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How Seth Meyers Adapted ‘Late Night’ for a Wild 2018

Talking to the NBC host about fostering talent and making comedy in the age of Trump

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In less than half a decade, Seth Meyers has gone from being the new kid in late night to one of the genre’s most assured voices. This is partly due to the field’s astonishing turnover; the same wave that brought Meyers to Late Night on NBC has also seen the installation of Stephen Colbert at The Late Show on CBS, the introduction of new franchises like Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal on TBS, and even the ascendancy of Meyers’s former writer Michelle Wolf on Netflix. But it’s also due to Meyers himself, who’s risen to one of the toughest jobs in entertainment—during one of the toughest times to be an entertainer—with deceptive ease.

After converting a classic stand-up-style monologue into a desk piece reminiscent of his old Weekend Update anchor gig, Meyers has gradually shaped Late Night to reflect his interests. Three times a week, the show includes a Daily Show–like segment called “A Closer Look,” which zooms in on the daily churn of the Trump administration. Alongside celebrities and commentators, Late Night regularly books writers and journalists, like The New York TimesRukmini Callimachi, for its interview segments. And Meyers has also cultivated successful mini-franchises like the popular “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” where writers Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin deliver punch lines Meyers “can’t” as a straight white guy in a suit. At a time when entertainment and the real world alike are filled with upheaval, Meyers has managed to deliver an untraditional version of late night’s traditional appeal: stability.

During a brief stint in Los Angeles while the show was on hiatus, Meyers sat down with The Ringer to discuss hitting his stride, fostering talent, and what it’s like knowing comedians can easily become a part of the news cycle they’re commenting on.

You’ve been doing Late Night for four years now. Do you feel settled?

We don’t come out to L.A. much, and we were saying today it’s nice to come out—we came out for things, obviously, when we were first launching, for press things. And that was the definition of unsettled. The biggest difference now is, we used to go to work and not only say, “We have to do today’s show.” We’d also be asking, “And what is our show?” Now, we still have the task at hand, which is doing the show every day, but at least we know what it is we’re trying to do. And that just takes away so much stress, because it’s not macro.

From an outsider’s perspective, in 2014, you’re starting a show, and in 2016, the world explodes. In 2018, the world is still mid-explosion, but …

It is nice to just have process in place. Everybody knows their role, so you just walk into the office. You used to feel like, people were always walking around and asking, “How do you get to graphics? The edit bay?” Whereas now we just kind of know, and that makes it a lot better.

So a lot of micro, how-do-we-run-an-office things.

And, I’ve talked about it more than I’ve ever thought I would, but sitting down at a desk became this sort of catalyst for what our show was. It was this very simple move, but as the world gets crazier, I do feel like the show became a little bit more grounded. Like, starting seated instead of conventionally doing a monologue was a nice shift for us that I felt made the show—we didn’t know it at the time, but made it better suited for this moment.

We’re in this moment of incredible change in the world at large, but also in late night. What part of the job do you feel has changed the most?

I mean, when we started, we always said, “Well, the thing about The Daily Show is, we could never do that.” We could never turn over a news story every day; we’re not built for that. Then, there were more things that were happening that we wanted to talk about every day. That was the first shift that happened. Then we managed to figure out how many different people had to do different things to make “A Closer Look” every day. I don’t think that was what we thought we would be doing; that’s not how we staffed when we started. But we got there, and the people on the staff who weren’t good at that got better at it, and we found people who were really good at it who were at different jobs and moved them over. But that’s really the biggest shift, what the first act of our show is.

One of the newest presences in late night is Michelle Wolf, who wrote on Late Night. You come out of SNL, which has its own reputation as a talent farm. How does it feel to have people come up through your show?

Oh, it feels great! It’s so satisfying. Michelle we knew as this really hard-working stand-up. She works so hard that, had she not worked for us, I think she would still have a show at Netflix right now. She was gonna get there anyway, so it’s great that she came through and we got to spend time with her. When Michelle left to be on camera more at The Daily Show, we were so happy for her. Ultimately, that’s how I want everybody to leave our show. I want their next chapter to be more responsibility, and more of whatever it is they want. If they want to write a show for themselves, I hope they pick up enough skills in their time with us to make that easier.

She did mention, when I talked to her, that she’d always pitch the joke that was too mean or too gross.

Definitely too mean, but also probably too gross. She’s so much meaner than I am, and I’ve said that. She, I think, would embrace that, but it is true. Also, she had this thing—when we do monologues, I mark the jokes. I read through, like, 200 jokes, and I’m reading through the jokes very fast, and I’m marking the ones I like. And every now and then, you’d get this real groaner from Michelle, and she’d just go [Michelle Wolf imitation] “MARK IT!” Now, we’re over a year after her departure, probably two, and people, in Michelle Wolf voice, will scream “Mark it!” if they feel like their joke is not being paid attention to.

“Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” also feels like an example of building up personas within the show.

