Jimmy Fallon has been kicking off each recent episode of The Tonight Show with a shout-out to the Red Cross charity initiative backed by State Farm. On Friday, he was interrupted by his daughter Franny bursting through the door of his garage, kicking off her boots after discovering her dad talking to the camera.
“There you go, that's the moment,” showrunner Gavin Purcell tells Deadline. “That's what working from home is all about.”
Fallon's kids have become two of the breakout stars of Quarantine TV in recent weeks. They have been a comical, and useful, distraction to the growing doom of the nightly news as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
Late-night television has, in general, been on the frontline since the virus shut down film and TV production. From NBC's The Tonight Show to CBS’ The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live! From His House, through to cable shows such as Showtime’s Desus and Mero, Conan and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, these shows have found a way to continue to entertain viewers, albeit shooting via iPhones and Zoom at home rather than in a studio.
Deadline spoke with several late-night showrunners about how they're coping with the challenges of producing entertainment shows under immense pressure as well as how they hope to harness the creativity that's coming out of their teams in the future, once things return to “normal.”
Purcell, who took over as showrunner of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon from Jim Bell in November, says there's been an evolution of the form even in these past few weeks. The NBC show suspended production March 13, and Fallon was quick to move online before returning to television with an At Home Edition on March 23. While the first few shows were largely put together by a small team - which also includes Fallon's wife, Flower Films co-founder Nancy Juvonen - this has broadened out over the last few episodes.
“We're now operating with our staff and getting everyone up to speed,” Purcell says. “We're now trying to create a normalcy, in a world where nothing is normal right now, but we're trying to make it so that the actual production of it is a little bit more simplified and put systems in place. I feel like we're getting there.”
Fallon's guests have included Adam Sandler, who sang a quarantine song below, along with Jessica Alba and Miley Cyrus as well as his dog Gary, and the host has struck a positive, yet honest tone throughout.
Purcell says this week the team has been figuring out how to send-up the fact that a large part of America has spent the last two weeks on Zoom. “These shows are about reflecting what's going on in the world and we're leaning into how people are living right,” he says. “Creatively, we're trying to go in different directions but emotionally, we're also trying to figure out what we're doing is right for right now. You want to be a place where people can enjoy, but it's also a safe landing place for people.”
Late Night With Seth Meyers, now filmed from Meyers' attic crawl space, has managed to stay both political — calling out Jared Kushner for his response to the COVID-19 outbreak — and lighthearted, the latter by reuniting with his old pal Amy Poehler to bring back their Saturday Night Live segment “Really?”
Showrunner Mike Shoemaker tells Deadline his team is a “pretty calm bunch in general.” “We are a staff of planners, and even though this is something you could never plan for, those skills are coming in handy. Every day a new problem arises that literally never existed before and we problem-solve the solution for next time. Then something completely different goes wrong,” he adds.
Conan O'Brien is four shows in to his reversioned TBS show, which has been filmed entirely on an iPhone, using Zoom to speak to guests including Sean Hayes and Jesse Eisenberg.
Showrunner Jeff Ross admits he'd never used Zoom before the pandemic but now really on it for the show. He says that even though he and the former Tonight Show host have been through moments including 9/11 and the writers' strike, this has been a particularly unusual time for the show. “Top of the list of challenges is figuring out how to strike the right tone creatively and also present it in a way that's different than just doing the same show but with just an iPhone,” Ross says. “In a way, working with less resources sends you in a different direction. As we go, it might evolve as things develop, we might do things differently.”
Although O'Brien, a regular podcaster and online aficionado, has flown by the seat of his pants before, he usually has a team of people around him to help.
TBS' other late-night show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, has aired two episodes since the coronavirus struck down regular production.
Exec producer Alison Camillo tells Deadline that in addition to the same production challenges as all of the other late-night shows, Bee has had to wrangle wildlife — coping with a screeching hawk — as she and her husband, Jason Jones, as well as her kids, film her show in their garden. “There's constant wildlife or neighbors chain-sawing or suddenly it starts raining or snowing. The studio is very climate controlled and there's no wild animals running around,” Camillo jokes. “We're like a super scrappy team to start out. We felt like the little engine that could. Every week feels like a giant wonderful victory that we crested over this hill.”
