Late-night TV is stacked with talent these days, but even in such a crowded field, Seth Meyers has managed to carve out his own niche. Instead of singing and dancing, Meyers jokes about issues with articulate aplomb, interviews a wide range of guests, and with the recent surge in popularity of his A Closer Look segment, even pulls off some investigative journalism. On Monday, the Late Night host stopped by the Paley Center in New York City to discuss the ins and outs of his show with friend and comedian John Mulaney. Here’s what we learned.
The power of Donald Trump
Meyers and Mulaney have worked together so much in the past (mostly in the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live) that the interview began by sounding like old friends catching up. The two reminsced about some of their past experiences together, including when Meyers hosted the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. At that time, the “birtherism” movement was at full force, and Donald Trump was its champion. He was also present at the dinner, so many of the night’s jokes were directed at him. Afterward, Trump fired back at Meyers in interviews and tweets by saying he mumbled.
“It’s so funny that Trump called you ‘mumbling,’ because you are to a fault articulate,” Mulaney said. “You always speak not only in complete sentences but with perfect diction. But after awhile you pulled me into your office and asked, ‘Do I mumble?'”
“That’s the power of Donald Trump!” Meyers said. “He’s so relentless that even I started thinking it. He’s like a 1950s bully.”
The beginnings of Late Night with Seth Meyers
The time between Meyers’ last episode of SNL and his first episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers was… about three weeks. That may not seem like a lot of time, but Meyers said it wasn’t actually a huge problem. “None of the stuff we came up with in those three weeks worked,” Meyers said. “So I think if we’d had eight months to prepare, that would’ve just been eight more months of stuff that wouldn’t have worked. You have to learn by doing.”
For instance, the Late Night team originally started out with a completely different set (see above, from one of his early interviews with Kanye West). This set was relatively unpopular; Alec Baldwin, for one, apparently told Lorne Michaels that it looked “like a sushi restaurant in Burbank.” Meyers had originally planned an unorthodox rotating desk that would’ve involved running and jumping, but after some time doing the show, they realized their mistakes.
“There’s a lot of things late-night shows do because they work well,” Meyers said. “Also, you want viewers to feel like they’re settling into something comfortable, not American Ninja Warrior.”
The genesis of A Closer Look
Every late-night show needs signature bits. James Corden said as much in his recent TimesTalks interview when explaining the genesis of Carpool Karaoke. Interestingly, A Closer Look seems to be growing into one of Meyers’ signature bits, even though it eschews singing and dancing for journalistic analysis of current events. Its genesis was gradual and sporadic, according to Meyers. The host used to write them entirely by himself, which meant he only came up with one every few months or so. But as the political campaign started heating up, and the segment focused on the Planned Parenthood crisis in particular got big, A Closer Look became more regular. Meyers claimed this as one of the advantages of our current splintered media.
“It’s a nice era to have a talk show. You don’t have to hide your views,” Meyers said. “In fact, the audience expects you to have a point of view.”
Despite the prevailing media notion of “equal time,” Meyers said that he hasn’t gotten any pushback from NBC on the segment. In fact, he said, “the more we started having a point of view, the happier they were.”
Lessons from George R.R. Martin
Each episode of Late Night typically has two guests. The first is usually a celebrity on the press tour, the kind every late-night show is fighting to book. But in the second round, Meyers usually brings in a different kind of guest: journalists, writers, intellectuals, and the like.
“Authors are great guests because they’re great storytellers,” Meyers said. “I also love hearing about the writing process, because everybody’s is unique, and everybody has problems.”
As an example of that last point, Meyers talked about how pleased he was by author George R.R. Martin’s recent blog post explaining why he didn’t finish The Winds of Winter ahead of the latest Game of Thrones season. Even someone as famous as Martin sometimes struggles to get important writing done on deadline.
How Lorne Michaels stays in your head
Meyers and Mulaney may both be done with SNL at this point, but certain aspects of SNL aren’t done with them. Meyers, for one, complained about how he can no longer blame Lorne Michaels when he wants to cut an idea from one of his writers.
“You can no longer blame Lorne when you don’t like a sketch, but you can still argue with him in your head,” Mulaney pointed out. Turning to the audience, he said, “I remember one time we were both walking down Greenwich St., motioning intensely to ourselves. Then we came up like, ‘Hey.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘I’m just arguing with Lorne in my head.’ ‘Me too.'”
The Paley Center event was sponsored by Hulu, and will be available for streaming there sometime later this week.