The sudden absence of live audiences has upended the worlds of sports, comedy and politics. What do we lose when the crowd doesn’t show?
The crowd has been compared to an electric spark, a dance partner, an intoxicant and a character in and of itself. Now it is gone. Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times; Photographs via Getty Images; ABC; Harpo Productions; NBC
By Amanda Hess
They used to arrive before dawn. Hundreds of them came to scream and leap and wave posters scrawled with the names of their hometowns as they vied to be caught on camera among the “Today” show crowd. “People dream about coming to 30 Rockefeller Plaza,” Hoda Kotb, the show’s co-anchor, told me recently over Zoom after a show. But for the last several months, Kotb has heard the eerie sound of her own footsteps as she heads into the studio and slips behind the anchor desk, where she perches at a socially distanced remove from her co-stars and broadcasts in front of a ghostly plaza. One morning, she spied some movement outside the window — it was a nurse in scrubs, lugging a rolling suitcase — and Kotb was so hungry for a taste of audience connection, “I literally held my phone number on a white piece of paper to the glass,” she said. “I was like, ‘Call me and tell me where you’re from!’”
Since the coronavirus swept across the United States, morning-show anchors have kept bantering, late-night hosts have kept joking and politicians have kept stumping. It’s the audiences that have not showed. Their sudden disappearance has spotlighted the mythical, almost mystical, role they play in popular entertainment. The crowd has been compared to an electric spark, a dance partner, an intoxicant and a character in and of itself. It is said to hold great power over professional performers, messing with their heads and triggering hormonal surges in their glands. The crowd lends a democratic sheen to an event, legitimizing the performer’s skill and authenticating the show as real. If the crowd laughs, the joke was funny. If it boos, the call was bad. The crowd is, as Kotb put it, “the juice.” And for now, it is gone.
This has proved to be a vexing experience for the entertainers of America. When “The View” first banished its studio audience, in March, Whoopi Goldberg cried “Welcome to ‘The View’! Welcome to ‘The View’!” again and again into silence, as cameras swept an expanse of empty seats. Before he sealed himself into the N.B.A. bubble at Disney World, LeBron James could not conceive of the game without a crowd, saying: “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans there? I ain’t playing.” When even A-list celebrities seem bored enough to appear at events hosted on videoconferencing software, it is the crowd that has stepped into the role of the withholding diva. A long-anticipated reunion of “Friends” is on indefinite hold, not for David Schwimmer or Jennifer Aniston but for the anonymous audience members tasked with observing them: “We cannot do it without them,” Marta Kauffman, the show’s co-creator, has said.
So longing are the shows for their crowds that they have grasped for imitations. The “Today” show has erected a “virtual plaza” and enlisted performers of its once-outdoor summer concert series to surprise superfans at home. In a masterwork of artifice, American ballparks and European soccer stadiums have piped in the crowd roars originally created for video games. Many baseball teams have put literal stand-ins in the seats, arranging stiff cardboard cutouts of fans in macabre tableaus; at one game, the Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton caught a fly ball and offered it up to the frozen visage of a cardboard baby cradled in her ersatz mother’s lap in the right field stands. And for the Video Music Awards last weekend, MTV crafted an orgy of simulation, stitching together uncanny C.G.I. fans and fake crowd buzz into a dystopian New York cityscape.
The ultimate audiences for sports, politics, talk shows and award presentations are not found inside arenas or convention halls or studios — they are watching from home, slack on the couch, absorbing ads and paying for cable and streaming packages. In normal times, the live crowd mounts a performance for the remote audience. But this summer, without our stand-ins to guide us, we home viewers confront a void. The pretense of the crowd always provided the true audience a bit of cover; we could vicariously ride its emotions, feeding off its energy, absorbing its delight and its outrage, even as we sat quietly alone at home. But now we are directly implicated in the show itself.
