Two weeks ago, when some of the late night hosts had started experimenting with doing their monologues from home (followed by previously-aired segments done in their studios before Coronavirus upended everyone’s life), I wrote:
Unfortunately, the material just isn’t that good — I flashed back to when hosts of an earlier era tried to pull off full shows during writers strikes — or perhaps we’re living in such a horrific time that the jokes simply can’t land. Watching each of them try to time their comedy without an audience response reminded me of what it was like doing radio shows, where I never got instant feedback on an ad-lib or a quick quip, no matter how hysterical or lame.
Now the TV hosts are learning how much harder it is to work without a pumped-up crowd that over-reacts and laughs en masse at everything they do.
After taking a week off, most of them — Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and Conan O’Brien — have returned to the air with shows still emanating from their homes. But the result isn’t much better. Sampling them over the last couple of nights, I kept thinking, “How many writers does it take to come up with completely laugh-free monologues?” The answer, apparently, is in the dozens.
The best of the bunch is John Oliver, whose “Last Week Tonight” on HBO continues to be a high-quality production, even with the host sitting in front of a bland, white screen. The writing is superior and the production qualities aren’t all that different from the studio version of his show. More importantly, Oliver’s delivery of the material remains perfect — he doesn’t pause for laughs as the others do — and he seems to genuinely be having a good time, while some of the others look like the burden of doing a show this way has already worn them down.
Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal Home Edition” is nearly as good, although it suffers every time there’s a segment done by someone else. The same problem exists for Trevor Noah on “The Daily Social Distancing Show.” He’s fine, with some necessary editing done to make his first segment tighter and funnier — but any time he yields the floor to his contributors, the quality drops considerably. They’re best at doing field pieces, which are impossible when you’re stuck on your couch.
I expected more from Stephen Colbert. He’s trying too hard, pausing for reactions from an audience that’s not there, and has technical problems that are unacceptable in a show that’s not being delivered live. Things went okay on Monday night because John Oliver was his main guest and contributed enough goofiness to save the show. But Colbert kept looking to his right to see the guest on a monitor while the box Oliver was in was on Colbert’s left. The problem wasn’t fixed until Tuesday night, but instead he had audio problems with Daniel Radcliffe, who Colbert couldn’t hear via the teleconferencing link. The whole debacle was left in when it could easily have been edited out — after all, these are recorded shows — and in the end, host and guest had to communicate via cell phone. Embarrassing.
One thing that hasn’t changed for Jimmy Fallon is his need to use superlatives to describe everyone and everything (e.g. all of his guests are still “the greatest”). The man has more BFFs than anyone not named Kardashian. Unlike Colbert and the others, Fallon’s monologue consists of him reading incredibly unfunny jokes off paper scripts, which force him to lose eye contact with the camera. I don’t know if he’s furloughed his writers in favor of creating the material himself, but the stuff is consistently lame. Fallon is also the king of pausing for laughs, but the silence is deafening — of all the late-nighters, Fallon misses his studio audience the most. Moreover, the look of his show-from-home is subpar, with terrible production values compared to the competition.
The word that best describes the garage version of Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is “cloying.” He does an Ask The Fallons segment in which he and his wife walk through their neighborhood with video he shoots from a selfie stick as they answer questions from viewers. She seems like a nice person, but family issues and home schooling don’t make for good anecdotes — at least from the Fallons, who have a consistent case of the giggles when together. It’s like being out to dinner with another couple and being subjected to repeated stories that start, “Remember that time…” and then laughing at their own memory without sharing the humor of it with us.
I get similarly annoyed watching several of the hosts bringing their children and pets onto the shows on a regular basis. Imagine if one of your co-workers forced you to look at photos of their family on their iPhone every single day. You’d try to remain polite, but by day three, you’d find a way to avoid them, right? Same principle here: kids and dogs are not as entertaining as the hosts think.
Unlike Fallon, Kimmel, and Colbert, Conan O’Brien is fortunate to only have to fill a half-hour. I like his banter from afar with Andy Richter, his guest interviews are fine, and it’s nice that Conan starts his show with a montage of still photos of his staff, also working from home. But, like the others, any time he’s attempted to do a wacky comedy bit, he hasn’t stuck the landing.
Aside from Oliver, Seth Meyers seems to have the best writing staff, consistently coming up with good topical humor — 90% of it aimed at Agent Orange in the White House — and I like that he’s booked non-showbiz guests like Elizabeth Warren. He was very good with her over two full segments last night. It helps that she’s so good at playing along while still getting in some important policy points.
But one problem all of these shows have is the limitations of having both hosts and guests quarantined. When no one is going out, no one has any interesting tales to tell. They haven’t gone anywhere or done anything entertaining — just like us. And we know how boring it is to stay at home.
After all, how many jokes do we need about not knowing what day it is and not wearing pants?