Talk Show Hosts Fighting a Lonely Audience-less Battle in Quarantined Homes

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

As COVID-19 quarantine looms into our lives, our beloved American talk show hosts abandoned their studio setting and live audiences. Instead, they have retreated into their homes, delivering entertainment to viewers trapped in their cribs of boredom. In this rather circumstantial situation, how does the shows’ peculiar setup affect the quality of their performance, and what can we, as the audience, appreciate from these unprecedented efforts? 

A Brief Turbulent Era of Late-Night Talk Shows

Talk show hosts have been scrambling to continue their shows under these less-than-ideal circumstances, repurposing to comply with social distancing measures. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have relocated their celebrity-packed operations to the comfort of their private homes, where they carry on interviews with Hollywood stars via Skype (Zoom, you lost this time). Fallon even had Gigi Hadid announce her pregnancy through Skype! Political news shows such as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Daily Show (now readapted as The Daily Social Distancing Show) with Trevor Noah have also figured out means to counteract the pandemic. With their usual graphics but unusual attire of sweatpants, T-shirts, and vests (sometimes altogether), they proceed with their crusade of humorously updating the public with new information. 

Newfound hallmarks for late-night talk shows emerge in the “new normal”: blurry camera shots, scrubby home beards, disdained yet quizzical facial expressions, children screaming while running around, and goofy dad jokes. This comes except for John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, where he keeps his show running in a “white void” (that is his house), fully suited. However, Oliver’s tone cannot be ascribed as being necessarily happy but angered and frustrated, an approach not atypical to his equally pessimistic fans. 

Lonely Together: Talk Show Hosts and the Absence of Live Audiences

This entertainment feat in quarantine, however, poses new challenges for the hosts, as their shows suffer from the lack of a crucial element: the audience and their laughs. Since times cannot get more depressing and solemn, “fun” is the last word on everyone’s minds. This dark cloud creates an immense obstacle and pressure for the hosts when they joke about a global pandemic that causes enormous casualties and socioeconomic and political ramifications. The lack of a live studio audience bolsters this somber atmosphere, where the shows’ usual humor can seem irrelevant and inappropriate. 

According to the New York Times, talk show producers have expressed the necessity of “a good live audience” in the making of good TV. Since these TV shows all rely heavily on jokes and the audiences’ reactions, the effect on their delivery is jarring and does not go unnoticed. Their monologue jokes feel somewhat out-of-touch, despite the fact that viewers laugh along with them in their own confined spaces. According to a former executive producer of the Late Show with David Letterman, “jokes are meant to be told in front of people that laugh.” With this empty atmosphere, the timing of the jokes can become mismatched as the interaction between the host and the audience usually sets the timeframe for their delivery.

As inconvenient as it is, the hosts have accommodated and even poked fun at the extraordinary conditions.

Furthermore, since talk show hosts cannot merely insert in laugh tracks like sitcoms, it emphasizes this disconnectivity and the harsh reality we are living in. Nonetheless, this choice is understandable, as the artificial background laugh tracks might backfire and draw more attention to the absence of live audiences. As inconvenient as it is, the hosts have accommodated and even poked fun at the extraordinary conditions. Stephen Colbert cheekily jokes: “In my mind, all of my jokes are perfect. The only person that ever disagrees with me is the audience. Can’t disagree with me now, can you?!”

Unexpected opportunities and Newfound Connection?

Despite this irritating times, these shows have helped us maintain some sense of normalcy, even if their entertaining jokes are rigged with desperation. In these odd times, these Skype-based videos provide a sense of comfort towards social distancing audiences. Jimmy Fallon shares this heartwarming purpose with his audience: “I’m watching the news, and I’m just as confused and freaked out as you are… But what I do know is when we’re there for each other, we’re at our best. And I am here for you. We’re here for you.” Although he might characterize his show as “an hour of mindless entertainment,” these media moments can become hopeful silver linings that help the audiences get through the messy reality. 

The hosts find innovative ways to connect to the segregated audiences.

This pandemic might also offer a fresh and reinventive perspective on late-night television, where talk show hosts strip away their usual formalities. Without the rigid desk-audience structure and the technically advanced camera work, the hosts find innovative ways to connect to the segregated audiences. Through this unexpected setup, they are given the opportunity to explore creative means to preserve and deliver content, rummaging through their homes for anything comedy-worthy. 

This lack of formality also re-ignites the lost intimacy where the hosts are “humanized” by showing their most real persona: in their homes and their PJs with their children and family. Washing away their celebrity status, the hosts allow the audience to be a part of their lives. As a result, viewers form parasocial relationships with the hosts, where they “know the people on the other side of the screen.” Even those that defy this setup like John Oliver (who films his show in the “white void”) genuinely and desperately yearn for and desire connection and unity with their audiences.  

In the time where the world has become so divided, these shows have continuously kept us informed and bonded while spreading encouraging and uplifting messages. Their role in the entertainment world is more needed than ever, and they should be applauded for their diverse and refreshing approaches to cope with the pandemic. They might be fighting a lonely battle in their homes, but they are not alone with audiences appreciating their efforts of reintroducing light into this rather dark present.

Cover: Arthur Osipyan

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