Whenever there’s a huge national story unfolding, America tends to turn to its late-night TV hosts for up-to-date takes on the news of the day.
With the coronavirus, though, America is turning past its late-night TV hosts, and looking instead at their walls. And their bookcases. And their kids.
Social distancing mandated by COVID-19 has turned the nation’s late-night talk show hosts into shut-ins, giving viewers unprecedented (if still somewhat limited) access to their homes and family lives. It’s been fascinating to watch all the different approaches hosts like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver have taken.
One trend that’s surfaced on multiple shows: nature. Whether it’s Samantha Bee broadcasting from the woods, Jimmy Fallon’s outdoorsy, treehouse-like home, or the array of sticks and branches above Conan O’Brien’s fireplace, the hosts seem to be reminding us how much the outside world still matters, even as we’re all stuck inside.
We decided to rank the major quarantined late-night talk shows by how fun of a window they offer into their hosts’ lives. (Those not mentioned here, like James Corden or Lilly Singh, have not yet produced full, regular broadcasts from home.) There’s a big difference between sitting in front of a blank wall or bookcase and getting your family and pets heavily involved.
Here’s how we’d slot them.
9. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
Have you ever watched The Good Place on NBC? John Oliver is broadcasting from Janet’s void. Though Oliver says he’s filming alone at home, the austere white background gives the sense that he’s floating through purgatory. Ranked on pandemic backgrounds, Oliver is probably dead last. But there is hope. On the March 29 episode, Oliver revealed his obsession with a YouTube video of a 1992 art auction featuring erotic paintings of cartoon rats. He is offering $1,000, plus a “donation of $20,000 to the food bank in your area" to draw out the owner of a rat painting titled Stay Up Late by Brian Swords. “If you own this masterwork or you know the lucky person who does, please email John@JohnOliverWantsYourRatErotica.com.” If Oliver pulls it off and hangs a painting of rats with human buttocks behind him, he may be on his way to No. 1.
8. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah
“From Trevor’s couch in New York City to your couch somewhere in the world” is how the renamed The Daily Social Distancing Show opens. Trevor Noah’s hair and beard are growing, but his interior design looks cleaner than a Crate & Barrel display. At first he really was sitting on his (plush, white) couch, but he’s since moved to a chair in front of a sort of honeycomb bookshelf filled with those beefy, decorative, expensive coffee table books no one reads (there are books on Barack Obama, Cuban artist Carmen Herrera and photographer Jean Pagliuso). The palette is minimal black and white, with some modern orb lamps, a pop of color from some orange flowers and one subtle flex in the form of Noah’s 2019 NAACP Image Award. It doesn’t feel especially personal or homey, but it is stylish.
7. Late Night with Seth Meyers
Seth Meyers jokes about his show’s “high school A.V. setup” during his first episode filmed at home, but he instantly has one of the more polished looks of the bunch. Instead of a logo hand-drawn by his children, Late Night’s house band led by Fred Armisen opens each episode, all jamming out in their respective video call boxes. There are graphics and chyrons, and Meyers delivers his monologue from behind a desk, like he does on the show. “Polished” is also code for “kind of boring," and we have not so far seen or heard a ton about Meyers’ family or home life. Things do get exciting when he switches up his background, going from a set-up in front of a large bookcase in the garage (where he says it got too cold) to his attic. Here, Meyers finds various corners from which to broadcast. One features a nightmare-inducing cat portrait; another displays a partial brick wall, a tiny chair and a prominently displayed copy of The Thorn Birds. Briefly explaining the attic setting, the host nods to the small cupboard behind him: “Is it where we keep our camping gear, or a door to another dimension? I’ll never tell.” That’s the problem, Meyers!
6. Jimmy Kimmel Live!
In terms of being a polished late-night host trying to do his job from home, Jimmy Kimmel has it down. In his first episode under the new quarantine setup, he wears a familiar suit and stands in a lovely wallpapered room complete with large window, tufted couch and handsome desk. It appears to be some sort of fancy sun room, complete with what looks like a kitchen on the other side of the camera. During guest interviews, Kimmel sits at the desk and looks to a monitor, which shows the celebrity he’s talking to, as if they were right there on the elegant couch. It’s impressive, but it feels like he’s filming his show from an issue of Architectural Digest. In the second episode, he says some folks on the internet speculated whether he was in front of a green screen, a comment on how chic and lifeless the background appears. Kimmel does allow glimpses of his L.A. life with a wife and two young kids, even if we rarely see them. That room he’s stationed in? “It’s the only room in his house that’s not completely crusted in Play Doh," he says. His adorable daughter introduces every episode, holding up handmade signs that say “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “From His House.” It’s cute, but more important is the scene over her shoulder: She appears to be in a living room, and it looks like Kimmel and his family may actually live there. There’s a large sectional sofa that has definitely been sat on, and on the right is a swanky wood table with actual stuff on it — a pile of mess, just like the non-celebs!
5. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
“I’m the Blair Witch, and this is my project!” Samantha Bee quips at the outset of a recent quarantined episode broadcast from the woods near her home in New York. The rural mise en scene adds a distinctive touch to her opening monologues, filmed on a phone by her husband, actor and former Daily Show contributor Jason Jones. One video-chat interview placed Bee in what looks like an almost entirely blank guest bedroom. But the most revealing segment thus far has been a minute-long promo clip showing the couple’s three kids working as her crew. “I should really be teaching them math,” Bee says.
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In its first week, Conan O’Brien’s half-hour show didn’t showcase much of the host’s home, the decor of which is tastefully minimalist with classic touches — the framed artwork and mounted vintage guitars behind his desk, historical tchotchkes like his Dwight Eisenhower mug and a bronze bust of Teddy Roosevelt. The host’s family did not make an appearance, although in an interview with Adam Sandler, we learned the two Saturday Night Live alums are neighbors, and Sandler shouts at O’Brien’s house whenever he walks by. More revealing than any objects on the walls are O’Brien’s nightly chats with Andy Richter. Richter’s place is just a straight-up home, right down to the half-opened box of La Croix and strainer of drying dishes by the sink. Truly, in the age of social distancing, we are all Andy Richter.
3. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert tweaked the name of his program from The Late Show to A Late Show, a wink to the fact that it’s just not the same delivered from his home book nook. But he’s trying to make it as professional as possible, even wearing a suit the first night. One would need an ultra-high-def TV to make out all the volumes in his bookcase (we spotted The Quest by Daniel Yergin and No Easy Day by Mark Bissonnette and Kevin Maurer), but really, we’re just focused on the lovely antique writing desk to his right. Colbert enlisted his family to operate the camera equipment — we only hear their voices and catch glimpses of their hands — but it’s his dog Benny who’s proven his best (and most adorable) comic foil, squirming on his lap and snarfing down cold cuts in improv bits. In all, Colbert’s setup is genteel but playful, kind of like the host himself.
2. Real Time With Bill Maher
Bill Maher has never been one of those “Aw, shucks” celebrities who won’t address his own wealth, so it’s no shock he’s not shy about offering a peek at his Los Angeles home. The host of Real Time keeps it real. He filmed his monologue on an iPhone in his backyard in front of his tiki bar. “It’s my house. ... What did you expect to see? A child’s playpen?” In a later segment, the yard looked like a botanical garden, although from one angle there were a few weeds to be pulled. It’s not the only part of Maher’s house that feels appropriately on-brand. He interviewed Willie Nelson from a room where a cardboard standee of President Donald Trump giving the finger could be seen. More confusing was that a puppet stage (with puppets) in the corner? Maher also gets bonus points for a look into Sen. Bernie Sanders’ house during an interview. Sanders had tons of pictures of his kids and grandkids to go along with his framed The Strokes concert poster.
1. The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon
Jimmy Fallon’s approachability has always been part of his shtick. He may be a millionaire with one of the most rarefied jobs in showbiz, but at least he’s a fun, down-to-earth millionaire with one of the most rarefied jobs in showbiz. And that’s never been more clear as he films The Tonight Show from his home. Well, from one of his homes. It appears Fallon is hunkered down in the multimillion dollar East Hampton estate he bought in 2011, and while his backdrops start out hilariously lame, over the course of a week we see a surprising amount of his house and his family. His wife, film producer Nancy Juvonen, is the camera operator and also one of his first interviews. His young daughters Winnie and Franny are front-and-center, helping with dad’s Thank You Notes segment, the younger one hilariously going rogue. Fallon interviews his dog, voiced by pal Drew Barrymore. The NBC host rocks a five-o’clock shadow, casual sweater and floppy unstyled hair most of the time, and this is definitely what he looks like when he’s lounging around his manse on the weekends.
In one episode, Fallon and his daughters gather at a table while the kids fight over gummy worms and put Play Doh on Fallon’s nose and refuse to laugh at his jokes. Too small and messy to be where the Fallons gather for meals, we wondered if the room was in a separate, smaller house, maybe a literal playhouse for the kids. Another episode starts with the host meditating in what looks like a two-story faux treehouse, another kid-friendly space complete with a giant TV, a piano, a popcorn machine and a tube slide straight out of a McDonald’s PlayPlace. When Fallon video-chats celebrity guests, he does it way most of us do: sitting on the couch, phone propped up precariously on something on the coffee table, leaning over the screen in a slightly unflattering way. He does this from various tiny nooks in his house, probably for sound quality, but probably also so he doesn’t reveal any more of his actual posh living space. By the second week, things seem a bit more professional. Graphics flash on-screen to accompany the monologue jokes. Fallon is wearing a blazer. He’s sitting at a makeshift desk. But that same episode, he and his wife slide down the treehouse slide. Just another day at the Fallon house.
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