i. [Entertaining an empty chair]

A global crisis hits home for everyone in different ways.

Some of us look at the statistics and worry, while others see numbers escalating so much, so quickly that it’s hard to have any real reaction. That movie you were looking forward to was delayed a year and, wow, that may be a bit much. On a more serious note, someone in your family is affected by the crisis and you’re suddenly forced to reassess your understanding of it. Or your employment is seriously threatened or eliminated entirely.

For me, several things happened in succession to really, really, really drive home the fact that this current thing is truly changing life as we know it. Employment is, as of now, still there but hanging by a thread. Streets of New York have less and less cars and people. But a specific moment really solidified the truly weird times we are living in.

To a studio audience made up of empty chairs and a handful of key production staff, Stephen Colbert delivered what was undoubtedly the weirdest monologue and, indeed, most surreal episode of Late Night I have ever seen. On March 12, 2020, the rehearsal was the show. And so began Late-Night’s struggle to adapt to the idea of being a Live Show with no audience and by the following week, a TV production that joins the thousands of other workers in a number of unrelated industries in the quarantine-friendly Work From Home initiative.

But working from home as an entertainment product manifests in a drastically different way than it does for, say, a software programmer, a customer service representative or even a journalist. In the wake of the crisis a lot of companies have had to embrace an entirely remote workforce. But what happens when a late-night talk show, with hundreds of crewmembers behind the scenes, guests joining each night, a house band that provides live music and a live studio audience adding the energy that glues the entire experience together is forced to isolate and break all those elements down to the core essentials of its product?

Late night TV becomes indistinguishable from your average Youtube video:

Late night has entered a Lo-Fi era.

ii. [The Late Night Takeover of Youtube]

In February 2016, “Carpool Karaoke” with Adele hit 65Million views in what was then unprecedented amount of time. It was the exclamation point for a year that had seen Late Night Television completely take over a platform once seen as the enemy, the eater of profits and the provider of piracy.

In 2015, mainstream consideration for YouTube was much lower, but quickly rising. The small revolution started by SNL Digital Shorts and Jimmy Kimmel pranks was now a full blown marketing and publishing strategy. It was tame at first, with just certain clips from the shows themselves being made available, but soon, entire segments went digital-only. Youtube-only. By the time “Carpool Karaoke” hit, Youtube felt less like a platform for creators and more of a Hulu homepage, With the trending tab and recommendations filled with clips of James Corden or Jimmy Fallon ruffling Donald Trump’s hair piece. And two things became clear–

  1. The Golden Era of YouTube was over because
  2. It was then obvious that YouTube, beyond a platform, was it’s own type of entertainment. YouTube wasn’t a website, it was a genre.

Youtube isn’t just DIY charm, or irreverence, or sketches or covers of songs filmed on a webcam. It was all of it. Tutorials, video game Let’s Plays, documentaries, short and feature length films rivaling Hollywood, not in production budget but production value. All with distinct personalities, length and style. From highly produced narratives to vlogs and “talking head” videos with seemingly flawed videography, shaky camera footage and frenetic editing.

It was content not seen on TV. It was content TV wouldn’t dare touch.

But the beauty of Youtube isn’t that you can find everything traditional TV couldn’t offer, it’s the appeal that anyone could be on it. It’s a green light for creatives to explore and develop their talent with the potential for immediate feedback or exposure to bigger and better things. Over the past decade or so, being a “Youtuber” or a “Content Creator” became a career path. Podcasts, Merch, Social Media platforms, it all became a multimedia branding strategy with diversified content formats and revenue streams.

And for a lot of Content Creators, it is content that is entirely self-funded and self-produced. No team. No professional hair and makeup crew. No one to hold cue cards and direct your timing. No one to pull focus or adjust lighting or check your sound levels. There’s no booker to get that big name guest. It is a lonely path, one filled with disillusionment and disappointment, excitement and enigmas, busy schedules and burnout. One where you stand to lose so much of yourself whether you make it big or not. One where failure could be as unbearably public as it could be completely anonymous, acknowledged by no one but yourself, you might as well have chosen not to waste your time in the first place. Or it can be incredibly gratifying.

