LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS (NBC) has built a dedicated following thanks to killer segments like “A Closer Look,” “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” and “Seth’s Favorite Jokes of the Week.”
Behind his desk, Seth Meyers has proved to be one of the sharpest and wittiest Comedy/Variety talk show hosts we’ve seen. His hard-hitting political satire has even drawn the ire of a certain thin-skinned president.
OnWriting spoke with Seth Meyers about the success of LATE NIGHT, the show’s writing room and his take on having politicians on his show.
On the heels of LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS receiving a Writers Guild Award nomination, how are you feeling about the show?
We’re feeling pretty good. I think post-election, there was a sense that we had to reassess where we were at with the show. We looked at how we could continue to write about the day’s events without having that thrust of an election, which was providing so much information every day. It turned out, we’re in a good place because we have a president that’s been making more headlines than anything that’s ever come before. We’re staying on our feet.
In terms of writing, how has the show changed since the election ended and Trump became President? Do you feel that there has been a change in the writing room?
Not particularly. We are constantly trying to get a sense if the audience has changed at all, if there’s a different appetite for the amount of politics we do. That’ll be something that we continue to pay attention to. As far as how we approach the news every day, we don’t decide what’s in the news. The news does that for us. We try to write about that and it has been almost all Trump-centric.
Do you mind walking me through a day in the writers’ room at LATE NIGHT?
There is a big split in our writers’ room. We have 6 or 7 people who work specifically on the monologue. They’re basically trying to generate anywhere from 12 to 15 jokes for every show. They are writing jokes almost as soon as they come in. That is a real effort in that they, as a group collectively, write anywhere from 200 to 300 jokes in order to yield the 10 to 15 that we do on air. They’re in a volume game and trying to get as many jokes as possible for me to see before we narrow it down.
Then we have sketch writers who are working with a longer lead time. They can work on stuff that’s been slotted for a Thursday beginning on Monday or Tuesday. They come into my office where I have a sketch meeting every day. That’s at 11 o’clock in the morning. With these pieces, we start looking at it on Monday so we have time to give notes and then they can turn in rewrites.
Our third piece would be the “A Closer Look” segments. We have a writer named Sal Gentile who is putting together first drafts of that every night before we come in. Then, we collectively start adding jokes and making cuts and putting it into a shape that gets it ready to go for our show.
The feel of your show changed once you committed to staying behind the desk. What do you think it was about that transition that helped shape the current show?
The first payoff was that I was a lot more comfortable starting behind a desk than I’d ever been standing and doing a monologue. Ultimately, these shows are so much about host comfort. The fact that I was in a better place as the show started was great.
The other thing is we got to change the backdrop of the show. It was a little bit less jokes in front of a curtain and a little bit more jokes with graphics and keys. That naturally moved it from a less conversational place to a more newsy place, which was the place I came from at SNL. I’m glad we didn’t go straight from SNL to doing a show that was a lot like “Weekend Update,” but it made sense that we worked our way back to that position.
Then, not only do you get to do a monologue, which is obviously all written day-of, but we were much more comfortable doing these longer, newsier pieces, which fit better than they ever did when I was on my feet.
Where do you feel most comfortable in the process of the show? Is it in the writing room, when you tape or post-taping?
I constantly tell people my favorite hour of the day genuinely is getting to do the show. The nicest thing about this show, versus my time at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE is at SNL, you only got the one shot at it every week. When you’re doing “Weekend Update,” that’s 10 to 15 minutes where you put in all this work and you have one shot.
Here, I get an hour every night. Having that much time makes you looser and allows you to enjoy it more. It’s stressful during the day pulling it all together and getting material ready to go for the show. The payoff of that stress though is that you get to have the release of actually doing it in front of an audience.
Is there a segment in particular that you feel has translated well from the script to being on air?
