David Letterman famously helped Americans rebound from the trauma of 9/11 with a stirring monologue delivered from the stage of his show’s home, New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater. Now his heirs are working to do the same – from a basement. A garage. A self-styled ‘bunker.’ A backyard. With their kids. In the woods.
The coronavirus pandemic has rendered late-night TV as we know it impossible to produce. Performing in front of a live audience is untenable in this moment, and what guests want to make the journey to stages in New York or Los Angeles at such a time? But the nation’s late-night hosts are betting on lo-fi workarounds that look nothing like the glitzy showcases to which viewers have been accustomed since the days of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson.
“Is this the new normal?” asks Jamie Granet-Bederman, a producer with NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” who has worked with the host for more than a decade. “It’s just, every day, it gets a little more normal, I guess.”
This evening will offer a test of sorts for how routine it all might become. CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” TBS’ “Conan” and Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” are set to return to broadcast on TV – all produced with staffs working remotely and the hosts largely isolated at home. And there’s more: CBS in primetime will air a special featuring “Late Late Show” host James Corden, who will hold forth in his garage. They join Fallon’s “Tonight,” which has since last week offered a hybrid of the host’s antics with his family mixed in with “best-of” clips from past years. Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central has featured a “social-distancing show” for the past several days, and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” joined the fray last Wednesday with a show taped in the backyard woods of her home. John Oliver revived HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” on Sunday “with a show that’s clearly going to look a little unusual,” he told viewers.
“We just decided that there’s no reason not to do the top of the show down and dirty in some location not in the studios, and then talk to guests over FaceTime or Zoom or Skype or whatever,” says Jeff Ross, Conan O’Brien’s longtime executive producer. The host “likes to work. He likes to make stuff, as we all do. We are in the business of making content.”
Not like this. Many of the hosts have begun delivering jokes, monologues and even guest interviews with the help of iPhones and iPads, with printed-out papers subbing for cue cards and kids’ voices filling the role of the show band or regular sidekicks like Fallon’s Steve Higgins or Kimmel’s Guillermo Rodriguez. There can be issues with sound quality and video connections. Jimmy Fallon has had to tell his kids to let him finish an interview with a guest before he can help them with some computer tasks. Jimmy Kimmel found an ersatz sponsor for one of his recent “mini-logues” – an old bag of lentils.
David Spade has worked to keep his “Lights Out” show on Comedy Central in the mix with a series of “from the bunker” digital interviews, panels and monologues. He hopes people will still want entertainment, no matter how different the programming looks. “It’s all about images on the screen,” he says. “You’re watching whether we are wearing a ton of makeup or not.”
Sometimes the hosts look like they are sending out random video dispatches in the hopes someone – anyone – might hear them in a world that has suddenly grown more dystopian.
Indeed, the video segments sound more like small-scale conversations. “One of the first things Trevor said when he decided he was going to be doing the show alone from his couch was that we should think of it as having a completely different rhythm — more like a podcast than a comedy TV show. He’s not trying to tell the same jokes in the same way as if there was an audience, especially since he’s talking about pretty serious stuff. Besides, it doesn’t make sense to try to get a big laugh when there’s no one to laugh,’ says Daniel Radosh, senior writer at “The Daily Show. “Really he wants it to feel like you’re sitting around with your funniest friend. The idea is more to catch people up on what’s been happening in the world from Trevor’s perspective, and just enjoying his company.”
The shows must go on. Colbert, Fallon and Kimmel, the three most-watched hosts, bring in more than $400 million in ad revenue per year, according to data from Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. More advertisers have rushed to late night TV in recent seasons, knowing their commercials will get in front of a younger crowd that tunes in for topical content at prices that are often cheaper than primetime dramas and comedies.
