The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s coronavirus whiplash

Did the extreme tone change on COVID-19 between the Mar. 10 and Mar. 12 episodes of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert give anyone else whiplash?

Everyone is feeling the effects of the coronavirus, whether they are ill or not. And that includes late-night shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Many shows were expected to go audience-free beginning Monday, Mar. 16. But in the blink of an eye, that changed. Instead, much of late night, ultimately, suspended production to keep not just audiences, but also all employees, safe.

Unfortunately for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, that meant a last-minute audience-free show on Thursday—only two days after guest Charles Barkley’s interview delivered a tone deaf and potentially dangerous message. When asked about how coronavirus was affecting his life, Barkley quickly responded, “not at all.”

Worse yet, just one day before the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 (the illness caused by coronavirus) a global pandemic, Barkley seemed to shrug the whole thing off. He was determined to live his life, regardless.

Unfortunately, some people have passed away, and some people are sick, but you can’t stop living your life. It’s like this debate where we don’t let fans come to games. I’m like, ok, if they don’t to games, are they not going to live their lives? Are they not going to go to work? Are they not going to go out and have dinner and things like that?

No, Mr. Barkley, some of them are not going to live their lives and have, in fact, literally died. As for going to work, some people— like healthcare workers and many hourly employees without paid sick leave—don’t have any other choice, but many people are now working from home. And many universities are switching to online classes.

The official Twitter account for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert  even tweeted a graphic with one of Barkley’s quotes regarding the potential lack of fans at March Madness, which he called a “travesty.” The whole thing was a moot point within two days, when March Madness was canceled to protect people.

Given that “one of the best methods in public health to slow the spread of a virus and minimize its effects on the most vulnerable populations is this very strategy, called social distancing,” it was potentially harmful for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to highlight this particular part of the interview. It was almost as if Barkley was encouraging everyone to be South Korea’s Patient 31. (Please don’t be Patient 31!)

Plenty of guest interviews get cut down before air, so why not this one? It’s not as if, say, Barkley’s appearance was a very last-minute piecing together of mostly rehearsal footage like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert would provide just two nights later.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and guest Dr. Sanjay Gupta during Thursday’s March 12, 2020 show. Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

That brings us to the Mar. 12 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, on which Dr. Sanjay Gupta was the guest of honor. Prior to interviewing the doctor, Colbert provided his usual humorous, yet honest, take on the news of the day…to a mostly-empty theatre, with only Late Show staff present.

The dynamic was the perfect metaphor for the strange sense of trying to maintain normalcy in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, all while trying to do anything to prevent the kind of crushing blow to healthcare systems experienced in Italy. And the guest interview was actually serious, informative, and (hopefully) beneficial to anyone who might be watching—something Tuesday evening’s most certainly was not.

Between The Late Show with Stephen Colbert‘s huge change in messaging in 48 hours’ time, the completely changed show format for the last new taping for who-knows-how-long, and the constantly-growing list of other production shutdowns, the entertainment industry is showing people just how abnormal this situation is. Let’s hope more of us take that final show with Dr. Gupta more to heart than Barkley’s.

Of course, we should all be listening to experts, rather than worrying about late-night comedians and their unqualified guests’ opinions. But many of us, especially Millennials, usually trust late-night to be honest about what’s happening. Sometimes, the only way to handle the news is if it’s delivered with a dose of comedy, just like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert does.

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Here’s hoping Stephen stays healthy and will be back to deliver more The Late Show with Stephen Colbert soon. Until then, please stay safe and informed. For more information about COVID-19, visit the CDC’s website or the website for your state’s Department of Health.