Monday, March 16, 2020

Late Night Talk Shows suspended

So the late night talk shows been suspended due to the coronavirus. At first, they were going to do them but without audiences. From what I understand, some of the hosts were freaked out about that. Stephen Colbert, who I like, was awful.  Vamping with flop sweat. 

Personally, I think it would have been a good thing for them to do. Talk show hosts use the studio audience as a crutch. They play to them, and not to me.

No audience means that Fallon and Colbert and Corden, etc. will have to look into the camera and address the viewer one on one. That’s a good skill to have. Because your job is really to be a communicator.

God forbid you can’t do a monologue. What about sharing a story or just talking to your viewers? To me, the only talk show hosts who connect directly with the audience (even with a studio audience) are John Oliver, and the undisputed master, Oprah. Carson, on occasion as well.

But talk show hosts these days tend to take on “personas” – exaggerations of themselves. They’re playing “characters.” So when they’re forced to be real they have a tough time.

And now they’ve dodged the bullet. Their shows have been suspended and they won’t have to suffer through that trial of trying to be interesting and entertaining without hoots and hollers from the crowd. Honestly, I don’t think they can.

51 comments :

Rich Shealer said...

I noticed right away on the clips I saw that the jokes fell flatter without the audience.

Jon Weisman said...

Honestly, this moment calls for Vin Scully.

Stephen Marks said...

I think Jack Paar was good at it from what I hear anyway. Ken's right though Oprah is good at it and always has been and then I'd put Tom Snyder second. So the networks finally get what they want, an entire planet told to stay home and watch TV 24/7 and what do these hosts do, turtle.

ELS said...

However, Pete Buttegieg (yes, Mayor Pete) filled in for Kimmel with no audience, and I thought he was brilliant! I wonder how Amy Kobachar's stand-up is.

Shit chat said...

Corden is monumentally untalented and by all accounts a deeply unpleasant and arrogant person. Oliver is also smug and self satisfied.

All the others are also phoneys. Before them, Letterman was a fake who treated his audience like children, and Leno was an Iraq war supporting idiot.

Give me Conan O'Brien or Graham Norton over any of these flakes any day.

James said...

That's a reason I miss Tom Snyder. But Snyder had a lot of radio background, where there's that perceived one-to-one connection between broadcaster and listener. Snyder wasn't afraid to look in the camera and talk about the events of the day, or visiting his mother, or what happened at the Smokehouse last night. TV needs a few more broadcasters and a fewer comedians / has-been actors / retired atheletes.

Glenn said...

The problem I have with most late night guys these days is they skimp on the comedy. It's all Trump bashing (which would be fine if it was at least funny). These shows are all turning into Rachel Maddow, or some other talking head show.

Unkystand said...

Tom Snyder, Bob Costas, David Susskind, Craig Ferguson, Jack Paar, et al. These guys didn’t do interviews. They had conversations.

Mibbitmaker said...

As far as the performance in serious times, late night really misses Craig Ferguson. He's one who could handle this sort of thing very well. He was able to do a couple shows without a studio audience (and this was during the surreal comedy half of his Late Late Show, after some felt he abandoned too much of his straight talk element that dominated most of the first half of his show) Also, his weeks in Paris and Scotland showcased the versatility he brought to the table. But he was restless about doing the same thing too long and has been glad not to have to address the whole Trump situation since he left, so that's that

My own issue with the current situation is that all the more political satire-heavy hosts are now out of commission for the unforeseeable future. Naturally, the shows being dormant for a while is the right and viral thing to do right now. But the more political ones will now be absent while the Orange One is still in power and is still.... well, Trump. The comedy at the end of the day on that topic was what made this era half-way bearable. Their absence (save for dated reruns) will definitely hurt. Thank God for editorial cartoonists - even in a difficult era for the art form, at least as a viable vocation.

I can already imagine conservatives going, "God, what a liberal snowflake!" (though I'm more of an independent). But imagine if, during the Clinton or Obama eras, your method of coping had to go away for a while (presumably talk radio). Not fun, is it?

All in all, though, best to stay safe throughout his latest nightmare from an increasingly hostile 21st century (really - al-Qaeda/ISIS, Trump/Brexit/Putin, now a pandemic. Overkill!)

