Talking to Seth Meyers About Late Night‘s Growing Power
Seth Meyers is really starting to get comfortable in the hosting chair at Late Night: Seth Meyers and people are taking notice of his no holds barred skewering of political issues. We discuss how he manages to present a strong point of view and keep people laughing, being called the ‘heir to Jon Stewart’ and how he feels about Trump (hint: he’s not laughing so hard anymore).
The main thing is you just get more comfortable the longer you do these shows. I think that with the hour that people are watching, comfort is a big part of it. People don't want to see someone who's acting like they're on a high wire at 12:30 at night. It makes it very hard for them to go to bed. That to me is probably the biggest thing, just comfort. Also, we were really lucky with the first group of writers we hired on the show, but we also figured out in our second round of hiring that we need people who were better at writing about politics and churning that stuff out at a daily pace. We were really lucky there, too.
Speaking of that, you've been called the ‘heir to Jon Stewart’ and the ‘most progressive late night host’. What do those things mean to you?
I'm glad that people are enjoying what we're doing on the show politically, because that's important to me. I think that Jon and then after that Stephen [Colbert] changed what you are allowed to do in a late night show. So, we're certainly in their debt.
But you're doing it on network television, which is a big shift and a much broader landscape. Do you feel proud that you can do edgy material and people are responding to it so well?
I'm happy that we can and I'm proud of the network for letting us. We've been really lucky that, with anything, when we first started doing this show, the network, one of the pieces of feedback that they had was that they were enjoying when I had a strong point of view. That was a really nice thing to hear because I think ten, twenty years ago it would have been the opposite. I'm mostly lucky I'm doing a network late night show at a time when they're cool with it.
I think that's interesting as well because by not being an actual journalist covering these topical issues, you can actually have a strong point of view. How much do you try and be balanced and how much do you go, This is actually how I feel about this issue and that's the way we’re going to address it?
I feel like balance becomes such a tricky thing. There are people who feel completely different than me, who also believe what they believe. I wouldn't want them to pretend they thought what I thought just to be balanced. I think what's important, and what we spend a lot of time with, is trying to be factually accurate. The most uninteresting place you can end up is the place where you work really hard to see both sides equally because ultimately there are two sides but I think this one is right.
You're also trying to be entertaining.
Yeah. I mean entertaining is the first thing we're trying to be but we enjoy trying to be entertaining about things that we think are important. If we were trying to be important first, I think the show would be unwatchable.
I read an interview with John Oliver who claims that he has no agenda at all on his show and only highlights topics that can be mined for comedy, which seems like an extreme perspective. What is your approach to that? Do you see it as a bit more of a balance?
Well, we do something on Planned Parenthood because we think it's important and so the question is: can we make it funny enough to put it on television?
Whereas I would say it was more of that, than we saw Planned Parenthood and thought, This is hilarious! Then again, the challenge we have is to sort of spend the day, or the week if we have enough lead time, trying to get enough jokes in there for it to be worth being on a show that is a comedy show.
When you're doing that everyday, what happens when you spend all day on something and you don't get it up to scratch? That seems very stressful.
It is pretty stressful. The great news is we start with one writer writing it and then I'll sort of jump in and take a pass. Then as we get closer to the show, sort of everyone jumps in. It is rare that we end up in a situation where we're ashamed to put it on television. Then again, sometimes what we realize is we just need one more day. That's because we'll do it in front of a test audience at 4 in the afternoon, sort of round up people in the building, and sometimes when you're doing it for them you hear where the laughs are and you realize, ‘Oh, okay. We only have an hour but if we had three hours we could fix it, so let's try it for tomorrow.’ Then it's still a talk show, so you can say, ‘That didn't quite work out so instead of talking to Judd Apatow for seven minutes, we're going to talk to him for twelve minutes and that'll be fine.’
Right, so you have the luxury of that flexibility.
That's a major fallback that we have. We're doing this stuff and we also have guests that are really entertaining and happy to help cover that in the few times that it doesn't work out.
The other night you did the segment Jokes Seth Can't Tell, which seems like you're really facing the issue of a lack of diversity in network late night hosts head on: having two of your female writers delivering the punchlines to jokes you wouldn’t be able to get away with. Is that part of a larger game plan for you to address that much publicized imbalance?
