During the opening credits of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Thursday night, Colbert exclaimed “Tonight! America is closed!” It was the first episode of The Late Show to air without a live studio audience. In recent days, show after show that normally records in front of a crowd has made the decision not to do so—or, in the case of NBC’s late night lineup, not to tape at all. Like The View, which purposefully flashed its empty seats, Colbert emphasized the change, sprinting around the empty auditorium, a handful of seats filled by his staff, high-fiving the air.
It would be weird, at this moment, to act as thought nothing weird were happening. Late night shows are one of the few formats left that are tied to a specific period of time, an actual day of a real week, and when the days are as strange and eerie as this week’s, how can they not reflect that? And yet, there’s also something odd about acting as though taping in front of no one and pretending you’re playing to a very responsive crowd isn’t one of TV’s oldest and most reliable tricks. The laugh track has been adding laughs, sighs, coughs, and rustling to audience reactions since the early days of television, when it’s not making them up wholesale. The fact that none of the newly audience-free shows have apparently considered replacing their live audience with the sound of a virtual one shows just how far the laugh track has fallen, but it’s also not the right tool for the job. What the best version of right now sounds like isn’t a robust crowd cackling at every joke. It’s a few people laughing alone, but together, in a big empty room.
Colbert’s Late Show was loopy and loose. “When we come back, more of whatever this is!” he exclaimed before the first commercial break. There was the feeling of everyone being up too late at night, though The Late Show taped in the late afternoon, as usual. Colbert explained that he and his staff had just learned, hours before, that they wouldn’t have an audience; they’d been expecting the transition to come on Monday. He kept proclaiming that this episode was a rehearsal, sipping on a Scotch and getting kooky, cackling about the Knicks, Purelling his hands after touching his mouth, ragging on Donald Trump. Because there was no crowd, the show occasionally included hard cuts between jokes, showing the seams you never see during a regular taping. The show had the energy of the parts of Saturday Night Live when the performers break, where the imperfections aren’t just funny and charming, but also make you feel like you’re inside the joke.
All of this took place in front of a particular sort of crowd, made up of staffers and colleagues, whom you could hear laughing, occasionally. Colbert is still funny without his usual audience egging him on—his jokes are good enough, his delivery committed—but he played to this audience of a dozen or so differently than usual: as if he knew them. For example, at one point, he cut to staffers behind the cameras, and you could hear the audience—their colleagues—cracking up when they spoke, even though people watching from home could barely hear them because they weren’t mic’d properly. It felt like a team of people and a host trying to make the best of something—which is, actually, a very nice thing to be watching right now. Presumably in the weeks to come, The Late Show will get some of its polish back. In the meantime, the scattered, real laughs it has left still sounded like fun.