Michael said...

Of course Jon Weisman is right, and a friend of mine said MLB or the Dodgers should simply start an old season of recordings if they have them--they should at least do more highlights. And they would be of Vin, naturally.

The Grand Ole Opry went back to its beginnings, as a group of musicians in a studio without an audience, and did a show Saturday night, with the performers spread out and entertaining. It was wonderful. I hope they keep doing it. They can sing to empty seats. Colbert should be able to talk to them.

John in NW Ohio said...

I respectfully disagree in regard to Colbert's show the night he had no audience. (It was actually a taped rehearsal, with several of the staff sitting out in the seats.) We enjoyed it very much. I have absolutely zero expertise in these matters, but would have to believe this model would not be sustainable for long.

ROBERT LESZCZAK said...

Craig Ferguson could definitely do it. Wish he were still hosting.

Dave said...

Why Fallon has a show I can't understand.... All his routines of silly games with celebrities suck.

The comments section is filled with ridicule, but he still continues.

Kimmel's strength is his sidekick, that movie reviewer, Cousin Sal and others and most often Matt Damon. Take them away, he is flat.

His viewers have started hating him and comment that Guillermo should take over. He is always relying on others to carry the show.

Colbert sucked and now more than ever the comments are brutal about how pathetic he is without audience.

John Oliver did a decent job.

Peter said...

Mibbitmaker,

Craig Ferguson was a creep. The way he behaved with women guests was vile.

Dan Sachs said...

I think the issue was not making the script writers, camera people, craft services folk, lighting designers, etc show up for work.

Unknown said...

Absolutely on target. The current hosts seem to have lost the basic concept of location. They are not in a studio, they are in a person's home, kitchen, bedroom, digital device, whatever. As you point out, they do not talk to their audience so much as to one-another and the studio folks. They leave us out of the equation. As any good writer knows, when the persona wears out it's time for a new show.

Ron Rettig said...

I am old enough to have regularly watched Jack Parr on the Tonight Show and also was a fan of Tom Snyder on both his earlier KNBC News and later Late Night show. Both of them recognized the in-studio audience but payed to the TV audience. I agree with Stephan Marks and Unkystand.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I seldom watch the late night shows because I can't stand the screaming audiences and the way the hosts play to them, so I was looking forward to tapings without audience. Around 1990 Allan Havey had a show on The Comedy Channel (as it was then called), "Night After Night," with no studio audience, very low-key and very funny. It ran about three seasons. John Oliver was great last night with an empty studio. But I guess the decision was made not to put the crew at risk. Reruns of topical jokes will not be very satisfying, though probably still better than basketball games from 2016.

Time to catch up on Netflix.

J Lee said...

You can see early examples of trying to do monologues without a studio audience by going back and looking at the 1950s filmed versions of The Jack Benny Program and Burns & Allen. Laugh tracks aside, neither was shot in front of an audience -- George actually pulls his monologues off better, possibly because they often were more expository towards driving the plot than just jokes, while you can see in the episodes where Jack does some joke routines, the timing's just off and the energy isn't there without a studio audience to react to the lines.

So, yeah, it would be tough for the late-night shows to work without a live audience and get their jokes to hit just right. But at the same time, many of them have fallen back on crutches, to where they know certain lines or things will get a reaction from the live audience, even if the line falls flat with the people watching on TV (Carson's audience dynamic was a little different because he had some jokes that really fell flat in his monologues, but part of the enjoyment was watching how he handled bombing. It got to the point there that studio audiences would boo jokes that weren't total bombs, but weren't hits, just to get Carson to react to the booing, because that became a routine unto itself).

Tom said...

It does seem like those with radio experience would fare better in situations like this than those who came up in front of audiences. They know how to do it as though the audience is one person. Like Larry King (seriously). Didn't Carson have a radio show in his early days? Dick Cavett did radio acting towards the end of when that was a thing. I'm somewhat immune to Oprah's charms, but Tom Snyder was the best. When he looks up from his navel, Marc Maron, too.

Edward said...

