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Colbert Welcomes Back A Live Audience To 'Late Show'


CBS late night host Stephen Colbert makes an important transition tonight. He will tape his "Late Show" in front of a full and fully vaccinated studio audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan for the first time since the pandemic shut down live performances. Colbert's rival on NBC, Jimmy Fallon, welcomed full audiences back to his "Tonight Show" last Monday. These changes mark important signs of the TV industry returning to something approaching pre-pandemic rhythms, and here to discuss it all is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Good morning, Eric.


MCCAMMON: So Colbert will record his show today in front of a live audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater, as we heard. It's the first time since March of 2020. Why is that so important for him and for late night TV?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, I think Colbert is arguably the late night host who was most affected by not having an audience to perform for, and he talked about it a lot during the months when he was doing his show without an audience. And he even called that show "A Late Show" instead of "The Late Show" to highlight how different it was for him. Colbert gets a lot of energy from the crowd's reaction, and he uses it to fuel his performances.

And he also has a special place in TV as the late night host who helped us process some of the absurdities and scandals of the Trump administration, and key to that role was hearing the audience react to some of the jokes and the concepts that he was delivering every night. And so I think Colbert returns to the audiences at the Ed Sullivan in a very different time. You know, Joe Biden's president. Trump doesn't dominate the headlines quite as much as he used to. And competition between the late night shows on CBS, NBC and ABC is starting to heat up again. So it'll be interesting to see where this goes.

MCCAMMON: So how exactly have some of the late night hosts been managing, you know, without audiences before now? And what are some of Colbert and Fallon's competitors doing?

DEGGANS: Well, it seems like every late night show handled the situation a little differently based on the whole style and their comfort level. So many of them, including Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, Samantha Bee on TBS and Trevor Noah on Comedy Central - they recorded their shows from their homes early in the pandemic shutdown, like, using their family as camera people and crew and stuff like that. And after a while, Fallon, Kimmel, Seth Meyers' "Late Night" on NBC and James Corden's "Late Late Show" on CBS returned to their original studios and performed in front of an audience that was mostly their own staff. Colbert actually had a set built that was a replica of his office at the Ed Sullivan Theater, and he did his shows from there with his wife, Evelyn, or Evie, as he calls her, as his main audience.

And some hosts like Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel seem to do pretty well regardless of whether they had an audience, and I don't sense a lot of pressure for those shows to bring back crowds any time soon. But Colbert and Fallon are now going to be performing in front of fully vaccinated audiences, getting back to the way that things were before the coronavirus upended so much of the TV industry and the world.

MCCAMMON: And Eric, we're always looking for silver linings with all of this. Is there anything good that might come from this for these shows, anything new we might see going forward?

DEGGANS: Well, I think some shows like Seth Meyers' "Late Night" and Trevor Noah's "Daily Show" - well, he calls it "The Daily Social Distancing Show" - they found new ways to tell jokes and develop a new relationship with a camera without an audience. Now, Trevor Noah uses on-screen graphics and editing to build jokes in a different way. It's been really fascinating to watch that. I'm really interested to see how these guys incorporate that into working with the live audience.


DEGGANS: Colbert is going to be the last of the late night shows to come back with his band in the studio. Can't wait to see that energy. And he's going to welcome two of his old bosses tonight, former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart and Dana Carvey.

MCCAMMON: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, thanks.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.