball instantly rise. After he left, people asked me: “Do you know them? Can you introduce me?” I didn’t mind. I would rather be famous for knowing a Property Brother a little than not be famous at all.
A few weeks later, Jonathan called me. They were producing some reality-television shows and were curious if I wanted to be a part of one of them. He laid out one idea, in which I would lead the audience into secret rooms and chambers all over the world. I loved secret rooms, like Adam Savage’s workshop, lounges full of French fries and the strange secret society that is TV fame itself. My career on camera was largely accidental, and, if you look at me, wildly implausible. But Jon Stewart had ushered me into this room all the same, and I had become accustomed to it — so much so that I couldn’t fathom leaving it for a reality show, even one about secret rooms. I wanted to hide in this secret room of traditional TV fame — where the lines between pretend and real life and humans and dogs were clear — forever. Even though the walls were collapsing around me.
“No,” I said to Jonathan Scott. “No, thank you.” He was very nice about it. He’s really nice. I knew the moment I hung up that I had made a terrible mistake. But then, almost immediately, I was offered another golden opportunity from Canada. A man emailed me from Toronto asking if I would come to his girlfriend’s birthday party. I wouldn’t have to do anything at the party. His girlfriend was just a big fan, and he was just a mysterious Canadian who wanted to make her happy. He said he would pay me 22,000 American dollars.
I was very torn, but this was a lot of money. Still, I didn’t want to do it. I said to my wife: “I don’t want to be purchased for someone’s girlfriend. I don’t want to jump out of a cake.”
She said, “You should do it, though.”
She was right. As always, it is better to say yes than no. Maybe this would be my new dream job, my new, genre-defying Trumpian art form of being a human corgi at a party. So I told my agent I would do it, but only if the mysterious Canadian paid me $50,000, and only if I got to jump out of an actual cake. My agent passed along my two conditions.
After that, he stopped writing back. The party never happened, and after some investigation on my agent’s part, I was led to believe that the mysterious Canadian, if he really was Canadian, had just been playing a joke on me. I was part of his new art form. Somewhere in a Toronto apartment, perhaps he has my emails framed on the wall, along with emails from all the other somewhat-famous people he has tricked. Maybe he brings in strangers to see what John Hodgman was willing to do for money.
Too bad for him. I would have been great jumping out of that cake.