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The surreal comfort of Stephen Colbert’s audience-less Late Show monologue

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Watch a confident comedy set performed in near silence

The goal of the late-night comedy format has barely changed since the 1960s: Bring jokes, news, celebrity interviews, and musical performances into the living rooms of every American household. But the experience has never been more intimate than what Stephen Colbert performed on Thursday night.

Earlier in the day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people in order to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, which has now reached a pandemic level according to the World Health Organization. The ban forced New York City’s Broadway circuit to shut down, and saw other institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall close their doors. The move also impacted New York-based late-night shows like Colbert’s Late Show. When the host took the stage on Thursday night, he did so with only a few of his writers in the audience. His bandleader, Jon Batiste, sat by his side, tapping at the piano to fill occasional dead air, but besides that, Colbert was out there in the wild, and vulnerable to jokes that may not have landed. No studio audience, no automatic laughter, no safety wire. The result was unbelievable.

“We’re just kind of winging it, right?” he admitted. “This is rehearsal right now, which might be a good thing. In my mind, all of my jokes are perfect. The only person who disagrees with me is the audience. Can’t disagree with me now, can you?”

In preparation for the odd experience, Colbert said he went back to old clips of Steve Allen, a founding father of the format who would regularly just sit at a piano and let Jack Kerouac read excerpts from On the Road. The audience-less opening wasn’t quite that esoteric — Colbert still cracked wise on the NBA season suspension and brought out his Trump impression — but it wasn’t like anything else on TV, either. The comedian sat at his desk, paused for laughs that weren’t there, soaked up the strangeness of it all, and occasionally sipped from a cocktail hidden under his desk. Each time he stepped up to a new bit, he took a deep breath of “the show must go on.”

The gonzo approach worked. Even in what seemed like impromptu moments, like a stretch when Colbert compared the calming qualities of his mixed drink to Batiste’s piano riffs, the agile host (who danced a similar dance on The Colbert Report during the 2008 writers strike) survived the haunting absence of audience gratification. He just knew his bits would work. And they did.

As of now, there’s no word on when the government will lift the New York gathering ban.

Jimmy Fallon also performed without an audience on Thursday.

Correction: A previous version of this article said The Late Show would return next week. Shortly before the airing of Thursday night’s episode, Stephen Colbert tweeted that his production team had decided to cancel next week’s shows.

“I wish I could stay on stage to share this uncertain moment [with] you, but I don’t do this show alone, and I have to do what’s best for my staff,” said Colbert.

NBC also announced Thursday that it had decided to suspend production of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon as well as Late Night With Seth Meyers.