Bill Maher isn’t a spokesman for TV’s late-night programs, but on one recent Friday night, he expressed a sentiment other members of that club would have been happy to adopt. Wrapping a taped exchange between himself and two panelists, Maher cited a desire to break free of his home, which for weeks has been the center stage of HBO’s “Real Time.”
“I hope I get to go out very soon,” he told his guests, Larry Wilmore and Matt Welch. “Because, really, we could be doing this from the studio.”
As long as safety standards can be met, “Real Time” producers would like to return to the show’s set at Television City, says Sheila Griffiths, one of the program’s executive producers. That’s where Maher typically does his program, live – not taped. “There is a certain dynamic and energy that comes out of being able to have a discussion, especially a panel discussion, face-to-face,” she says. “Some of the original nature of the conversation gets lost in a Zoom.” “Real Time” is slated to go on a four-week hiatus, she says, and producers hope that when it’s over, conditions will allow Maher and limited staff to get back to the studio, though whether the show can broadcast live “remains unclear.”
The nation’s wee-hours brigade pulled off a miracle in March by moving their shows from swanky TV facilities to the hosts’ homes. Now they must do it again — in reverse, with a higher degree of pandemic-related difficulty.
Many of the shows are quietly working toward the day when their hosts, at least, can get out of the house and back onstage. Such a return would take place after weeks of using jury-rigged new systems in living rooms, cobbled from iPad cameras, editing software and hushed conversations over videoconferencing apps. In this new format, Jimmy Fallon sometimes relies more on his wife and daughters than he does on the Roots.
Any shift won’t happen quickly. At least one program is considering having only its host return this fall to the theater that houses the show — with guests, band and writers continuing to work remotely. Others are figuring out the logistics of doing monologues, sketches and more in better facilities. “We’ve all got to find new ways of doing business, new ways of making shows,” says Jeff Ross, Conan O’Brien’s longtime executive producer. “We are approaching this like it’s going to be a long time” until TV viewers see a late-night show that looks like it did before the coronavirus.
Several of the programs have changed in significant ways. ABC trimmed “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to 30 minutes to give viewers a dose of daily news via “Nightline” at midnight. Last week, Kimmel announced he’s taking the rest of the summer off to spend more time with his family. The network says it will use guest hosts to fill in for him. Samantha Bee has taken her “Full Frontal” largely outdoors, with producers adding musical guests, more “cold opens” and some shorter-than-usual segments, says executive producer Alison Camillo. At Comedy Central, which has faced headwinds in launching a companion to its long-running “The Daily Show” in recent years, Trevor Noah’s program has been extended to 45 minutes — and there’s a sense the show will remain in its expanded form, says executive producer Jen Flanz. “I think it would be hard to go back down to 30 minutes,” she says.
Given the tenor of the era, filled with worry over the economy, racism and the pandemic, more of the programs are booking authors, politicians, journalists and writers. On recent broadcasts of “Conan,” the host has booked many Black guests to discuss the nation’s reaction to the death of George Floyd. On “Daily,” Noah recently led a six-person panel — no celebrities — through a discussion of police reform. Producers made a concerted decision, says Flanz, “to be talking to people about how they are handling the virus, being at home, mental health issues, unemployment issues, focusing on that.” The home audience likely craves conversations that are more substantive, she explains: “Pushing projects would have felt tonally off for us.”
The times are simply too serious to rely on old standbys like celebrity interivews, says Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at Temple University and author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.” “When will interviews with movie stars seem as fulfilling as thoughtful conversations with decision-makers, scientists, authors and activists?” he asks. “Eventually, we will be able to enjoy the luxury of escapism again, but probably not for some time.”
Pandemic dynamics threaten to upend the genre. It can’t be lost on the networks that the current iterations of late night are much cheaper to produce. And with more people watching their jokes on YouTube — the hosts’ TV broadcasts are increasingly becoming launch events for cycles of media consumption that include Twitter-driven viral clips and follow-alongs — could there be a school of thought emerging that a scaled-down Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers is for the best?
The producers of CBS’ “The Late Late Show With James Corden” think not. “Ultimately, the way we are making the show right now doesn’t fully give the network the amount of revenue we usually do,” says Ben Winston, a co-executive producer of the series. “It’s not just the commercials that run at 12:37 that allow us to get to a profit. It’s about the spinoffs we have from our segments, or the billions of hits on YouTube, or the product placements in our show at the bar or within a sketch.” Those elements, he argues, cannot return in full until the program can assume a glitzier look. Indeed, while some hosts have started to don informal dress during their shows, Corden, who is hosting from his garage, continues to wear a suit. “We want this to feel like a professional studio,” says Winston, not a “make-good show” or a “DIY show.”
Some of the hosts, however, believe the programs ought to consider the needs of their viewers. “I think audiences are less concerned by what they see on TV and more concerned by the world they are living in,” says Noah. Lilly Singh, host of NBC’s “A Little Late,” taped much of the first season before the pandemic hit. Chances are that when she starts her second cycle, the show will look different. “You don’t have high production values, but you have people saying things that matter,” she notes of the current run — a good trade-off at a serious moment.
Life without a crowd will force other changes. Already, Corden has revised his monologue jokes so he doesn’t have to depend on audience reaction. Now, his opening routine is more conversational and less depending on stopping for an audience to punctuate it with reaction. Before leaving the studio, Samantha Bee did one “Full Frontal” broadcast to a smattering of producers and staff in the seats, says Camillo. She expects that when the show returns, that will happen again. The arrangement had some benefits. During that taping, Bee agreed to let writers insert jokes that she had not seen in her segments, leading her to crack up on camera and create a looser vibe. “She went for it,” Camillo says. “What we realized is that when you lose that audience energy, you have to replace it.”
Now, all the shows must keep the jokes coming with an eye toward the new logistics. Rob Crabbe, co-executive producer of Corden’s “Late Late Show,” sees a day when “pods” of staff can work certain days on set and other days at home. “It would be nice to get back into some sort of studio, just to make the shows easier to create,” he says, but adds, “I don’t think we are going to see audiences for a while.” Three of NBC’s late-night programs, “Tonight,” “Late Night” and “Saturday Night Live,” have studios at its 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, which is filled with other companies, tourists — and challenges.
At “Real Time,” Griffiths expects to navigate through “layers” of procedures and believes the show may even be assigned a “coronavirus enforcer” to maintain best practices. Getting back onstage will help, she believes. A live broadcast would have “that exciting tension” that cannot be replaced. “New Rules” has long been one of the show’s signature segments. Now, for all of late night, new rules are a way of life.