As everyone figured out the pandemic pivot of last year’s television season, talk shows had to contend with the loss of two mainstays: live audiences and President Trump.
“You still talk about [Trump] because there is going to be a long tail of the effect on the country, as we look at January 6 and more,” says Seth Meyers of NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” “His many enterprises are reasons to still talk about him. But it is a relief he doesn’t have the most important job in the world.”
For the record, talk shows hosts still miss live audiences. But with the ability to turn attention away from the day’s political crises, they found themselves able to tackle any topic and go anywhere. Where can you go during a pandemic? Stuck at home, talkfests — relatively unchanged for decades — had to reconfigure. And, they thrived.
“The difference to me is the show is better and stronger and more fun to do,” Samantha Bee says of TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.” “Our lives all got so much better than before. And the world got better. I have no regrets whatsoever. This new reality is profoundly better. We are happier people making a funnier show. We don’t have to be tethered to this enormously psychically destructive news cycle.”
“When Trump was in power, there was this narrative on Twitter that he made comedy so easy, everything was a lay-up. That was not the case, whatsoever. There were other things we wanted to talk about, but you’ve got to talk about this guy telling America to inject bleach,” adds Desus Nice of Showtime’s “Desus & Mero.” Now, “You got to go back to having jokes, delivering jokes. You don’t have that lay-up, and we all went back to being, ‘Yo this is what we do.’ We make funny jokes. We are not reliant on the clown in office for our jokes.”
Filming their shows remotely at home or, once it was safer, back in a real-world location but addressing empty seats did not come without additional adjustments. Without an audience’s reaction, some hosts, such as Bee, turned to their families for instant feedback.
“For the longest time, I performed the show directly into my husband’s eyes, and sometimes my children,” she says of her backyard episodes. “Performing the show to your teenage children is so much more pressure than an audience of 200.”
Once, Nice and the Kid Mero hugged and shared drinks with audience members. While they miss those connections, at least they can riff off each other. Meyers’ previous studio audience of 180 shrank to zero as he did his show from his attic and then his in-laws’ basement, where a painting of a sea captain was a fun focal point. The biggest challenge was turning a network show into a DIY franchise. He did his own hair and makeup and shot the show on an iPad before trading up to an HD camera. Then, when he returned to the studio, a skeleton crew became his audience.
“Now 14 [people] sounds like 180 to me because I just spent six months with nothing at all,” Meyers says. “It is lovely to hear any degree of feedback. When I came back, the first thing I said to my crew is, ‘I don’t need you guys to laugh.’ I was very worried they would feel the burden, so when I hear them laugh, it is genuine.”
Getting those live laughs again was a boon. All these hosts are also comedians in their own right and feed off audience cues. The pandemic forced them to take stock of what it meant to be funny during tragic times.
“We just had to reinvent everything,” Meyers says. “It was a fun ride — a little bit whimsical, sillier stuff while everyone was going through the pandemic. Taking risks in a talk show was not the riskiest thing everyone was doing. It was a very good time to take risks with something like a talk show.”
Reflecting on this year, each host mentions intimacy. Mero jokes that “intimacy” comes up so often about the show these days, it sounds “like a couples counseling session.” Their manner, he notes, has always been intimate and they talk the same to Tom Hanks as they do to “Julio from 4B.” But for audiences, that meant getting a rare glimpse into hosts’ homes. Because they were talking straight into cameras, it might have felt as if they were talking directly to the viewer. Meyers, too, reports that he felt “weirdly closer with the home audience than I have before.”
With the U.S. reopening, Nice wants to do shows from California and Bee is also planning on traveling with her show.
“Now that we don’t have the specter of Trump hanging over our heads, it’s incredible,” Bee says. “There are so many fun projects and directions to take the show. I am going to go on the road when the world opens up a little. I’m so excited. I love this show, and I love the people who make it, and I can’t wait to do it and order a couple of rounds of margaritas. I don’t want to drink a margarita by myself. I want to do it in person and share a straw with someone I love. I am just really proud of what we accomplished from the heart even if we were doing this for ourselves.”