"It's Super Janky, But It Works": How Late Night Producers Have Adapted to Remote Filming

Jimmy Fallon, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers- at home shows - Publicity - Split - H 2020
Courtesy of Networks

At the top of Wednesday's "Closer Look" segment, Late Night host Seth Meyers made a reference to comic-strip character Andy Capp.

"I never would have made an Andy Capp reference in front of a live audience because the silence would have been deafening," Meyers noted. "But these days, that's the reaction to everything."

"We were laughing that an audience would not know who that is," Late Night executive producer Mike Shoemaker told The Hollywood Reporter. "But we don't have a [studio] audience. So go ahead!"

Most late night shows are up and running again after having shut down in the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic. With hosts filming on phones or tablets at their homes and staff members working remotely, the people in charge of putting them together each day are adjusting to a new mode of working. Producers THR spoke with stressed the importance of finishing filming early, the workarounds they've figured out and the style of humor that works now, with or without references to 60-year-old comic strips.

"It's incredibly difficult, incredibly surprising and weirdly rewarding, if that makes sense," said Gavin Purcell, showrunner of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. "It's difficult because you're used to producing a show like this where there are 100 to 150 people in the building, all working around one big thing, and they’re now suddenly across multiple cities, multiple places."

"Creatively we are opening different doors than we have done before, and that's kind of exciting in some ways. I think that it's a balance of that, but that part of it is kind of rewarding."

One thing every producer THR spoke with noted is that their shows have to film interviews, monologues and segments much earlier in the day than they normally would.

"We have to write, produce and record everything much earlier in the day because, since everyone is home, the post process takes much longer," said Daily Show With Trevor Noah executive producer Jen Flanz. Graphics and editing that would normally be done down the hall from the studio now have to be transmitted online in large files, and bandwidth becomes a premium.

"Instead of watching the final show edit in the control room or an edit bay, we’re now screening final show edits on FaceTime held up to an editor's home computer screen," said Flanz. "It's super janky, but it works."

Also, Shoemaker noted, "People are home with their kids. Dinnertime and bath time happen. So we're trying to get everything done really early."

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee executive producer Alison Camillo said that some short online pieces Bee and husband Jason Jones (who's also an EP) filmed before the show returned March 25 helped show they could pull off a remotely produced episode.

"We wanted to keep our show out there, we still had a bunch of things to say, we wanted to make people laugh, we wanted to make people feel better," said Camillo. "But also what those were, were sort of a proof of concept — not just for other people, like TBS, but also for ourselves. It was like, 'Hey, we can do this, we can do a show, we can make it look good.'"

Purcell said Fallon and the Tonight Show team are "leaning into the idea that the production is going to feel a little bit sloppy" compared to the studio version of the show.

"Not that that’s great, but also that is OK as we are kind of figuring all this stuff out a little bit," he said. "It's why I think Jimmy interacting with his family and seeing his daughters and all this stuff has been such a cool thing for us to be able to lean into, because everybody is kind of going through this. … Why not reflect the reality of it all?"

Working without an audience also means not getting immediate feedback on whether a joke lands or falls flat. "When we're going into a studio taping, we know where there are jokes that will make the audience groan and where there may be applause," said Flanz. "We're adjusting to not having those pauses."

Shoemaker said he's enjoyed watching hosts adjust to working without an audience: "It's fun to see everyone doing their monologue, and what they do when they don't get a laugh, the way they fill. They're all good at it."

More so than some other late-night shows, Full Frontal relies on field pieces that would not be possible to do when social distancing and stay-at-home orders are the norm. Camillo said, however, that the show is working on ways around those limitations.

"Honestly, some of the ideas that have come up, some of the creativity as far as how we’re going to frame these pieces filming everything apart from each other has been really interesting," she said. "I think everybody realizes that watching a Zoom call after a while is not going to be the most riveting television, so we’re trying to figure out how to make a new world where you can film everything and make it look great and also still be very dynamic and active."

Shoemaker said he most misses the "nonscheduled interaction" between the Late Night team that could lead to creative ideas.

"We can have these virtual meetings, but they're not the same as walking down the hallway and seeing somebody and saying, 'Hey, we should do that thing.' That part is definitely lost in this," he said. Nonetheless, he's grateful to be making the show again.

"I'm very heartened to see how many of these shows are staying alive and keeping their people [working]," said Shoemaker. "We're all friends, and people flip from show to show. It's really nice to see that community working. There are so many other businesses that can't, so I'm glad that we can."