Stephen Colbert had meant that as a joke when he addressed the comment to the camera in a mostly-empty studio, during the brief period when late night TV taped in their normal venues but without live audiences, before the quarantine ax fell completely. The comment, delivered as a sort of punchline after a skit about the closure of Broadway, earned chuckles from those within earshot: Late Show technicians, the house band, maybe even a few writers who’d strayed into the theater. But watching it again today, Colbert’s delivery feels a little sharper, a little less funny, a little more desperate. Without the scattered laughter, I might not have realized it was a joke at all.
Since late night hosts, like the rest of Americans, have been ordered to stay home, they’ve been finding new, inventive ways to broadcast their programs from makeshift studios in their houses. Partners have become camerawomen and off-screen interlocutors; children are recruited as wobbly-handed graphic designers; pets crash opening monologues. But no one has yet managed to account for the weird new silence on late night TV, the pauses that only serve to emphasize the absence of a live studio audience. It is a void in the place of what is really needed: A laugh track.