Camillo, who spent 18 1/2 years on The Daily Show, adds that all of the staff has been working harder than usual, but the fact that Bee is married to Jones was the real difference to getting the show up and running. “We lucked out there,” she says. “Doctors are great, but if Samantha had been married to a doctor, we wouldn't have a show right now.”
While there are big challenges around editing, ensuring these shows are up to broadcast standards has been a real test for all the producers. Viewers, and networks, are willing to give the hosts some benefit of the doubt given the unusual circumstances.
Meyers applauded online influencers on his show last week. “Shout to YouTubers, who've been doing this a long time and making us look like dopes this week,” he joked.
Adds The Tonight Show's Purcell: “The authenticity part of it is almost more important than the production part of it right now. That's not to say we don't want to have better production values.”
ZOOMING WITH A-LIST GUESTS
One of the things keeping viewers interested is a parade of A-list guests. From Jennifer Aniston surprising a nurse on Kimmel’s show, to Alicia Keys giving out her phone number on Colbert, top-tier celebrities have been, on the whole, willing to help out and get involved.
Lady Gaga is a guest on tonight’s episode of The Tonight Show after a brief appearance last week where she teased an announcement that turned out to be a major COVID-19 charity special hosted by Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert.
The NBC show will also feature the likes of Kerry Washington, Anna Kendrick and the Beastie Boys this week, while Meyers will have Tracy Morgan, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Jane Fonda on as well as a segment shot remotely with John Oliver.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert will, this week, feature guests including the team behind Pod Save America and Chance the Rapper, as well as musical performances from Michael Stipe.
Purcell admits that while some guest switch around given what's going on, he says that on the whole the interview segments have become more conversational rather than performative.
“The talent is going through the same things that everybody else is going through; there is a sense to have a collective experience,” he says.
Conan's Ross agrees. “The guests have been great. Everyone is game, there is a spirit of keep as many people working as possible and if we can be a part of that, great.”
However, Ross posits an interesting point that while guests are willing to come on at this point, that might change once the good will ends. “Pretty soon, no one will have nothing to promote,” he says. ‘There might be a big vacuum of a period of time when no one wants to schlep to Burbank at 3 PM, because they've got nothing to promote.’
HARNESSING QUARANTINE CREATIVITY
What has come out of the COVID-19 crisis is the creativity of all of the late-night hosts and their teams.
Late Night‘s Shoemaker says the current situation means that his team has to work with a “different part of the creative brain.’ “Everyone is bringing so many expansive, creative ideas, but we have to simplify them because we are constricted by time and space,” he says. “When you work remotely everything takes longer to send over the Internet and edit and add graphics. It’s a case where you can’t think outside the box so we are thinking inside the box... but it's working.”
James Corden's Carpool Karaoke, which has arguably been the biggest breakout viral segment from a late show, was spawned from a Comic Relief telethon with The Late Late Show host and George Michael. Could something similar come out of this crisis, perhaps Portrait Painting with Demi Lovato or Bathing With Colbert?
“As difficult it is right now in the world, and this is much more difficult for many other people besides us that do things that matter, this has been an eye-opening experience for us in many ways,” says Purcell. “I'm sure there will be reverberations creatively coming when we come back into the studio in terms of what these shows feel like and who's doing what and different ways we can do them. It's forcing us all to evolve, and there's going to be huge changes to come out of it.”
Ross agrees it will stand them in good stead down the line. “I think that it's going to change things down the line for everybody and every business, particularly the media business. It will change things on a creative level, on a technical level and a logistical level.”
He admits, however, that he's also considered whether there might be a downside, with networks cutting costs, having seen what the teams have been able to do in a crisis. Be he adds, “We can only roll with it until we come out of it.”
Full Frontal’s Camillo says the most fun part of this is “re-imaging” the show. “Obviously, we want to be back in the studio, but we see this as a challenge, can we elevate the show in the midst of what's happening in the world? How many Zoom interviews can you do before they get boring. This is definitely going to be a giant step for the show in terms of thinking of it creatively. We've had to blow up the look of the show, and we'll take some of that back to the studio.”