When I first discovered Martha Stewart in 1995, she had a weekly half-hour show. My friends and I routinely discussed the latest “Good Thing” or a delicious-looking recipe she prepared. Even during her absurd “let’s weave our own placemats” phase I maintained a perverse loyalty to her. Post-prison, Martha Stewart’s daily hour-long show has returned to basics. So while perusing her website for eggplant recipes, I saw the “Get Tickets” link and signed up for two. Before long my friend Pat and I were on the train to New York City to watch a taping.
We were told to get on line outside the studio on 26th St. at 1230, but by noon the line was forming so we jumped in. We eventually shuffled into a backstage foyer decorated with huge color posters of Martha and her pets. A staffer checked us in and directed us to the metal detector. We sat down in a large spartan room, this one hung with photographs Martha had taken of her farm in Bedford, NY. A huge plasma TV played archived segments of her show, including a lengthy one on the proper way to make a bed. Hey, snap that duvet in place and you’re done, I thought.
While we signed release forms and munched the oatmeal raisin cookies and Perrier offered to us, we were also asked to think of last minute Halloween questions. I couldn’t, but the woman next to me did, and the segment producer thought it was a good one so she marked the lady’s ticket for assigned seating. This was to manage a supposedly spontaneous question session later.
Using a complicated system of notations and color codes on our tickets, we were called by groups into the studio. The kitchen set was beautifully appointed with its muted tones, backlit nooks, and stainless steel appliances. Since it was October, gourds of all sorts were artfully placed along with huge jars of halloween candy. A squad of chefs was fully absorbed in the adjacent professional kitchen…what are they making in there? Pat and I were surprised to see the cityscape of NYC is actually fake…and I thought her studios overlooked Manhattan.
While we waited to begin, a manic fellow named Joey rehearsed audience cues. “This,” he said waving his arms like a jazzed airplane ground guide “means wild applause,” not to be confused with medium applause which was different. There were also cues for saying “ooooooo,” “ahhhhhh,” and “mmmmm” if something looked especially yummy. I went along with it; I was after all a guest.
We were all excited when Martha finally stepped into the kitchen with the chefs and casually stirred a pot. The cameras rolled, we clapped wildly as briefed and Martha strode onto the set. She’s quite tall–close to 6 feet, and her hair style and color look lovely in person. She was wearing a long moss green cardigan–bulky and unflattering, and a curious selection, I thought, because audience members were instructed to “dress to impress” and she clearly didn’t get the memo.
The first of seven segments was an audience Q-and-A. The questions were prescreened and briefed to Martha. I noticed she doesn’t do such a good job extemporaneously. Without cue cards or teleprompter, incoherent and rambling remarks tumble out of her mouth.
For example, during one segment with Wendell Jamieson, the author of Father Knows Less, a book of stumping questions kids ask, he read “Which hurts more? To be hit by a car or stung by a jellyfish?” Martha derailed with a story of how she had once been hit by a car and how much it hurt, and in fact she had often gotten stung by jellyfish while swimming at the Jersey Shore when she was a girl. All fine and good, Martha, but this isn’t about you. Fortunately Jamieson graciously and professionally regained control of the conversation and answered. (A jellyfish sting hurts more.)
During the cooking segment with Stephane Reynaud which showcased his book Pork & Sons, she said to him, “Pretend I’m a pig.” Holding her curled palms up like hooves she said “Point to the butt.” The audience flinched momentarily as we thought she was asking him to pat her rear end. He paused, then said “Here” and gingerly touched her shoulder. Even un-cued, we chuckled.
One could almost believe Martha Stewart’s bad press after watching the taping. She’s not so much overtly rude as just clueless. She had a distance, even disdain about her. Of particular note was her lack of rapport with the audience. Compared to Emeril or Rachael Ray who appear to have a beneficial energy exchange going, she treated us like props. Even when presented with opportunities to reach out, Martha disappointed. At the end of the show I saw her ignore the mother of a child who assisted Martha in the craft segment. Martha brushed right past her and shook only the hand of the young boy.
Since we were only allowed to take photographs before and after the taping, we hoped Martha would pause briefly in front of her kitchen set after the session so we could snap pictures of the mythic woman in her natural setting. No such luck. She immediately ducked out the side door, leaving the warm up guy Joey to explain lamely that “she has a lot of meetings today.” Rude behavior considering some fans came from as far away as Michigan and Australia.
Martha’s favorite word is “I,” as in “I like to drill holes in walnuts and string my own garland,” so it’s important to mention how many people it takes to run the show. Between segments some 22 crewmembers swarmed the set, coifing her hair, clearing pots, arranging gourds, and setting up the craft demonstration. So when Martha suggests baking a ginger bread house, remember that she has staffers to do this 18 hour project for her.
When we departed the studio after 4 p.m., Pat said “Whew! That was a lot of work,” She was referring to our early wake-up to catch the train, the 3 hour trip, the trudge to the hotel, the taxi ride to the studio, and the 2 hour in-processing time.
“Yes,” I said, realizing again why I stopped watching Martha’s show–”It’s boring.” I’d squelched yawns several times while she crafted caterpillar headgear out of modeling clay.
As if I needed another reason to quit watching, Martha announced that Rosie O’Donnell would be her special guest on Halloween. Ignorant Rosie O’Donnell who implied the US military in Iraq were “terrorists.” Wacko Rosie O’Donnell who claimed that the Army is full of felons and drop-outs. Paranoid Rosie O’Donnell who accused Giuliani of abetting a cover-up after 9-11. Yes, that Rosie–I’ll pass.
The good news was our guest bag contained a hardback copy of Father Knows Less and two packages of Modeling Magic, a self-hardening clay. The tantalizing aroma of Chef Reynaud’s roasted pork butt also lingered with me, so we set out for a cafe in Manhattan that served comfort food (and found it!–Antique Cafe on 26th St–highly recommended.)
Coming this week: More blogs about my trip to NYC.