Several years ago, when MLBlogs switched over to WordPress, a bunch of my blog entries were lost, including this one — a 5,400-word account of my first appearance on “The Tonight Show.” Thankfully I had saved all the photos, and the text was still archived on a third-party website, so this was fairly easy to recreate. Enjoy!
My two-day trip to California got off to a dubious start. Not only was the “limo” driver outside the airport in Burbank holding a sign on which my last name was misspelled, but there wasn’t even a limo. I had to ride to the hotel in an SUV.
I probably shouldn’t be complaining. After all, “The Tonight Show” paid for both me and my girlfriend, Jona, to fly out, put us up at the Universal Sheraton, provided the car service, gave me a $60 per diem, and also told me I’d be getting a small honorarium. Not a bad deal.
I had two contacts at the show. One of them — a “talent coordinator” named Bryan — called me while I was en route to the hotel. He asked how the flight was and told me that he and my other contact — a producer named Steve — would be meeting me for breakfast the next morning in the hotel lobby at 8:30. He almost said it with an ominous tone, and I thought I was in trouble or that I was going to be told that my segment had been canceled. I was so paranoid at that point. I’d almost gotten on Letterman a few years earlier, and when that fell through, I figured I’d never get an opportunity like that again. Now here I was 24 hours from being taped for “The Tonight Show,” and I just wanted things to go smoothly. I wasn’t THAT worried about my own performance. I was mainly concerned about all the factors I couldn’t control. What if Obama decided to drop by the studio and say hello to Leno? What if there was an earthquake? When my dad was on Oprah about a decade ago, his segment was interrupted by a breaking-news story about a plane crash.
Speaking of Obama, Jona and I watched the presidential debate in our room, then met up with my half-brother Joe and his fiancé for dinner. We went to CityWalk. It was tacky and fun. We picked a restaurant called the Daily Grill, and I ate a surprisingly good Cobb salad. I really wanted the fried chicken but didn’t want to get bloated right before being on national television. Whenever my weight fluctuates and I gain a couple of pounds, it goes straight to my face. What’s up with that? Why can’t it go to my left calf or some other worthless body part?
Jona and I went to bed at around 11pm (which felt like 2am) and woke up a little over seven hours later. Don’t you hate waking up before the alarm goes off? That’s what happened. I was so worried about sleeping through breakfast that I sprung awake before it was fully light outside. Not good. This was THE day, and I’d been hoping to get as much sleep as possible.
I went downstairs at 8:27am. There were a few people milling about the lobby, but they looked more like tourists than NBC bigwigs. I wandered outside and saw a big guy standing around who looked a bit like Lenny Kravitz. Was THAT one of the guys I was supposed to be meeting? Nah. He looked like he should be on camera, not behind it, but sure enough, he looked over and said, “Zack?”
It was Bryan.
Steve showed up a few minutes later, and we all walked inside the lobby and headed down a curved, carpeted staircase to a fancy restaurant. We each got the $20 buffet — their treat, of course. I didn’t get to eat as much as I wanted (which was a good thing) because Steve and Bryan only had an hour, and they had me talking nonstop. I told them about my involvement with Scrabble and Arkanoid, and I mentioned my other dorky pursuits, but they wanted to stick to baseball. That’s what the segment was going to be about, so that’s what we discussed. Steve asked me a bunch of questions, and I told a bunch of stories, and he gave me an idea of some of the things that “Jay” would probably be asking me. I suggested demonstrating the glove trick on-air, then pulled it out of my backpack and actually showed them how it worked, right there in the restaurant.
“Sorry,” I said, “hope I’m not making a scene.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Steve. “This is L.A. No one cares.”
The trick worked on the first try (which it usually does), and they loved it. Steve started thinking about how to incorporate it into my seven-minute segment, and we talked about how he might have me climb up on Jay’s desk and do the trick from there.