There is clearly an interest in the programming, no matter the production values. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading voice in how to fight the pandemic, visited Noah on Comedy Central last week in a bid to reach younger viewers. Still on a virtual campaign trail, former Vice President Joe Biden paid Kimmel a visit last week – even though the segment was only being made available via digital means and not on TV. “A lot of folks are wisely spending most their time at home right now and are understandably anxious and concerned,” says TJ Ducklo, a Biden spokesman. “Vice President Biden hopes to be a source of comfort and reassurance during a really hard time, which platforms like Jimmy’s and others allows him to do.”
Hosts and staffers alike have been unsettled by the process. Fallon’s “Tonight” taped a last show at its usual studio in New York in front of just a few writers and staff. “It was such a strange day,” recalls Granet-Bederman. “Everyone’s focus was split on their families and the show. We were just trying to figure it out.”
One thing that’s helped all the programs is a different concept of competition than their predecessors had. David Letterman’s antipathy for Jay Leno was well known, and Kimmel made no secret of his disdain for the former “Tonight” host. But this generation of late-night productions – Johnny Carson could likely never have imagined a day when there were so many of them – are more collegial. A digital communications chain has been in place among various executive producers for some time, and many of them gave each other early word about recent decisions to halt production or start up again with new formats. The discussion has helped guide each show’s own choices in an uncertain time.
No amount of late-night camaraderie can change the fact that everything the shows did has to be jury-rigged and recalibrated in new fashion. In normal times, a guest might be booked based on the news cycle or a new project that is about to be unveiled. Now, producers have to take into consideration the quality of their wi-fi connections. “Everything we think up is taken on as a challenge,” says Jen Flanz, “Daily Show’s” executive producer and showrunner. “Because we couldn’t do man-on-the-street or sit-down interviews, our field team has really risen to the occasion and found ways to produce some very informative and funny pieces.”
On Monday morning, Mike Shoemaker, one of late-night’s veteran producers, was gearing up for a special trip to help his host, Seth Meyers, get NBC’s “Late Night” back on TV with a remote interview with Senator Bernie Sanders. “I’m bringing a tape measure. Six feet. And gloves,” says Shoemaker. Meyers started producing signature segments like “A Closer Look” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” last week, but once he starts talking, Shoemaker notes, “no one can break in” and help guide him if things don’t sound or look right. Meyers has for the past few days done set up all the technology necessary to beam his material into the ether. “The person he misses the most is not me, but Wally Feresten, the cue card guy. Wally understands Seth’s rhythms,” says Shoemaker. “Now he’s using a prompter, and it’s a machine.”
In times like these, there’s room for imperfections. “It’s really hard, but you do what you can. We’re used to sitting in edit bays designed for optimal audio and picture quality, with trained professionals at the ready to fix any issues,” says Rob Crabbe, an executive producer at “The Late Late Show.” “Now we’re spread around L.A. on laptops and desktops with headphones, trying to separate audio and video issues from noisy children or bad wi-fi. So it’s a work in progress. But at least we’re all figuring it out at the same time.”
The situation has created drama for shows normally built on comedy. Samantha Bee did her last traditional “Full Frontal” broadcast in front of a handful of friends and staff at a midtown studio facility where John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is also taped. She started holding forth in her backyard. “At the end of taping that last show, it felt like we might not be coming back to this building for a really long time, and it really felt like we might not be shooting from this building for a really long time,” Bee says near the woods where she taped last week’s show. “We kind of gathered up some equipment and stuff and kind of absconded with it We just raided the office supplies. It just seemed like a reality that we might have to do something out here, because it’s all unknown.”
Sheila Griffiths has been working with Bill Maher for nearly three decades. She has been with him during the cancellation of his late-night series “Politically Incorrect” at ABC and any number of controversies at his “Real Time” on HBO. “This has kind of been the one thing we never would have anticipated,” she says. “There have been so many different challenges.”
