Playing to Empty Seats: How Daytime and Late-Night TV Hosts Attempted to Forge Ahead Without Studio Audiences

stephen colbert coronavirus no studio audience

“The show must go on,” as the saying goes — and many a show tried to do just that, as coronavirus panic started to set in across the country.

Over the last few days, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a number of daytime and late-night series tried to move forward without studio audiences — which, if nothing else, made for interesting television. But as the situation worsened, most productions decided to go on hiatus.

As of press time, nearly a dozen late-night series — ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live!, CBS’ The Late Show and The Late Late Show, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and Lights Out, NBC’s Tonight Show and Late Night, HBO’s Real Time, and TBS’ Full Frontal — have opted to halt production, effective immediately. Among daytime offerings, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Talk, The Tamron Hall Show and The Wendy Williams Show have followed suit. (HBO’s Last Week Tonight is scheduled to air a truncated episode on Sunday, before it, too, goes dark.)

What follows is a 72-hour timeline with clips from each show that attempted to keep the lights on…

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11

Live With Kelly and Ryan became the first show to go on air without an audience. It filled the void by having crew members fill the first two rows.

“As you can see, things are a little different here today, given the developing situation in New York with the coronavirus,” Ryan Seacrest said, explaining the situation to viewers at home. Added Kelly Ripa, “While we don’t have our regular studio audience, except for some of our producers… that shouldn’t stop everyone from watching at home. Because, let’s face it: You can’t go anywhere else!”

 

Shortly thereafter, the ladies of ABC’s The View went live with only producers and cameramen on the floor. “Well, hello! Hello! Hello!” moderator Whoopi Goldberg said, as she greeted a nonexistent audience: “Welcome to The View, y’all! Welcome to The View! Welcome to The View! Welcome to The View! Welcome to The View! Welcome to The View! Welcome to The View! Welcome to The View!”

Later that night, TBS’ Full Frontal With Samantha Bee became the first late-night series to put on a show sans seat fillers.

“We considered using a laugh track tonight,” Bee said. “Unfortunately, the only sound cues we had on hand were the woos from Saved by the Bell when Zack Morris kissed Kelly Kapowski. So we won’t have audience laughter, but we might have my laughter, because my writers added some jokes that I haven’t seen before.” Bee then proceeded to break several times during her initial segment on COVID-19.

THURSDAY, MARCH 12

The syndicated Wendy Williams Show followed Kelly and Ryan‘s lead and filled seats with myriad staffers. (“Welcome my staff and my co-workers, otherwise known as my co-hosts until corona can be conducted properly,” Williams said.)

When Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Trevor Noah aired later that night, the Powers That Be thought the show would move forward with new episodes the week of March 16. That decision was reversed, but not before Noah serenaded his final studio audience:

A half-hour later, NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon decided last minute to do away with the audience. Fallon then proceeded to put on what would ultimately be his last show.

“Like you, I’m watching the news, and I’m just as confused and freaked out as you are,” Fallon said. “But what I do know is when we’re there for each other, we’re at our best.”

Over on CBS, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert followed suit and performed to an audience of just a few staffers, who were spaced out among the 457 seats inside the Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert eventually revealed that viewers at home were watching dress rehearsal; midway through his monologue, which he chose to perform at his desk, Colbert decided that it was redundant to go through the motions of a no-audience show twice. Before he brought out the night’s sole guest, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the host remarked on the day’s headlines — including word that Tom Hanks tested positive for coronavirus.

“Hey, coronavirus! You can shut down Italy, you can shut down South Korea [and] you can destroy our economy, but keep your filthy nucleocapsid proteins off Tom Hanks!” he exclaimed. “The man is an American treasure!”

By the time NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers was to record its no-audience show on Thursday evening, the decision was made to suspend production altogether. While a repeat aired that night, Meyers recorded a coronavirus-themed “Closer Look” segment that was posted as an online exclusive:

Last but not least was CBS’ Late Late Show With James Corden, which taped Thursday’s episode a day ahead of air. At the time, the host assured viewers that they’d keep the lights on and see what happens, but that won’t be the case anymore.

FRIDAY, MARCH 13

HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher went live from Los Angeles. During the show, which he performed in front of members of his writing staff, the comedian confirmed earlier reports that HBO would suspend production indefinitely following that evening’s broadcast.

“Welcome to F—king Ridiculous With Bill Maher,” the host said. “This country went from zero to crazy in about three seconds this week. It is Friday the 13th now, there’s a pandemic, the markets are in free fall… and Trump is president. So let’s hope we don’t run into a spate of bad luck!”