In conversation with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, Seth Meyers discusses blending comedy and journalism for his eponymous late night talk show. Plus, Meyers answers some burning questions about his favorite guests and more.
When Seth Meyers took over Late Night from a departing Jimmy Fallon in 2014, no one really knew what to expect. Yes, he’d spent years as the head writer of Saturday Night Live and co-anchor of Weekend Update, but there remained a question mark as to how all of that would translate to a nightly talk show.
Now, seven years into the job, Meyers has more than made his mark on the late-night format, infusing Late Night with Seth Meyers with whip-smart comedy and charm. His viral “A Closer Look” segments have been guiding viewers in the age of “fake news” with a searing blend of satire and a no-nonsense approach to explaining the facts. Meyers routinely features his staff writers and makes room for up-and-coming authors, politicians, and cultural thinkers, alongside the A-list TV and movie stars on his show. Seth Meyers is helping to make late-night smart again. And we are all the better for it.
Awards Daily: Seth, you had many COVID-era skits, the paintings on your walls talking to you at one point. Has the time at home changed your perspective on the show in any way? What changes can we expect now that you’re back in the studio?
Seth Meyers: Well, I think the biggest change moving forward is going to be what happens when we started doing the show in front of an audience again. Every previous step from our attic, to my in-laws’ house, to being back in the studio has been the freedom to do whatever you want without worrying how it’ll play in real-time. So I think what we’ve found and discovered through these terrible 15 months is to trust that if you put the time and effort into the writing, it’ll be fun to perform for the people watching it at home. And remembering that’s ultimately the most important connection when you’re doing a show like this— It’s the people who are watching at home.
AD: There’s been a lot of talk recently about comedy in the age of quote-unquote ‘woke culture.’ And can comedy really be funny nowadays? What are your thoughts on that as someone who is consistently funny every night and doing these journalistic segments addressing the issues of our time?
SM: I have not had a problem doing comedy in this era. And I am happy to say that I think audiences are as inquisitive and open as they’ve always been. You know, we obviously are both talking about things that make us laugh and also talking about things that we think are important. And we try to have a little of both in each show. But, we feel very lucky to be doing a comedy show right now.
AD: As a total journalism nerd, I have to ask you about your ‘A Closer Look’ segments. I mean, obviously, you’re working with a great team of writers, but what’s your approach? How do you decide what topics you want to cover?
SM: Well, we’re really lucky because Sal Gentile, who’s our ‘Closer Look’ head writer, has a journalism background as well, and I think it really shows in the way he writes those. It’s really important to lay out a thesis every night and then try to support it with clips and support it with facts. Once he’s laid out this really nice infrastructure, we spend the rest of the day throwing as many jokes on it as possible. And so it’s a really exciting thing to work on. It’s even more exciting to us that there’s an audience that has an appetite for a 12-to-15-minute piece every night. So that’s just been a joy to discover.
AD: I’m so curious about your preparation process for each guest. Let’s say I was going to be a guest on your show; how would you go about preparing for our interview?
SM: Well, I would turn you over to my highly, highly professional and experienced team. The first step would be our researchers who crush it every single day. I would assume you’re going to do a lot of talk shows, right? You’re not just going to do mine. You’re obviously going to do the full circuit.
AD: Yes, obviously! [Laughs].
SM: They’re going to make sure that I don’t ask you something that you just been asked maybe the night before on one of the 11:30 shows. And they’re going to have to dig deep to find maybe that third of fourth thing about you that will be interesting to talk about. And then they turn that research over to our segment producers who are absolutely wonderful at what they do. And then they sit down with me and say, ‘Hey, here’s her story. Here’s what you need to know.’ And they give me a blueprint that, more often than not, I abandon as soon as something interesting happens that I want to ask more questions about.
AD: One thing that I love about your show, one of the reasons why it’s my favorite, is that you’re not only just interviewing the actors and the TV stars— you find the writers, the fascinating critical thinkers of our era who maybe aren’t household names yet. I’ve discovered so many new people just because of your show.
SM: Wow, thank you!
AD: But, do you actually have time to watch all the movies and read all the books? There are only so many hours in a day.
