Features

Better Late

Late-night talk is thriving, and so is Seth Meyers.  Four years into  his  niche at NBC’s Late Night, Meyers has found his groove, forging laughs — and perhaps catharsis — in partisan times.  

Bruce Fretts
  • Lloyd Bishop/NBC
  • Lloyd Bishop/NBC

How did growing up in New Hampshire help Seth Meyers prepare for his dream career?

"Every four years, there was the presidential primary, and all the candidates came through town," he recalls. "You got to see firsthand the people who were being impersonated on SNL, which was really exciting."

That came in handy when Meyers joined Saturday Night Live in 2001 and wound up impersonating 2004 Democratic standard-bearer (and fellow New Englander) John Kerry. When he lost, Meyers says, "I was embarrassed that my reaction internally was not that George W. Bush was going to get four more years, but, 'Oh, I won't be going to the White House!'"

Yet in 2006, after he took over the "Weekend Update" anchor desk from Tina Fey — teaming with holdover Amy Poehler — Meyers's sharp-witted point of view started to break through.

In 2011 he delivered the jokes at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, following a tough act — President Barack Obama. "Donald Trump has been saying that he'll run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke," Meyers began. ("I didn't like his routine," Trump said later, though the comedian got strong reviews.)

When he took over the post–Tonight Show spot in 2014 as the host of NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers, he sharpened his voice as a liberal gadfly with segments like "A Closer Look" and "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" (featuring writers Amber Ruffin, who's African-American, and Jenny Hagel, who's a lesbian). And his voice is echoing across YouTube, Facebook and Hulu, where Late Night averages 60 million views a month.

Meyers sat down recently in his office at NBC's 30 Rock to discuss his brilliant late-night career with emmy's Bruce Fretts .

Was it always your dream to be on Saturday Night Live? When did that start?

Really young. My parents introduced us to things at a time that wasn't age-appropriate. We watched a lot of SNL. By the time I was in high school, my brother Josh and I would always do SNL sketches in talent shows.

Which characters would you do?

Hans & Franz. Wayne's World. We were also doing Monty Python stuff: "The Argument Sketch," "Dead Parrot." When I was in high school, I thought that was kind of the golden era of SNL.

Doesn't everyone think when they were in high school was the golden era of SNL?

That's probably true. But it was a thing I cared about a lot. I would stay up for SNL. I remember having girlfriends who I would bring home before their curfews so I could be back by 11:30 — which never played out well. Old SNL episodes would air in syndication at 11 o'clock every night, so at the same time I was following the early '90s cast, I was learning about the '70s cast, too.

After graduating from Northwestern, you honed your craft doing improv in Amsterdam. Was the sense of humor different there?

Yeah, definitely. It forced you to find the universal humor, as opposed to falling back on references that were unique to America. Dutch people are really smart. Their English is good.

What's your SNL audition story?

It was 2001. Hugh Grant. Russell Crowe. David Arquette. [He performed impressions of the three actors.] I like rules and directions, and I was told it was a five-minute audition. I would argue I did exactly five minutes. It was the only audition I ever did where I thought maybe I got the job.

Did Lorne Michaels laugh?

I don't know if he laughed, but he stood up and shook my hand on the way out. As the years passed, the many times I went to SNL auditions, I tried to be a really big laugher.

Did you join SNL before or after 9/11?

I moved here August 20 of that year. People who live in New York have a better sense of how quickly the city got back on its feet. I think I would've fallen in love with New York no matter what. That certainly sped up the whole process.

How did you survive those first couple of years on SNL?

Barely. I think I had an okay first year. I had a sophomore-junior slump. I was lucky. I started the same time as Poehler, and we got to be really good friends. We did a lot of things together. That was really helpful.

Was it always your goal to get on "Update"?

I didn't think I would be the best "Update" anchor ever. But I did think the best version of me on the show was on "Update." The fact that Tina left became an opportunity for me. Lorne put me on the writing staff. He always teased me: I was the only actor who wanted to be a writer. Longer hours, more work. But I felt that on the writing staff I'd have more control over my destiny, which is a thing not many people feel like they have at SNL.

How did being on "Update" affect your confidence?

For the first time, I felt as though I wasn't going to get fired. When you get to be on "Update," it takes away that thing which is everyone's biggest fear — you'll get shut out. Now you're not gonna get shut out. You can bomb, but you'll get to step up to the plate every week.

How did you put your stamp on "Update"?

I was lucky enough to do a continuation of a thing. It was Jimmy [Fallon] and Tina [Fey], then Tina and Amy, then Amy and me. You had a little bit of cushion as to how you made it your own because it always shared DNA with the previous version.