That was pretty much it for breakfast. It was 9:30am. I had five hours to kill before a car would be taking me and Jona to the studio, so we went to a place called The Grove, which is basically an outdoor mall. The highlight for Jona was going to a natural food market called Erewhon and getting raw milk. Jona is a health freak, and I mean that in a good way, but sometimes she makes dietary choices that I just can’t be a part of. This was one of them. Raw milk is supposedly much healthier than regular/pasteurized milk, but there IS a chance that there could be bacteria in it — but if you eat lots of organic food (as Jona does), you’ll be so healthy and have such a strong immune system that you’ll be able to fight off these natural forms of bacteria. (Isn’t this interesting?) Raw milk, you see, is illegal in New York. It’s illegal in most places, in fact, but in California, if you know where to look, you can find it. So here we were. And THIS is how I spent my time getting ready for my appearance on “The Tonight Show.” It would’ve been the perfect distraction if Jona hadn’t been asking me every eight minutes if I was nervous.
I really wasn’t that nervous. I’d been interviewed about my baseball collection hundreds of times, so what was the big deal now? The only pressure I felt was due to the fact that if my segment sucked, it would be archived online forever for the whole world to see, so I was thinking more longterm about it all.
After Jona got her milk, we visited the gigantic Barnes & Noble so I could sign all their copies of Watching Baseball Smarter. How many copies did they have?
And it was all the way upstairs in the sports section on the bottom shelf with the spine facing out. I was not too happy about that. Seriously, how is it possible that a book that was about to be shown on the goddamn Tonight Show — the eighth best selling sports book in America the year before — could be so buried and forgotten by such a major bookseller? It is HARD to be a writer. Think about all the authors who don’t get to be on TV with their books. I’m lucky because I have a hobby that people in the media like to talk about, so I keep getting free plugs, and yet I still struggle to have my book seen. It would’ve been nice to walk into the store and see a few stacks of the book sitting on a table with a big sign that said, “As seen on ‘The Tonight Show’ on October 8, 2008” or something along those lines. Really, is that asking too much? I know there are a lot of books out there, and that every author thinks that his/her book deserves to be on a table in the front of every store, but c’mon.
Jona and I made it back to the hotel by 1pm. I made a few phone calls, answered some emails, and changed into my outfit. THE outfit. I’d picked out the top half — my black baseball cap and gray MLB shirt — and Jona had picked out the bottom: gray acid-wash jeans and a cute pair of shoes from Sketchers. I never would’ve considered wearing those shoes. In fact, I didn’t even own them until Jona took me shopping and bought them for me two days earlier. I thought they were hideous when I first saw them on the shelf, but she made me try them on, and I actually liked them. They were sporty but not too sporty. Not too colorful. Not too big or too plain. I felt good about the outfit. That had been one of the biggest sources of stress for a few days, during which time I received numerous requests and offers from people who wanted me to wear their companies’ stuff on the show. Yeah right. I didn’t want to turn my segment into a commercial, and I wouldn’t even have been allowed to do so. Steve had told me that I couldn’t wear ANYthing with a logo on it. When I mentioned the MLB logo I was hoping to wear, he said that would be okay since it fell in line with the subject matter.
The “limo” was there right on time, and off we went. Jona had made her own interesting fashion choice: a turquoise button-down shirt with a blue and white polka dot tie. I thought she was joking when she first described it. Was she going for the clown look? (Some people ARE into that, you know.) I really thought she’d lost it, but she insisted it’d be cute. (It was.) This was L.A., she reminded me (well, technically Burbank), and she wanted to look nice for Jay. I was told that we’d get to meet him before the taping of the show, and that surprised me. When I was on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” in 1999, I didn’t get to see Rosie until the cameras were rolling; when I complained about it to my dad after the fact, he told me that that’s nothing unusual — that hosts rarely interact with their guests beforehand because it diminishes the spontaneity on the air.
Ten minutes later we were at the edge of the NBC complex:
We passed through the security tollbooth, then rounded a few corners, and eventually saw this:
See the blue car in the photo above? That was Jay’s car. Here’s a closer look . . .