It is truly a life for the passionate, and those that are a little crazy. To be able to create, and make a living creating should be the dream for so many of us. I sure would love to just make stuff and not have to stress about, you know, life. But I, like so many other creators, don’t have that time to just make stuff, or that team to delegate with. Many can’t afford the bare minimum of gear necessary to make quality content. There’s so much going on everyday that it’s a miracle to have even a moment to brainstorm, to sketch or write. Finding time to record a voiceover, maybe some footage. Your computer isn’t the best so you have to deal with software crashes, battery life, storage. You hope it sounds good, that you didn’t overexpose your shot. That the camera didn’t fail on you, that the microphone was plugged in. That Youtube doesn’t change it’s algorithm again, burying you and thousands of others again.

The safety net is nonexistent, and Uncertainty is the only certainty.

But the style and voice of the YouTube native has been slowly facing erasure in Google’s pursuit of bigger content and bigger ad budgets, dating back to the Late Night Renaissance that peaked with “Adele Carpool Karaoke”.

It is ironic, then, that as Creators of all sizes and ages are today producing bigger and better content than ever all across the board, Corporate Media has had to resort to a format native to that of the platform they took over, thanks to The Thing (COVID-19). Today, Late Night, and most of the Talk TV landscape looks like what the Dark Ages and Golden Era of Youtube looked. The “amateur” look that wasn’t up to broadcast standards just a short time ago. The very same Youtube that once terrified TV.

How the turn tables.

iii. [A Cultural Reset?]

Watching any Late Night episode of the past few weeks has been a jarring, awkward experience. A lot of us can be so used to the beats on, say, Last Week Tonight, that you can almost hear in your head the audience approval, the laughter and cheers. But it’s not there.

Writing teams accustomed to setting up jokes and following with big audience-pleasing punchlines had to suddenly figure out how to not alley-oop a host to the sound of an empty room. Now, a host had to be funny without that crowd feedback, or sidekick to bounce off of, no rimshot to punch up the joke. Late Night has had to relearn comedy, relearn entertainment.

We’ve seen people’s homes and families. We have some idea as to what they look like without professional makeup and lighting, some even without a camera other than their webcam. Oddly, there’s a sense of comfort in the sort of equality that is, for a moment, felt. Yes, these are millionaires hosting multi-million dollar shows for multibillion-dollar corporations. But, in the absolute lack of normalcy on TV, there’s a faint sense of a shared experience. STARS, Maybe they really are just like us!

And then, the jaded side of me sees this and I can’t shake the lofi-ness of it all. The fact that it is indistinguishable from your average Youtube vlog or livestream and then, I remember, THIS show can look like shit. THEY can afford to fail. The safety net that is nonexistent for most of us is an extremely comfortable California King Bed on that side. Lofi is little more than the aesthetic– an unfortunate, but not unwelcome, side effect of a global crisis. Millions of jobs are being lost every single day, but theirs are not. But that’s the flip side: this is their job. And from the host’s presence on screen, any screen through any camera or room, there is an entire crew of people, hundreds of them, that can count on a paycheck because of it. This, in heartbreaking contrast to so much of the media landscape these days, whether it’s Film, Television or Journalism, where productions are being halted, publications are being shuttered, and thousands of media jobs are vanishing.

We need information and entertainment, and Late Night shows have been the vessel through which a lot of us can parse through relevant topics and events. And a lot of it happens through Youtube. Youtube is how Late Night found a new audience and regained relevance, especially in the Trump years. Myself and many others, we looked for voices of reason, of humor and of perspective to make sense of dense political happenings and find some levity in how we talked about the absurdity of the world we suddenly found ourselves in, 4 years ago, and have been in since.

And now, in the midst of the single most impactful global crisis of our lifetimes, we search again for meaning, levity, companionship and truth. If it happens to look like crap and sound like doodoo, good. And If it turns out that the only difference between CBS, NBC and this video is a room full of people, then maybe we really are all in this together.

From a safe distance, of course.

I’m gonna go wash my hands now.