The 2020 Emmy-nominated variety talk series — Comedy Central’s “Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and CBS’s “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — all had to quickly pivot at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This came with a one-part content adjustment to balance discussion of the virus and how the government was handling it into their programs, but it also included a severe production change, as the hosts had to set up at-home studios.
“Late Show” executive producer Chris Licht says in late February, before the official stay-at-home orders and production shutdowns, Tanya Michnevich Bracco, supervising producer and executive in charge, brought up the scenario that a spread of the virus could mean they wouldn’t be able to come to work.
“I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous,’” Licht says. “To her credit and to the credit of the rest of my senior staff, they didn’t listen to me. They actually made contingency plans and moved forward as if we’d have to leave the [Ed Sullivan] Theater and eventually do the show remotely and that’s why we were in a really good spot.”
Licht also credits “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” showrunner Prashanth Venkataramanujam, though, because he sent an email to a group of late-night showrunners who often get together for dinner that said, “What now?,” which led to everyone talking and comparing notes, collaborating rather than seeing each other’s shows as competition.
“That has been so incredibly helpful because there are so few people on the planet who knew exactly what we were going through,” Licht says.
The answer to “What now?” became, “The show must go on — but remotely.” This meant they needed to get the proper software and equipment in place, as well as get the rest of the show’s personnel on-board and adjusted to a new way of working.
“We had a virtual control room a couple weeks in,” Licht says. “The director’s at his home, calls the shot. The [technical director], on her laptop [in her home], could switch the shot.”
Overcoming the challenges of remote production has been a step-by-step process, says Alison Camillo, executive producer, “Full Frontal.” Though one area that hasn’t been a big adjustment has been working with hosts: The rapport remains, but rather than face-to-face contact, everything is done on FaceTime or Zoom, or via text.
“Full Frontal” produced a few of “Beeing at Home” online shorts from the woods outside Bee’s upstate New York home as a proof-of-concept for themselves and TBS executives.
“Sam wanted to do it outside,” Camillo says, noting that once the location was set the team faced more questions. “Can Sam upload from her house? Can we get a prompter on an iPad for her to rig up with what they have at the house? [Exec producer] Miles Kahn loaded up a truck with equipment, put on a mask, dropped it all on their lawn and ran.”
One of the earliest challenges “The Daily Show” faced was how to adapt the show to the lack of an audience. “We had to look at graphics and how to move the pace along so it doesn’t just sound like he’s in a cavernous place with no laughter,” says showrunner Jennifer Flanz.
Jokes that might elicit a groan from the studio audience became OK to do without an audience. The show added conversation gags in which Noah plays two characters talking back-and-forth, including Noah-as-Donald Trump talking to Noah-as-former President Obama.
“We don’t do that in our normal show in front of the audience,” Flanz says.
Additionally, “The Daily Show” went from 35 minutes to 45 minutes after remote broadcasts began, to keep from cutting guest segments short. Longer episodes also allow more breathing room for the show’s six correspondents. Similarly, “Full Frontal” lengthened segments by “three or four minutes,” Camillo says, because before pivoting to remote production, their team “never realized how much time audience laughter takes up.”
Flanz praises the show’s editors as one of the keys to the remote broadcasts, nicknamed “The Daily Social Distancing Show.” “The show is so heavily edited right now and they’ve been so creative and innovative in how the show is being presented,” she says.
However, technical challenges still abound, even months in. Bee upgraded from an iPhone 10 to an iPhone 11 to shoot the show, the team added color correction elements after a batch of episodes were already done, and soon they will also face winter weather in an outdoor setting.
But, these are all challenges worth facing for the greater good, notes Camillo.
“I know Sam feels this way, too, we can’t go back to the studio until we can guarantee people are safe,” she says. “We’ve figured out how to do the show remotely, so why take that chance? So we’ll still do it remotely and then take into account that there’s going to be a blizzard at some point before there’s a vaccine.”
On Aug. 10, “The Late Show” returned to a studio setting, though not its usual home, for show tapings. A makeshift set was built to resemble Colbert’s office in an auxiliary studio in the office building that houses the “Late Show” offices, which remain largely empty as the majority of staffers continue to work from home.
“This might sound weird but the Ed Sullivan Theater is kind of a sacred place where you have this relationship with an audience,” Licht says. “It’s more than a studio, and I don’t think we want to go back there until we can be with the audience.”
Neither “Full Frontal” nor “The Daily Show” have return dates set yet.
“We’re just trying to be safe for everyone and consistent for the audience,” Flanz says. “If we go back and someone gets [the virus], then we’re back at home for two weeks from Trevor’s apartment again.”