It’s 55 °F at The Ed Sullivan Theatre. Why?

If you asked Google (or any other search engine of your preference) the same question I’d asked when I was in your place about a year ago – let me assure you that you’re not alone, and also given just how much attention this post has gotten lately from people like me and you who take valuable time out of our busy lives to ponder something as trivially pointless as the temperature setting of a Broadway theatre. If I’ve been right all along, I’m assuming by now that you’ve just gotten out of a late night screening of The Late Show or began to wonder because you’re headed there sometime soon and saw something in the lines of ‘bring a warm jacket’ on your ticket. There’s no shortage of Yelp reviews with everything ranging from “freezing cold” to “HELLA cold”. Either way, Colbert’s home on Broadway has an unmistakably interesting environment parameter that people just don’t seem to be able to miss and that is the awfully cold thermostat.

I did a meta-analysis across the best of the Internet’s offerings on the this matter to save you the strenuous task of researching further when you should really be headed to an eatery for a New York dragged by the rat pizza or perhaps a bar on Fifth Avenue. Without further ado, let’s see what it’s got in store for us.

Broadway’s ‘refrigerator’ was apparently not an expensive broken thermostat or a quirk of the aging building but what Letterman, the former tenured talk show host of The Late Show wanted, by design. Yes, it was Letterman’s call to freeze his audience so save your curses for him instead. But why?

When I first got tickets to the Late Show, which also happened to be my first time at the Late Show under Colbert’s tenure, I noticed something on the ticket about temperature, on the same curious boat that brought some of you to this island. It said it was on the cooler end and that we had to dress appropriately. The dress code then stated Broadway casual. I was more fixated on what “Broadway casuals” meant, leaving little thought to the theatre’s environment. It was still early into March and I had my trusty jacket on, so it never bothered me anyway.

After a little research on the internet, I understood it was Letterman’s call to have the theatre cooled to 55 (degree Farenheit). And as one op-ed that appeared in the New York Times stated, Colbert just inherited this temperature scheme without challenging it.

It may also be beacuse people have a tendency to fall asleep, especially when things get all political and rant-y. Another blog post detailing the experience of the taping from the audience’s perspective under Letterman states, albeit the subjective take on the issue, “If they didn’t keep the theater so cold, I could see people falling asleep…which is why they keep the theater so cold.”

But fear not as one comedian, Matt Ruby from Brooklyn provides insight on this issue in a more objective light, pointing out on his blog that:

Apparently back in the 80s, Dave experimented with different temperatures on different shows. He tried 75 one day. 65 another day. The day he went with 55, jokes really hit and from then on that was the temperature.

On a more technical note, offers an interesting piece of trivia that could go adjointly with Letterman’s intentional call to keep the theatre low and cold “due to CBS’s refusal to upgrade to modern LED lighting.” So that just left Colbert hanging with the 50-something temperature scheme that’s living to date.

We understand that the theatre was intentionally cooled to an uncomfortable temperature (for the audience and crew members alike) in the interest of getting jokes across effectively. Did it work? Apparently, yes. The host himself had tried different temperature settings, starting at 75 and going down by decrements of 10. It seemed to work on the day of 55, and without further sampling, that was to stay – to this very day! While there could have existed a more optimal temperature, or a better method to go about this experiment, neither CBS nor Letterman had apparently tried further.

The post also says Letterman would have the temperature as low as 50 before the audience came. This was probably to account for the additional heat they bought in. The cold temperature is said to have kept the crew and audience sharp, and the comedy fresh. But that may just be what Letterman told his fans because for all we know, it was already widely recognized at the time to be his go-to stock answer when questioned on the subject, according to a trivia quiz.

My opinion here pertains to the theatre’s age. The countless renovations of the past might have rendered certain upgrades, such as to more efficient LED-based lighting inefficent and/or difficult especially considering how old the theatre is. The studio equipment of the day required expensive cooling to keep their electronics cooled and well because they would dissipate a ton of heat. The cool temperature also ensured the hosts and other subjects stay sweat-free and comfortable admist the heat radiating off the equipment cornering them in. It’s also a given that Letterman apparently had solid results with audience response in the day of 55, only to further back the case for a low temperature.

And if there’s one thing professionals in the industry would tell you is that audience participation and response makes all the difference in shows like this. You could juice up even the lamest attempts at humor with a little applause and cheering from the audience. That’s why they prime you up so much. What else did you think that warm up segment was all about? Where they typically bring in some low-key comedian taking his ambitious shot at stand-up or a nice freestyle from Stay Human, the in-house band featuring Jon Batiste proven to get people on their feet and dancing away.

There you have it folks, the Internet’s take. I’ll let you wonder if it indeed was Letterman’s call or CBS’ equipment budget, the practical constraints imposed by an aging Broadway monument or just as expensive plot to keep people awake and actively engaged in the politically-charged comedy.

Temperature aside, the Ed Sullivan theatre is one of the oldest landmark buildings in the area. When CBS acquired it, the place was apparently a mess – there were rats, the NYC kind of rats in the building. The theatre had been refurbished before Letterman could call it his home on Broadway and again before Colbert took over the show. Shortly before Colbert’s tenure at the Late Show, the great dome had been exposed and the original stained glass had been removed by CBS and moved to storage, according to the NYT op-ed. The dome now has digital projection all over – which I must admit is very sexy. You might get a lucky glimpse if you get seated on the balcony or the very front seats. It was lit with pink (eww..) graphics in recognition of Women’s day on March the 8th, also the same day I witnessed the taping of the show under Colbert and the nipple-raising cold of the historic Ed Sullivan theatre.


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