In the middle of a pandemic, when late-night’s biggest personalities have been sidelined and forced to adapt digitally, Gary Whitta did the impossible. He made a whole new talk show.
It still has all the same charms as the late-night mainstays: a live band, a large variety of guests, recurring segments, theme music, even stand-up comedy. It’s been hailed by The Verge as “2020’s hottest talk show.” While millions practice social distancing, Whitta hosts a warm, familiar environment that has his guests sharing the couch in his decked-out basement studio.
Just one catch: this is all happening via “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” Nintendo’s video game hit that’s seen record-breaking success since its release in March. In “Animal Talking,” instead of heading to a real-life studio, guests send their avatars to Whitta’s island, where they go to his virtual house, wait in the green room for their time slot, and then sit in his studio for live interviews, where they use the game’s emotes to build on the audio banter.
Whitta, a screenwriter who wrote 2010’s “The Book of Eli,” 2013’s “After Earth” and co-developed the story for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” first launched “Animal Talking” in late April. Since then, he’s released 14 episodes, welcomed guests that include everyone from Elijah Wood to T-Pain to Danny Trejo and has accidentally become a full-blown talk-show personality.
“This is not my job,” he tells Variety. “It’s just, somehow, become the thing that prevents me from doing my actual job. This is a hobby that has spiraled wildly out of control in the most delightful way.”
Whitta has a background in video games (he was the former editor-in-chief of PC Gamer and has writing credits on several “Walking Dead” titles) but his talk show came from his genuine love for “Animal Crossing.” When “New Horizons” came out, Whitta, his wife, Leah, and 7-year-old daughter each got their own copies, and the mood in their household “lifted instantly.” The game, which puts the player in control of their own island paradise, is “genuinely therapeutic, genuinely calming,” he notes — so much so that he jokes it should be covered by health insurance. “It’s that valuable in our lives right now.”
It also gave Whitta something to stream on his Twitch account, which he previously used to provide a live commentary of “The Book of Eli” after the Denzel Washington movie hit Netflix. He started streaming what he dubbed “Animal Crossing Mornings With Gary” every day at 9 a.m., a casual broadcast that showed him doing his chores around the island, redecorating and expanding his home and hanging out with his island neighbors. Experimenting with the decor of his basement, he was inspired by a simple desk and a couch to recreate a classic late-night talk show studio — and once that was complete, his audience encouraged him to actually use it.
So, with Leah and game developer Adam Nickerson (who became the studio’s band leader), he launched the pilot episode, which featured an interview with actress and on-air personality Naomi Kyle. As fans latched on, Whitta and Co. put out a second episode, and then a third. “And then at some point — I don’t know really where this happened — we reached some kind of critical mass where we went from pretending to do a talk show to actually doing a talk show,” he says. “I’ve got, like, major record labels and real, A-list celebrities calling me trying to get on the show.”
“It’s unbelievably dumb that this is happening, but it’s just the best thing to have fallen accidentally ass-backwards into that I’ve ever done,” he adds.
Whitta, a Brit who “grew up kind of idolizing” late-night shows as a touchstone of American culture, includes little homages to Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” and even the fictional “Larry Sanders Show,” his favorite comedy, in the set. And it functions as a traditional talk show as well: “Animal Talking” has pre-interviews, notecards, lighting and camera cues and soundchecks. “I do everything that the big boys do,” he says.
“In fact, what’s crazy now is I’m actually the only talk show that has those things, because Jimmy Fallon’s stuck in his basement, because he lives in the real world,” he adds. “I don’t have those restrictions, because I don’t live in the real world, I live inside a video game. I can have guests on my couch from anywhere in the world.”
“Animal Crossing” does present its own set of limitations, though — while the game provides the tools to set up a studio, it certainly isn’t focused on allowing players to use it. But Whitta and his crew have found creative ways to work around those unique challenges. For example, they booked a comedian, Samantha Ruddy, for a stand-up set, but didn’t want her speaking into a dead mic with no live audience. Instead, Ruddy provided a recording of a set she did at a comedy club last year, and while Whitta played the audio on the show, she timed emotes on her “Animal Crossing” avatar to “perform” the bit live.
Guests don’t necessarily need to play “Animal Crossing” to be on the show. Whitta has a back-up Nintendo Switch, which Leah can use to create an avatar for the guest. That avatar can then appear on Gary’s set, and while he conducts the interview with the guest live, Leah serves as something of a puppeteer, coordinating emotes and gestures with what they’re saying.
Luckily, though, most of Whitta’s guests are fellow fans of the game. Trejo, in fact, is set to become a regular correspondent and take viewers on a tour of his island. Wood, meanwhile, made headlines for visiting a fan’s island to make use of her high turnip prices — and later, Whitta surprised the actor by inviting that fan as a guest on the show, which resulted in Whitta’s favorite moment yet as everyone on set ended up running around in excited circles. It’s the kind of pure, wholesome fun that Whitta realizes is needed right now.
“We’re a politics-free zone. We don’t tackle serious subjects,” he says. “This is meant to be a distraction from the real world for a couple of hours — just watch this and giggle. My 7-year-old daughter did a DJ set [on the show], and people thought it was the sweetest thing ever. It’s just silly fun that’s meant to make you forget your troubles for a couple of hours.”
Plus, “Animal Talking” has a full lineup of guests that’s going to keep it on for at least the next few weeks. Whitta confirms that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who responded to a tweet from him and has been visiting supporters’ islands in the game, will be on the show, it’s just a matter of when. Otherwise, he teases a docket of names that leave even him stunned: “If I told you some of the guests we have booked, you literally would not believe me,” he says, “because I still don’t really believe these people are coming on the show.”
Without naming names, he says one of his future guests includes somebody “who is probably, like, one of the ten most famous musical acts in the world.” Fans have also clamored for former Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aimé, who tweeted at Whitta. The host says he’s been in touch with Fils-Aimé, who’s a fan of the show, but it’s “still to be determined” whether or not he’ll appear as a guest.
But, Whitta notes, without network producers and ratings pressure, he has the luxury of not worrying about his guests being A-listers, and has rejected corporate sponsorships. “That’s not what I want this to be,” he says. “This was intended to be me goofing around in my basement like ‘Wayne’s World,’ hanging out with my friends. And that’s what it still is, except, you know, some of these friends are now more famous than others.”
As for if it’ll continue post-quarantine, Whitta doesn’t know. He notes that they’ve joked about doing a Halloween show, but “Animal Talking” has already gone far longer than they ever thought it would.
“Either I get bored of doing it, or the audience gets bored of watching. And I don’t know which of those might happen first,” he says. “But we’ll keep doing one show at a time until we don’t anymore. Who knows?”