A little over a week ago, myself and 30 Rock recapper Jeff Anseeuw got the opportunity to see live tapings of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (on Monday, October 26th) and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (on Tuesday, October 27th). While I was a veteran of late night comedy tapings (having seen Jay Leno's Tonight Show, The Late Late Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report live over the past few years), Mr. Anseeuw was new to the whole thing.
The new Tonight Show studio at Universal Studios in Hollywood is massive. Seating around 400, it's got to be twice as big as Conan's old Late Night haunts in New York, and the studio itself is even bigger than the Ed Sullivan Theatre where Letterman tapes. For the style of comedy Conan delivers, this isn't always the best thing for the live audience. While the studio was built from scratch to host this show (which means it's super easy to get in and out of, and there truly isn't a bad sightline in the house), the enormity means that much of the audience is a bit too far away from the action to feel like they're a part of it. We can all see it fine, but we don't feel it. I hope that makes sense.
The Late Late Show is the opposite of The Tonight Show in almost every way, but no more than the studio. There is a longer waiting time to get into the studio, and as it's part of other sets at CBS Television City (rather than on its own sound stage like The Tonight Show), there's a bit of meandering to actually get to where the audience will sit. The crowd is 1/4 the size of The Tonight Show, which makes for a much more intimate experience, but because the studio itself is much smaller (Craig's desk moves around the stage on wheels to make room for certain bits and musical performances), not all sightlines are great. I was in the 3rd row and off to the right at Conan, while in the back row center at Ferguson. Despite this, I was actually much closer to the stage and the "action" at the Late Late Show taping, but I also couldn't see much without looking at the monitors because of cameras and other equipment. So I felt more a part of the show, but I couldn't always see it.
The Tonight Show (like every other late night show I've attended) records the show "live to tape" (or now, technically "live to HD video file"), meaning while it's not going out live, it's recorded in one hour with roughly 4-minute breaks for commercials, as if the whole thing were live. The Late Late Show tapes out of sequence, and with some segments not even on the same day. At the taping we attended (and if you watched the show that night, you'd already know this), the power went out due to a crazy wind storm that swept through Los Angeles that day. Yet watching the show on TV, you'd have seen the lights go out at the end of the Alicia Silverstone interview, then a "normal" interview with author Salman Rushdie, and finally Craig's closing moments back in the dark. This is because Rushdie wasn't even there for the Tuesday taping -- his interview was pre-recorded in front of a different audience. We also got to see 2 live performances by the amazing and talented Regina Spektor -- but they were taped before the rest of the show even began (rather than at the end, when most other shows have musical performances), and neither song aired that night (her song "Eet" aired almost 2 weeks later, this past Friday, November 6th).
The experience at each show was fun, though different, and I found The Tonight Show (much like my experience at Late Night) a bit more pleasant overall (though Jeff, a big Conan fan, found The Late Late Show taping much more enjoyable). There may be an applause sign at The Tonight Show, but this is more for beginnings and ends of bits and segments. They don't flash it after each joke, for instance. At The Late Late Show, however, the warm-up comedian (Chunky B, who is pretty funny, even if he's not in the same comedy league as The Tonight Show's warm-up man, Jimmy Pardo) actually tries to train the audience to laugh at EVERYTHING, so as to "enhance the show". It may make for a smooth performance when the show airs, but seeing as how my favourite moments on these kind of shows are how the hosts deal with jokes that bomb (Conan is a master at that), it kind of cheapens things for me. Plus, I don't like being told when to laugh. If something is funny, I'll laugh, and if you want me to laugh, make it funny. (Having said that, Craig Ferguson makes me laugh -- unaided -- quite a lot.)
Craig is certainly the better interviewer, as he actually has conversations with his guests rather than just going through a list of pre-determined topics like Conan and most other hosts do, and in the case of the shows we attended, the guests also helped out. I'd definitely say Ferguson had an edge as far as the guests (Alicia Silverstone and the incredible Regina Spektor vs. the grating Kathy Griffin and Aussie rockers Wolfmother), while Conan had way better live and pre-taped bits ("New State Quarters" and an Obama interview mash-up vs. a really unfunny "Aquaman" bit and some silly dancing to "In the Navy").
I'd definitely recommend checking out live tapings of either show if you're ever in the Los Angeles area. First of all, tickets are free, and second of all, it's fascinating seeing what goes on behind-the-scenes to produce a nightly television show. Plus, you might get lucky and be in the crowd for something as unique as a power outage!
Info on getting tickets to The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien can be found at www.tonightshowwithconanobrien.com, while The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson tickets are available from On Camera Audiences.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)