Late Night TV Emerges From the Pandemic With Live Audiences and Less Trump

Last summer, “The Tonight Show” supervising producer Sarah Connell was forced to consider the projectile distance of spit from the end of a wind instrument.

Jimmy Fallon was itching to get back into the studio after several months of doing a version of his show from his Hamptons compound. And Connell and her colleagues had to figure out how they could return to Rockefeller Center and adhere to New York’s pandemic socially distanced guidelines. They would tape the show in studio 6A, across the hall from “Tonight’s” home studio, the 200-plus capacity studio 6B. The former home of Megyn Kelly’s daytime talk show, 6A would allow for social distancing between The Roots because some of the house band members could be perched on a balcony above the other musicians.

“The horns can’t be too close because there’s spit,” says Connell. “We had to figure out how far apart they would be. We had to think about all of these things that we never had to think about before. We brought The Roots in, but not all of The Roots. And that felt like a huge hurdle, a huge milestone.”

It was far from the raucous proceedings that defined the show pre-pandemic. There was no audience and the interviews were still being done on Zoom. By March, when the show returned to 6B, with a limited audience of 50 people, and finally had in-person guests, they were still adhering to social-distancing protocols. The Roots were at arm’s length of one another and the sofa was several feet from Fallon’s desk. During an appearance last May, Chris Rock joked that it wasn’t a talk show, it was a “yell show.”

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More than a year after the global pandemic sent late-night hosts to makeshift home studios, the genre is slowly returning to a new normal. Both “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and Fallon’s “Tonight Show” have welcomed back full-capacity, fully vaccinated audiences. Fallon, the first to return to a full house, did it (on June 7) with a trademark song and dance number — with an assist from Lin-Manuel Miranda — celebrating the impending opening of Broadway in September. Colbert, who delivered his first lockdown monologue from his bathtub, returned the following week, after 460 days away from the Ed Sullivan Theater.

Samantha Bee, who moved into a new studio in Connecticut last October after taping TBS’ “Full Frontal” for several months from her backyard in upstate New York, recently made her first road trip since the pandemic shut down global travel more than a year ago. The July 1 installment of “Full Frontal” was given over entirely to the host’s trip to Rwanda, and included a look at the country’s conservation efforts and work with refugees. It’s exactly the type of show they could not have done during the pandemic, when just getting back on television was a daunting technical exercise. Lights and tripods were shipped to hosts’ homes, iPad’s served as Teleprompters, shows had to be edited remotely and downloaded to servers, hair and makeup was DIY, spouses were pressed into service as camera people. For late night, the pandemic was a stress test.

“I have learned more about television production in the past 15 months than I have in my entire career,” says Alison Camillo, executive producer and showrunner of TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.”   “Everything was turned on its head.”

Many pandemic-necessitated process innovations will remain. Zoom interviews will become scarcer, but are unlikely to go away completely. But the genre’s creative pivot will be the enduring legacy of the pandemic. Audiences and hosts communed over the collective isolation and anxiety of the pandemic. Without the bells and whistles — and conveniences — of a network studio, the shows became looser, a bit recherché. The lack of a hooting studio audience meant hosts were no longer forced to play to the rafters. Monologues became more intimate, hosts were talking to one panicked, homebound viewer at a time.

“I think the pandemic has stripped a lot of people of that pomp and ceremony,” Trevor Noah recently told Arsenio Hall. “I think it’s a good thing. We see each other a little bit more.”

Noah — who traded a suit and “The Daily Show” anchor desk for a hoodie and a claustrophobic corner in his apartment — is currently on hiatus until September. He’s likely to return to the studio in the fall, but has teased that the show will not look the same as it did before the pandemic. “I might never put on the suit or the shoes…,” he said. “This is who I am.”

With nothing to promote — and no producer extracting the obligatory interview talking points — guest interviews became more organic and revealing.

“For me, it was a little bit difficult to give up all of that [control],” says “Tonight’s” Connell, recalling waiting for a link to Fallon’s first Zoom interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, when the show returned after lockdown in March 2020. “I started watching it and I was like, oh, this is what the show is going to be, we’re flies on the wall and we just happen to stumble on this [conversation] between two friends and they’re just relating and talking about what’s going on.”

The scourge of inevitable technical difficulties also became a source for comedy, such as when Taraji P. Henson’s screen froze as she was demonstrating her meditation ball technique for Fallon with a pair of blue balls. “The one thing you realize very quickly is that just because you’re a celebrity does not mean you have good Wi-Fi,” adds Connell.

When “Full Frontal” returned to the air at the outset of the pandemic, the taping in Bee’s backyard in upstate New York meant contending with the elements. There were many hot summer days that necessitated an audio filter to muffle the chorus of thrumming cicadas. And when a sudden snow squall blanketed the ground during the show’s first episode back after the pandemic-forced hiatus in March 2020, the erratic weather was used for comic effect.

Several shows — including “Full Frontal,” “Desus & Mero,” “The Daily Show” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” — have yet to bring back studio audiences, though when and how to do it is an ongoing conversation across late night. Many hosts have admitted that they prefer to do their shows without an audience. “I’ve got to be honest, it’s been sort of thrilling to do a show without an audience,” Meyers recently told Conan O’Brien on the latter’s podcast. Doing interviews stripped of the imperative to include a bit that can elicit a voluble laugh from the studio, said Meyers, is “much more compelling at this stage of my life.”

For “Desus & Mero”, whose partnership was borne of the more intimate podcast medium, the studio audience was always small and so less of a factor in the room. The duo returned June 20 (with guest Lil Nas X) to the Midtown Manhattan studio they moved into a few weeks before the pandemic sent the hosts to their respective homes. On Sept. 4, they’ll do a live show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

“I think the pandemic in our very specific unique world, kind of shook everybody out of some habits and some complacency in terms of how we do things,” says Mike Pielocik, head writer and executive producer of the Showtime’s show. “Everyone was forced to get back to the core of what they do. For our show, it didn’t feel that different because the core of our show is just Desus and Mero making each other laugh. That’s the energy everyone wants in on. It’s all about the two of them.”

Of course, the end of the pandemic has dovetailed with the end of the Trump presidency and the subsequent de-platforming of the former president. Trump’s penchant for stoking outrage on a near daily basis was a staple of late-night monologues. Colbert found his voice on “Late Show” as a cathartic human antidote to the near-daily mendacities of the verbal bomb-throwing president. For Fallon, Trump’s exit from the national stage has given the host closure on the infamous hair-muss.

And Trump’s talent for hijacking the news cycle also frequently upended production, as writers and performers often found themselves in a frantic race to rewrite opening monologues after one of his late afternoon tweet storms. If the pandemic has been a stress test for late night, the exit of “former guy,” as current President Joe Biden has dubbed Trump, has been a de-stressor for many in topical comedy.

“People were like what’s late night going to do without Trump?” says “Full Frontal’s” Camillo. “The analogy that I use is, say you’re super thirsty and all you want is a drink of water, and somebody turns a firehose on and shoves it down your throat? It doesn’t necessarily make you un-thirsty. You just sort of have another problem. And that’s how we felt; it was so fast and so furious, and it was just in our faces all the time. It’s very hard to make comedy under that much stress because what you really want to have is a good country. So that he’s gone was a huge relief.”

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