What’s going on in the world is bad. You know, you’ve seen the news. Part of that bad — a very very small part relative to… you know, you’ve seen the news — is late night suddenly going dark (or, rather, into reruns). Networks and hosts simply don’t want to put their studio audience or their staff into a situation that might cause people to be shoulder-to-shoulder or in direct contact, amping up their risk of contracting COVID-19. And that is, of course, extremely understandable. Good on them for being earlier to that level of caution and sobriety than a lot of government officials have been when it comes to shutting down other non-essential activities. But no fresh late-night means we’re in short supply of people that can make us laugh about the news. A true challenge considering the subject matter du jour, and something that, to be honest, I was expecting to be without for a while. And then Stephen Colbert sent a tweet.
There is a pre-tweet version of this article that had been created to gently suggest that late-night hosts maybe use their timeslots to put forth some very lo-fi and hopefully weird comedy while riffing on everything that is happening. All in the name of restoring a small bit of normality and not as some dumb “kill it with fierce determination and the inextinguishable American go-go do-do spirit” thing. I’m not a moron. I don’t think late-night hosts need to be huddled in their studios with their staffs in defiance of public health warnings as though they were on some kind of Red Robin burger mission. We don’t need entertainers to be heroes, just diversions (if they’re so willing). Colbert delivered that last night in the midst of a bubble bath, drawing out a couple of laughs while, quite possibly, charting a course for his peers to follow.
Let’s acknowledge what late-night cannot and does not need to be right now: “The Big Show,” with in-person guests, a band, and a packed studio. Colbert’s show abandoned that formula, to an extent, mixing a monologue with a pre-taped bit of infotainment and a re-run of his recent interview with Jim Carrey. It isn’t known if future episodes will follow the same track or if Colbert will mix it up (assuming he decides to do additional episodes from home). Despite what one might perceive as a limited set of tools to work with in the absence of a luxurious studio, however, there are a lot of things Colbert and others can do to further stand out. Skype in some guests, play board games or Call Of Duty, cook, show us the mundane experiences of a day on lockdown in their lives, teach us how to square dance — whatever. We kinda need a comedy pal to hang out with right now, so dealers choice. I love him, but anything is better than watching Anderson Cooper’s worry face before bed.
It sounds stupid to be all “make lemonade when life gives you virus riddled lemons,” but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that an opportunity exists for truly inspired and memorable late-night comedy when hosts leave their comfort zones (by choice or by circumstance). Think way back to the episode of Letterman that he filmed from his house while waiting for the cable guy or the time he decided it was too hot in the studio so he recorded from his office. Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter threw a show together outside of 30 Rock in the mid-’90s when their studio caught on fire and, for a more recent look at comedy chaos, recall Craig Ferguson hosting an episode of The Late Late Show by flashlight or the oft-mentioned (by comedy nerds) episode of The Late Late Show co-hosted by Adam Pally and Ben Schwartz during a blizzard for examples. People keep saying the quarantine and social distancing movement is going to lead to some great art, but maybe some of it is going to be created by bored late-night hosts stumbling onto some truly weird and wonderful moments while trying to help us all make it through this very bizarre and high-stress situation.
Colbert isn’t the only late-night host to play around with empty space and this very extreme moment. Trevor Noah’s attempt to recreate stirring Italian balcony singing in Manhattan and a direct read on yesterday’s news show The Daily Show is feeling out some ideas. Same with the promise of updates from Sam Bee and Full Frontal. Hopefully, the next step will be fuller efforts that are light on polish and formality and big on charm and weirdness. Because when we’re trying to stave off anxiety, stir craziness, and scurvy, nobody cares about formality and polish. We just care about a direct nightly connect with people that have become, at times, elevated figures in moments of duress who possess the ability to be a real balm as they add context to literal history and help us laugh to forget. For a little while, at least.