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How Fallon, Colbert went on Thursday without an audience

Late night comedy was a little closer to late night mania on NBC and CBS Thursday night. 

Due to growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, talk shows went without audiences Thursday, ahead of a shutdown that will keep them off the air with new episodes until at least March 30.

It’s a responsible measure as large gatherings of people are banned and canceled throughout the world, and it’s not unprecedented. “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” went audience-free in 2012 as Superstorm Sandy approached New York City. But it took away an important element to any comedy show: sustained laughter and applause. 

As a result, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” offered up bizarre, elbow bumping episodes that veered between gallows humor, panic and complete surreality. And over on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Pete Buttigieg was a guest host, because why not? They weren’t your typical hours of late night entertainment, but there was absolutely something distracting and riveting to behold. 

The episodes felt less like traditional TV and more like personality tests for the two very different hosts. Fallon tried to stay the genial goof that has gotten him so far in Hollywood, while Colbert let his walls down, becoming a physical manifestation of the fear and confusion so many around the world are feeling right now. 

Stephen Colbert and guest  Dr. Sanjay Gupta during Thursday's audience-less episode of

Fallon tried to maintain some sense of normalcy with “Tonight,” opening with an address about coronavirus and an explanation of his empty studio at New York’s 30 Rock. His hammy, giddy brand of comedy is perhaps more in need of an audience than any of his peers, and it was with a bit of sadness that he read his usual parade of hashtag humor as his announcer Steve Higgins limply tried to goad the 20 or so staffers in the studio, trying to fill in for a crowd that usually contains hundreds, into louder responses. Fallon read the jokes off of tiny notecards and put the ones that didn’t land straight into a paper shredder. 

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