“As you may have noticed,” Stephen Colbert told the camera Thursday, “none of you are here right now.”
It was a strange joke for a strange moment. And if it didn’t get much of a laugh, it’s because it was true. Colbert’s “Late Show” on CBS was one of several talk shows that went abruptly without a studio audience as a social-distancing measure in the face of the quickly-changing coronavirus pandemic.
Late-night talk, which for all its shrinking audiences retains the form of a boisterous national party, turned suddenly into a small, anxious self-quarantine. (No one had “a really big show for you tonight.”) Throngs of delighted tourists were replaced by a sprinkling of staff. Killer jokes and bombs landed to the same scattered laughs.
It was surreal and a little unnerving. But it was also a we’re-in-this-together moment — a brief reminder of the function that audiences serve and of the kinds of virtual connection we’re going to crave through our uncertain hunkerings-down.
The change wasn’t exactly a surprise. The shows had already planned, along with daytime series like “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” to play to empty rooms starting next week. Others, including “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “The View,” already dropped their studio crowds. But the timing was sudden: Thursday, with cancellations increasing exponentially from sports to government, each program decided shortly before taping to make the change immediately.
So Thursday’s episodes were on-the-fly productions. This played to the adaptability of Colbert, an improv comic by training, who shifted his focus to banter with his bandleader, Jon Batiste, and with the camera crew, responding to the guffaws of his staff, “I want you to forget the fact that I pay all those people.”
Despite some dead spots, the monologue had the feel of an intimate talk show from TV’s past. (Colbert said that he’d been watching old Steve Allen clips.) Jimmy Fallon on NBC seemed more relieved to get his monologue over with, but he found his comfort zone doing an impromptu version of 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” with Questlove and the Roots.
Maybe the most bizarre unintended consequence was that the stunt-cast Thursday guest host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, ended up with the job of entertaining a mostly empty room. The ex-mayor’s stump experience translated surprisingly well, but it was odd to see him go from a contender to replace Donald Trump to one of several guys in late-night riffing on the president’s prime time address, as well as Sarah Palin’s appearance on “The Masked Singer.” (“That’s going to be me in three months, isn’t it?”)
Late-night has memorably been disrupted in the past — the writers’ strike, Hurricane Sandy, 9/11. But this was different, not a response to a disaster that happened but one that is mostly, unmeasurably, yet to come.
It was one of many moments this week that had the feel of the opening minutes of an apocalypse movie. A ritual we take for granted as much as our nightly tooth brushing had suddenly changed. Even as these shows’ live audiences decline, even as they become more about creating YouTube-able set pieces like James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” their core is still a host on a stage, connecting with a crowd.
There have always been people to knock TV as an isolating habit that substitutes virtual companionship for actual. But this week underscored just how real that virtual fellowship is — real both in the physical presence of the studio audience (actual people, now at actual risk) and in its emotional importance.
TV is the thing that shows up when no one else is there. It’s your traditional sick day companion from childhood. And part of the service it delivered you, curled up on the couch, was not just the game shows and the talk shows but also their audiences, the teeming, screaming, laughing fans that made you part of a crowd, alone.
Now we are having, on a frightening and extended scale, a national sick day (or days or weeks or months). And suddenly it’s TV, or at least the most immediate, time-sensitive part of it, that’s alone, working from a mostly empty room.
This may not be the greatest of our problems, but it’s unsettling. Watching a depopulated late-night studio feels like walking through a ghost town.
But we can also adapt. Some comedies will tape without a studio audience. (It will be a strange side-effect if coronavirus revives the much-maligned laugh track, to provide the social glue unavailable from an in-person crowd.)
The occasional broadcast may even benefit. Sunday’s Democratic debate will now be held without an audience, and the partisan hooting at the last one was proof that debate crowds are a bad idea in any public-health climate.
I can’t say any show was better for the forced change. At times, watching the monologues was like hearing someone deliver the toast at a sparsely attended office party. But they created a shared sense of camaraderie and adaptation.
Which is why it’s a shame — if a responsible public-health choice — that several of the shows are going dark on Monday. What was meant to be a new way of doing business ended up being a rushed exit, which gave the proceedings an extra eeriness. It was, everyone promised, simply a see-you-later, but it couldn’t help feeling like a goodbye — to something, even if just our sense of normalcy.
Those of us spending more time indoors will have plenty of options, of course, including the entire current and past archives of every streaming service. (Watch “Derry Girls” on Netflix if you need a laugh; you’ll thank me.) But there’s nothing that exactly replaces the immediacy of a daily talk show, most of which run on crowd energy.
Trevor Noah, whose “Daily Show” intended, as of press time, to continue without an audience, recognized that in a musical send-off to his last — for now — full crowd: “I can’t wait till this is over and the virus is beat, and all your asses are back in those seats. I love you guys.”
Our seats will be on our couches in the meantime, sending back the love across the social distance.