. . . and let me say now that I got permission to use all these photos on my blog.
A security guard greeted us and led us to Bryan, who led us to another security guard, who gave a backstage pass to Jona, who was SOOOO excited as we were led to the green room. I was excited too — being on TV hasn’t gotten old yet — but I’d been through it before so it was cool to see her reacting to everything. It’s like when you show your favorite movie to a friend who’s never seen it; you kind of get to experience it yourself from scratch because you imagine how they’re experiencing it. You know? Same thing here.
We walked through a generic-looking hallway and reached the green room. MY green room. This was the sign on the door:
They’d spelled my name right! Woo-hoo!!
Here I am (slightly blurry) standing at the door:
In the photo above, you can kinda see the food and drinks that were provided. There were two trays, one with fruit and another with veggies. There was also tea and coffee, as well as a fridge with bottles of juice and water. I could’ve requested a beer, I was later told, but I avoided all this stuff and just ate a chicken salad sandwich I’d brought. I didn’t want to ingest caffeine and/or sugar and get all jittery. My energy was fine. My mental state was fine. I didn’t want to throw it off in any way.
Here’s a look at the green room:
Do you see the little white thing sitting on the end of the shiny counter? That was a gift bag. Here’s a closer look:
There was a box inside, and yes, the logo on it was upside down:
When I took the top off, this is what I saw:
Here’s a closer look:
Even better than the watch was the envelope taped to the side of the bag. It contained the following card:
It was great to have a personalized note from Jay, and I got to return the favor when one of his many assistants poked his head into my room and asked me to sign his guest book. So I did. Right across from James Taylor:
Bryan had left me and Jona alone in the green room for a few minutes. Then Steve showed up to talk about the segment. He had a list of questions that Jay was going to ask–
“Oh, and here’s Jay right now,” he said.
“OH!!” blurted Jona as I looked up, and Jay Leno was indeed standing right in front of me. He was wearing an all-blue denim outfit and LOTS of makeup. He said a quick hello, shook our hands, said he’d see us later, and was gone in five seconds. It would’ve been nice if he’d hung out a bit longer, but I still appreciated the fact that he’d even stopped by.
Steve went over the segment with me. I asked questions about what I should say, not because I wanted him to put words in my mouth, but to get an idea of how long he wanted my answers to be. I expected every second of the segment to be scripted (as was the case on “Rosie” and “The Early Show“), but Steve just told me to have fun with it and say whatever I wanted, and he encouraged me to just be myself. I didn’t need to be told that, but it was still nice to hear.
You know what wasn’t nice to hear, at least at first? That the glove trick had been scrapped from my segment. There simply wasn’t time, or at least the producers felt it wasn’t worth making time for. But then again, maybe this was a good thing. By not showing the glove trick, I was protecting it as a secret. (Of course, I’ve explained how to use the trick here on my blog, and I also gave a tutorial on it in my first book, but you know what I mean.)
Steve led me and Jona out onto the set and gave me brief instructions as we went, such as where to enter and where to walk. He reminded me to shake hands with Dana Carvey (who would remain on the stage during my segment) and had me sit down IN the actual seat next to Jay’s desk. He told me NOT to belt out my words as if I were on Broadway, but rather just to talk like I normally would because I’d be miked up and everyone would be able to hear me just fine.
I noticed that Jona wasn’t even looking at me. Her eyes were wandering all over the room, trying to take it all in.
Steve led us back to the green room and left us alone for a few minutes.
Carvey walked by and disappeared into the next room. Gilbert Godfried walked by wearing full (and cartoonishly ugly) drag. Ho hum, just another day in Hollywood.
Bryan dropped by and asked Jona if she wanted to stay in the green room during the show or sit in the studio audience. She wisely picked the audience, and he led her off.
I was all alone with about 25 minutes until the taping would begin. My segment wasn’t going to start for another 45 minutes after that, so I had quite a bit of time to ponder my life and the state of the universe.
