What people won’t tell you is that in safer times, being part of a live audience isn’t actually that fun. You’re there for hours, you often have to force yourself to laugh at the same joke over and over for multiple takes, and they don’t even feed you. But still, a flesh-and-blood audience is clearly integral to the viewing experience for those at home, otherwise the virtual audiences gracing the screens of television’s newly-returned talk shows and sporting events wouldn’t feel so...bizarre. 

The pandemic rages on, but basketball, Ellen, and even The Masked Singer have returned. While it’s not currently safe to cram a bunch of people into a room to laugh and scream, most shows have found a 2020 way around it by hosting virtual audiences, made up of basically 30 individual FaceTime calls with fans watching from home. 

“The beauty of being in the virtual audience is that you only have to look nice from the waist up, so I wore a cute blazer with pajama bottoms,” a Twitter user named Madeline, who is in the virtual audience for an upcoming episode of Dr. Phil, told me over DM. “It was a really cool experience to be on the other side of the show—I really felt like I was there in person. It was cool to hear the producers in our ear telling us to applaud, stand-by, and smile.” 

I wish I could say technology has advanced to the point that, as a viewer, it’s not noticeable, but it is. It’s weird. These makeshift holographic audiences somehow only further emphasize that real people can’t gather like they used to. All I can think when I watch these clips is how they’re going to appear as examples in the U.S. history curriculum many generations from now, or at the very least a viral tweet like, “LMAO REMEMBER IN 2020 WHEN WE DID THIS?” 

Yes. I’ll remember. These are some images I’ll never forget. Let’s rank them.

5. Basketball games

I actually think the NBA pulls off virtual audiences pretty successfully. Since there’s a layer of real life humans on the sidelines before you get to the virtual audience, it makes the transition more gradual. The people are more like cutouts instead of faces in boxes, which means they all kind of blend together, like an audience should.

4. The Masked Singer

The Mask Singer attempted to avoid the dystopia of virtual audiences by instead just using old footage of audience members from prior seasons. However, if you thought it was weird seeing people virtually attend a show, it’s even weirder watching footage of a large gathering of people pre-pandemic having no idea what was to come.

3. The Voice

This one is...okay. I think it’s actually more normal when the screen looks like one big Zoom call with audience members rather than the vague attempt to make it seem like each video screen has its own chair—kind of like when restaurants try to make veggie burgers look and taste like actual meat. It will never live up to the real thing. Just love it for what it is.

2. The Ellen DeGeneres Show

This return was tense for a lot of reasons—mainly because over the summer, DeGeneres’ show was the subject of numerous workplace complaints that lead to her apologizing on stage. However, this apology monologue was delivered to a virtual audience who were presumably instructed when to laugh and smile, making the whole experience of her mea culpa feel totally inauthentic.

1. The Kelly Clarkson Show

This one is hands-down the worst, which is why it went viral on Twitter today. Not only is the audience a) huge and b) on literal pedestals, they’re also c) dancing to a new song by Vin Diesel (?). While IRL, this would have looked like one big dance party, instead each audience member is dancing totally alone with disparate levels of enthusiasm in front of their cameras for entirely too long. It’s a full 35 seconds and you can’t look away.