From what I have read early TV produced in Chicago (1948-1954) was specifically geared to television viewers and not a live audience. Due to the limited budgets and studio space, the Chicago produced shows had no live audience at all. It is usually referred to as the "Chicago School of Television" (David Garroway, Studs Turkel)

http://www.richsamuels.com/nbcmm/tcs.html

Earl Boebert said...

I agree with all the comments about Jack Paar. You really had the feeling he was talking to you.

I find it odd that no one has mentioned Steve Allen, who in my recollection had the same skill.

kcross said...

I was surprised at how good Samantha Bee was with just her staff in the audience. The hook was that her staff slipped several jokes into her monologue that she hadn't heard before so we could watch her reaction when she came across them.

Kevin said...

I've tried numerous times to enjoy Colbert's late night show, and can't. IMO he still hasn't found a real personality in the role and instead has settled on trying to be David Letterman. He goes overboard trying to act natural, and as a result, looks phoney as hell. When he does his "On Tuesday (THEN, TURNING TO OFF CAMERA PRODUCER), it was Tuesday right? On Tuesday, the White House said..." it drives me nuts. You know it was Tuesday, Stephen! YOU KNOW IT WAS!

His monologues are weak, jokes are flat and without a roaring audience sitting in the ice box that is the Ed Sullivan Theater, he's now exposed some of the show's flaws. He's a decent interviewer, but I rarely get to them as I can't take the opening bits.

John Oliver, however, still had me laughing in his audience-free show last night.

Max said...

Well, Fallon would have no problem, since the person who seems to laugh most at him is himself.

Craig Russll said...

Mayor Pete is about one hundred shows from being very good. A little practice and he'd be on Comedy Central or Bravo in a second.

Carson and Letterman could have done shows without an audience no problem

Wonder why someone didnt get 500 tablets with viewers skyping in to be an electronic audience. All those screens and faces could have been fun...

This aint 9/11...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I never saw much of Ferguson, but his attack on the way people were treating one of the troubled young female stars won a lot of points with me.

The thing is, maybe it's hard for the talk show hosts but we *need them right now*! Especially John Oliver! I hope they'll find a way to get back to work soon.

btw, whatever else Letterman ever did, the way he handled the post-911 broadcasts justified anything else he did in the entire rest of his career put together.

wg

Liggie said...

Speaking of Graham Norton, how about him hosting the Oscars someday? He's got tons of experience of hosting the BAFTAs and Eurovision, and his style should win over Americans like it's won over his Hollywood guests on his BBC show.

Cap'n Bob said...

There isn't one late night talk show I'd watch if you paid me handsomely.

Lemuel said...

Here's a worthy message from Brooks and Son:
https://pagesix.com/2020/03/16/mel-brooks-and-son-max-team-up-for-coronavirus-psa/

Pat Reeder said...

Thank you for saying this, Ken. I have said similar things online, and I always get accused of being a right-wing partisan. But I have written jokes for and about people across the political spectrum, and all I care about is that the jokes are funny. I laugh at Marc Maron and at Greg Gutfeld. I thought Colbert was brilliant on CC, but on CBS, he's gotten flabby flogging the same dead horse night after night.

I taped the Colbert show to see how his stuff went over without the hooting audience, and it was as deadly as I suspected it would be. I've been saying for a long time that he's become lazy and repetitive and is playing to his crowd by doing the same tired Trump mocking schtick every night, and it just seems better than it is because of the rabid clapter supporting it. But as a longtime writer of topical humor for radio, I know weak material when I see it. He's been in a rut for a while, but all the noise was masking it. It was like watching a "classic" '60s sitcom or "The Big Band Theory" without the laugh track. Once you hear that, there's no forgetting how lame it was, which might be a problem when the show returns (and is another reason the suits wanted to pull the plug fast.) Yet you can watch "M*A*S*H" with the laugh track turned off and still laugh at home because the material is so strong. Maybe it will be a good thing for Colbert in the long run if he uses the time off to reassess and try to reignite his creativity.