Jay walked in. He was wearing a suit and tie. He LOOKED like Jay Leno. Very cool. Just the two of us. He asked me if I was ready and told me we were gonna have fun and said it was a great story. He had a clipboard with a list of questions that he was planning to ask — the same list that Steve had been carrying 10 minutes earlier — and he looked at it and told me how he was going to start.
“Mind if I take a look at it?” I asked.
He didn’t mind at all, so I stood right next to him and peeked at it and we talked a bit longer about how the segment was going to play out.
I told him I’d heard that he was going to hold up both of my books during the intro, and he assured me that he would. I said that if there was ONE thing that I wanted to get into the segment, it would be my new book — Watching Baseball Smarter.
“We’ll get it in there,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
That made me feel great, and it took all the pressure off. I didn’t care if he mentioned How to Snag Major League Baseballs. I didn’t care about plugging Watch With Zack or the Argosy Book Store. I just wanted him to SAY the words “Watching Baseball Smarter” on the air and hold up the copy that my publicist had FedExed to Steve several days earlier. Like I said before, I didn’t want to turn my segment into a commercial; the only way I intended to sell myself was by being fun.
Jay left my room, and I was left alone once again.
I ate a cool, thin piece of pineapple.
Kevin Eubanks walked by, saw me standing in the doorway with a few baseballs in my hand, and shouted, “Go Phillies!”
“Phillies?!” I said with a hint of amusement. “I grew up as a Mets fan. Get out of my face!”
He walked all the way down the hall and shouted “Go Phillies!” again.
“Yeah, keep walking!” I yelled, and he looked back and smiled.
I always assumed Eubanks was tall. He has a tall personality, doesn’t he? But he’s not tall. He’s a few inches shorter than me, and I’m 5-foot-11.
I got some makeup — just a little powder so I wouldn’t be shiny — and went back to my room for the start of the show. Steve walked in and adjusted the volume on the TV. We watched Jay’s opening routine while talking more about my segment. It was weird to hear the audience’s laughter coming from just down the hall AND to hear it on TV at the same time.
Steve left me alone again, and I started sweating — not a lot, but just enough that I worried I might end up with sweaty armpits if I didn’t do something about it, so I grabbed a towel and started dabbing myself. I wasn’t really nervous, just amped up.
Jay did a hilarious segment that mocked the presidential debate, then did another segment with Godfried (who was pretending to be the wife of the world’s fattest man), and then Carvey was on. He was funny. VERY high-energy. Tough act to follow. My armpits were still sweaty, though thankfully my shirt wasn’t sweat-stained. It was pretty crazy to think that in just a few minutes, I’d be sitting right where Carvey was — that *I* was going to be part of a show that I’d been watching on and off for years.
Steve came back, saw me holding the towel under my shirt, and told me that the first time Dara Torres was on the show, she was “pittin’ out” in the green room as well. He then left me on my own and told me he’d come back for me during the commercial break just before my segment. Carvey stayed on for a second segment, and when I heard the band start playing, I knew it was my time.
Steve came and got me and asked if I was ready.
“No,” I said. “I’ve actually changed my mind about being on the show.”
He led me down the hallway, reminded me to be myself, and told me there was now an extra minute for my segment, so instead of seven minutes, I was gonna be on for eight. Cool.
He left me with the stage manager. She was going to tell me when to walk out. The band was still playing. I knew I had a minute or so before I’d be out there. I could see a sliver of the audience and looked for Jona. I had no idea where she was sitting, and I didn’t see her.
I wasn’t nervous. My heart wasn’t beating any faster than if I’d been watching the show on TV. I know that might sound crazy, but it’s true. It almost creeped me out. I was aware of how UN-nervous I was and wondered if there was something wrong with me — if I was trying to trick myself into thinking I wasn’t nervous — but no, I truly wasn’t nervous. Five minutes earlier, when I’d been watching Carvey on that little monitor in the green room, I’d told myself that there was nothing to be nervous about . . . that this segment wasn’t even being aired live . . . that I wasn’t being seen by millions of people . . . that I was only being seen by the few hundred people in the studio audience . . . and that I wasn’t talking to them . . . that I only had to think about having a conversation with one man . . . and that it was a conversation I’d had countless times in the past . . . so really, what was the big deal?