What’s been really helpful about that is: There’s a real premise to “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” but because now people know them, Jenny [Hagel] can come out and talk about Puerto Rico without a premise, which would be a very hard sell for the audience if they’d never seen Jenny before. But if they have, and they have faith in her, they’re a little bit more patient with the pieces that would be heavier sledding if she was anonymous. The same is true of Amber [Ruffin]. By the way, you need to meet Amber twice to be excited to see her—she’s, like, the most magnetic personality. But it’s great now to be in a situation where, when I introduce her, no one is upset that the camera’s off me. [Laughs] They’re all like, “Yay! Someone else!”

It’s almost correspondent-esque.

I think when we started the show, we thought our writers would play characters, like Update characters. What we’ve found is, they’re still great playing characters, but Amber is more interesting giving Amber’s point of view than she would be just playing, like, a person in the news. That is just the gift of how many of these shows you get to do: You try a bunch of things, and then all of a sudden, you wake up four years in and you basically realize, “Oh, we’re crazy if we don’t use Amber once a week.”

Your approach to guest-booking includes a lot more authors and journalists than average, plus some younger performers like Joe Pera.

Oh, my God. Have you watched his Adult Swim show yet?

I just watched the church announcements episode.

He gave the best man speech at Conner [O’Malley] and Aidy [Bryant]’s wedding, and it was unbelievable. I wish I had it recorded, because I laughed so hard. Not to give you homework, but have you ever seen his Buffalo Bills stand-up? That’s the first thing I saw. Conner, I was like, “Have you seen this?” And he was like [deadpan] “Yeah, he’s my friend.” Conner thinks I’m such a square that I think it hurt his feelings that I also liked Joe. [Laughs]

I wanted to ask about your overall approach to booking guests.

We always liked the idea of authors, especially fiction authors, and especially fiction authors who haven’t been on television before. Like, don’t get me wrong: it’s the best when Stephen King comes on, or Jonathan Franzen comes on. It’s so awesome to talk to people you’ve read for years. But we realized it’s really fun when you have people who are up-and-coming authors, especially because—I don’t think we would have kept returning to the well as often [otherwise]—they’re really good! They’re by nature storytellers, fiction writers. No part of it makes them blink. They get less nervous than actors. Don’t get me wrong, some actors have done it a lot, but for a first-time actor being on a talk show …

I also think people, and obviously I would say this, “People are fascinated by writers.” [Laughs] I can just tell in our audience. Because there’s that problem you have with authors: I can’t talk about the book too much, because no one in the audience has read it. So you have to talk about, ultimately, things like process, or why’d you pick this. I think especially process, there’s something about writers that feels like a magic trick. People always have an attention span to listen to them.

Is it that actors tend to have that insecurity and anxiety?

Yeah, and I will say this: the first time I did Conan, you’re realizing, “No one’s writing this but me.” Some actors are great because they don’t have any sense that they’re boring, so they don’t know it’s going badly, and that’s fine too. Then the audience buys in and is like, “Maybe it’s just supposed to be like this?”

You did the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—obviously in a very different era than we are in right now, but you have a unique perspective on it. What did you think of this year’s controversy?

If you know Michelle, if you did any little bit of research, then you know that’s what she was gonna do. That’s why it was such an exciting, inspired choice, and that’s why we said to her, “You have to do it. It’ll be great.” And it’ll be unlike anything that has happened before. I thought Hasan [Minhaj] was great last year, too, at a time where it had to become a different thing on the fly. The selling point was always that the president was there, and now it’s not. With that said, what Michelle did—it’s great to know that she didn’t care how it would play in the room. That’s not her. The head writer for her show, Christine Nangle, was a colleague of mine at SNL. I just know them. They have a wonderful righteousness to their choices, which all comedy writers have to have.

What disappointed me was the reaction of the Correspondents’ Association. Michelle was doing them a favor. Without Michelle, and without the president, it’s just two awards and a dinner. That bummed me out. Because again, the outrage was gonna happen no matter what. It’s impossible to do a comedy routine and not have, you know, the Schlapps leave. With that said, the good news is it was kind of perfect timing for Michelle Wolf to be authentically Michelle Wolf. That was not a stunt.

My coworker said that the only way it could have gone better for her was if the show premiered the next day.

I still argue it was better for Michelle, because she still needed to take a breath and prepare for the first episode. It was perfect.

I think I found it interesting because it’s an example of how entertainment and politics are no longer separate spheres. You could end up on the front page because Trump is tweeting about you.

It’s both terrifying, and you remember how quickly it will move on to the next. I can’t imagine it’s still a thing that he’s thinking about. He’ll be outraged by something else. Since that happened, the Eagles didn’t go to the White House. There’s personal affronts he’s gotta handle every single day.

Does being on a daily schedule and having that much space to discuss things help?

I think there is a level of difficulty for people like John [Oliver] and people like Sam [Bee], who do it once a week, to figure out what, exactly, to take from any given week, whereas we just kind of churn through it. The weird thing has been, being off the last two weeks, really how little that happened in these last two weeks will matter coming back on Monday. It’s just already not a thing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.