Personally, I think Conan can relate on a more human level, as he proves in his longer, online interviews. He just goes overboard when he has the audience egging him on. And it is possible to be laugh-out-loud hilarious without a studio audience or laugh track. Try Bob & Ray, or Jean Shepherd, or Ernie Kovacs. All guys who came out of radio, where you have to learn to be funny without the crutch of an overcaffeinated studio audience.

sanford said...

Craig Ferguson was always excellent despite the reply about him being creepy. Those women played along. I don't know of any that complained. Snyder was great. He did not need an audience. I think Bill Maher could do a show with out an audience. He did so Friday. I think what ever laughter there was was coming from staff. If you are going to do a daily talk show you do need guests.

Mark Moretti said...

Tom Snyder was best at this. Just thinking of his name conjures up the mental image of him looking directly at me through the screen. Can't say that for any of the others.

Fallon is juvenile and fawning. Kimmel is unfunny. Cordon does seem pretentious. Of the current crop, only Conan is consistently good.

Mark Moretti said...

Tom Snyder was best at this. Just thinking of his name conjures up the mental image of him looking directly at me through the screen. Can't say that for any of the others.

Fallon is juvenile and fawning. Kimmel is unfunny. Cordon does seem pretentious. Of the current crop, only Conan is consistently good.

Unknown said...

I went to a few tapings of Carson's Tonight Show in NY in the mid to late '60s.
What struck me was how his staff gathered in a semi-circle around the main monologue camera.
It looked as if Johnny was talking to them at a cocktail party, which added to the intimacy of his delivery.
In those days, he performed the monologue to the side downstage from the desk & couch, not center stage.

Exhibit A from 1964:
https://youtu.be/TW0_npkgG_M

One thing Carson, Paar and Steve Allen all respected was the fact that late night was a more mellow time for viewers. Their shows were a reflection of New York winding down after a hectic day. If you couldn't be at the comic's table at Lindy's, the last set at Birdland, or schmoozing with the Stage Deli's owner, Max Asnas (a Paar regular), the Tonight Show brought them to you.

DwWashburn said...

I thought that Thursday's Colbert show was one of his funniest he has done. Constantly joking with the crew, playing off of John, seeing him direct the director about where inserts should go or when the camera shouldn't follow him, etc. It was a fun look behind the curtain.

DougG. said...

Probably not a good spring to take time off. There may not be a Writers Guild Strike in the late Spring this year but we don't know for sure just yet. It's just that IF there is a strike, we know the late night hosts will be off the air again.

Not surprised Colbert wasn't very good without an audience. Even with an audience he still hasn't been as good since the jump to CBS. I don't get it; when he was doing THE COLBERT REPORT he was must see tv. But ever since the jump to CBS, I've been disappointed. I can see the punchline to his jokes coming from a mile away. That didn't happen on the REPORT but now I only check in every couple of months and I still see punchlines before he delivers them.

Jonny M. said...

Ken, FQ - As I shelter in place, I'm watching Fosse/Verdon, which portrays someone you respect, Neil Simon. Curious if you've seen it and what you think. But also, what are you streaming this apocalypse? I am always entertained by your choices.

Floyd Rutherford Turbo said...

Johnny Carson connected directly with his audience? Part of the Carson mystique was an emotional wall so tall and thick that a dozen Donald Trumps couldn't have built it. That was a connection where the audience did all the work.

David Letterman would have thrived on a "no audience" curveball, because he luxuriated in awkward silences.

Stephen Colbert has been the subject of some long-form interviews (e.g. Anderson Cooper, Howard Stern) in which his "connectability" was on full display. I agree that his Thursday show didn't work. Reportedly CBS sprang the format on Colbert and his staff early, and at the last minute. The empty studio was supposed to have begun yesterday (Monday). It takes a lot of preparation to be impromptu.

Unknown said...

Huh. No comments on Seth Meyers. I'm really going to miss him during this. And not just him, but his supporting players like Amber and Jenny. They make me laugh. I'd love to see a webcam version of "A Closer Look" from his home. Maybe, "A Sofa Look."

Michael said...

I can just see Carson without an audience: "I didn't get laughs when they were HERE, either."

Mike Bloodworth said...

"Talk show hosts use the audience as a crutch. They play to them and not to me."

