A few days ago, Samantha Bee was filming a segment for her TBS late-night series, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” when she encountered a complication she had never dealt with before.
“There was literally a screeching hawk, circling up in the sky,” she recalled, speaking from her home in upstate New York where she and her family have been sheltering in place — and which has become the de facto soundstage for her TV program.
So, Bee turned to her makeshift crew — her husband and executive producer, Jason Jones, and their three children — and delivered an unusual direction.
“We had to hold for hawk sounds,” she said. “You have to be OK with whatever nature provides. This is really uncharted territory for any of us.”
In the days since the coronavirus pandemic forced them into hiatus, the late-night comedy shows are gradually coming back. This week, many of them returned to their familiar broadcast time slots, but in radically different, minimalist forms.
Gone are the lavish studios, elaborately produced field segments and cushy face-to-face conversations with celebrity guests. Instead, the hosts are delivering their nightly monologues into iPhones from home and conducting their interviews by video conference.
Now that their shows are up and running, the people behind them say their continuing challenge is to provide viewers — for whom television has become one of a few remaining outlets for information and fresh entertainment — with a sense of comfort and continuity while commenting on events that have turned increasingly dire.
“We’re in a weird space,” said Trevor Noah, the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. “It feels like the end of the world, and it’s not, but we also cannot treat it like nothing is happening. So we do have to find that balance.”
Most of the late-night shows, which are produced in New York and Los Angeles, recorded their last traditional episodes around March 12, as social-distancing and self-quarantining guidelines were being adopted in those cities. Their casts and crews went home for a long weekend and contemplated next steps.
Molly McNearney, the co-head writer and a producer of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” said that creating a short, homemade monologue with its host was far more challenging than it might appear.
“It took three hours to shoot six minutes,” she said. “Just trying to get his eye line correct took forever. He’s used to having a teleprompter guy and a team of 140 people helping him there.”
McNearney, who is also Kimmel’s wife and the mother of their two young children, added that for that production, “it was just him and partially me.”
“I was the prop master and camera person and lighting person,” she continued. “We didn’t even worry about hair and makeup.”
As these shows hurriedly reinvented themselves for a new, ad hoc era, their staffers confronted a range of unexpected technological trials, teaching themselves to use new software and hardware while discovering the limits of their home internet connections.
Mike Shoemaker, an executive producer of NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” said that show’s host — who was formerly accustomed to reading his topical “A Closer Look” monologues from cue cards — has had to adjust to teleprompter software he downloaded onto his portable devices.
Describing raw footage of Meyers from some of the earliest attempts, Shoemaker said, “You’d see him reading something and then it’s going too fast, and then he reaches in like a grandpa on Skype, trying to slow it down.”
The segments that “Late Night” has deemed fit for posting have, nonetheless, drawn scrutiny from critics who are native to online media. “YouTubers are saying, ‘Dude, your lights; your sound,’” Shoemaker said. “Of course YouTubers are good at this. We’re not good at it.”
Even as these programs were experimenting, they began publicly committing to coming back on the air.
Jeff Ross, who is an executive producer of TBS’s “Conan” and has worked with Conan O’Brien since his 1993 debut on NBC, said that the host and his colleagues have kept the show running through all kinds of adversities and hardships.
“Look, we went through 9/11,” Ross said. “We went through the writers’ strikes. We just said we have to do it.”
Beyond that spirit of camaraderie, Ross said that “Conan” needed to keep going out of economic necessity so that its employees could continue to get paid.
“At a certain point, where you’re not delivering shows, the network comes to you and says we can only do this for so long,” he said. “The day of reckoning comes.”
In this respect, Ross said, people in his line of work were fortunate to have jobs that they could still perform during the pandemic. “We’re lucky because we can figure this out and work,” he said. “Other people are not so lucky.”
The hosts and producers of many late-night series are finding that, in these concentrated formats, they are rediscovering the fundamental values that make them unique. “The Tonight Show” has offered an intimate portrait of Fallon and his family. His young daughters, Winnie and Frances, often steal the show.
“For us, these shows have been about the presenting idea that we’re all going through this together,” said Gavin Purcell, an executive producer for “The Tonight Show.” “People are adjusting to working from home, and what is it like to be stuck there? People have let Jimmy into their homes forever, and he thought it might be cool to let them into his home.”
Meanwhile, “The Daily Show” has focused on its trademark satire of current events while mixing in a bit of public service.
Noah, the “Daily Show” host, drew praise (and more than 10 million YouTube views and counting) for an interview he conducted last month with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That conversation was largely free of comedic zingers, and it focused on information about the spread of the coronavirus.
“One thing I didn’t want to do was have Dr. Fauci’s interview be politicized in any way,” Noah said. “I was being as selfish as I was being benevolent — it was truly one of those instances where I’m asking the questions that I myself have as a human being.”
Dr. Fauci also appeared as a guest on the first home-produced episode of “Desus & Mero,” the Showtime late-night series, which aired Monday. He spoke about the virus, yes; but he also spoke about his enduring Yankees fandom and lamented the disappearance of his favorite Italian eateries in New York.
Daniel Baker (also known as Desus Nice) explained that their interview was an opportunity to educate viewers while allowing Dr. Fauci to show a more human side.
“Every time you see him, he’s stressed and he has to be super-serious,” Baker said of Dr. Fauci. “He’s getting cut off by Donald Trump, and he has to be careful about what he says. But there’s more to him than numbers about viruses and telling you to wash your hands. He has hella good advice, but he also has restaurants he likes.”
As other professionals have, the sequestered hosts and producers with small children said they have struggled to maintain boundaries between their work and their parental duties. Joel Martinez (a.K.A., The Kid Mero) has been contributing his half of “Desus & Mero” from his home in northern New Jersey, where he and his wife live with their four children.
“We have a nanny on weekdays and on weekends we don’t,” Martinez said. “On weekends it’s like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Weekdays is ‘Lord of the Flies’-light. I feel very much like Piggy sometimes.”
McNearney, who juggles child-rearing responsibilities with Kimmel said she felt “guilty when I can’t give a 100 percent effort at my job.”
“Our 5-year-old can easily be set aside, she can sit and draw for an hour,” she added. “Our 2-year-old, he needs an episode of ‘PAW Patrol.’ And thank Jesus for Disney Plus. Those things have saved our lives.”
The situation was different for Bee, whose children range from 9 to 14. Her children are old enough that she and her husband can recruit them to perform occasional tasks for “Full Frontal,” she said. But that, too, has its challenges.
“We don’t have a choice but to integrate them, actually,” she said. “We’re like, ‘Stand outside in the cold and hold this light bounce under mommy’s chin.’ And they’re like, ‘I hate this.’”
Bee said that she was grateful to have her work to focus on right now, but that there were also aspects of her regular office routine that she missed.
“Work is blessedly taking my brain out of the anxiety of the world at large, which is a nightmare,” she said. But other than her husband, there were no other collaborators to test out new material with — and “no one to commiserate with.”
Despite the pastoral qualities of where she has found herself lately, Bee said, “It’s not tranquil at all. The world is burning. There’s nothing predictable in our future.”
She added: “It feels like an adventure, but I’m basically just trying to put one foot in front of the other. I know that we can make a show. As long as there’s internet.”