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Anything Can Happen On Late Night Talk Shows Now, And It’s Absolutely Terrific

On Wednesday night, I was lying in bed watching television (something I’ve grown far more accustomed to over the last few weeks), tuned into The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. There’s Colbert, sitting in some rag-tag, do-it-yourself office he’s constructed at home, on a video conference call with Ryan Reynolds. Now, for whatever reason, Colbert has been a better interviewer in this setting. He’s loose. He’s more himself. In front of a live audience, I think Colbert has it in his head that he still owes the audience a taste of the more sarcastic Colbert character from his old show. But here, at his home, we are getting this warm, comforting presence – which is very appealing right now. And this results in his interviews being a little more slapdash, in a positive way. Just about any topic could be brought up. On Monday, there’s John Oliver conferencing in, looking kind of hilariously glum, which is refreshing because we all feel glum right now. On Tuesday night it resulted in Daniel Radcliffe – after dealing with audio issues, that were also fascinating – showing off his Jurassic Park LEGO set. On Wednesday, somehow, it led to Colbert telling some wild story about his first audition being for the role of Screech Powers on Saved by the Bell, which seemed to tickle Ryan Reynolds to no end.

It’s been like this on most of the late night shows right now. And I’m sure if you ask each of the hosts individually, they’ll say something like, “Oh, we are doing the best we can under the circumstances, but we can’t wait to get back to our respective studios.” But the weird thing is, late night television is outstanding right now. I can’t remember a time in recent memory in which I enjoyed it more. It’s making the host rely on individual personality overproduction. It’s like getting a concentrated dose of the hosts themselves, as opposed to an over-produced bonanza where each night feels the same.

Over the weekend, feeling nostalgic, I was watching clips of old Late Night with David Letterman. I eventually clicked on a full episode and I watched the whole thing. It’s the one where Dave welcomed both Sonny Bono and Cher (this isn’t the one where Cher calls Dave an asshole, that was before). This episode was famous for Dave convincing the former husband and wife to sing “I Got You Babe.” So, there are a few interesting things going on here. The song was not planned. Now, I know today when stuff like this happens, it’s presented like it’s not planned, but it’s always planned. Here, it’s very obvious this was something the Late Night people had come up with right before taping and hadn’t gotten Cher’s approval. It’s fascinating television. And when Cher finally agrees (Sonny had agreed before the show started), the song is both magical and kind of terrible because it hadn’t been rehearsed. Which, again, makes great television.

But the other thing I noticed while watching a full episode is how Dave just makes us feel like we’re in on the whole joke. During his monologue, Dave makes a quip about singing a song. Then he busts out laughing because an off-camera stage manager starts walking toward him with a microphone as if Dave was actually going to sing a song. Then Dave explains to us, at home, what just happened. Dave is surrounded by nonsense and he knows it and he wants the at-home viewer to know it’s nonsense. This then led me to some Johnny Carson clips from the ‘80s and even that was shocking how lackadaisical it all was. It’s a weird cross between Johnny, like his protégé Letterman, letting us in on the joke, combined with almost a “cool lounge” vibe to the proceedings. It’s crazy, if Johnny Carson did his show today in the current late night field, it would be considered groundbreaking.

As opposed to Carson and Letterman, it’s almost as if today’s late night host rather rely on the production of the show itself as opposed to their individual personalities. Now, they are forced to rely on themselves and only themselves and they are better off for it.

Surprisingly, Seth Meyers’ “A Closer Look” segments have been more pointed without the studio laughter. Meyers – who seems to have a new backdrop for his show every night, which is endearing because it’s almost like his family just keep telling him to move to another spot – uses his “sarcastic, yet pissed off” face to just stare into an abyss of no one after a stinging punchline. I’m sure he doesn’t think so, because it’s so abnormal to have to do this in the setting he’s doing them in, but as a viewer it’s great. Because, like the old Letterman and Carson shows, anything could happen. These aren’t overly produced segments where everything is planned to the last second. It’s Seth and Fred Armisen texting each other pictures, just farting around – both of their personalities front and center, more than any planned bit of comedy could ever produce. Honestly, I’d watch an entire hour of them just talking. Though, I also enjoyed when Meyers was videoconferencing with Martha Stewart and she was openly mocking him for his new setup in his attic. (My one nitpick is, unlike Colbert, we aren’t seeing many of the outakes. Meyers mentioned once that his cat had ruined a few takes. You know what, just show us those. Because why not?)

Jimmy Kimmel has been interesting because he seems the most polished in his current situation. Maybe it’s his radio background coming back to him, but he seems right at home at home. But there’s something nurturing about the way Kimmel has conducted business lately. Of course, this probably has a lot to do with how outspoken he’s been about healthcare over the last couple of years, but he feels like an authority figure. Someone who grasps what’s happening. Then he’ll switch off and ask Tracy Morgan to let us watch Morgan bowl in his home bowling alley. (You know, like everyone else, it’s not my favorite thing to see famous people in their large houses, while I’m crammed into a tiny Manhattan apartment. But there is something comforting about Tracy Morgan having his own bowling alley. I’m glad he can bowl anytime he wants.)

Conan O’Brien’s podcast has been a must-listen over the last year or so. Now, I’ve been told more than once that, in person, there’s no funnier human being than Conan O’Brien. And a lot of that comes out on his podcast. And he’s a great example of the difference between hosting a television show, where even Conan’s new format still has “TV constraints,” versus Conan just going full Conan. And now, at home, Conan has gone full Conan. And it’s much-watch television. On Wednesday he had Jesse Eisenberg on, who was video-chatting in from an RV in Lawrence, Kansas. The connection was awful but, again, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. At one point Eisenberg’s wife walks in and starts asking him about paper towels, or something. Again, anything could happen.

(I hate to be at all negative, because everyone is doing the best they can. But I do think everyone’s best gifts as late night hosts are being heightened: Colbert’s empathy, Meyers’ barely contained rage, etc. We are also seeing that with Fallon and his playfulness, but something feels off about it at this point right now. His guests have been more about dumb star power than conversationalists. And I know for a fact Fallon is a good conversationalist when he allows himself to be that. It’s like we are getting a concentrated form of his worst impulses. It’s weird during the biggest world crises of our lives, to turn on NBC and see a grown man in a treehouse, then ending the show by exiting through a slide. Could you imagine Johnny Carson sitting in a treehouse? It’s very weird.)

This era of late night television will be remembered for how overproduced it all is. Shows aren’t “cool” anymore. They are “planned.” If nothing else, these last couple weeks have reminded me why I watch and love late night programing to begin with: the hosts. And those hosts’ individual personalities. And it’s more apparent than ever that in normal times, the shows themselves swallow the hosts. There’s no sense of danger. There’s no sense anything can happen. Everything is planned to the second. But not now. The hosts now have to rely on themselves again. They have to literally let us peak behind the cameras again. It’s “cool.” And, frankly, it’s been much better this way.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.