Which is good, because if it had been necessary to come out and make a big splash and plant your flag in the ground and say, "This is how we do 'Update' now," that's the scary thing where you get judged immediately.

When Amy left, how scary was it for you?

Terrifying. And also sad. It felt like such a ghost limb for a really long time. The interesting thing was, when Amy left, there wasn't an obvious choice to replace her. I was really happy Lorne gave me the challenge of doing it on my own. It was a good era to do it on your own, because there were so many cast members who crushed it with "Update" features. I continued to like being a straight man to more talented performers.

How do you know when it's the right time to leave SNL?

You get offered a way better job. I'd done no planning about what I was going to do next. No exit strategy.

Did the movies that you acted in —

Fail? Yes! Even my dad, who's a big fan of mine, said, "Every time I see you in a movie, it's just you." I said, "Yeah. That's very fair." I realized I wasn't going to have a movie career, because guys I worked with — like Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg — would go after the same parts and get them. And I thought, if I was directing this movie, I would cast them, too.

How long did it take you to feel comfortable with Late Night?

It's one of the things that makes me angriest, because Lorne always said from the beginning, it's going to take a year and a half. I remember thinking, I'll get it a lot faster than that. But it took a year and a half.

How was the transition to your own show?

Sitting down [in 2015] was just such a gift — to have a solution that was so easy. [When Meyers initially took over Late Night, he delivered a standing monologue.] It wasn't a reimagining. It wasn't a restaffing. We didn't have to shut it down for three months to go back to the drawing board.

It was all about me thinking there would be something cheap about me leaving "Update" and going right to something that looked just like "Update." When you're doing comedy and you hit 40 — the reality is you've spent your whole time honing that voice and that skill. That idea of "I'm gonna be a different guy"? Nobody wanted that.

And also you just want to sit down.

I feel like my jokes are better with my elbows touching the desk.

The late-night landscape has expanded the past few years.

Yeah. I can't believe how many people started after me. I got to be the new guy for five minutes.

Is it harder when every show is carving out its own little slice of the pie?

I feel like a small percentage of people watch more than two of them. I'm aware we're covering the same areas other shows are covering. I kind of feel like, Let's do the best version for the people who decided to watch us. I feel like late-night shows are perfect for what's happening in politics now.

There are no standards in politics, and comedians famously don't have any standards.

All the late-night hosts really seem to like each other.

Yeah, we're really nice to each other.

Why? Don't you want to have an old-time Letterman-Leno smackdown?

It doesn't seem like either of them were that happy about having a smackdown. We all realized we're really lucky to have these shows. We all do get along.

So boring.

I know. I do feel it, from where you're sitting. If I wasn't a player in it, yeah, I'd want it to be a little messier. Like, who's going to want to buy Bill Carter's next book, They All Get Along? [Bill Carter documented the great late-night wars of the '00s in his 2010 book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.]

How has Trump changed the show for you?

The big fear when you do a show every night is content. That's not the fear right now — there's almost too much content. It's an exciting time to do the show, because there's so much to cover. Are we ignoring issues that have more impact on the American people to cover tweets and whatnot? As much as I would love to live in a world where we're only worried about things like the debt ceiling, those are dreadful to write about.

Your personal life has changed, too. You've gotten married and had children. [Second son, Axel, was born April 8 in the lobby of the apartment building where he lives with wife Alexi Ashe and their two-year-old son, Ashe.] How has this changed your approach to comedy?

This is a better job for someone with kids than SNL. Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate that. And the nice thing is, on the weekends it's easier to unplug from this job than it was to unplug from SNL .

Even though you're doing four shows a week as opposed to 18 a year?

These days you don't even have to pay that much attention to the news on the weekend. Friday and Saturday's stories feel old come Monday.

Your wife works as a human-rights attorney for the organization Sanctuary for Families. Does that help put things in perspective when she comes home from a hard day at work, and your hard day is a lot less hard than her day?

She would argue that I overreact to hard days. She would say I'm a huge baby. But she's always an incredible resource, as I think all good spouses are.

Your brother, Josh, is also a comedian. Are you guys close?

He's my best friend. We went to college together and to Amsterdam together. He loves L.A. and I love New York. That's the only problem. I don't think we'll ever end up in the same place.

He was on Mad TV when you were on SNL. Are you two competitive?

No. We're pretty supportive. I don't know if it would make things more tense if he were here, but I would take it just to have him here.

How do you think your parents shaped your comic voice?

They have great taste in comedy. My mother has laughed at everything my father has ever said. We learned [from them that being funny] is how you get that girls. They're just great. They'd drive through a blizzard to see their kids in a comedy show.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2018