The band stopped playing, and I heard Jay start introducing me. He mentioned Watching Baseball Smarter, and out I went. I just tried to have fun at that point.
Here’s a screen shot from the segment:
Is the segment archived anywhere online? I have no idea, so let me know if you can find it, and I’ll add a link. For those who did manage to watch it, you might be interested to know that the four balls I brought out were:
I got to show the first two, and I would’ve shown the others but we ran out of time. What can I say? I tend to be rather verbose when people get me talking about catching baseballs.
Two other things of note:
1) I’d been trying to figure out how to sit in the chair. It seems like celebrities are always crossing their legs when they’re interviewed on talk shows, but that’s not my style. BUT . . . I didn’t want to sit there awkwardly as if I didn’t know what to do with my limbs. So I decided to rest one arm on the chair and sit slightly tilted toward Jay. The tilt also worked well to hide the baseballs early in the segment, so yeah, although I might’ve looked all loose and casual, which I suppose I was, it was all carefully planned. Ha!
2) You might’ve noticed that I left a comment on my previous entry in which I said I was going to give everyone on the blog a collective/secret shout-out by taking a sip of water as my segment went to a commercial break. Well, I *did* take a sip, but it never made it onto TV because instead of fading out, the producers slipped in the Beltran footage, which was great, but it bumped the shout-out.
Speaking of the commercial break, I spent it sitting on the stage and talking to the guys. Carvey started by asking me, “So where DO you position yourself to catch all these balls? Over HERE for righties and over THERE for lefties?” I answered him briefly and then Jay told me I was great. I told him he made it easy for me by being so nice. Carvey agreed I was great (“very smooth,” I think he said) and asked me if it was my first time on the show. I said it was and asked him how many times he’d been on. “Forty or fifty,” he said, and we talked more about nervousness. He said it’s tough doing comedy because he feels like he HAS to be funny, and with that feeling comes a lot of pressure. Jay asked me about my family’s book store. I told him it was called “Argosy” and said it was right near Bloomingdales. He said he knew about it, and I believed him, given the fact that lots of A-list celebrities have been there over the years. That’s when Steve walked up onto the stage and told me that during the following musical performance by Marc Broussard, Jay was going to get up and walk over near the band and I was supposed to walk over with him and Carvey.
After the performance, Jay walked right down in front of the band, and Carvey started heading that way as well. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to walk all the way down there, and apparently I was, so Carvey waved me over, which was cool, but I knew it probably looked like I was a total amateur. Then the two of them teamed up to film a few teasers for the show. We were all standing around and shaking hands for half a minute after that. I heard Broussard tell Carvey that he was a huge fan. I told Carvey that I have a friend who looks so much like him that people mention it at least once a week. “I’m sorry,” he said. Jay thanked me for coming on the show, and I thanked him for having me.
Then I was led over to Jay’s desk and had my picture taken with him by a professional photographer. Steve had told me early in the day that that would happen after the show, probably so I wouldn’t feel the need to harass Jay to take a photo with me in the green room. Jona made it down to the stage, and she jumped in with us for another photo.
It was then that I noticed a fellow ballhawk named John Witt in the audience. He was being led out of the building, and I was being ushered back to the green room, so we quickly shouted at each other and planned to meet outside.
Just before I was about to leave, I had Jona take a pic of me with Steve and Bryan. Here we are:
Steve then walked me back into the studio and grabbed a sign for me off one of the low-hanging rafters — a bonus/parting souvenir. Here it is (next to the watch to give you perspective):
Jona’s cousin Joey was in the audience, but he hadn’t gotten to sit with her. We didn’t even know whether or not he’d made it in until after the show. I was also looking for my friend Leigh Barratt (aka “padreleigh”) but didn’t see him and didn’t know whether he’d made it. It was all very rushed and chaotic. I wanted to linger and take it all in, but I was led outside and the “limo” was waiting for me. I told the driver that I wanted to catch up with a few friends before he took me back to the hotel, and he was fine with that. I called John. Jona called Joey. We found out where they were, and John suggested that we all meet across the street at a gas station.