The television experience was largely designed to replicate live performances — to transport their spontaneous thrills into the remote home. In his book “Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture,” Philip Auslander, a professor of performance studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, traces how TV borrowed the storytelling conventions of the theater: it was styled as an immediate event, with the viewer positioned at the scene of the action, as if watching from the lip of the stage or the sideline of the court. The classic three-camera setup mimicked the movement of the audience’s roving eye, perhaps aided with a pair of opera glasses. And even as TV absorbed more cinematic elements, playing with shifting perspectives and transpositions of time, it also built up conventions that simulate the feeling of liveness: recorded laugh tracks and cuts to the “live studio audience,” where the crowd of spectators is vetted for entrance, warmed up by producers and cued to applaud. And all that prompts the home audience to feel invested in the show. “Maybe even more than the performance, we identify with the audience,” Auslander said.
Even as the internet disrupts these conventions again, giving rise to an era of scattered, disembodied crowd collaboration, the figure of the audience is pulled along for the ride. Reaction GIFs are sliced from evocative scenes and shared to perform the emotions of online spectators. Often the GIFs are culled from actual television audiences, like the anonymous woman nodding approvingly in “The Wendy Williams Show” crowd, or Chrissy Teigen’s strained, awkward cry face caught during a scan of the 2015 Golden Globes audience as her husband, John Legend, won a statuette. Teigen has since emerged as our reigning celebrity spectator; she walks among the stars but is positioned as their observer and judge, laughing and cringing as she goes. Much of the thrill of the modern award show is produced by celebrities reacting to other celebrities, from Martin Scorsese blankly processing an Eminem performance to Meryl Streep hollering at the stage.
The sudden absence of the crowd is scrambling entrenched media narratives. In the N.B.A., the fans are imbued with the power to influence the refs, psych out free-throw shooters and generally mess with players’ heads. But the crowdless bubble has called the home-court advantage into question and subdued the typical whiplash drama of the playoffs, where rival teams jet back and forth across the country, playing for adoring, then hostile, then adoring crowds; already, it’s clear that players are shooting better without the fans. A player in a typical series faces “the full gamut of emotions” from the crowd, Greg Anthony, the former Knicks point guard and Turner Sports announcer, told me from inside the bubble. The newly muted atmosphere “could change the entire course of how the playoffs play out,” he said.
On late-night comedy shows, the laughter has died. In March, Samantha Bee’s weekly TBS show, “Full Frontal,” began filming in her backyard in upstate New York. “When I do the show in front of a live studio audience, it’s a very communal experience,” Bee said. “We’re in it together.” Making the crowd laugh feels “intoxicating,” she said. Now, her jokes are met with chirping birds and buzzing cicadas, which “Full Frontal” preserves as background noise. Her only audience is another seasoned comedian — her husband, Jason Jones — and their three children, who make for a tough crowd. “I’m at my most self-conscious when they’re watching,” Bee said of her kids. “They do not think I have any comedic ability.” The “Full Frontal” staff has coped with the dead space by filling it with more jokes. Said Bee: “We’re just packing more and more into the show.”
Meanwhile, politics is getting more serious. Crowdless stump speeches are cut short — Joe Biden’s was the shortest Democratic National Convention acceptance speech in recent memory — and trimmed of jokes and broad applause lines tailored to fire up the base, said David Litt, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama. The speeches are forced to be subtler and more sincere. Normal campaign seasons amass political crowds so large that even a slightly amusing observation can prompt an outsize reaction. “You could write a joke — not even a hilarious line, but a warm introductory line — and if one-third of the people in attendance thought it was funny, that would be 10,000 people laughing,” Litt said. For some politicians, that feedback is the very point of the political performance. “I think it’s one of the reasons President Trump is so desperate to get in front of live crowds anywhere,” Litt said. Without the validation of the roaring crowd, “You have to be able to say something and just trust that it will sound good.”
