Late-night hosts (and one politician) performing to empty rooms with short notice on Thursday in response to the coronavirus crisis showed just how valuable studio audiences are in connecting with viewers. "It was one of many moments this week that had the feel of the opening minutes of an apocalypse movie," says James Poniewozik. "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."
Stephen Colbert's first audience-free show is a taste of things to come: "It would be weird, at this moment, to act as thought nothing weird were happening," says Willa Paskin. "Late night shows are one of the few formats left that are tied to a specific period of time, an actual day of a real week, and when the days are as strange and eerie as this week’s, how can they not reflect that? And yet, there’s also something odd about acting as though taping in front of no one and pretending you’re playing to a very responsive crowd isn’t one of TV’s oldest and most reliable tricks. The laugh track has been adding laughs, sighs, coughs, and rustling to audience reactions since the early days of television, when it’s not making them up wholesale. The fact that none of the newly audience-free shows have apparently considered replacing their live audience with the sound of a virtual one shows just how far the laugh track has fallen, but it’s also not the right tool for the job. What the best version of right now sounds like isn’t a robust crowd cackling at every joke. It’s a few people laughing alone, but together, in a big empty room."
Pete Buttigieg was actually kind of soothing as a late-night host: The former Democratic presidential candidate is the opposite of cool and embraces that, says Lili Loofbourow of Buttigieg guest-hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live! "What the Mayor Pete hour surprised me with was how much I welcomed that uncoolness," says Loofbourow. "When I first heard Buttigieg was guest-hosting, I slotted it in with a mounting series of depressing crossovers between politics and entertainment, most recently the horror of Sarah Palin singing 'Baby Got Back' in a bear suit on The Masked Singer. I was expecting Pete’s hosting gig to be yet another vaguely surreal entry in the annals of the present, one more example of the sadness and stupidity of things. It’s extremely weird to me in principle that a person who just campaigned to lead us as a nation would want to then host a late-night show. (I’m sour enough to also dislike it when candidates show up on Saturday Night Live.) But here’s the thing I’m realizing: If you believe, as I do, that the cultural products we take in matter—that they affect us and change us even when we arrogantly believe that we’re immune to their charms—then it makes no sense to snobbily defend an increasingly porous boundary between late-night TV and presidential addresses. Acknowledging the extent to which politics and culture mix seems pragmatic."