How Seth Meyers Is Winning the Late Night Wars

Seth Meyers photographed in New York City
Robert Trachtenberg

Soon after we meet at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, Seth Meyers offers some advice on how to write this story. “Don’t say what I ordered,” he says. “Nothing’s worse than profiles where they say what the person ordered.”

He’s right, of course. It’s a fairly useless cliché to say, “Seth Meyers, over a Cobb salad…” which I point out, before he adds that it’s also tricky when you are being interviewed to know what to order. Isn’t it just what makes you look best? Meyers shakes his head, quipping: “That’s how you end up with the Cobb salad.”

It is 10 p.m. on a Wednesday and Meyers, a writer and overthinker long before he became a late night talk show host, is as quick as ever. He has just finished a bustlingly full day, delivering a sober monologue about a terrorist attack in New York, before making on-air chitchat with country star Blake Shelton. After rehearsing and performing his 601st episode of NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, he met with his producer Lorne Michaels (the man who also created Saturday Night Live) for a quarterly check-in and then settled in for this interview, looking rested and relaxed through midnight, without a note of stress or regret—in other words, the same as he is on television.

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Meyers has changed out of his suit and into casual clothes and is sitting in a booth across from a television set showing Game 7 of the World Series—which he occasionally sneaks a peek at.

“How do you think the show went today?” I ask.

“I thought tonight was a good show,” he says. “I will also never think of it again.”

Meyers took over over Late Night in 2014, a show previously hosted by David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, famously neurotic comics who could be flamboyantly self-lacerating. But Meyers does not perform discontent. He doesn’t obsess over ratings or even watch his own show. There are no hand-wringing postmortems—Meyers leaves the studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza immediately after finishing each episode and heads home to his wife, Alexi, a human-rights lawyer, and their 1-year-old son, Ashe.

Not since the days of Johnny Carson has a late night host maintained such unflappable poise and bemusement. Meyers’ amiable calm even adds a touch of mystery to his persona. Surely, there must be a boiling cauldron of neurosis lurking beneath this placidly handsome exterior, a resentment that fuels his ambition or a broken relationship that is the origin story of his spectacular rise to success. If there is, it would be news to Meyers. “I’m not a tortured soul,” he says, with characteristic matter-of-factness.

Where does such equanimity come from? Meyers’ childhood offers some clues. He grew up in Bedford, NH; his father worked in finance, his mother taught French at Seth’s middle school. More significantly, Hilary and Larry Meyers are both lifelong comedy lovers who, while attending Northwestern University in the 1970s, would head into Chicago for performances at Second City, including shows with John Belushi and Bill Murray. Later, when a teenage Seth became obsessed with Saturday Night Live, his parents didn’t balk—they encouraged it. “My dad is really, really funny,” Meyers says; he would often crack up Seth and his younger brother, Josh, with hilarious stories over dinner. And he encouraged his kids to join the fun. “He’s not someone who laughs out of courtesy,” Meyers says. “He thought we were funny, and that starting making us think we were funny.”

Seth Meyers hosts an episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers
Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

So unlike most kids (and especially most comics), Meyers never found it necessary to rebel against his parents. “I did not go into comedy to escape anything,” Meyers says. “I went into comedy because I had parents who thought it was a reputable way to earn a living.”

Meyers wound up at his parents’ alma mater. He auditioned every year to be on the improv team in college—not making it until he was cast in his senior year. He did more improv in Chicago after graduation, getting his first taste of fame with a popular two-person show called Pickups and Hiccups, in which he played the straight man and happily set up his partner, Jill Benjamin, who took on the more neurotic, colorful roles. The show got the attention of some producers from Saturday Night Live, and in 2001, Meyers was offered a spot in the cast.

It was Meyers’ dream job, but he spent his first few years there stressed and miserable, struggling to find a place. He did some recurring characters like David Zinger, a scientist who can’t resist making quips. But he never seemed entirely comfortable in the spotlight, finding more success writing for others. “He is one of the best writers who came through there,” says Mike Shoemaker, a former SNL producer who now produces Late Night. “He understood that you needed to serve the host and other cast members. Most people couldn’t do that. They just want you to tell them why they’re good.”

