Earlier this week, the networks announced that all of their New York-based late-night shows would go audience-free starting on Monday, thanks to the virulent non-hoax that is the coronavirus. But on Thursday over on CBS, Stephen Colbert’s Late Night bosses threw him the late-innings curveball that that policy would go into effect that very night, leaving the host to get a jump on his colleagues’ laugh-less monologue experience with hardly any notice at all.
To be fair, Colbert did ensure himself a few chuckles by packing (well, smattering) his theater with a few dozen of his crew, although their resulting titters echoed hollowly through the Ed Sullivan Theater as if they were watching their boss bomb big-time. Colbert didn’t bomb, thankfully, taking his network-mandated self-isolation in stride, with only a few modifications to the standard nightly stand-up routine. For one, he sat down, clearly feeling more comfortable delivering his topical jokes (all about the coronavirus, naturally) from behind a desk, as he’s done so many times. For another, that desk is where Colbert keeps his hand sanitizer (which he slathered comically over himself after forgetfully capping a joke by blowing a kiss), and his secret glass of bourbon (which he sipped from liberally throughout the ordeal).
And if Colbert’s set to an eerily abandoned theater played like one of those clips of real-life talk show hosts apocalyptic movies throw in to show how nothing is ever going to be the same again before the zombies, killer bees, or geostorms wipe out civilization, Colbert soldiered on with informal aplomb. Noting how he’d been watching old footage of late-night pioneer Steve Allen tinkling on his piano while Jack Kerouac read from On The Road, Colbert deadpanned to bandleader Jon Batiste that “That’s what these shows used to be,” before whipping off his glasses to beam with gallows humor, “and can be again!” Following up on that, Batiste helped Colbert try out the new, Classic Krusty vibe by playing some Chopin while Colbert took healthy, Mad Men-era slugs of his bourbon and stared off into the empty reaches of his late-night kingdom.
Again, it was a little spooky, if we’re being honest. Sort of a mournful goodbye to the way things were before some stupid bug cost us all sports, movie premieres, music festivals, and seemingly anything in the world that requires more than ten people gathered in one place for the foreseeable future. Still, Colbert, Batiste, and his staff all soldiered on, telling the jokes (hey, Donald Trump genuinely sucks at leadership during a pandemic—who could have guessed?), and telling everyone safely ensconced at home that, as Colbert put it, “You don’t want to be part of the hysteria, but, on the other hand, you want to act with an abundance of caution.”