"I am calling to tell you," the voice on my cell phone said, "that I'm being fired and you're being fired." The caller was Georgia Pappas, line producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Having wrapped up my morning appointment out in Lake Success on Long Island, I stood in the mild air beside my car to listen to my messages. Georgia's was the first.
Then, things got sillier.
How I Got Hired Before I Got Fired
To give you some background, this was the spring of 2006, the first year Jon Stewart hosted the Academy Awards. His workload was crushing, since he kept up his usual chores hosting The Daily Show while preparing for Hollywood.
Further complicating things was Ben Karlin, a brilliant writer and executive producer, who was not handling the pressures as well as the seemingly always level Stewart and publicly referred to himself as "an asshole."
I got involved because, as an account manager with The Daily Show as my highest profile customer, I was the point person for computer technology support.
That situation deteriorated from difficult to disastrous that morning, while I eased my way out to Nassau County for a relatively calm meeting.
Over the past week, strange things had occurred with the internet while Jon and his team were developing scripts for the awards show, bouncing them back and forth with producers in Hollywood.
I waded knee-deep in this only because my high profile customer and one of television's brightest stars expected my our technicians to solve a problem that had them baffled.
What happened was this.
Every day, usually in the afternoon, the internet slowed to a crawl at The Daily Show. It might stay stuck that way for hours.
It never happened before, and the timing now could not have been worse.
For a number of reasons, The Daily Show and its young staff, almost all of them younger than Stewart, depended on the internet for news feeds, music and, honestly, diversion. When it dragged, inertia spread across the cubes like ice water.
This morning, something worse happened. The internet went down completely, dead and silent.
Karlin, who seemed to serve as the angry, aggressive side of the producing duo with Stewart, exploded, storming into Georgia's office, letting her know that she as well as the useless technology company (mine) she hired were on their way to oblivion if the internet did not buzz to life immediately.
That's when Georgia left me the message.
But before I retrieved it, other calls had stacked up, creating a stream of messages following hers.
Can You Be A Grown Up For The Daily Show?
Looking back, even as it was a little at the time, it's funny that anyone believed I was the key to a solution.
A Mac user in a universe run by PCs and their staunch advocates, I still hadn't figured out why you had to use the Start Menu to shut down a PC. The Wintel world seemed to rest largely on absurdities.
But turn to me in a crisis they did.
The most levelheaded conversation I had as I drove into the city was with my boss, Todd, a practical guy who had navigated plenty of technology crises of his own.
He explained that our lead engineer wanted me on the scene because he thought that would calm things down.
"What am I going to do, flip the internet switch back on?"
"You might get it fixed faster than our guys have," Todd joked. "Seriously, though, can you get over there and see what you can do?"
Then, I talked with our engineer on the scene, a man roughly ten times smarter than me who said, 'I think they need to see someone in a suit."
He said that twice, for emphasis, which made it seem only slightly less crazy.
I was wearing a suit, pinstripes, crisp shirt, neat tie and polished shoes. So, I filled what seemed a silly prescription.
Really, my shoes weren't that polished, though. It was my lingering concession to my days in the counterculture.
First, though, I had to go to another meeting set up by an inexperienced new account rep who asked me to come along for support.
I stuck to that because it's my firm belief that when everybody else is panicking, the best thing you can to is decline to join the stampede.
Except for Todd, everybody was panicking. I would be the calm in the eye of the storm.
Maybe I would get credit for saving the Academy Awards.
Not Our Fault, The Daily Show Is Wired Again
Since our engineer was holed up in a windowless server room, our conversations were limited as I made my way to The Daily Show, early in the afternoon. After giving up their original space to Stephen Colbert's show, Jon Stewart's team relocated even deeper down on the West Side, taking over studios vacated by the Food Channel, just doors away from where the Central Park carriage horses were stabled. If you didn't know the address, you could hone in on the odor.
Our engineer came outside to meet me when I arrived. He wanted to give me an update before I walked into the storm. He reassured me of the value of my showing up in a suit.
No one, except Stewart and his anchors, ever wore a suit here, and the idea seemed to be that I might be perceived as a grownup. Illusions can help.
But there was some good news. The internet was back up and running perfectly, releasing a lot of the tension.
"Nothing to do with us. Time Warner decided to have an outage in the whole area for a few hours, this morning. They just didn't tell anybody."
