As a genre, the talk show has two core functions — to engage with the state of the world and all the “hot topics” that mark our passage through history, and to pleasingly distract. And both of those functions have already been put to the test by a fast-moving, endlessly growing story that swallows up everything, even the virtual community the chat-show offers.
Several daytime talk shows have already canceled studio audiences, including “The View” and “The Wendy Williams Show”; shows including “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” will do so starting next week. The manners of staging a show without trucking in spectators vary: On “The View,” the chairs sit empty, while on Williams’ show, her staffers stand in for an audience. But in both cases, the shows feel alien, bizarre. The best that we can hope for is that someday in the future, we see them as a document of a time that only looked like the beginning of the end of the world.
In Williams’ case, her March 12 show began with her taking a long beat before her “audience,” employees who had to be there anyway. She seemed visibly emotional for a moment, before saying that this new set-up would be in place “until corona can be conducted properly.” The difference between this audience and one comprised of eager tourists getting their first-ever looks at Williams in the flesh can’t be disentangled from the dolefulness of the moment — did these staffers seem less enthused, more indulgent in their little chuckles at the boss because she was indeed just the boss, someone they see every day, or because the idea that the coronavirus will be “conducted properly” in the short term feels like a fantasy? Williams’ description of the manner by which her staff came together — culminating in an evening feast of Mexican food together the night before — felt like an attempt at rendering, through 21st century pop culture, the spirit of the blitz. In the face of news that is the opposite of fun and light, a doyenne of gossip toils on surrounded by her support staff.
Or so, perhaps, the thinking went. But the broadcast seemed scattered and lost, leading the “Hot Topics” segment with news on Harvey Weinstein’s sentencing, but then pivoting with no segue into a flat reading of the line “DaBaby has a way of staying in trouble, but making music people like…” Absent a real audience, Williams seemed diffident and unmotivated in reading news frankly far less significant than, say, the reason she had no audience. The same was true of “The View,” which didn’t even try to fake an audience; that show, without even staffers to play to, has taken on a halting cable-access vibe. Whoopi Goldberg shouting “Welcome to ‘The View’!” to unoccupied chairs to open the March 11 broadcast, the first without guests, was sort of funny. But what came to feel eerie was how the most discursive table in talk found themselves stymied by the moment, with Meghan McCain blankly talking about how, as a creature of the news world, she appreciated the quiet in order to fill air time and guest host Elisabeth Hasselbeck driftily asking, “Where are my friends?” The eventual debate over whether or not the American people should panic came — in what must have been a “View” first — without the requisite burble of response from the audience. That seemed to settle the case for the affirmative.
Talk shows get their charge from an audience that’s been whipped up into a lather of excitement beforehand and that convey their excitement, through the screen, to viewers at home; a host talking directly to camera, or just to her staff, feels necessarily absent a key tool in her arsenal. The airless interview with Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt on “The View,” for instance, seemed diminished by the fact that its participants were playing to no one; it seemed to unspool simply because all had agreed it would happen, a poor justification for any enterprise.
To be very clear, canceling the audiences for these shows was the only sane choice; it’s also one small part of a story that, for the entertainment industry alone, will have yet-wider-reaching implications. But it’s a choice that comes at the expense of the life of the show, replacing it with something whose chief characteristic is its determination to carry on even as, diminished in the face of a crisis about which the show’s hosts have nothing real to say, it addresses the moment only in its form, not its content. “The View” and “Wendy Williams” — and, soon enough, late-night comedy shows — are still airing in part because of contracts and market realities, but, also, because canceling the broadcasts for now feels like an admission of defeat. For now, though, these shows feel less like joyful distraction in a crisis than like a dispatch from a scared and dark world, one whose walls close in a bit more daily.