That Sound You Hear Is The Dread Of Late Night Studio Audiences Returning

Seth Meyers was a guest on a recent episode of the Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast and Meyers brought up the subject of studio audiences, something most late night shows have been without for over a year now. After doing an obligatory preface about how he likes audiences, Meyers then said, “I’ve got to be honest, it’s been sort of thrilling to do a show without an audience.”

Then Conan O’Brien jumps in to say that by the time the guest has done whatever bit they are doing for the audience’s sake, there’s no time for any substance. And that now, doing interviews in this current setting is, “much more compelling at this stage of my life.”

Both Meyers and Conan make compelling points. Meyers, especially, seems resistant to the return of live audiences and even brought it up again to his guest John Oliver on Monday night’s show, going as far to say if a joke does really well in front of an audience he then doubts himself. (Which I interpreted as meaning, “If it tickles the masses that effectively, we may have done something wrong.”)

That seems like a not great way to run a comedy show. But he’s right, Late Night has been better without an audience. (Frankly, so has Late Show and The Daily Show, we’ll get to those in a bit.) Late Night, especially, has been willing to take more chances and the laughter they do have from the crew gives the whole operation a Tom Snyder feel to it, which never doesn’t seem to delight Meyers. And Meyers’ signature segment, “A Closer Look,” isn’t really a laughter-driven device. When watching from an audience it’s kind of like watching a news broadcast in that there’s no real audience participation anyway. (I’m now imagining Norah O’Donnell having to mingle with an audience after a commercial break.) Also, Meyers looks noticeably happier doing the show without an audience. And the way this current iteration of Late Night is set up works much better without one and obviously Meyers knows it: which is why he seems to be lobbying every other late-night host for support. So when he brings it up to the powers that be at the next big network meeting he can at least say, “See, they agree with me.” Even Wednesday night (honestly after most of this piece was already written), Gayle King asked Seth what it’s like without a studio audience and his answer was, “I’m so happy. I’m so deeply happy.”

This last year has been abysmal pretty much all around, but it’s been a rejuvenation for late night television. It would be easy to say the hosts had to step out of their comfort zones, but there’s more going on here. Well, okay, sure, someone like Jimmy Fallon obviously does not look comfortable without an audience and, frankly, the last year hasn’t been, let’s say, kind to his show. And it’s no surprise he was the first nightly host to jump at the chance to start bringing in a small audience again. Jimmy Kimmel’s show is unique in that he’s kind of positioned his show as a carnival and he’s the ringmaster. And Kimmel has a talent for connecting with a studio audience and with a home audience at the same time, which is probably why he’s had so much success as an Oscar host. But Meyers, Colbert and Trevor Noah all look more comfortable without an audience. It’s like they stepped into their comfort zone, whether they realized that was going to happen or not.

Have you ever been in a late night show’s studio audience? It’s certainly an interesting experience. When I go now it’s “for work,” but when I first moved to New York City back in 2004 I went to quite a few tapings “for fun.” (I put both in quotes because going to a late night show is a pretty fun thing to do for work, but it’s also not really a great thing just to do leisurely for fun.) During my first year in New York I signed up for everything. I went to Letterman three times. I saw Conan’s Late Night. The toughest ticket was The Daily Show, but when I signed up for those I was asked if I wanted to see “Jon’s pal Stephen’s new show.” So I wound up at The Colbert Report’s third show ever. (I would eventually get tickets to The Daily Show after a ten-month wait.)

Though, after a while I remember I started to feel like cattle. A good portion of the people at any given late night taping were just herded off the street. It’s not particularly easy to fill a studio every night. And for the audience member, it’s quite a time commitment. And the point of you being there isn’t that you have a good time. The point of you being there is so it just looks like you’re having a good time so it makes good television. When this airs later that night, it must look like everyone in that theater has just lost their minds because they just found out Josh Duhamel is a guest. Before Letterman started the show you were literally taken to a room and trained how to laugh and clap. And if you didn’t go along with the program, they sent you up to the balcony. It was weird, as you enter the theater they had a person weeding people out. If you had a frown on your face, you wound up in the balcony. Though, Conan’s Late Night didn’t really do this, at least to that level, but it’s also why you could watch Conan and there were jokes no one would laugh at, which actually made for pretty fun television.

So the point of this is, on any given night, you’ve got yourself a room full of people who are, most likely, from out of town and had a few hours to kill so this will do to pass the time. It’s not that they don’t want to be there, but they are at least open to other ideas on how to spend their late afternoon. So now here comes the host who now has to cater to these people instead of just focusing on the millions of people who aren’t in the studio audience and will be watching from home. It becomes jokes for people who maybe aren’t even in the mood for comedy. The dynamic is all thrown off. And this has been proven over the last year as the hosts have had to only concentrate on the home audience. And there’s now a real connection being made, that was, before, lost with jokes for the trained audience. During Conan O’Brien’s podcast, Seth Meyers mentioned how great his sound technicians are. In that, no matter how good or bad the audience reaction is on any given night, on television it all kind of sounds the same. Basically, it’s just a laugh track. And for what Meyers is doing, he doesn’t need a laugh track.

(The one exception to all this is Saturday Night Live. As we saw last year, it doesn’t really work without an audience. For this job, I’ve been in that studio during shows seven times now – yes, who is counting – and it’s such an impossible ticket the audience is almost always amped. No one is just being asked on the street if they want to kill some time and watch Saturday Night Live.)

Now take Colbert for example. Personally, I’m dreading the return of live audiences for late night shows because of Colbert, more than any other host. I used to find his Late Show almost unwatchable. He never looked truly comfortable pandering to an audience as himself. So during interviews he’d take elements of his old “character” for an audience reaction and, frankly, sometimes come off as a jerk. He’s a sketch performer at heart. He wants that audience reaction as a sketch performer. He’s never looked comfortable as just a “host.”

But now, with just him and a camera (and often his wife, who provides him with a terrific sidekick and his own crew laughter), he’s transformed himself into our pal Stephen. It’s like he’s giving nightly fireside chats. If he’s still playing a character, it’s just as our nighttime buddy. And he’s become must watch television for me. And without worrying about his audience that just came in off the street, his interviews have been much more engaged. He’s now listening to what his guests are saying and reacting, as opposed to worrying about getting a laugh from the people in his audience who probably just want to make it to their reservation at Johnny Utah’s on time. This last year Colbert has become engaged. He’s better doing it like this, just speaking into the camera. Maybe for the first time in his career he comes off like a real person. And like Colbert, Trevor Noah also has an uncanny ability to connect to his home audience when he’s not worried about the studio audience. I can personally feel a connection. And over the last year that connection has become important. There was and is truly a feeling of, “Hey, we are in this together.”

It’s just really remarkable that over the last year, the late night shows got stripped of the bells and whistles that kind of conformed their shows into a bit of a mass jumble of sameness. But the pandemic forced these shows to kind of only be the pure concentrate of their personalities. And for a lot of them, it made them and their shows better. Envelopes were pushed. Personalities developed. It became something raw. It felt like whatever we are going through, well here are some real people who will help us through. And look, studio audiences aren’t a one size fits all proposition. Some hosts are better with them but some are clearly better without. And, I fear, as soon as the in-studio audiences come back (and let me be clear, I am under no presumption that anything can really stop that) all our new pals will start playing for them again, the people who don’t really care, as opposed to us.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.