He explained this matter-of-factly. Anyone who has been a Time Warner Cable customer for even a few months in New York takes erratic service and indifference to customer needs as part of the deal, just as we did.
But knowing where to point the finger of blame for that part of the disaster didn’t help lessen the aggravation brewing all week from inexplicable slowdowns. A credit to The Daily Show, they had been able to get their shows on the air without a hitch all week, but frustration was mounting. Ben Karlin's blowup was the best evidence.
Being My Grownup Self In A Suit
I poked my head into Georgia's office long enough to let her know that a grownup had arrived, and then, I went into the server room where I joined, not just one, but three engineers who were each ten times smarter than me.
They were strangely relieved to see me.
In case you've never been in a server room, they are a humming array of hardware and wires that are the foundation of the computer network, interrupted occasionally by a keyboard with a screen filled with symbols and code mere mortals have no hope of understanding.
Some are large and orderly. Servers get hot and need airflow.
More often, the server room was established in cramped space like it was at The Daily Show, treated like a necessary evil best neither seen nor heard.
I wedged my six foot two inches in between racks of equipment and grabbed the only chair available.
The engineers were at the pushing buttons stage.
To be clear, when completely baffled or, better, awaiting a result from which you can get important information, engineers push buttons, creating the illusion of problem-solving labor for customers who are paying a lot of money for their brains and bodies.
I first learned about this tactic when a baffling situation with one of my customers required sending in an expert, an expert button pusher, that is, an engineer with dubious technical skills but an abundant personality that melted suspicion.
I remember him going at that keyboard and green screen. It was beautiful. He even talked about what he was doing as if it made sense. It's probably wrong to admire that kind of gift, but admire it I did.
The reason our three engineers were pushing buttons and/or watching buttons being pushed was, unless the slowdown repeated, they had no way to trace its cause.
They were trapped really. Without solving the problem, they couldn't leave, and until it resurfaced, they couldn't do anything else.
While we waited our lead engineer speculated on a probable cause he could do nothing to confirm
Something To Do On A Sunny Afternoon
Even after wrecking at least one firewall (installed to protect ingoing and outgoing internet traffic) that should have been sufficient, management at The Daily Show was unwilling to harness freewheeling use of the internet.
The only restraint we had ever seen was when one senior staff member was asked to download his library of pornography on his own computer after it had filled up the storage on one server. Otherwise…
These being the days of unlimited sharing on LimeWire, musical content for The Daily Show was often obtained from shared sources, and news was collected from the deluge of data beginning to swell internet content areas.
Therein, our engineers guessed, lay the problem.
Unlike most data that came across the internet, video came in a steady stream.
It could not be broken down like normal data, and for that reason and because of its natural bulkiness, it clogged the pipes when it streamed.
Given the timing of the slowdowns, late in the day, we speculated that someone was logging into a Daily Show video feed, from somebody’s desktop, when they got home from school or work and turned on their computer.
LimeWire would instantly resume downloading or feeding whatever was incomplete from the previous session.
Maybe somebody was feeding or downloading porn or pirating shows. It was impossible to know.
Nobody admitted anything, but interestingly, when word got out that our engineers were watching, for the first time in a week or more, it did not happen again.
As our expensive guys sat there, pushing buttons in a windowless room on a beautiful spring day, the internet hummed along like the gem it was supposed to be.
To kill time, I sneaked off to the break room to snatch whatever junk food was around to compensate for another day without lunch.
Walking out of the server room began to feel like entering heaven.
All's Well That Ends.... Well...
Late in the afternoon, all three engineers and I met with Georgia in her office to explain what we thought happened and why we could not confirm it.
After an exhausting day, not really satisfied, Georgia was happy enough to still have her job and the pressure off.
She looked exhausted, as did her assistant, Pam, who had been working under the same gun.
For whatever reason, the internet problem never surfaced again, and we were soon back to normal.
Jon Stewart went on to host the Academy Awards to mixed reviews. His stature on TV continued to rise, and for a few more years, I was able to brag about my role, trivial though it was, in his and Stephen Colbert’s success.
Nobody besides my wife and our much smarter than me engineers had to know how trivial it was.
I was the grown up in a suit.
Georgia Pappas and Ben Karlin were not so lucky.
Within a year, both were gone, but even in their absence, both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report got better and grew into solid resources for entertainment and, amusingly, news on cable TV and the internet.
The crazy demands of daily TV production can warp reality.
In this situation, I didn't mind getting caught up in it all.
What's you zaniest work experience?
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