In the few short weeks since the coronavirus outbreak essentially shut down the country, late-night shows have come to occupy a strange place in the media world. Unlike other entertainers’ now-ubiquitous livestreams on social media and YouTube, the makeshift late-night shows are the work of large teams of people suddenly working remotely in an effort to produce something resembling the quality of their non-pandemic offerings, even when that means enlisting family members to work as members of the production crew.
Most of the shows are operating at as close to full-strength as technology and social distancing allows, an impressive feat considering how many moving parts it takes to get them on the air when times are normal. Curious to learn more about the myriad ways show production has adapted during our global catastrophe, Vulture caught up with writers and producers from The Tonight Show, Late Night, Desus & Mero, Full Frontal, and The Daily Show. They all stressed that they’re:
A) Grateful to be employed
B) In awe of their teams’ ability to get the episodes on the air
C) Hopeful that what they’re doing is at least helping others get through the chaos
Then they explained how they’re doing their jobs right now.
1. Aim for a “Glimmer of Something Normal”
The staffers at late-night shows know they’re not “essential workers” but also feel that since they’re in a position to provide distraction to an increasingly anxious audience, it’s important for them to do so. “When you’re going through something like this that’s unprecedented and scary and people are dying, it’s your natural inclination to go, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’” says Tonight Show producer and writer Gerard Bradford. “I’m not a scientist or a doctor or a nurse, but I think comedy writers go, ‘Well, maybe I can make someone laugh for a few minutes and they’re not thinking of what’s on the news or if someone they know is sick.’”
As Late Night head writer Alex Baze says, it’s really about creating an approximation of normalcy. “What I’ve gotten from people is not so much that they miss getting the news from us or hearing our takes — it’s more they just missed seeing Seth [Meyers], for all that entails,” he explains. “It feels like a glimmer of something normal, even though it’s not what it was before.”
2. Adjust to Writers’ Room-via-Zoom (and Text, Email, Slack, and Actual Telephone Calls)
The quotidian human interactions associated with work in any office are generally good for relationships and morale, but proximity is that much more valuable when working in a medium predicated on timing, banter, and constant collaboration. “If I had a joke idea or could punch up somebody else’s joke, I would just walk over to their office, say it to them, and walk back. It’s done in about 12 seconds,” says Bradford. “Now it takes maybe five minutes, because you have to email or text that person and wait for them to reply.”
“You forget how important nonverbal communication is,” Baze adds. “When a piece is being read, you hear where the laughs are. You see eyebrows go up, people shifting in their seats, and those are all cues when you’re making changes to a piece. And the obvious change is, there’s no audience laughing at your jokes. Even when it’s done, you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know if that was good.’”
For some writers, the challenges of working from home have highlighted the value of one long-forgotten tool. “It’s like we’re in middle school, when you talked on the phone all the time,” says Full Frontal co-head writer Kristen Bartlett. “I’ve gone from absolutely never answering or talking on the phone to hours-long calls. On Saturday, Mike [Drucker, Full Frontal co-head writer] and I had a four-hour call where we were punching up the script. That’s insane.”
Not every show has found the transition to remote work disorienting. As Josh Gondelman, senior writer and producer for Desus & Mero, explains, “We moved studios at the beginning of this season and last year. We went pretty quickly from one show a week to two. We’re kind of used to reconfiguring the process to make the same show in a new way.” And Daily Show head writer Dan Amira notes that the psychological effects of working remotely have translated to great material.
“My favorite bit we’ve done is when Trevor and three correspondents tried to figure out what day it is,” he says, referring to last week’s “What Day Is It?” segment. “It’s something very relatable for anyone who’s been quarantined and working from home for two weeks.”
3. Find the Right Tone for Viral Outbreak Humor
While some of the writers have taken cues from how late-night shows tackled tragedies such as 9/11, mass shootings, and Hurricane Sandy, there is really no playbook for how to tackle something like the coronavirus. If anything, the shows are trying to operate like it’s business as usual, just with a different subject matter.
