Last summer, producer Sarah Connell of The Tonight Show was forced to consider the projectile distance of saliva from the end of a wind instrument.
Jimmy Fallon itched to get back in the studio after months of making a version of his show from his Hamptons connection. And Connell and her colleagues had to figure out how to return to the Rockefeller Center and adhere to New York’s social pandemic guidelines. They taped the show in studio 6A, across the hall from “Tonight’s” home studio, 200-plus studio 6B. The former home of Megyn Kelly’s daytime lecture, 6A, would allow for social distance between The Roots because some of the husband members could sit on a balcony above the other musicians.
“The horns can’t be too close because there are spears,” Connell says. “We had to find out how far they wanted to be apart. We had to think about all these things that we never had to think about before. We brought in The Roots, but not all of The Roots. And it felt like a huge obstacle, a huge milestone. ”
It was far from the violent procedure that defined the show before the pandemic. There was no audience and the interviews were still conducted on Zoom. In March, when the show returned to 6B with a limited audience of 50 people and eventually had personal guests, they still followed protocols with social distance. The roots were an arm’s length apart, and the couch was several feet from Fallon’s desk. During a performance last May, Chris Rock joked that it was not a talk show, it was a “yell show”.
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 offered the audience back with full capacity, fully vaccinated. Fallon, the first to return to full house, did so (June 7) with a trademark song and dance number – with an assist from Lin-Manuel Miranda – celebrating the upcoming 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 recording TBS ‘”Full Frontal” for several months from her backyard in upstate New York, recently made her first car trip since the pandemic closed the global journey for more than a year ago. . The episode of “Full Frontal” on July 1 was completely handed over to the host’s trip to Rwanda and included a look at the country’s conservation efforts and work with refugees. This is exactly the type of show they could not have done during the pandemic, as just getting back on TV was a daunting technical exercise. Lights and racks were sent to pubs, iPad acted as teleprompters, shows had to be edited remotely and downloaded to servers, hair and makeup were DIY, spouses were forced into use as camera people. Late in the evening, the pandemic was a stress test.
“I’ve learned more about television production in the last 15 months than I have done in my entire career,” said Alison Camillo, executive producer and showrunner for TBS’s “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.” “Everything was turned upside down.”
Many pandemic-needed process innovations will remain. Zoom interviews are getting smaller, but are unlikely to go away completely. But the creative focal point of the genres will be the lasting legacy of the pandemic. Audiences and hosts came together about the collective isolation and anxiety of the pandemic. Without bells and whistles – and comforts – from a network studio, the shows became looser, a bit recherché. The lack of a student audience meant that hosts were no longer forced to play to the beams. Monologues became more intimate, hosts spoke in a panic, home-bound viewer at a time.
“I think the pandemic has deprived many people of that bragging and ceremony,” recently Trevor Noah told Arsenio Hall. “I think that’s a good thing. We see each other a little more. ”
Noah – who traded a suit and “The Daily Show” anchor table for a hoodie and a claustrophobic corner in his apartment – is currently on hiatus until September. He is likely to return to the studio in the fall, but has teased that the show does not look the same as before the pandemic. “I may never put on my suit or shoes …” he said. “This is who I am.”
With nothing to promote – and no producer unpacking the obligatory conversation points – guest interviews became more organic and revealing.
“For me, it was a little difficult to give up all this [control]”” Tonight’s “Connell says, recalling waiting for a link to Fallon’s first Zoom interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda when the show returned after closing in March 2020.” I started watching it and I was like, oh, this is what the show is going to be, we’re flying on the wall and we’re just stumbling on this [conversation] between two friends and they just relate and talk about what’s going on. ”
The plague of unavoidable technical difficulties also became a source of comedy, as when Taraji P. Henson’s screen froze as she demonstrated her meditation ball technique for Fallon with a pair of blue balls. “The only thing you quickly realize is that just because you’re a celebrity does not mean you have good Wi-Fi,” Connell adds.
When “Full Frontal” returned to the air at the start of the pandemic, the bottling in Bee’s backyard in upstate New York meant struggling with the elements. There were many hot summer days that required a sound filter to muffle the chorus of drumming cicadas. And when a sudden snowstorm covered the ground during the show’s first episode back after the pandemic-forced break in March 2020, the irregular weather was used for comic effect.
Several shows – including “Full Frontal”, “Desus & Mero”, “The Daily Show” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” – have not yet brought back study audiences, but when and how to do so is an ongoing conversation late at night . Many hosts have admitted that they prefer to do their shows without an audience. “I have to be honest, it’s been kind of exciting to do a show without an audience,” Meyers recently told Conan O’Brien on the latter podcast. Doing interviews deprived of the imperative to include a bit that might elicit a soluble laugh from the studio, Meyers said, is “much more compelling at this stage of my life.”
For “Desus & Mero,” whose partnership was carried by the more intimate podcast medium, the studio audience was always small and so less a factor in the space. The duo returned June 20 (with guest Lil Nas X) to the Midtown Manhattan studio, they moved in a few weeks before the pandemic sent the hosts to their respective homes. On September 4, they will hold a live show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
“I think the pandemic in our very specific unique world kind of shook everyone out of some habits and some complacency about how we do things,” says Mike Pielocik, lead author and executive producer of Showtime’s show. “Everyone was forced to return to the core of what they were doing. For our show, it didn’t feel that different because the core of our show is just Desus and Mero making each other laugh. It is the energy that everyone wants. It’s just about the two of them. ”
Of course, the end of the pandemic has coincided with the end of the Trump presidency and the subsequent de-platforming of the former president. Trump’s penchant for producing anger almost daily was a staple of monologues in the evenings. Colbert found his voice in the “Late Show” as a cathartic antidote to the almost daily diversity of the verbal bombshell president. For Fallon, Trump’s exit from the national stage has given the host closure on the infamous hair mouse.
And Trump’s talent for hijacking the news cycle also often increased production, as writers and artists often found themselves in a hectic race to rewrite opening monologues following one of his tweetstorms in the afternoon. If the pandemic has been a stress test late at night, the end of “former guy” as current president Joe Biden has called Trump has been a de-stressor for many in the current comedy.
“People were like what late at night would do without Trump?” says “Full Frontal’s” Camillo. “The analogy I use is that you are super thirsty and all you want is a drink of water and someone lights a fire hose and pushes it down your throat? It does not necessarily make you thirsty. You just 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 difficult to make comedy under so much stress, because what you really want is a good country. That he is gone was a huge relief. ”