Last night both Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman sent their studio audiences home for the storm and did their shows for an empty theater. The result was an eerie kind of performance art: all those rows of empty chairs, the coughs and cleared throats from crew members, the strange clarity of each single peal of laughter from someone backstage. Both shows opened with their respective hosts standing outside in the whipping rain like weathermen, explaining that the show would go on. “There’s no audience tonight,” Fallon said into the camera. “So you are the audience. So imagine laughter. Imagine fun. Imagine excitement.”
The bands had clearly been instructed to play extra loudly to cover up the silence as the hosts jogged on stage. “Please, please, keep it down,” Fallon joked as the studio echoed with straggling claps from cameramen and producers. Letterman had a crew member hold up hand-written cards with alternate names for Hurricane Sandy that included “Trumpical Storm” and “Oprah Windy,” a gag that called attention to just how far this comedy landscape has drifted from the analog world. (Fallon read from a list of viewer submissions to the hashtag #halloweendisaster.) “You’re performing as if there was an audience,” said announcer Steve Higgins to Fallon as he paused between jokes. “I’m assuming that people at home will be watching either on their laptops or with their generators out, and they’ll want to leave room for laughs,” he said.
Both "Late Night" and "The Late Show" highlighted just how much the studio audience has become ingrained in the format—the way Fallon occasionally hands cue cards for failed jokes to people in the crowd, or dispenses high-fives as he leaves the theater, and how Letterman is a master of playing up the casual one-on-one chat with an audience member for laughs. It was hard not to miss that classic moment when Letterman stands and smiles and soaks up the applause before his monologue. Or the way he pauses and rides out a joke, riffing over the laughter, letting it sink in. And watching Letterman and Fallon was to become newly attuned to the art of the segue: the sudden, uneasy emptiness of between-joke pauses, accompanied by an impulse to doubt whether the thing you heard was as funny as it seemed since it felt so newly strange that no other voices were laughing.
Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club wrote last year that the “illusion of community,” especially for TV comedy, is becoming less and less important. He attributed this to the fact that audiences have increasingly been raised on “setup-punchline humor” that makes it hard for us to be surprised by anything, and the way the internet “provides an instant community for viewers.” “We don’t need ghost voices to laugh with us,” he wrote, “when we have our friends online spitting out LOLs.” In the era of TV blogs and Twitter we have substituted reliance on the arbitrary tastes of the studio audience for a curated, engaged, and informed community of our own making.
Granted, both shows last night were hilarious. Fallon was absurdist and fidgety; Letterman was calm and resolute—the joke was his pretending that nothing was different at all. Both used shots of the empty seats to great comic effect. And generally speaking both shows made for excellent television, offering up a totally new angle on the late-night experience that hinged on the thrill of being privy to behind-the-scenes dynamics: the particular jokes the crew laughed at, the amped-up rapport between Letterman and wingman Shaffer and the crew, and between Fallon and announcer Steve Higgins and The Roots and everyone else on set. But instead of convincing me that the live studio audience is a bygone trick, a vestigial limb of the late-night format, it reminded me why the on-set community is still key to the experience of these shows.
Watching "The Late Show," I thought of a great old clip from 1986 when Letterman led his whole audience in an enthusiastic rendition of “O, Canada,” an off-key chorus of random voices filling the small studio. It was a display of rowdy, impromptu, human-to-human community, and it was so much fun to watch. Today the illusion of community is everywhere, but the late night show is the one place where it does not unfurl in a sidebar of piecemeal commentary but in the midst of the action, in a way that allows the host to participate and respond. So last night's Letterman and Fallon were ultimately a reminder that the talk show still relies on in-person community—even in the age of hashtags, there is something weirdly comforting about that filled-up room.