I’d never met John before — not in person, that is. We’d talked on the phone for 40 minutes before I left for Burbank, and we’d emailed on and off for years, but this was it. Finally:
We’ve snagged over 7,000 balls combined. You’d never know it by looking at us, right?
John had grabbed a stack of tickets for the show. He had me sign about half a dozen of them (so he could try selling them on eBay) and gave a few to me. I wonder if Carvey saved stuff like that after his first appearance on the show.
Jona caught up with Joey . . .
. . . and the three of us went out to dinner. They wanted to go to a nice place on Melrose (I forget the name) but I really wanted to get back to the hotel by 8:35pm — that’s when the show would be airing on the east coast — so we went to CityWalk, which was right next to the hotel, and suffered through a lousy meal at an Italian place called Buca di Beppo. Joey suggested that we go there, but since I’d insisted on CityWalk in the first place, I’ll take half the blame.
By the way, in case you’re wondering how I transported my precious baseballs, I wrapped each one separately with paper towels and rubber bands . . .
. . . and put them all in a plastic shopping bag . . . which I carried in my backpack . . . which NEVER left my side except when I had to put it through the X-ray machine at the airport, at which point Jona strategically kept an eye on it.
After dinner, Jona and I went to our room and watched some lame shows on NBC, hoping to see one of the teasers for “The Tonight Show,” but they never came on. Meanwhile I talked to my parents during Carvey’s segment and told them to call me after I was on, which they did, and they both said I was great, which was nice to hear because I hadn’t yet seen myself, and I had NO idea how I came off. I started getting a bunch of emails and phone calls and blog comments and friend-requests on MySpace. Crazy. Really . . . crazy. The nicest email I got from a stranger went as follows (and was typed in big blue letters):
Just wanted to say I saw you on Leno last night and you gave me a laugh and a smile which I really needed. You are so cute and just a pleasure to watch … I wish you had been on longer. Keep making people happy.
Sandy (61) in Lockport, Illinois
It was so weird to think that my appearance on TV was sweeping across the country as the show aired in different time zones — that millions of people would be seeing me before the night was through — and it got me thinking about fame. I realized (if this makes any sense) that I’m the most famous person that most people who know me know, and yet 99.9 percent of the people watching Leno that night probably thought “Who the f*ck is Zack Hample?!” when they saw my name at the start of the show. Oh well.
I was exhausted. I wanted to go to sleep. I truly didn’t care about seeing myself on TV, and I actually did fall asleep for a while. Jona woke me up just in time to see Jay holding up my books. And then I was on. I thought I did okay. I wish I’d spoken a bit slower, and of course I hated my voice (does ANYone other than Morgan Freeman enjoy hearing their own voice?), and I wished I’d talked less about batting practice and more about snagging balls during games, and I thought of a few extra jokes I could’ve made . . . but what can you do? At least it wasn’t a disaster, and eventually I fell back asleep.
The next morning, I took Jona to the buffet — eggs, cheese, bacon, sausage, potatoes, bagels, cream cheese, lox, donuts, croissants, danishes, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, pineapple, granola, oatmeal . . . and that’s only what I had time to eat before we had to head back upstairs and pack and check out and leave for the airport.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve already done a few radio interviews (including one that will be a podcast on NPR) and been written about on a blog on the USA Today web site and spoken to someone at ESPN. It’s been crazy. It’s been a great ride. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t even know if anyone is actually reading this. I can’t believe how much I’ve written, but I wanted to get this all down to document it for myself, if nothing else. Hopefully, if you HAVE read all the way to this point, you’ve enjoyed it.