Maher’s program will return this Friday, but not in exactly the same format. The show, normally broadcast live, relies on a series of different segments – a monologue; a one-on-one interview; a panel of three guests; a second interview; and a series of “New Rules” jokes and an end piece. “We are going to adhere to the format as much as possible for now. That could obviously change. We have been planning on filming it from Bill’s backyard, and obviously we can’t have a round table the way we normally do, but we will have two one-on-one guest interviews that will come to us via Zoom. We haven’t quite figured it out,” says Griffiths. “It’s fluid.” Producers, she adds, won’t do the show live, at least for now.
Even the inventive Corden is trying to figure out how to make a show work under such surreal circumstances. “So much of our show is about interaction with people, whether those are the sketches or interaction with our audience and the audience at home and all the bits we put into our show,” he says in an interview on Sunday. “We are putting thought into that now.”
Helping viewers process tragic circumstances has only recently become a hallmark of late-night. Johnny Carson might crack jokes about presidents, but he’d rarely tell viewers his opinions on hot-button topics of the day. That policy no longer binds late-night hosts. Colbert, Bee and Meyers aren’t shy about sharing their worldview. Indeed, it’s part of the appeal of their shows. Bee raised eyebrows in 2016 with a seven-minute monologue about assault weapons after a mass-shooting tragedy at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Colbert gets much notice for his nightly broadsides against Trump, but he’s also weighed in on accusations of sexual harassment against Leslie Moonves, the former head of the CBS network that broadcasts “Late Show” each weeknight. Even Fallon, who has been loath to embrace politics, has discussed shooting tragedies on air.
Little wonder, then, that the wee-hours personalities want to get back to some sort of business. The world is ready to hear from them. “Our public health crisis has forced most people to redefine boundaries between work and home, and people will want to see that blur reflected in media,” says Katie Foss, a professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State university who has examined news coverage of epidemics and how disease is reflected in popular culture. “This is a fascinating media moment as the empty living room has replaced the crowd-filled studio.”
But their midnight antics will have a very different soundtrack. Gone are the live-audience laughs and big band intros. “I can’t even imagine as a performer how hard that must be to deliver a joke and not have any laughter,” says Granet-Bederman. Fallon and Spade have in recent days cued up sound effects to lend his monologue jokes some punch. And producers recently managed to get his band, “The Roots,” into the proceedings.
Spade likens the new experience to putting up videos on Instagram, which he has done. “I just talk to myself,” he says. “Jokes don’t get stepped on and you can hear them all.”
Viewers will see a new side of some of their late-night favorites. Fallon’s program relies heavily on his two young daughters and his wife, film producer Nancy Juvonen. “It’s really on him. He’s doing the majority of the heavy lifting, and his wife and his kids,” says Granet-Bederman. Kimmel’s new show features singing by his children. Bee’s husband, Jason Jones, and children are assisting her efforts. One recent segment depicting Spade talking to one of the people who starred in the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King” was less about comedy and more of a spotlight on someone who had just captured mainstream interest.
Now the late-night hosts need to figure out whether what they are doing is temporary – or might become more permanent. After all, shows crafted without the use of studios and live crowds also cost less. And they can be distributed through digital means and be made available to fans at moment of their own choosing.
That’s not the biggest thing on the hosts’ minds. Even so, these are confusing times “I don’t really know what to expect,” says Bee.
Some staffers yearn for the familiar. “So much of making comedy is bouncing ideas off of each other in a room, and I think that our staff will be excited and invigorated to get back to that,” says Flanz. “I imagine, like the rest of New York City and the world, we’ll take great joy in the little things that come with being in the company of other people – like hugs, ordering lunch together, and complaining about seasonal allergies.”
Until they can chart a return to the norm, the late-night crews hope to keep people interested and entertained. “What’s important? Do you like it? Do you laugh? Is it fun to watch?” asks Spade. “If it is, then who cares if it’s a $2 million product or 500 grand or 200 bucks?” That’s something David Letterman probably never had to consider.
—Will Thorne and Marc Malkin contributed to this story