The week that Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show in 1992, the Wall Street Journal’s culture critic Dorothy Rabinowitz watched every dreary minute, then pronounced Leno “an exemplar of the new comedy of our age — guaranteed mirth-free and chock-full of applause lines.’”
What Rabinowitz was seeing was less a shift in comedy stylings than one in studio audience behavior. It was as if the virus that caused people at The Price Is Right tapings to go momentarily insane had gotten out of the lab. First Arsenio Hall’s syndicated woot-a-thon took off in the late 80s. Then Johnny Carson retired, and Leno — who could not make hay out of a failed punchline like Johnny did — began goading his audience into interrupting his mediocre monologues more often than the State of the Union address.
Mindless applause was soon followed by mindless standing ovations. When David Letterman jumped to CBS in 1993, his audience — which had been well-behaved at NBC — suddenly began leaping to their feet every time their hero took the stage. Naturally, Leno raised the stakes. He turned Carson’s airless studio into a comedy club, using shoulder-mounted cameras so viewers at home could see his fans not only standing up for Jay but lunging at him for a handshake… followed, one presumes, by a good 20-second hand washing.
Over time the phenomenon of over-the-top studio audiences spread to more subdued venues like daytime talk, presidential debates, even joint speeches before Congress. This week, though, television finally found a remedy — the coronavirus. Amidst the grim news of this pandemic, whose effects the whole world is still trying to gauge, I feel a need to highlight bright spots wherever I can, and this is definitely one of them. TV shows that lean on annoying, ginned-up, clap-happy audiences have cleared their studios in response to official public-health guidance about limiting the spread of disease. And I for one couldn’t be more pleased.
On Tuesday, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! announced that upcoming shows would not be taped before studio audiences, out of concern for Alex Trebek’s health and that of the many retirees who come to the tapings. The policy change quickly spread to other shows, this weekend’s Biden-Bernie debate, and televised sporting events. Even the crowd-loving President cleared out the room for a rare Oval Office address meant to allay fears about the coronavirus.
By Thursday evening, lockdown had escalated to shutdown. Shows like Late Show with Stephen Colbert that had previously decided to go ahead with closed-door episodes reconsidered and announced they would be shutting down production completely for the time being. But for Wednesday and Thursday, anyway, I got a chance to see what shows like The View, Live, and Today would look like if they went back to the old-school version — just the stars talking to each other and us, the audience at home, which doesn’t applaud anything they say or get up out of our seats, except to pee.
I saw hosts becoming reacquainted with their indoor voices, instead of yelling over applause. They were stringing together several sentences in a row and sounding slightly more coherent, a difficult task when audience members are constantly registering their approval.
Of course, even if all the seats had been filled with giddy viewers, the shows would still have been trying to strike more subdued tones, like NPR newscasts playing soothing music to calm listeners’ nerves. One of the few New York-based talk shows with a regular studio audience on Thursday was Dr. Oz, where an entire hour on the coronavirus played out with few outbursts. But Mehmet Oz’s audience tends to be on its best behavior. (I would be too if I were attending a show about the coronavirus or one of those grisly murder cases Oz seems to enjoy “investigating.”)
In lieu of outside audiences, many shows had people on staff filling at least some of the seats. On the fourth hour of Today, a dozen or so strategically placed network employees managed to create room-filling sound with their applause. But jaded insiders are a poor replacement for naïve outsiders. That presented challenges for the hosts, who are accustomed to feeding off the energy of the crowd.
The cliché about studio applause is that it is a Pavlovian construct that tells the home audience that this moment is funny or that moment is awesome. But the closer truth is that the fans are there to motivate the hosts. Letterman was notorious for tanking on shows when he sensed a low-energy studio audience, and tried to prevent network employees and advertisers from getting tickets to his tapings.
Similarly Ellen DeGeneres, whose LA-based show will go audience-free starting next week, uses a format that is essentially a call-and-response between host and audience — or, as I’ve argued before, a late-night format in daytime. Now DeGeneres will have to try something completely different, but she’s a pro. Watching her work without an audience should make for great minimalist viewing, like Dave’s 1988 writers’ strike shows.
Unfortunately, news-based programs are also full of insanely happy audiences these days, and the hosts are leaning too hard on them. That was borne out on the fourth hour of Today, where co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager struggled to work through a segment in which they addressed each other and the camera. After Kotb spoke about the importance of being around positive people during this crisis, Hager declared, with obvious emotion, that Kotb was the most positive person she’d been around. But… no one applauded, which was awkward.
On The View, as Primetimer’s Joe Reid recently noted, the co-hosts’ serial interrupting has taken on a more hard-edged and bitter tone in recent years. But without anyone in the seats egging them on, most of the attempts to provoke fell flat. Meghan McCain stopped in the middle of a perfectly decent rant against the President’s Oval Office speech to complain about The View banning its studio audience.
And yet, even with the uncomfortable silences, the shows just felt more... substantial. Television celebrities are some of the sharpest, most well-connected and interesting people in America. And every day they have to go on TV and speak in 15-second bursts because they know they’re going to be interrupted. Thousands of hours of local news programming are produced every year without a studio audience, and much of it is very watchable. I don’t see why GMA and Today can’t follow suit.
Sadly, it appears our culture’s addiction to endless esteem-boosting applause is about to result in an election where neither party’s nominee knows how to string together a complex sentence. Which makes this weekend’s debate involving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders worth watching. It will be the first of their eleven clashes that is not conducted before an auditorium full of applauding, cheering, booing surrogates.
Maybe all debates should be done this way. After all, the greatest and most impactful televised presidential debate was the very first one between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. It was done in a cramped TV studio in Chicago with no audience, just some producers sitting a few feet away from the podiums. Of course, that was before anyone realized the immense power of television to decide elections. Now that we're all too aware of that power, maybe we should try a few things to use that power for good… like sending the audience home.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.