The comedian wanted people to laugh. But not all the time. Sometimes, not at all.
Ryan Reiss typically spends his evenings warming up studio audiences for Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” show. Big guffaws are in demand. On recent Friday evenings, however, Reiss has held forth in a different studio at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, asking visitors to clap and show their energy – yet remain mindful that some moments of the program they are about to see won’t be very funny.
Some may get them angry. No matter what you hear, he reminds them, keep in mind one rule: No booing.
On these Fridays, in the studio once reserved for Megyn Kelly’s morning program, MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes bounds out from backstage and offers – while standing on a set festooned with elaborate video walls – an energetic monologue (it’s “more like TED-talky or narrative storytelling than news delivering,” Hayes says). He then presents lively conversation and visits with guests like Richard Engel, the NBC News chief foreign correspondent who was recently in the midst of war-torn Syria, or the celebrated New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. The hour-long shows take place in front of a live studio audience (as well as the one sitting home watching on TV), and the crowd can clap or voice disapproval depending on what is said.
“There’s a real tone thing we were most worried about,” acknowledges Hayes in a recent interview. “How do you do a news show in this environment, when the fact is on some nights the news is really grim?”
So far, audiences seem to be toeing the line. Last Friday, people sitting in Studio 6A were spotted laughing, and sometimes even gasping. But they didn’t disrupt the proceedings, which has given MSNBC enough courage to keep Hayes’ Friday nights in front of a crowd – the only primetime program on the nation’s various cable-news outlets to adopt such a format on a regular basis. He is also continuing to deliver his “Why Is This Happening” podcast before live groups. On Monday, Hayes will join writer and director Adam McKay and author Omar El Akkad for a talk about climate change in media and culture, all before onlookers at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles.
“I think in general, overall, we feel like we have got something that we really like doing, that the audience seems to like. The bosses like it and the host likes it,” says Denis Horgan, executive producer of Hayes’ program, “All In With Chris Hayes.” Though the production team is still tinkering with the execution, he expects Hayes to continue to make a Friday date with a live crowd. “I would not be surprised if this was our permanent Friday show,” he adds.
MSNBC tries out the concept as more TV news outlets are trying to harness new energy for programming. Next week, “CBS This Morning” plans to televise a “town hall” forum on mental health in front of a live audience in its second hour. CNN has spent more time in recent months broadcasting town hall specials with Democratic candidates, all with a crowd taking part. Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” invites a live audience in once a month. NBC News spent significant time and energy broadcasting a forum on criminal justice with Lester Holt from Sing Sing Correctional Facility. And ABC’s “Good Morning America” introduced a live audience to its second hour in 2016.
“There’s something really thrilling about it,” says Hayes, who notes that even most late-night shows (except Bill Maher’s HBO program) are usually taped and not broadcast live.
The spark for the idea came last February, when Hayes did a live taping of his “Why Is This Happening” podcast with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at New York’s Grammercy Theater. Hayes warmed up the crowd himself, no jacket and tie in evidence, and some top executives in attendance – NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack; MSNBC president Phil Griffin; and MSNBC senior vice president of programming Jonathan Wald – could not help but notice the anchor’s enthusiasm. The reaction among some of the network folks present was to try to find a way to harness Hayes’ animated spirit for his TV program.
“We have just had various occasions to be in front of live audiences, whether it was with town hall shows we have done or specials that we have done around the country, or even shows during 2016 when we would talk to audiences during the campaign in taverns and small theaters, “ says Horgan. “I think we have really seen a different energy whenever we have the show in front of people. I think Chris thrives on it, and he feeds off the energy. It’s just an idea we have had for a really long time about doing something with an audience with the show, and we are certainly taking more opportunities to do so.”
Hayes says he relies on the theater experiences he cultivated in college and high school. He and some high school friends, including actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, “were part of this student-run theater. We directed, acted, performed, wrote. I did some of that at Brown. I was directing and acting and writing and performing. I did a solo show, directed a musical,” Hayes recounts. “I have spent a lot of time in that world and the world of a room with lights on and a bunch of people.”
Producers have devised a Friday-night program that is different from what Hayes fans see during the rest of the week. Gone are “Thing 1” and “Thing 2,” two quick segments the host wraps around a short commercial break. In their place are longer segments that allow Hayes to hold deeper conversations with the guests. And the show makes use of the technology of Studio 6A, which allows for fluid panoramas of pictures to float on various studio walls. When Hayes tossed his show to MSNBC’s 9 p.m. host, Rachel Maddow, the audience saw a massive picture of her broadcasting from elsewhere in the building. Horgan says TV viewers saw the usual split-screen exchange the two normally hold each night.
Over the next few weeks, says Horgan, producers will likely work to make the Friday night program look a little more like the “All In” viewers see Monday through Thursday.
Hayes thinks the live programs show he’s gained new traction over the course of nearly seven years in primetime. He joined MSNBC in 2011 as the host of “Up With Chris Hayes” while working for the progressive magazine The Nation. That show featured longer-form interviews with panelists and an intellectual bent. Primetime, says Hayes, brought different requirements. “I had a long period of adjustment,” he notes, and had to come to terms with delivering information to cable viewers who might dip in and out of the program, rather than watching the whole thing. Now, he says, he understands how to “bring some of that discursive or informal energy from a podcast or ‘Up’ and add it naturally to the show.”
Before Hayes’ program started, the warm-up comedian promised the audience that people who contribute in a positive way might get a reward. At the end of the hour, he was spotted giving a coffee cup to one man who responded to some of the jokes. Hayes isn’t the only person getting something out of the new format.