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Nearly everything on network and cable television has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Some shows have resumed production, but for the most part, fears of coronavirus infection shut down scores of half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas. One genre of TV that’s managed to survive, though, is the late-night talk show. Almost immediately after lockdowns hit Los Angeles and New York, the hosts of gabfests like The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon began taping their shows from home, trading in their desks and velvet chairs for Zoom calls with celebs trying desperately to find their best angles on a laptop screen. (Presumably.)
The transition was easier for some than others. Colbert, for his part, seemed to be thriving. His broadcasts, filmed in what looks like his home’s den with the help of his family (his wife often appeared on-air with him), got a whole new vitality. He took on the air of a guy who just wanted to do improv again, and President Trump’s handling of the growing pandemic—and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests—gave him fodder for segment after segment. Meanwhile, his colleague in the 12:30 am block, James Corden, seemed far less comfortable in his new digs. The Late Late Show star set up a studio in his LA garage (people really couldn’t get over his British pronunciation of that word), and each night he asked nearly every guest—including his band leader Reggie Watts—some variation of “How are you doing? Are you well?” with a plea in his voice that made it sound as though he genuinely needed to know there was someone else out there going through it as much as he was.
As the months went on (March, April, May …), late-night continued and almost ended up as a lifeline to normalcy. The shows themselves didn’t, and still don’t, look like they used to, but watching them felt like the one daily thing on television that was both au courant and Not the News. Quarantine has been a good time for catching up on reading and binge-watching every overlooked show on Netflix, but those things come from the Before Times. Turning on late-night was an easy way to try to laugh at the absurdity and tragedy of life in the now. In a recent piece in Variety, Daily Show host Trevor Noah talked about his switch from suits to hoodies when his show moved from its New York studio to a “nook” in Noah’s New York apartment. “The way I feel onstage is generally the way the audience is going to feel, because I’m imbuing them with that energy. I want you to feel like I feel, so I need to be in the most comfortable space, where I feel the most intimate with this lens,” Noah said. “So it’s like ‘Welcome to me,’ essentially.” Any comfort Noah felt taping his broadcast this spring and summer might’ve been the only comfort his audience felt that day.
But while Noah is in “no rush” to go back to his studio, Fallon, Colbert, and Corden are all returning to their studios. Largely, they seem relieved. There are no audience members, the crews that are visible onscreen are all in masks, but at least the hosts look less alone. In this, too, the hosts are reflecting how so many of their audience members feel these days. Some would like to return to their offices, see their work spouses. Others are happy to keep working in the nooks where they typically play Xbox.
Earlier this week, the staff of The Late Late Show celebrated Corden’s birthday. They got him a cake; he blew out the candles with a leaf blower to avoid infecting the confection. They also got him a desk with a hibachi grill installed. He immediately started sizzling mushrooms, rice, and eggs. Then he started flipping food at his crew, Benihana-style. In this context, it was the safest way to share food with the Late Late staff. After many failed attempts, he landed a shrimp in writer Ian Karmel’s mouth. It was the happiest he’s looked in months.
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