It really is more that we are lucky enough to have diverse writers on our staff who brought that idea to us and it was a delight to me. Also, Amber [Ruffin], who is one of the first people we hired for the show and who I've known forever, just tickled to me to no end and has been such a valuable part of our writing staff. Jenny [Hagel], who is our newer higher, her and Amber have known each other for a really long time. It was just great. I think they know that's the sort of thing we love to do on the show. I guess I'm saying it didn't come from me saying, ‘Let's make a broader case for diversity.' It more came from having diverse writers who had a funny idea. But I do think it speaks to having those people on the staff.
How do you feel about the rise of Trump? Does it delight the comedian in you more than the person in you who is worrying about the fact that so much of America has gotten behind this guy?
I don't like it anymore. I feel like it's…
I feel like I'm on a roller coaster that's broken. It was really fun the first few rides around the track and when it got broke I thought, Wow! Free ride! But now I don't like it.
You want to get off?
I do. I do kind of want to get off. With that said, I can't deny that it doesn't provide us plenty of fodder as far as trying to generate pieces every night. Internally, there is a bit of a fear of when will this stop even being fun to an audience.
Hosting a late night show is kind of seen as the Holy Grail. Did your perspective on that change once you were actually sitting in the chair? How do you feel about it now?
Well, it's interesting. For me the Holy Grail was always SNL and Weekend Update. I didn't really think past that. It was actually a couple years into doing the show, I have a much greater appreciation for how great of a job it is now than I did before I started doing it. I think I thought that every show would be arduous and burdensome as SNL, when in reality they lighten it, so that you can do it every day. In general, you can be looser.
By tomorrow, it's old news.
You get to do it tomorrow. So you might as well try something different and new and see how it goes because the duds are a lot easier to recover from.
You obviously work with a team, but from a performance perspective do you miss the camaraderie of SNL and being able to share the load a little bit?
I miss having someone else to blame if you don't do something. Now, it's very clear if we don't do something it's my fault. Definitely I try to write as much as possible but I feel less a part of a writing staff, which was probably my favorite part about on SNL. The most important thing to me has been in order to try and not to feel an isolation is to make it very clear to my writers from the start that they were allowed to relentlessly tease me for all my short comings. I think that will be a very important part of my happiness.
It's also an important quality in a good leader.
The day they're afraid of me, I'll feel very sad and lonely and I cannot stress to you how little they are afraid of me.
Well, you don't want people to be hiding their weirdest ideas out of fear that you're going to judge them.
It's very true. That's why here, once a week, we try to have a table read where people can just read stuff all across the board. That's where Jokes Seth Can't Tell came out of. It would be very easy to get caught up in the grind of what life feeds us. Politics, politics, politics. I also want the show to have space for really dumb stuff too. Like the other night, Conner O'Malley, who I think is a really unique and wonderful performer, he does this dumb thing every now and then where he's mad we're not celebrating something stupid. A couple of nights ago, it was The Phantom Menace. Again, for me, it's also fun to see a writer who's dressed up as Darth Maul.
What about other projects? You got to create The Awesomes, which I can imagine was a dream come true for you. It just seems like something a young Seth might have cooked up in his fantasy life.
A young one or one in his thirties or forties. That was great and so enjoyable. For me, both The Awesomes and Documentary Now! were ways to continue work with cast members that I had crossed over with at SNL. Every voice on The Awesomes, pretty much every voice, was a person who I knew how to write for and I was delighted in their performing style. In Documentary Now! it's so great to still be able to work with Fred [Armisen] and Bill [Hader] in the way that I love working.
You've recently become a dad. How has that affected your ability to function?
It's funny, looking back, I'm a little ashamed, but I mostly just want to pay all this credit to my wife [Alexi Ashe]. It's so much harder for her than it is for me, 8 weeks in. There will be a time when my son will need father stuff but right now he's very reliant on my wife, who's doing an incredible job. I feel like she's a mother and I'm like a guy who's also in the apartment.
Your wife's a human rights lawyer, is that right?
Well, she had been doing that earlier and that keeps getting printed. She's a prosecutor right now for the Brooklyn DA's office.
Ah, got it. I wondered if you and George Clooney had ever bonded over being married to human rights lawyers.
I can tell you my wife was very happy when he married one.
I think one more celebrity and it'll be officially a trend.
It's the new hot look.
Featured image: Louis C.K. and Seth on the set of Late Night: Seth Meyers. Photo by Lloyd Bishop, Courtesy of NBC.