Conan O’Brien is the first late-night host to find a production model for the era of coronavirus and social distancing. The longest-tenured host in late-night will return with new episodes on March 30th.
“The quality of my work will not go down because technically that’s not possible,” joked O’Brien in a statement. But even if the quality is constant, the show itself will be much changed. Conan will not be filmed in front of a live studio audience, and from the sound of things, it may go on without a studio.
New episodes will be shot on O’Brien’s iPhone and feature guest interviews conducted over video chat. All the while, O’Brien’s production team of approximately 75 people will remain working from the safety and comfort of their homes.
In an interview with Variety, Executive Producer Jeff Ross said O’Brien “likes to work.”
“He likes to make stuff – as we all do. We are in the business of making content and this what we do. [sic] The idea that we can’t do it is a little frustrating. We have a staff that wants to work, that doesn’t want to not get paid, and you just want to keep the business going.”
Short term, it’s an interesting experiment, but long term it has the potential to change the late-night format forever. Some scientists predict we’ll need to live with social distancing for a year or more. While writers and some producers can transition to working remotely, that will be harder for prop and costume designers, and nearly impossible for the crew who handle cameras, lights, and electric, as well as the various stage managers that keep a series humming along. If the world is still social distancing a year from now, many of those people may no longer be on the payroll. For better and worse, Team Coco has developed a cheaper, leaner late-night model. Like so much with the pandemic, it’s hard to know if this will be forgotten in a few months, or remembered as the beginning of a new normal.
Conan has been on a previously-scheduled hiatus since March 16th, and so the show wasn’t forced to suspend production like Colbert, Meyers, and Fallon. If O’Brien’s experiment is successful, look for his fellow hosts to follow suit. Already others are producing content, as when Stephen Colbert delivered a special monologue from his bubble bath. For a full list of shows, movies, and festivals impacted by COVID-19, click here.