Meyers became the show’s head writer, the job he’s still proudest of, and a highlight was his work during the 2008 election, when he wrote Tina Fey’s inspired Sarah Palin impression. “I learned from him how to enjoy writing for someone else as much as for myself,” says John Mulaney, who worked with Meyers on SNL and now on the IFC spoof series Documentary Now. Shoemaker says Meyers’ gift was “highlighting the other person’s strength.”

“I want people to know my political point of view. There’s an appetite for that, almost an expectation,” he says. “I also want to make people laugh, but I wouldn’t want to do it at the expense of my point of view.”

In 2014, Meyers was offered the chance to replace Jimmy Fallon (who was headed to The Tonight Show) as the Late Night host. It wasn’t a job that Meyers ever had really considered. “I was never unhappy at SNL,” he says. But the comedian recognized that the rigors of that show were not sustainable.

When he started on Late Night, it was a much goofier, more traditional enterprise than it is now, with an opening monologue that smoothly covered lots of ground, from popular culture to human-interest stories to politics. And interviews were interspersed with sketch-like characters such as the then staff writer Michelle Wolf playing grown-up Annie from the musical. “The show was competent,” Meyers says, “but without a real vision.”

Then Michaels suggested something radical: Rather than do a monologue standing up, he proposed, Meyers should start the show at the desk. Meyers resisted—he didn’t want to repeat himself, doing the same thing he’d done for “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live. But on a slow night in August 2015, he tried it. Immediately, Meyers recognized he needed to embrace his past to succeed in the future.

“I ran into Howard Stern, who said he enjoyed it because it was more comfortable,” Meyers says about the change. “I told him, ‘I feel way more comfortable,’ and Stern said: ‘No, I feel more comfortable.’ ”

By the time he took his seat at the desk, Late Night was already more deeply engaging in political analysis, doing a long segment on Mondays that would become known as “A Closer Look,” a news digest interspersed with jokes that soon became a signature of the show. The segments, which can go as long as 12 minutes, were aggressively topical, clinical in their detail and dense with punch lines. Meyers reads them quickly and with urgency, and they started going viral because of their unapologetic willingness to call out lies and skewer hypocrisy.

Jon Stewart may have revolutionized topical daily comedy on late night, but he also deflected questions about his worldview, always insisting that he just wanted to make people laugh. By contrast, Meyers—who grew up in an early-primary state, where national politicians came through town every election, fueling in Meyers an early interest in politics—is much more clear-eyed and blunt about his intentions and priorities. “I want people to know my political point of view. There’s an appetite for that, almost an expectation,” he says. “I also want to make people laugh, but I wouldn’t want to do it at the expense of my point of view.”

At around 4 p.m. on a Monday last fall, Meyers walks into this eight-floor studio, to face a rehearsal audience of mostly tourists. It’s a good crowd and a big news day. Special counsel Robert Mueller made his first indictments in his investigation of the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia. But from a purely comedy perspective, the headline might be that Mueller won his first guilty plea, from a foreign policy adviser to the administration named George Papadopoulos.

When Meyers first saw this, he immediately recognized it as the same name of a character from the 1980s sitcom Webster and potential jokes flashed through his head. Then he opened Twitter and saw his friend, comedian and actor Ike Barinholtz, tweet: “If George Papadopoulos goes to jail, who will take care of Webster???” So much for that angle. “I’m sure there are times where we have something that plenty of other people do,” Meyers says. “But once I see the joke done, it becomes a lot less fun.” Instead, he tried out a couple jokes about pronouncing Papadopoulos in a Russian accent.

Bill Hader as Stefon and Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update
Image via Dana Edelson / NBC / Getty

After running through his monologue and “A Closer Look” in front of the audience, Meyers performs a bit that gets by far the biggest laughs—a running segment called “Extreme Dog Shaming,” which pairs photos of dogs with punch lines. In an older version of his show, this might have made the cut. But in the current Late Night, whose metabolism and interests more closely resemble a cable news broadcast than “Stupid Pet Tricks,” such bits are often bumped. “If there’s a unified vision of our show, it’s we start with the real stuff and if we have time, we do sillier stuff,” Meyers says. “There are talk show hosts who are better at silly than I am. People who know me would not say that at my core I’m silly.”

