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The DNA of Late Night

Late Night host Seth Meyers talks about how he’s put his mark on late night, how life has changed since SNL and what Jon Stewart’s influence has meant for talk show hosts.

Iva-Marie Palmer
  • Seth Meyers

  •  (l-r) Pete Grosz and Ian Morgan during the "Live New Yorker" segment on June 9, 2015

    Lloyd Bishop/NBC

You don’t want to be slated to interview a late-night talk show host on the day Donald Trump announces he’s running for president.

There will be jokes to write. Scads of them. You will get rescheduled because like it or not, a Trump candidacy is a gift from the political comedy gods.

And for Seth Meyers, host of Late Night, the political stuff is part of his show’s DNA. Maybe it comes from his years at SNL, more than half of them as its head writer and behind the desk as a Weekend Update anchor.

With that education, a late-night host can’t let the steady tide of new presidential candidates go unnoted.

Since taking the Late Night reins from Jimmy Fallon in February 2014, Meyers has put his mark on the show pretty swiftly. He brings on not only political guests but interviewees from the worlds of sports, comics and publishing.

In a unique move for late-night talk shows, he interviews not just front-of-camera stars but also people like the head writers of Game of Thrones. (Though he did feature the show’s Kit Harrington in character as Jon Snow, playing a downer of a dinner party guest.)

He corners the market on what could be called Condé Nast comedy, anchoring a sketch with a funny turn by Vogue editor Anna Wintour and bringing on David Remnick of the New Yorker as a frequent guest (and to oversee a sketch of comedians acting out the magazine’s famous cartoons.)

It’s no small feat to find your footing so quickly in the late-night realm, while simultaneously overseeing passion projects. Meyers is working on the third season of The Awesomes, a Hulu Original animated comedy about second-string superheroes that Meyers co-created with friend Mike Shoemaker.

He also has co-created, with SNL alums and friends Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, Documentary Now!, a smart skewering of non-fiction films that will debut in August.

Q: So you launched the show and now seem to have the market cornered on all things Condé Nast from the piece with Anna Wintour to the New Yorker sketch, comic books, politics, and writers. How do you put your mark on a show as you’ve done?

A: Well there are a lot of different ways to put your mark on one of these shows. In regards to what you’ve just asked, we have really great talent booking department.

We sit down with them every week and talk about what kinds of guests we’d like to have and we always leave that third guest spot open for people that maybe wouldn’t show up on other talk shows, be that political figures or people from the world of sports or comics.

Authors are people who we really enjoy having on. Certainly with fiction authors we think it’s much better if I’ve read the book and it’s the kind of book I like. It makes for a much better discussion.

But at the end of the day, there are a lot of people who are going to show up on all the talk shows and we’ll all be very happy to have them because they’re movie stars or TV stars and the kind of people who are going to kill no matter who the host is.

So it’s with those later guest spots that all of us make the decision to establish our DNA as far as the kind of people we want to talk to.

Q: And you think of that as your DNA, like your mark is a bit literary, a little political?

A: I love to read sort of highbrow fiction and what I would call highbrow comic books but maybe others wouldn’t. And pulpier stuff, too. And it’s fun to have those people on.

I’ve found, in the short time we’ve been doing the show, that authors are wonderful storytellers. And I’ve always been fascinated by people’s process when it comes to writing.

Q: Interesting you mention that as you’re a writer, too. So, what is your process and has it changed since your SNL days?


A: It’s been an adjustment, just because the way you write for a late-night show is so different from the way you write for SNL. I was at SNL for 12 and a half years and it turns out no one else writes like that. It’s like you learned a skill that has no application at all.

So in a weird way because every day here is like a week at SNL you just have to do everything five times faster as far as recognizing what you have to do or what you think is important to talk about and your take on it, then pull it all together.

Our drop-dead time as far as when we have to stop writing is 3:30 in the afternoon so it’s a very short day as far as when you’re generating day-of content. And we really like generating day-of content.

That makes the show a lot more exciting for us and I think for the audience as well because they can tell, “Oh, they must have written this today because that didn’t happen yesterday.”

Q: And there’s just been NOTHING happening lately at all.

A: (laughs) Yes, it’s a real fallow period here.

Q: You have the other projects like Documentary Now! and The Awesomes so is it even possible to feel balanced or are you just constantly working on something?

A: It is easier to feel balanced here than it ever was at SNL just because every day has a similar schedule. That doesn’t mean that each day doesn’t have its pressures or stressors but every day starts and ends at the same time and no one could say that about SNL.

Every day there was different – you could be there till the middle of the night or until the next morning – and here at least you get to have that ability to schedule your time both personally and professionally if you sort of know what the job is going to ask of you.

And with those side projects -- they are both passion projects that let me work with people I really wanted to keep working with - you find in your time off from this show that you spend very intense periods of time working on it but you surround the project with really talented people who can take the reins when you’re busy with this. Because ultimately, 99 percent of my time has to be focused on Late Night and I’m perfectly happy with that breakdown.

Q: It wouldn’t be fair to not ask this of a man because I feel like women get it all the time, but how are you balancing personal life with professional life, especially being still in that newlywed-ish period? (Meyers and his wife Alexi Ashe wed in 2013.)

A: I’m coming up on two years being married and you realize that you are going to have good shows and bad shows and that is just part of this.

So the nicest thing about having a home life is you can focus on it and take care of it, and that part is consistent, which helps ensure the ups and downs of this job are not as intense.

And Alexi, my wife, is a prosecutor in Brooklyn and she deals with sex crimes so she has a much more intense life than me. So if she can manage to leave her work in the office, it would be wrong for me to come home and complain about how hard it was telling jokes all day.

Q: A recent article called you a "political kingmaker." How are you possibly going to choose between the 8 million people running for president?

A: "Kingmaker" is certainly someone else’s term and it’s very nice to be called that but I don’t quite think that’s the case.

But I will say we are so happy anytime anyone who is running for president wants to come on the show and talk about it. It’s incredibly exciting. Even people who are seen as longshots.

You can talk to a lot of people who have a high opinion of themselves when you work on a talk show so anytime you can talk to a person who thinks they’re the right person to run the country, it is just such a delight to have the chance to ask them questions.

Q: This election promises to be a big one. And with (The Daily Show host) Jon Stewart stepping down at the same time they’re calling you a kingmaker – even if you’re being modest about taking the title - you must have some hope for some big guests on the show. Who are you hoping for?

A: For someone like me, I’ve had so much respect for what Jon’s done over the years. I think it’s really hard for anybody to ever do the job quite as he did.

But I think what he showed is that if you have on people from maybe not the conventional fields [typically] on talk shows and talk to them at an intelligent level, people are going to be just as interested in watching you have a discussion with them as they would seeing you talk to someone from the more conventional fields of TV and movies.

So we certainly want to keep doing that and hope that it’s something people will continue to enjoy watching on our show.

And you know as far as the candidates, we would love all of them to come on. At this point, we’ve had Bernie Saunders and Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz and I think Marco Rubio is coming up. It would be great to have Jeb [Bush], it would be great to have Hillary [Clinton]. And it would be absolutely fantastic to have Donald Trump.

Q: Agreed. He has a lot to say. So, outside of these plans, what else are you looking forward to?

A: I am so excited about Documentary Now! and working with Bill and Fred again is so exciting. And I think it’s a real cool special show that there’s nothing quite like it on TV. 

And for me, it is such a fun treat to be doing an animated show about superheroes and the fact that Hulu has been kind enough to give us a third season of The Awesomes, I kind of pinch myself every time they send cuts for me to look at.

It’s a delight to have those things also happening.