SM: With fiction, I do try to read at least 50 to 100 pages to have a sense of the way a person writes because I’ve found you can’t actually talk about what happens in a book that no one in the audience has read, but you can talk about style. You can talk about process. One of the best things we’ve discovered about having authors on is that everybody likes knowing how people go about writing because it just strikes us as amazing than anybody can sit down and write a book. And so that’s something I try to do with the writing. You know, I try to watch as much of the TV and films as possible, but I will admit that when I first started the show, I was really good at it. And then I blew it by having two kids. [Laughs].
AD: So, my editor told me that I had to ask you about ‘Cicada, Cicada‘, that’s his favorite. How did you come up with the voice?
SM: I thought, ‘Who would be the person I would most want to play it?’ And I thought either Martin Short or Christine Baranski. So it’s like that, but somewhere in between.
AD: And how’s the musical coming along?
SM: Yeah, we’re in negotiations with Baranski’s people right now. She’s obviously very in-demand, but they say a role like ‘Cicada, Cicada’ only comes around once every 17 years. So I don’t think she’s going to pass. I think you’re going to see this on Broadway sooner than later.
AD: 17 is an oddly specific number. [Laughs]. You’ve conducted hundreds if not thousands of interviews on your show. Has that changed the way you give interviews yourself? What happens when the interviewer becomes the interviewee?
SM: Certainly when I’m on camera being interviewed. And especially when I’m on camera on Zoom. I try very hard to make it clear when I’m done giving my answer because that’s the hardest thing about interviewing somebody on Zoom. It’s not knowing when they’re done.
AD: Hopefully, you’re going to be on for years and years to come. What’s going to be the next evolution of Late Night with Seth Meyers?
SM: Every evolution that’s happened on our show has happened organically. You know, so much has changed in this last year in a way that we could never have planned for.
Ultimately, we try to make informed choices and then stick with the stuff that works. The hope is that you’re going to be constantly changing. I think the worst thing that can happen when you have a show like this is to do it the same way for years and years and years. And it’s changed a lot the longer we’ve done it, and I hope it continues to do so.
AD: Let’s do some rapid-fire to close out our interview.
AD: Okay. So, favorite guest so far?
SM: Let’s say. Rihanna.
AD: Favorite musical guest? Or does Rihanna count for both?
SM: Nope. I’m going to say my favorite musical guest is Kanye West.
AD: What’s your favorite question to ask? Do you have one that you keep going back to?
SM: I try not to ask the same questions too often. But, that’s not entirely true. I do like asking authors how and where they do their best writing. I think that’s mostly because, as someone who has had writer’s block in my life, I’m always looking for someone who’s going unlock that problem for me.
AD: So, where do you do your best writing?
SM: I do my best writing early in the morning. In a room where no one is going to come in and bother me, but I tend to write better early. I tend to think about things late and then wake up and write early.
AD: What about the guest that has surprised you the most?
SM: The guest that surprised me the most? Hmm, what a good question. You know, who’s one of our most frequent guests. And one of my favorites? James Spader, who is just lovely and one of the most interesting guests, in that I don’t think I’ve ever asked James Spader a second question. You just ask him one thing, and then he tells the most lyrical, beautiful 10-minute story.
AD: What about a question that you wish more people asked you?
SM: [Laughs]. I wish more people said, ‘Are you upset that no one gives your Vince Vaughn impression the credit it deserves?’ And the answer would be yes.
AD: Do you have any other secret impressions that you haven’t broken out yet?
SM: At this point, they’ve pretty much all been broken out. You spend a year without an audience; they’re all coming fast and furious.
AD: This is such a cliche question, but who’s your dream guest? Let’s say anyone dead or alive?
SM: Oh, if I can have a dead person, I will say Benjamin Franklin. I just think he was around for a lot of important history. And I also believe him to be a dirty dog who would have good stuff.
AD: And how are you feeling coming out of a pandemic? Hopeful? Exhausted?
SM: I think the least we can do for the people who worked so hard to get us through this pandemic is have optimism. And we’ll see if it was blind optimism or if it was well-founded optimism. But, as a thank you to those in the field of science who got us all vaccinated, I’m going to try to look ahead with a positive light.
AD: And Seth, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about? Any final thoughts.
SM: No, I think you crushed it!
Late Night with Seth Meyers airs weeknights at 12:35/11:35c on NBC.