This doesn't just apply to talk shows. Too many sitcoms have that same problem. Ken, you've said many times how you prefer to write for a live audience. But a lot of these writers, "pander" is too strong a word, but they seen to write for the studio audience and not the viewers at home. I can't tell you the number of times an audience, not a laugh track, is going crazy over a joke meanwhile, I'm saying to myself, What are they laughing at?!
I'm one of the few who prefered the first season of "The Odd Couple" shot on film. Not that the later seasons weren't funny at times, but it was a different humor. "Happy Days" was another show where the audience reactions were disproportionate to the jokes.
Audience or not, most of the time I'm not laughing because the shows aren't funny.
M.B.

cd1515 said...

I haven’t watched a late night show in years.
The formats are all the same, the jokes are predictable, the celebrity interviews are painfully scripted, and if they ever do by some miracle have a real honest funny moment, I will see it on YouTube or Twitter the next day.

Mibbitmaker said...

Some of the late night hosts are doing daily mini-broadcasts from home now that are on YouTube. Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah all had videos on there early week. It even seems that, starting last night, Colbert has been adding them to the show on YV, with repeat guest segments to fill out the shows. I'm checking tonight to see for sure.

Fallon's was a bit awkward but very charming. Kimmel, who usually doesn't wait for the laugh before going on to the next joke anyway, did a good job. It was a nice touch having a picture of David Letterman c. 1982 "overseeing" things (Jimmy's hat obscuring the other 2 pics from his camera angle). Noah had a more serious tone much of the time, with shorter segments as well.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, a Friday question: ISTM that it's going to be a really tough job for sitcom writers mapping out the next season. I remember that after 9/11 every show had to decide whether the attacks had happened in its world; the NYC shows that included the WTC in their credits imagery had to decide whether to keep it or not. One of the writers interviewed on the West Wing Weekly podcast said he thought that after 9/11 the show was increasingly in a parallel and less and less relevant universe. This, however will affect every part of the US in unpredictable ways. I was watching the latest episode of BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA, for example, and there were scenes of loads of people jammed in together in church. My immediate reaction was to marvel: "Look at all the *people*." In a few months, audiences may be uncomfortable looking at a scene like that. How does a writer's room start to think about this?

btw, I note that Conan announced today on Twitter he will be back on the air March 30. They're going to be doing various sorts of virtual hookups so very few people will actually have to be in the same place. Not surprised he's the first up.

wg

JR Smith said...

As much as people say that David Letterman was not as funny in the final years of his show, I think he got better at relating one on one to viewers. His post 9/11 shows, his apology to his family after his affair, extortion attempt, etc. I think were some of his best moments on the air. As others have mentioned here, I think Letterman, Paar and Cavett could have done shows without an audience and would have been a comforting late night retreat during a crisis like this.

Paul Harner said...

Tom Snyder had an audience through most of his run on Tomorrow and The Late Late Show. It was just an audience of one. I suspect it was his producer or technical director. During his open, that guy would chuckle at one of Tom's comments, and that made it work. His show didn't work as well when they did have a studio audience (the "Coast To Coast" era in 1980)

mike schlesinger said...

I recall Cavett would occasionally do shows without an audience (Katharine Hepburn, most famously) and they were just fine. I also remember one time Carson had Orson Welles on, and for around 15 minutes both he and the audience mostly kept quiet as Welles regaled them with tales of his days in radio. The best hosts know that having a conversation with their guest(s) is paramount, and it shouldn't matter if an audience is there are not.

Just a guy said...

Honestly, I enjoy not hearing about Trump all the time. Why be reminded of living the nightmare?

Rocketman said...

I really can't watch Colbert. His interviews seem quite combative, as if he's annoyed with his own guests. The monologues are good but too long and too political and his musical sidekick is one of the worst. Just weird, exaggerated laughter for the jokes that fall flat. It's odd because I loved SC on The Daily Show and The Report. My main beef is that late night shows should be light, breezy and absurd. Letterman nailed it for his NBC shows and for some of his run on CBS.

slgc said...

You're absolutely right about John Oliver. He had very little dropoff in the quality of last night's show, and he seems the most able to be able to roll with the (hopefully temporary) new normal.