For most of the history of television talk shows, dabbling in politics was considered a risk, a sure way to alienate half your audience. But with the fragmentation of the media landscape, which has led to lower ratings for all of the late night shows, and a country more polarized than ever, it’s become tricky to avoid a political point of view. Witness the furious response from liberals over Jimmy Fallon’s chummy interview with Donald Trump, when he famously ruffled the candidate’s hair. (“I did think the backlash was unfair and came from a place of how angry everyone was,” Meyers says.)

But the criticism may have also opened up some leeway, because as soon as Meyers grew more aggressive in his criticism of now-President Trump, his show seemed like a refreshing alternative.

It’s a role Meyers is well suited for, in part because he had a history with Trump. After all some think the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, where Meyers roasted the businessman, was a decisive moment that helped spur Trump’s decision to run for office. At the event, before introducing President Obama, Meyers cracked: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

Trump, of course, is tailor-made for topical comics, since his eagerness to engage in culture wars and his steady diet of blistering tweets provide a target-rich environment for comedians. Seeing an opportunity, Meyers shifted focus, pushing his show in a more forcefully left-leaning direction.

A turning point in the shift was when Trump, after doing more than anyone to push the birther issue into the mainstream, finally declared that Obama was born in America, claiming that Hillary Clinton started the rumor which he was now ending.

“If there’s a unified vision of our show, it’s we start with the real stuff and if we have time, we do sillier stuff,” Meyers says. “There are talk show hosts who are better at silly than I am. People who know me would not say that at my core I’m silly.”

It was a head-spinning claim brazen on its face. In “A Closer Look,” Meyers responded right away, beginning flabbergasted but then building his case into a fierce conclusion, saying Trump “built his career on a racist lie because he’s a racist and a liar.” No talk show host on NBC had ever really gone this far in criticizing a presidential candidate. The press raved about it, with Meyers’ performance earning favorable comparisons with the way Jimmy Fallon handled Trump. The Daily Beast described it as the “day that Seth Meyers officially leapfrogged Jimmy Fallon.”

After the rehearsal, the show’s writers and Shoemaker gather around Meyers at the desk, as everyone shuffles through the script, cutting jokes that didn’t work. What’s remarkable is how little is said; the entire crew seems to be on the same page, crossing out the same punch lines. The only discussion occurs when segment producer Sal Gentile—who pens “A Closer Look’s” first draft and has arguably become the most important writer in late night—suggests cutting one of the jokes about Papadopoulos. “It really makes me laugh to do that Russian accent,” Meyers says.

Backstage, Meyers reads it again and sees Gentile’s point, realizing he can cut the joke while still saving the accent. “It’s very rare he and I are on a different page,” Meyers says of the writer who has quickly adopted the host’s voice.

Some comics are so desperate for a laugh that they eventually become funny. Meyers is the opposite. He wants to be funny and works at it, but the fact that he knows there are other things more important than getting the laugh might be the key to understanding his success.

In fact, for most of the time I spent with Meyers, he makes very few jokes. Unlike many comedians, he displays no insecurity about coming off funny, and when he isn’t talking, he listens intently. He says the person on television is nearly identical to the real him, and that certainly seems to be the case. But he does concede that one major difference is in the interviews on the show, he cuts in more often and adds jokes, which is the opposite of his patient, generous conversational style. “If talk shows included real conversations,” he says, “the guests would ask more questions.”

Talk to Meyers long enough and you can easily get the impression this is someone who, despite succeeding in one of the most prestigious jobs in comedy, still sees hosting a talk show as a step down from his previous job. When he saw Michaels earlier in the week, he plugged him for information on the latest episode of Saturday Night Live. But when the subject turned to that evening’s eventful Late Night, Meyers had little to say. “It will never be more interesting to talk about an episode of Late Night than an episode of SNL,” he admits.

It’s possible that this sense of already having had his dream job makes Meyers even better at hosting Late Night. It makes him looser, willing to try new things and continue improvising. He says he wants to host the show for a long time, and his current plan is to be there for a decade and than reevaluate. But much can change in that time, and he is under no illusion that the appetite for political humor will continue. “It will not last,” he says, rightly pointing out that presidential tenures change faster than the careers of hosts of Late Night. A job on Saturday Night Live, he says, is not supposed to be long-term. “Talk shows,” he says, “are things you get to do forever.”


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