Seth Meyers explains how Late Night became 'a show by and for the formerly sane'
The NBC talk show host let his freak flag fly during the pandemic, which might finally earn Late Night the Emmy it deserves.
It seems a trifle unfair to award just one late-night show with an Emmy this September since every last one was challenged during the dog days of the pandemic. But if flying a freak flag were the only prerequisite for a trophy this year, then Seth Meyers would have it in the bag.
Something changed in Meyers, 47, when he decided to produce his NBC show Late Night from his attic and his in-laws' home. Was it the lobster claw lamp? Or maybe it was just those random conversations about The Thorn Birds. No matter how oddball his brand of comedy was, Meyers was all in this season. So we talked to him about going off the rails - and whether it resulted in some of his finest work yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the pandemic change you? Did it make you an even better comic?
SETH MEYERS: The biggest change was not having an audience react in real time, which left me to question what was and wasn't working. You just had to take this leap every day based on what you and your writing staff thought was funny. There was no time during the performance to readjust. You just had to charge ahead and not find out until hours later [how it turned out], which was very liberating.
Did you learn something new about yourself?
I felt a lot of gratitude this whole year, based on the fact that my family was lucky to stay healthy, but also - and don't get me wrong, I've always felt gratitude about having a show - but I never felt luckier to have it. The fact that all these terrible things that were happening forced us to make creative choices was a crazy silver lining.
Did it feel pretty easy to let your freak flag fly? Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night and say, "Holy crap, what did I just do with that talking sea captain picture?"
Sal Gentile, who writes "A Closer Look," made a really good observation about what happened to our show, which is we used to be a sane show for sane people in a crazy world. And then we became crazy people. We were a show by and for the formerly sane. Look, if nothing had gone wrong in the world and we decided to do the show from my attic and my in-laws' house, and with a talking painting, I think that we would have been rejected, correctly, by an audience. But weirdly I feel as though we showed our work. Each step of the way made sense only because of the previous step we had taken. A lot of the things happened because the audience pointed them out. I mean, it's a million years ago now, but we did an incredibly ponderous bit about The Thorn Birds because a bunch of people on Twitter and YouTube noted that I had The Thorn Birds in the bookshelf behind me, and how that is a book that every bookshelf from anybody who grew up in the '70s had in their house. There was this weird feedback loop with the audience. That's part of why we doubled down so hard on the sea captain when so many people hated it. We didn't ignore that they hated us. We talked to them about how they were wrong.
Was the lobster claw an actual artifact in your in-laws' home?
It was a lamp. You could actually turn it on. There were a lot of things that I would just find in the basement and then take to use for the show. And then my father-in-law specifically said, "Oh, I wish I had known you're using a lamp. I would have fixed it up." And I'm like, "Nobody's judging it as a lamp. Nobody's watching this thing saying, 'Pretty shoddy lamp, Tom.'"
Did anything about that experience inform what you were going to do once you were back in the studio?
I was a little sad to leave the attic. And then I was a little sad to leave my in-law's house. You're always worried it's not going to have the same energy, the next place you go. And I was really nervous [that] once we came back to the studio, there wouldn't be the same sort of silliness. And there wasn't at first, so we had to find a way to be silly in a different way. We really didn't want to bring the sea captain painting with us. So then we had to kind of come back, reset, and find new things. I think you could argue that Cue Card Wally is the sea captain now. Everything we've found over the course of these last 15 months is genuine discovery, as opposed to laying out a plan for the next thing we do.
What is your favorite thing that you did in the last year?
I grew my hair long enough to look like James Spader [from Pretty in Pink], though it's not like any category that I could even qualify for at the Emmys. I don't feel as though we have enough haircut categories. The other thing that's been really fun for me has been doing this weekly "Corrections" segment, just because it's such a wonderful format that doesn't adhere to anything that's going on in the world other than my own.
Unlike most late-night shows, you routinely incorporate your writers on screen. It feels like a group effort.
Coming from "Weekend Update" on SNL, I was acutely aware of how much better and easier I am to watch when I'm sitting next to someone who is funnier [than] me. One thing I'm proud of, which I had nothing to do with, was the fact that Amber Ruffin came on for four days to talk about George Floyd last summer. It was wonderful, but the best part about it was that our audience already knew who she was. She's somebody who the audience had known to be very optimistic, very cheerful, very likable. I think the message resonated a lot more because of that.
Can you finally come clean about Tiny Secret Whispers and admit that it's quite literally unwatchable?
Look, this was a year where there were a lot of shows that were not as good as we said they were. You know what shows I'm talking about. And sometimes it was okay because we just needed a thing. We were all watching and we could talk about them with other human beings as we started to re-enter ourselves into society. I am willing to admit now that Tiny Secret Whispers was one of those shows. Was it fun to talk to your friends every Monday about? Yes, it was. And like a lot of those shows, the acting was exceptional. I do hope that Joel Edgerton gets nominated. I know for a fact that nobody in Tiny Secret Whispers is doing Emmy press, but I hope they don't get overlooked because that will be Snub City.
Late Night With Seth Meyers airs weekdays on NBC.
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