“A Closer Look” has been pretty consistent for us. It’s always nice when you do a film piece that was really good on the page. We have really good writers who are also good at directing things. “Boston Accent” was probably my favorite thing of last year, just being from New England. It felt like a sketch that easily could’ve been on SNL. It had that much of a feel to it. It had a really strong take. As soon as it was pitched to me by Seth Reiss, the writer who wrote it, I knew exactly how it could work and I’m just glad we actually did it.
One of the things LATE NIGHT does is bring your writing staff on-air. How do you feel that integrates into the show and into the writing process itself?
When we first started putting this show together, we hired people from all different walks of life: people that we found on Twitter, people who worked at THE ONION and improvisers from Chicago. I think growing up and being such a fan of CONAN and seeing writers in sketches always appealed to me. Coming from a place like SNL, I like having a deep bench of people who can perform. Obviously, that increases the ability of what you can do.
The longer we do the show, the more our writing staff understands the kinds of things they can write for themselves and it’s really paid off for us.
A perfect example would be Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel brought us a sketch called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Again, much like “Boston Accent,” it immediately appealed to me. I knew exactly what it could be, which is kind of deconstructing this idea that there are jokes that come through every day where I realize that due to my personal demographics, it would be very hard for me to pull it off as a joke. I’m happy we have a diverse enough writing staff to have a black woman and a gay woman who can tell these jokes.
Your show often highlights diversity. How important has that been to you in building the writing team?
The nice thing is I feel like the field of people who try to get into comedy writing now has diversified itself, which is great. On the other hand, when you want to have a show that has a lot of different voices, you have to make the extra effort when you’re putting together your writing staff. In the end, it’s so important to have different voices in the writers’ room as a sounding board, especially when you’re talking about things like race and equality.
How do you feel the show fits into the current slate of late night television?
I think all of us have to do the best possible show based on our strengths as hosts. We try not to get caught doing something that we feel other shows do significantly better than us. The other thing is it takes you 18 months to 2 years to figure out what those strengths are, which was certainly the case for us.
It is an exciting time to be in late night. I feel like it’s one of those formats that every now and then people say is dying off, and yet people keep doing more and more shows and the field keeps getting more crowded. Ultimately, that’s a good sign as to how vital late night can be. I don’t have a ton of time to watch what everybody else is doing, but I think in the way that a lot of other people watch late night TV, I see their best stuff online and other shows set an incredibly high standard. Our goal is to try to meet that high standard that everybody else is setting.
What has been a favorite monologue joke or a joke that you keep going back to that’s a personal favorite?
My personal favorite… I had a joke that bombed so hard earlier this year that I had to get out of my chair. I can’t quite remember the details of it, but it was about someone looking for their adoptive mother and the punchline was some version of, “They found her. Unfortunately, it was in a cemetery.” It was such a delight to have been doing this fifteen years and still be able to misjudge what an audience wants that badly. I think that’s what makes these jokes really fun. No one reaches a point where they’re perfect when they’re doing comedy, certainly when you’re doing it as often as people who do this every night of the week have to do it.
It’s funny that my most memorable joke of the year was one that went terribly, but it was the happiest I was this year. It was when I realized there’s still so much more I can be better at.
With that in mind, what are some lessons that you’ve learned over the course of doing the show for three years now?
Over the course of the 12 and a half years I was at SNL, I did probably 250 shows. We’re closing in on 500 here in three years. You develop a relationship with the audience a lot faster in late night. If you have a joke that bombs, it’s not as bad an outcome as it would be at SNL, because you can comment on it. You can share your feelings about it. You can explain to the audience what your thought process was that brought you to that terrible decision.
Do you have a guest that surprised you by how much you enjoyed having them on the show?
I’m pretty optimistic, so it’s weird to say I was surprised by any one person. The nicest thing for me is always when we have somebody who was famous before I was on television, because I can’t believe I’m talking to them. It’s that “Oh my God, I’m talking to Billy Bob Thornton. I remember when I was a waiter and went to see SLING BLADE.”
