Perhaps proving that shutting down completely is the wisest course, “The Tonight Show” joins “Late Night” and “Late Show” in suspending production.
Shortly after announcing that they would being taping without audiences beginning next week, three of the top late-night talk shows took things a step further and are suspending production altogether. Jimmy Fallon, meanwhile, gave fans a sneak peek of what a show without an audience might look like on Thursday night.
Perhaps shutting down is better … unless you love really awkward moments and lots of unexpected silence.
While he’d originally planned to have an audience for this final taping of this week, due to escalating cancellations and concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Fallon and his team opted to forgo the audience and simply forge ahead with a limited staff and crew.
As such, Fallon performed his monologue from behind his desk with smaller hand-held cards rather than cue cards. And he delivered the standard set-up/punchline format without an audience to respond or laugh or groan with each joke.
It’s a fascinatingly awkward experience to watch as announcer Steve Higgins and band leader Questlove laugh and try to interact with him, but even their involvement — along with a few other staffers who came in — just can’t overturn the feeling that something is seriously off.
As uncomfortably surreal as when Whoopi Goldberg welcomed an empty studio audience to “The View,” their lack of presence is even more jarring when you throw in the element of comedy. Comedians feed off of the energy of the crowd, which is why sitcoms have often used live studio audiences (or even laugh tracks) to help share that energy with home audiences.
Fallon was fully aware of how strange the experience of doing this type of comedy without an audience was, giggling and shifting uncomfortably from behind the desk at the echoing silence throughout the studio, but he powered through with quick asides and even his famous Trump impression at one point.
“Trump wanted to give a speech to reassure the nation that everything is gonna be okay, and I think it worked,” he said. “Today the stock market only dropped 2,000 points.” The scattered laughter was just too much for Fallon to handle and he broke himself.
Don’t misunderstand, there was a lot to enjoy and laugh at during this monologue, but almost none of it had to do with Fallon’s material, which was it’s usual … fine. He even explained why some of the jokes were sitting awkwardly.
“Normally when we do this, we rehearse these jokes in front of a rehearsal audience,” he said, asking us to bear that in mind to help justify the ones that go flat. So the audience not only helps the material feel funnier, they’re actually instrumental in shaping the monologue and the whole traditional late-night format.
Perhaps if the shows do come back after their respective hiatuses and continue without studio audiences, they should consider shifting their format to acknowledge their altered reality.
Maybe dump the monologue entirely, offer more in-depth interviews and for shenanigans, consider fun games or in-studio gags or even pre-taped bits. Or just embrace the awkward madness and have it be Fallon trying out his jokes on his friends like this, but with more interaction.
Our favorite moment was when Fallon tried to identify a 3 Doors Down song after savagely trashing the band in a joke. He and The Roots finally figured out the song “Kryptonite” and when Fallon started singing, they accompanied him.
“Wow, we know that,” Questlove marveled after they stopped. “I’m impressed that we know that.”
While the initial plan was for all the late-night shows to drop studio audiences but continue taping next week, Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” and Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” have joined Fallon in deciding to scrap news shows altogether (Meyers even canceled Thursday’s taping, offering only a new “A Closer Look” as a digital exclusive).
These cancellations lead into a planned week off for all three shows the following week. That puts them in line with many other productions and venues in taking off most of the rest of March to continue assessing the spreading gobal pandemic before making a further decision on when it might be the right time to return to the air … and in what capacity.