No audience? No problem.
David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon forged ahead with their late night talk shows on Monday, despite the general chaos caused in New York by Hurricane Sandy. And they did so without studio audiences, creating a surreal night of television that highlighted each of their differing performance styles.
Letterman’s show in particular was like a bizarre theater piece, with the host perfectly in his element as his jokes flatlined with no audience and only a minimal crew to react to them. He rattled through his monologue jokes from behind his desk, letting each one hang out there in the air, until they fell to the floor like deflated balloons. He reveled in the inherent uncomfortableness of the situation, offering up a graphic-less, lo-fi version of his Top 10 list, aided by a cue card guy named Todd whom he made part of the bit. Letterman is a top ironist, and his show called into the question the whole talk show form — the pageantry, the jokes, the routine. What does it all mean? Who is this for? Why are we here?
Then Letterman’s conversation with his guest Denzel Washington, on to promote “Flight,” revealed what an easygoing interviewer he is, as well as what a good sport Washington is. Washington entered the Ed Sullivan Theatre from outside the studio, and hammed up the gusty weather conditions out on the street as he walked across the theater’s stage and was greeted by Letterman. It was normally a moment that would be met by huge applause from the audience, but instead it was just the two of them, creating entertainment for the cameras and for the audience at home. They proceeded to have a warm conversation about the film that was fueled along by the rapport between the two men.
Fallon’s show, on the other hand, showed off his inexperience, his overly eager-to-please nature and his weaknesses as an interviewer. He came out and did a straight monologue, which without an audience felt like a run-through at a dress rehearsal, and didn’t play with the uniqueness of the situation. His one bit for the night was a reoccurring one where he goes back and forth with an audience member in a Hawaiian shirt and New York Mets bucket hat, but it stuck too closely to the usual script of the bit rather than focusing on the absurdity of him being the only audience member in the studio.
Fallon had on three guests, “SNL’s” Seth Meyers, “Top Chef’s” Padma Lakshmi and “Flight” director Robert Zemeckis. Fallon isn’t a strong interviewer or conversationalist, and without an audience behind him, his nervous tics and his obsessive-compulsive need to be liked — he’s like a puppy — were illuminated. The interviews were substance-free, which usually isn’t a problem when everyone’s having a good time in the studio. On Monday, he just fell flat.
Things picked up during the musical performance by Imagine Dragons. Audience members are usually placed on the balconies above the performers to create a fun, lively environment, but on Monday’s show the band was rooted on by only two fans — Mets bucket hat guy and a guy in an E.T. mask, which went completely unexplained. After Imagine Dragons’ performance, Fallon — as usual — ran through the audience to give high fives to the audience, only with no audience to give them to, he ran through the aisles miming high fives to the empty chairs, while two members of the Roots ran behind him. It was entirely weird, as it should be, especially in a format that thrives on normalcy and routine. There probably won’t be too many nights when the late night talk shows unfold without an audience, so when they do, it’s best to take advantage. Some just do it better than others.