Daytime talk shows already dropped their audiences this week as the entertainment industry started to practice social distancing, so it was time for late-night TV to take its turn on empty sets. On CBS, “The Late Show” host Colbert kicked off his broadcast by sprinting around the deserted studio — a few chairs were filled with people from his staff, who tried to cheer as loudly as possible.
“As you may have noticed, none of you are here right now,” he said, explaining that viewers were actually watching the show’s taped rehearsal. Because while they were supposed to go audience-free starting next Monday, executives made the abrupt decision to enforce the rule Thursday night after Broadway was shut down. “The Late Show,” along with NBC’s New York-based “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” will now be on hiatus until March 30.
“We’re just kind of winging it … which might be a good thing, because 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?!” Colbert demanded. One of his staffers chortled. “Look, I just got a laugh!”
Things quickly spiraled into deeply weird as Colbert sipped bourbon at his desk and cracked up at his own jokes: “Last night, we learned that the NBA has suspended its season until further notice. So congratulations to the New York Knicks, it’s the best thing to happen to them all year.” His bandleader, Jon Batiste, joined in with a helpful piano riff.
Then Colbert yelled at coronavirus for a while for infecting Tom Hanks: “You can shut down Italy, you can shut down South Korea, you can destroy our economy, but keep your filthy nucleocapsid proteins off Tom Hanks! The man is an American treasure!” He chatted with his showrunner and executive producer about how to drag everything out so they had enough content to fill an hour. He jumped around and screamed into the camera while doing his best impersonation of a deer trapped in the Oval Office.
“I had a little too much of this stuff over here, I think,” Colbert said, noting his alcoholic beverage.
As usual, Colbert had lots of President Trump jokes, from his lack of reassurance on Wednesday (“Trump preempted all programming to address a worried nation and reminded them he’s the thing they should really worry about”) to his stumbles while reading his speech (“Not very reassuring when the guy telling us to stay calm about a respiratory virus loses his breath in the middle of a two-syllable word.”)
Things took a more serious turn when Colbert welcomed guest Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, and grilled him about coronavirus facts and how everyone can try to stay safe. It turned into an almost philosophical discussion about people modifying their individual behavior.
“We are co-dependent on each other in a way I’ve never seen before. There’s an obligation now,” Gupta said. “I tell people to wash their hands and they’re like, ‘You’re telling me in the middle of a pandemic that washing my hands, that’s all you’ve got?!’ But do you understand how much of an impact that not only makes for you, it makes for me? It’s becoming very real for people, I think, in that way.”
Over on “The Tonight Show,” Fallon started on a grave note as he explained the lack of audience. “I’m watching the news and I’m just as confused and freaked out as you are — I know that speech last night didn’t help. 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,” he said, encouraging viewers to “maybe put your phones down and enjoy an hour of mindless entertainment.”
Then he pulled out index cards for a monologue, poking fun at Sarah Palin on “The Masked Singer” (“I’m sure it’s fine. I mean, when has a conservative celebrity on a reality show ever been a problem?”) and mocked Trump’s speech (“This is only the second time Trump has addressed the country from the Oval Office. The first was during the great McRib shortage of 2018.”) He tried to shred some notecards when certain jokes didn’t get laughs from the few members of his staff.
The strangest moment came at the expense of a band that peaked in the early 2000s. “The NBA announced that they are suspending the season indefinitely,” Fallon said. “That means across the country there are now 30 empty arenas. Or as that’s also known, a tour for 3 Doors Down.”
“Oooooh!” said the approximately seven people in the studio. “What? I didn’t write it!” Fallon mock-protested before asking, “What song did 3 Doors Down do?”
As a response, house band the Roots immediately launched into “Kryptonite,” the only obvious answer. “I’m impressed that we know that,” Questlove admitted.
With that, Fallon interviewed Dr. Oz; actor Dane DeHaan; and actress Mandy Moore, who then performed a song from her new album for the empty studio.