Having Joan Rivers on the show was one of the most exciting 15 minutes of my life. I got to sit with this person who’s my hero and who I never thought I’d be in the situation where we would have that close proximity.
Joan Rivers was a groundbreaking late night host. Besides Joan, what other performers have influenced your own writing and performing style?
I grew up on SNL more than anything else. There was an era in high school where I watched a lot of David Letterman. In college, I watched a ton of Conan O’Brien. Still, it was SNL that informed my writing and performing the most.
As far as being a guy behind a desk, my “Weekend Update” host when I first discovered the show was Dennis Miller. There was a lot about Dennis Miller that I loved and continue to love. I admired what he did with that segment of the show.
He was followed by Norm MacDonald and I don’t think I’m the only “Weekend Update” anchor who was hugely inspired by Norm.
At LATE NIGHT, how much time do you actually get to put into writing the show?
One of the hardest things—and one of the first things you have to ultimately give up—is writing something from scratch. I do a lot of rewriting. I’ll come in around 8, 8:30 in the morning and I’ll have a draft of something like “A Closer Look.” I can spend the first two or three hours of my day just going through it, adding jokes, taking out things that I don’t love and putting in a little bit more of my voice. I should say that the writers, the longer they’re here, the better they understand my voice and the less I have to do that part of it.
I don’t think I’m telling any writers who might be reading this anything they don’t know. The hardest thing is to look at a document that just says, “Open, on.” One of the best perks of having a show and having a writing staff, certainly one as talented as ours, is coming in every day and at least getting to look at a first draft.
So many people that work within Lorne’s universe have been given some sage or whimsical advice. Is there something that he’s passed on to you that you’ve taken to heart?
Lorne was very helpful when we were putting together our writing staff. He’s always impressed upon me that if somebody makes you laugh, no matter how green they are or no matter where they are in their career, if they make you laugh, you probably won’t go wrong hiring them. All you have as a late-night talk show host that defines you from everybody else is your taste. Trusting your taste has been a big part of it. I think that’s a real Lorne thing that I picked up from him.
Other than that, it’s frustrating how right Lorne is about things. When I started the show, he said, “Look, it takes 18 months to figure it out.” I thought to myself, “It couldn’t possibly take that long. I’m too smart for it to take 18 months.” Sure enough, it was about 18 months to the day that I finally thought, “I got to sit behind the desk. This is dumb.”
He is a Jedi when it comes to that stuff. I’m lucky to have him in my ear.
I will share another Lorne story. I was in the cast at SNL first before I was in the writing staff. I really wanted to be a writer on the show. Even though I was a cast member, I wanted to be at rewrite tables. I wanted to be part of that and when I became a writer on the show, Lorne said, “Usually, writers want to be performers. It’s not usually this way.” I’ll always remember.
I didn’t realize that you went from being a performer to a writer. How did you manage that?
It helps to not be a great performer.
Said the late-night host.
Exactly. I mean, I am not a great sketch performer. I think Lorne was perfectly happy with me as a performer at the Update desk. I’m not saying this to beat myself up, but we both realized pretty quickly at SNL that I had limitations as a sketch performer. That’s especially true when I’m put up against a cast with Hader and Armisen and Forte and Sandberg and Sudeikis.
I started the show as a cast member, but all cast members at SNL do a fair share of writing. Lorne had seen enough of my writing to know that I probably added more value to the show doing something like that than I would being in a sketch every week.
Again, it was a great situation for me because that was something that I coveted. Having a writing credit on SNL was a big deal to me and to this day, probably one of my prouder accomplishments.
You also write DOCUMENTARY NOW. Can you tell me a bit about how you are able to fit all that in while working on something as time-consuming as a late-night show?
When you work at a late-night show, you’re putting it on every day. It’s basically like you’re a dock worker working at the shipyard. In a sense, it’s hustle and hustle and hustle. It was nice to have DOCUMENTARY NOW, which is basically like making a ship in a bottle. It’s pure craftsmanship. It came about naturally. I will say the greatest part of it for me was being able to write for Bill Hader and Fred Armisen again. The gift of my time at SNL was that I had an incredible stable of performers who could do so many different things and who elevated every piece of writing anybody ever gave them.
