The Emmy race for variety talk series took a dramatic turn at the end of March, when the late-night shows all found themselves pivoting to a new, at-home format. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down most TV productions, but the talk shows were able to continue — albeit with makeshift setups that grew more professional as the weeks went on.
It remains to be seen whether the coronavirus will affect the competition, particularly given how little movement there has been in recent years. The 2019 nominees — “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Late Late Show With James Corden” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — were all unchanged from 2018. And “Last Week Tonight” has won every year since 2016, after Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show.”
But the remote telecasts have managed to shake up the form in new ways, including a lack of a studio audience and a looser, casual feel among some hosts. Others have tweaked their formats while still leaning into the reality of the situation. And because they’re mixing things up, many of the shows have even adopted temporary, alternative titles: “The Late Show” is now “A Late Show,” while “The Daily Show” is now “The Daily Social Distancing Show.”
Bee is hosting from the woods behind her New York home, Oliver is filming in front of a white backdrop in what appears to be a closet in his house, and “Watch What Happens Live’s” Andy Cohen was in his home office before recently relocating to the Hamptons.
“Late Late Show” executive producer Ben Winston tells me he still recalls how quickly everything changed. On March 12 shows had opted to go audience-free; by the next day, it became apparent that things were being shut down completely.
“It was a crazy couple of days,” Winston says.
Late night is a competitive place, but this newer generation of talk shows has also developed a more friendly camaraderie in recent years. An email chain among showrunners has become an invaluable way for everyone to plan their response. “It’s a really lovely group, where we’re very honest and share what our plans are and sort of support each other,” Winston says.
Some of the more antsy late-night hosts began posting at-home videos on YouTube that turned into DIY monologues. Soon, those clips were put on air — and the shows began returning, this time from the hosts’ homes.
Winston says “Late Late Show” took a bit longer to return because Corden first focused on a primetime special, “Homefest,” which he shot from his garage.
“It was important to us that when we did come back on air, we had a certain amount of production value,” Winston says. “I remember us saying, ‘We’re going to be doing this for a while. This is going to take us at least to the summer break, so we might as well come back with a show that we think is right.’ We have a prompter and an auto cue, we have a mixer, who can send clips down the lines. We essentially invented a TV studio that really works and is really functioning, with a talkback system. We can even remote control the cameras.”
The toughest part has been finding the right tone. “We’re a show that relies on atmosphere and vibe, and to be in a garage talking to the band every night, it’s tricky,” Winston says. “We’ve also started to write the show a little bit differently. We don’t write the show with punch lines. We’ve tried to work out what we can do that would work within our format, rather than trying to fit our old format into a garage.”