Late-night ghost town: Watch TV hosts perform without audiences amid coronavirus

View from behind of Stephen Colbert facing a camera crew and mostly empty seats.
Stephen Colbert hosts “The Late Show” without an audience Thursday in New York, complying with citywide efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
(Scott Kowalchyk)

The New York late-night circuit was the antithesis of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” this week, prerecording shows without a crowd due to coronavirus fears.

Samantha Bee, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert were among the first comedians to test their material in front of no one for the first time. Well, almost no one.

“As you may have noticed, none of you are here right now,” Colbert said at the top of “The Late Show.” “Only people in the audience right now — can we get a shot of this? Only people in the audience right now are some members of my staff. Hi, guys.”


“We wanted to do the responsible thing and not have an audience,” said Bee on “Full Frontal.” “OK, we have some people, but they work for us, and they are sitting 6 feet apart, as recommended by the CDC — and also because they hate each other.”

TBS’ “Full Frontal” on Wednesday was the first late-night show to go without a live studio audience, followed by CBS’ “Late Show” and NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on Thursday. “The Late Show” and “The Tonight Show” — along with “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “The Daily Show” — were originally scheduled to begin taping sans audiences on Monday. But Colbert and Fallon started earlier in response to growing concerns about the pandemic.

“As of this morning, we planned to do a show with a full audience, but as the day progressed and the more we thought about it, we and NBC decided it would be smarter to not have an audience in order to do our part to decrease the spread of the coronavirus,” Fallon began his program. “So the show’s going to be a little different than it normally is.”

New York-based shows including “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” will suspend live audience tapings due to coronavirus threat.

Suffice it to say the shows operated more than “a little” differently. For example, both Fallon and Colbert delivered their stand-up material sitting down at their desks. Instead of relying on the typical teleprompter, the former shuffled through a stack of note-cards like a high-school student giving a class presentation.

The only laughter came from a handful of crew members, musicians from the in-house bands and, sometimes, from the hosts themselves.

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“We’re just kind of winging it,” Colbert said candidly to camera. “This is rehearsal right now, 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? Ha! Look — I just got a laugh.”

“We considered using a laugh track tonight, but unfortunately the only sound cues we had on-hand were the ‘woos’ from ‘Saved by the Bell’ when Zack Morris kissed Kelly Kapowski,” Bee quipped.

While commenting on the news, Colbert switched back and forth between sipping bourbon and pumping hand sanitizer to calm his anxiety.

“What am I supposed to do? There’s no more Purell,” the comic joked, referencing the dearth of disinfectants available at stores. “I’m just hoping to drink enough of this that I just sweat out the sterilizing.”

Fallon took a slightly more serious approach by addressing the widespread panic induced by the outbreak and thanking his employees — “many of whom worked from home” — for pressing on despite the sudden break from routine.

“Like you, I’m watching the news, and I’m just as confused and freaked out as you are,” Fallon said. “I know that [President Trump’s] 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 are here for you. ... So, if you want, maybe just put your phones down and enjoy an hour of mindless entertainment.”