In politics, the crowd functions as a visual and rhetorical metaphor for democracy itself, even if — as is typical at the Democratic and Republican national conventions — it is actually assembled from a curated crew of delegates and party die-hards. A crowd also opens the opportunity for performed dissent: At the 2016 D.N.C., some Bernie Sanders delegates staged a walkout; a few donned green Robin Hood hats and stuck duct tape over their mouths. But at this year’s convention, any protests were preemptively blocked. Biden spoke live to a silent, darkened Delaware auditorium, then turned to a giant screen featuring a grid of selected supporters clapping to their webcams. The only hiccup was the video feed of one couple in the middle, who stared blankly to the side, as if they had missed their cue to convert from true spectators of the speech into performers of spectating.
The crowd also offers an imprimatur of an authentic political performance. Sean Hannity of Fox News painted Biden’s performance as a “dull, boring speech to an empty room,” but some right-wing observers cast it in a more sinister light: A conspiracy theory swept the conservative media accusing the D.N.C. of recording the event, perhaps even doctoring it. It was a ludicrous claim, but it could gain purchase because the only witnesses to the speech were campaign insiders and journalists. A crowd is the visual assurance that something really happened.
And in our current moment, it has taken on an even more perverse valence — as a veil thrown over a deadly pandemic. Trump’s R.N.C. did, in fact, feature many recorded speeches, and many more delivered to a hollow auditorium in Washington. But on the final night, Trump gathered a crowd of 1,500 mostly unmasked people on the White House lawn to receive him, flouting Washington rules banning large gatherings. While the Democrats have a political and scientific explanation for mounting an abnormal convention — it holds a mirror to the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus under the Trump administration — the Republicans are invested in projecting the image that everything is fine. Trump’s crowd capably played the part of a satisfied public. “Four more years,” it chanted.
Several years ago, a friend and I attended the Video Music Awards as members of the audience. As we filed into Madison Square Garden, we were swept into a stream of thousands of ticket holders, corralled through glaring white corridors and shunted up escalators into upper-deck seats. The crowd evinced the docile resignation of workers reporting to a factory floor. On a faraway stage, Britney Spears and Rihanna and Ariana Grande appeared as brief glimpses of distant wildlife. We watched them on video screens instead. It felt less like an experience than an assignment: We had done a satisfactory job of creating the image of a packed house.
The last few months have cracked an opportunity for a new kind of crowd relationship, one not predicated on such rote exercises of theatrical feedback. Our new era of “live” performance requires something not exactly like cinema, not quite like television, but something more like the internet. Traditional entertainers now feel in direct competition with internet stars, who are preternaturally skilled at performing one-sided conversations to unfeeling camera lenses, then riding waves of online reactions that spin off in unexpected directions. The best internet videos carry a frisson of intimacy and spontaneity; they seem crafted not to please the crowd but to connect with one individual, millions and millions of times.
YouTube and TikTok and Instagram, which have made sensations of people shooting videos alone in their bedrooms, are the ideal platforms for a pandemic that mandates private viewing. The must-see live show of the summer is Verzuz, a D.J. battle reimagined for Instagram, in which players like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu take turns vibing to their own greatest hits in a feat of synchronized isolation. It’s hard to find that on television, even as the medium grasps for a more online sensibility. A rash of reunion specials that assumed the aesthetics of the Zoom grid had all the excitement of a staff meeting. The socially distant conventions bore the emotional sterility of a telethon. But some glimmers of interest have emerged.
Biden, hardly a master of new media technologies, nevertheless delivered a convention speech directly to the camera that functioned as a more intimate appeal, helping to underscore his bid to be presidential empath. Watching professional comedians fail to delight their children has the indelible stamp of a viral video, one that keys into the online mood better than any topical punchline. And last month, professional athletes pulled off a remarkable show — they stopped playing in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. In a normal season, with thousands of anxious paying fans looming above them, would they have had the nerve to walk away? The strike worked both as protest and performance because it was pitched not to the die-hards in the stands but to the complacent television audience flipping through the channels. Its message spoke directly to viewers at home: Get off the couch.
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