DOC NOW was such a passion project that I think all of just kind of found time. I worked on it when we would have a week hiatus here or over the holidays. Everybody involved in that show has a nice shorthand, so we didn’t necessarily have to get together and have a two-week writing retreat. We could reach out and communicate via email and figure out who was going to write what.
I think everybody in the Writers Guild understands the importance of finding people in the Directors Guild who match your voice and we were really lucky with Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, who do incredible work on that show.
Back to LATE NIGHT. Three years in, do you feel like you’ve found your calling card?
To point out the obvious, most people would say we’ve been more political than anyone in this time slot has been before. That, again, it’s just the host DNA leads you to different places and that’s where we ended up.
We’re lucky to be on after THE TONIGHT SHOW, where they bring in the big audience every night. Who knows if we would have to do a different show if we weren’t lucky enough to have that as our lead-in. It’s nice that we can do the show we want and that the network hasn’t been opposed to the fact that we’re taking a time slot that wasn’t historically used for political humor and making it, to use your word, a calling card.
Has there been pushback because the show is so political?
There really hasn’t been, yet. Tip of the cap to NBC and the fact that they have really embraced the show having more of a point-of-view than it had when we first started. They’ve been great.
Can we discuss that point-of-view? You’re probably the only show that has said it won’t have Trump on as a guest. Would you have him on now?
We got too much credit for being brave when it was a very tongue-in-cheek ban in that he had no intention of coming on the show. We wanted to make sure that we were not sacrificing anything. I will say, we had Kellyanne Conway on and it was great having somebody who represented Donald Trump. I do have so many questions, not just for him, but for anyone who speaks for him. I hope that she’ll come back. I hope that other people within the Trump administration will find time to make their way to our show.
You did get a lot of air time with her. More time than she’d regularly do on a talk show.
When you see Kellyanne Conway do five minutes on a Sunday show, that means she’s doing five minutes on all the Sunday shows. Everybody gets caught up due to not having a lot of time with her and having to ask a question and move on. It was nice that we had time. I give her a lot of credit for coming on. Those things only work out if they show up. As for Donald Trump, I don’t think he’s coming on so it’s a moot point.
The thing about him that would be so frustrating, it’s not like anyone’s ever locked him down on anything. He is so agile when it comes to moving on or running out the clock on a question. It’s probably better for my stress level to not have him on.
I don’t want to make this point about only the Trump team. Pretty much all politicians, when you talk to them, you don’t ever have that moment where you’re like, “I got through to them.” They are so programmed by the time they make it to LATE NIGHT that there’s never really that ‘Come to Jesus’ moment. You are never going to say something to somebody like Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz and watch their eyes like, “Wow, I’ve never looked at the world that way.” It’s too late for all of them.
Who would be a dream guest, dead or….
I always thought Ben Franklin would be a great talk show guest because I have a lot of great questions about the birth of the nation. He’s also a dirty dog that invented tons of stuff. Let’s get to the bottom of how much truth there is to the electricity story.
That’s one I had not heard. How about someone that is alive?
Vladimir Putin, who is well known for his impressions. I feel like we need to see the looser side of him, the laid-back Putin. The dinner party Putin that none of us have ever gotten a chance to see.
Any final words for our readers?
I’m confident my wife or child won’t read this, so I’ll admit that there is nothing better than being in a writers’ room with people who make you laugh. It was my favorite part about SNL. I do it less now, but pretty much every morning, I roll into our writers’ room and hang out for a half hour or an hour and it’s the best. Writers’ rooms are wonderful places full of fantastic, interesting people. That sounded like a Donald Trump line, “They’re wonderful places. They’ve got the best people. Really top-level people. It’s really, really, really great.”