05/20/2008 11:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Backstage at Colbert

Let me say one thing at the outset: if they had been passing out D minuses on the report card at Pixieland Kindergarten, I would have received one in arts and crafts. Asking me to take a pair of scissors and cut a straight line across a piece of paper is like asking Jack Daniels himself to put one foot before another in a field sobriety test.

Knowing all this, I should have realized I did not have all my wits about me when I decided to undertake a relatively ambitious project just minutes before I went on the Colbert Report last Thursday to talk about my new book, The Candy Bombers. I landed at JFK airport at a little past 7 on the morning I was supposed to go on the show. Stuck in a middle seat on the plane, I had slept fitfully, if at all. I was jet-lagged and groggy. But somehow, on the ride into Manhattan, I hatched a plan. I wouldn't just come onto Colbert prepared for battle, I would come with a prop: my own handmade version of the kind of candy-laden handkerchief parachute that Hal Halvorsen and the other candy bombers had dropped to the children of Berlin.

I got to the hotel and took a nap. I awoke in time for a radio interview, grabbed lunch at a nearby New York food truck, and returned back to the hotel for another radio interview. I finished and then turned to try to respond to some of the many emails from friends wishing me luck on the show. From the tone of most of them, people seemed to think I was really going to need it. I looked up from my laptop and it was a little after 3:30. The car from Colbert's show was coming to pick me up at six.

I had some handkerchiefs and Hershey bars that my publisher had sent me that were left over from the promotion packets they had sent out. Now I needed string to make the parachutes. I quickly realized I had no earthly idea where in Times Square I could get a roll of string. New York t-shirts? Yes. Jumbotron TV screens? Check. Broadway show tickets? Absolutely. String? Not so much.

I set out on a quest for this mystery material and finally found a drug store that, after a long search, was able to produce some string for me. I brought it back to my hotel, picked up some scotch tape and scissors from the front desk, and came up to the room. I laid it all out on my bed and immediately knew I had little idea about what to do next. I have spent the past four years obsessively researching every aspect of the events covered in my book. What were people wearing on a specific day? What was the weather like? What did the rooms I describe smell like? But I had only an academic understanding of how these parachutes were actually made. I had seen and handled them. I had looked at diagrams of instruction. But actually making one was a whole different question.

It was now past 4:30. I still had to get washed and shaved before the show. And here I was, with an hour and half before I had to leave, not spending my time thinking about what I actually was going to say before an audience of millions, but trying to cut little lengths of cheap string into even pieces, tying one end into holes I was making in the handkerchiefs, and then tying the other end around a Hershey bar. I did it four or five times before one of them looked halfway decent. I was terrified that the Hershey bar would fall out of my knot on the show and so I lashed it to the string with the scotch tape.

Finished, I quickly got ready and went downstairs where the car was already waiting. I suddenly felt the jetlag kicking in asked the driver if he could wait a minute while I got some coffee from the Starbucks next door. He said it was no problem. I asked if he wanted something and he laughed and said he didn't. When I got into the car, the driver, a Polish immigrant, said, "You know, I'm sure they will have coffee for you there." Good point.

It just took a few minutes to get to the studios. I was shown into the "Green Room" which was not green but had a fruit platter and some giant slabs of carrot cake laid out for me on the coffee table. And, yes, they had coffee.

Before long, a few of the show's bookers and producers wandered in and, with minutes before show time, we found ourselves in a wide-ranging discussion of politics, matchmaking, US Weekly, and contemporary German politics. They gave me my guest gift bag. If you've heard about the amazing bags that people get for presenting at the Oscars, then...this was very different. But I wasn't one to look a gift bag in the mouth. And after all who could complain about a half dozen boxes of Altoids, a 2.5 lbs drum of Cuban coffee, a bottle of Vodka, and an enormous "red, white, and blueberry" coffee cake?

I hardly noticed when Stephen Colbert wandered in to introduce himself. I don't want to be the person that reveals there is no Santa Claus, but since I've been asked a number of times in the days since: No, he is not like anything like his character. He was charming and low key. "I play an idiot on the show," he said and told me to aggressively disabuse him of his idiocy.

Once he left, I produced my little candy parachute and asked everyone what they thought about my taking on the air. They overlooked its deficient construction and said it would work well. They took from me to show the director and others and came back saying everyone was in favor of using it. In fact, I was told, there had been some discussion about whether it should be dropped onto the table while we were talking. Luckily, Colbert himself had nixed the idea. I'm sure it would have hit me in the head in mid-sentence.

The show started, I was sent into the makeup chair (I said I needed all the help they could give me), I got a last minute once over with the lint brush and then I was in the chair on the set waiting for my segment to begin. Soon the lights came on, he introduced me, ran over, shook my hand, asked me a question...and it was over.

It felt that fast. When we were done, Colbert leaned over to say I had done a good job. Some of the other staff members greeted me. I took the parachute off the table and threw it into the crowd.

Having now watched the segment a few times, I think it went pretty well. Colbert went easy on me, relatively. People have wondered if I was nervous. I certainly didn't feel nervous and while I spoke quickly, I think it is because I was trying to get as much as I could in and match his energy. If I had to do it over again, I probably would not have spent the time outlining the three bad options America faced in the blockade and spoken more instead about the lessons we learned from the Airlift and what it means for today. But, that's basically a quibble with what I did say.

After I walked off the set, I was asked to sign Colbert's "guest book." I wrote something about hoping I didn't (candy) bomb. Which is why, on air, I left the jokes to him.

P.S. The next day it was raining hard in New York (or at least much harder than it's been raining in Phoenix). It took me almost two hours to get back to JFK for my flight. The kind people at the ticket counter of an unnamed airline (it begins with "D" and ends with "elta") said they wouldn't give me a boarding pass since I was only 43 minutes early for my flight when I needed to be at least 45 minutes early. I thought I would be stuck in New York overnight. I resolved that if I was I would sit myself down and eat the entire "red, white, and blueberry coffee cake."

P.P.S. For everyone's sake, I got a ticket on Jet Blue for the last flight out to Phoenix. I got into my middle seat and started chit-chatting with the guy sitting next to me. "Looks like it's a full flight." "Hope we won't be too delayed with the rain." And so on. As you may know, Jet Blue features mini-TVs in the back of each seat with all kinds of stations: the major networks, a couple of ESPNs, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, Travel Channel, Bravo, TNT ... and Comedy Central. A couple of hours into the flight, the guy next to me flips to the repeat of the previous night's Colbert Report. He watched the entire show, including my segment, sitting next to me and never put two-and-two together.

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