“Boundaries are like the old saying about pornography: You’ll know it when you see it,” says Amira. “We channel our emotions into the jokes. If we feel like the world is ending, then that’s what other people are feeling too, and that’s what we should be writing jokes about.”
Punching up at deserving targets is also a safe route. “There are a lot of villains in this story — people who ignore the crisis — and it’s always okay to make fun of villains during a story like this,” says Full Frontal’s Drucker. “The one thing we don’t want to do is make fun of the people who are scared or getting hurt.”
As the writers have found, there are so many facets to this story that staying true to the unique tone of each show isn’t too difficult. Fallon has kept it light, interviewing his dog and broadcasting from a tree. Meyers is relying on segments like “A Closer Look” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Bee is covering politicians who are using the pandemic as an excuse to restrict abortion rights. “It’s like,” says Bartlett, “‘well, what is something that Sam could say that other hosts wouldn’t say? What is something from her viewpoint, or specifically as a woman, she would want to talk about? What are the things that we can say that other hosts aren’t?’”
The writers of Desus & Mero, as usual, are finding offbeat stories. “New York City released guidelines that are saying you’re not supposed to eat ass during the pandemic. Something like that is right in our wheelhouse,” says Gondelman. “There’s people being horny for Cuomo. We also had Dr. Anthony Fauci on. The interview was really sincere and informative, with the guys asking him what his favorite Yankees memory is and getting this really fun story about Yogi Berra.”
4. Let Go of the News Cycle (to a Point)
All the late-night shows still have to be vigilant about breaking news, but now that most programs need more hours in the day for filming and post-production, they’ve had to make their jokes less time-sensitive. Under normal conditions, Late Night, for one example, typically rewrites lines until about 20 minutes before its normal 6:30 p.m. taping. Now that’s impossible. “We’re surrendering to the idea that we’re going to be a little behind the news cycle,” Baze says. “But it’s fine. It’s more important to get Seth out there with good material.”
Thanks to Full Frontal’s weekly schedule, their segments are written to withstand most timely developments, but it’s still a concern. What’s harder, now that everyone’s working from home, is feeling like you can ever be off the clock. “Usually there’s big news — Trump crashed a zeppelin into Mount Rushmore — and we have to talk about that really fast. But in this situation, because things are changing even faster, you kind of just constantly have to be on call,” says Drucker. “Fortunately, we work with a very, very good research team. They’re a helpful filter for things. You see rumors on Twitter where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is happening!’ and they’re like, ‘No, that’s not true. You’re safe. Stop talking about that.’”
“Or they’ll confirm it,” adds Bartlett, “and that’s worse.”
5. Be Resourceful
A pandemic forcing every show to completely abandon its traditional approach is unprecedented; challenges have been introduced, certainly, but so have opportunities. “We sort of have an ‘anything goes’ way of looking at it,” Bradford says. “We’re not within the confines of the studio, and just as people are more accepting of their co-workers having their babies in meetings, viewers seem more accepting of seeing something completely different.”
Fallon in particular has made his wife and kids a big element of his remote Tonight Show episodes, and for Bradford, it’s been an exciting experiment. “I love seeing Jimmy just be himself in his world with his wife and his kids,” he says. “These shows are a real Fallon family production because they’re all doing it themselves. He’s holding the camera, she’s the director, and the kids are showing up when they feel like it. Jimmy interviewed his dog, so it’s really an ‘all hands on deck’ thing out there. Our process has been to give material to them, wait for three hours, then get the footage back. Then we watch it all for the first time. It’s been charming.”
For Full Frontal, the writers’ biggest muse has come from an unlikely part of Samantha Bee’s home. “Sam has a woodshed on her property that, to me, looks like where you would go to kill someone, which is such a funny thing,” Bartlett says. “We’ve made a lot of jokes about that weird, scary shed, to a point where I think she’s now offended that we’re afraid of her backyard.”
“It’s pretty funny,” Drucker adds. “We were like, ‘It looks like a place where you kill people!’ and she’s like ‘I … I live here.’”
6. Keep Things in Perspective
“It’s not going to be perfect,” Bartlett sums it up, “but we’re doing our best.”