After 13 seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” the “Weekend Update” anchor is moving on to where few men or women have ventured before: the crucible of hosting a late night television talk show
Author David Carr Illustration Nigel Buchanan
To enter the pantheon of late night television hosts, you have to check off a few boxes. You need to be nice-looking, but not movie star good-looking. You have to be smart and friendly and have a genuine love of people. (David Letterman, who can take or leave people depending on the guest, is the exception that proves the rule.) Most of all, you have to be funny. Funny as in ha-ha, tell-a-joke funny, but also funny in terms of your outlook on life.
Sitting in a booth at Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, Seth Meyers ticks off all those boxes. As a 13-season veteran of “Saturday Night Live,” its head writer and, most visibly, the anchor of “Weekend Update,” the 40-year-old New England native has proven he can find the funny in just about anything. Now, he’s about to test his appeal in the late night talk show crucible when he takes over NBC’s “Late Night” on February 24 from Jimmy Fallon, who will be moving on to “The Tonight Show” on the same day.
It’s a big move, but Meyers will have a bit of a safety net, given that Lorne Michaels, the godfather of SNL, will executive-produce the show. But at a certain point, it’s just you, the desk and an hour of airtime to fill. Meyers seems up to the task and, after more than a decade at SNL, ready to try something new.
Of course, Meyers won’t be the first “Weekend Update” anchor to graduate to late night talk show host. To wit: Fallon, who will be just a couple of floors away doing “The Tonight Show.” And if Meyers hits any bumps along the way, he will also have Michaels just down the hall, as “Late Night” shares a floor at 30 Rockefeller Center with SNL. That way, says Meyers, “the security guys know me in case I forget my ID, and I already know where the bathrooms are.”
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Hemispheres: So what’s your first move as the host of “Late Night”?
Seth Meyers: There’s nothing concrete, but I want to have a writing staff of performers who can play people in the news or play someone who can comment on that person. I’ve really enjoyed my life as a straight man, and so I’m hoping to continue that with the new show.
Hemispheres: Why do you think your skills are a good fit with the late night format?
Meyers: Over my first four years on SNL, I felt like I was sort of always in the bottom trenches of the cast as far as what I was putting across on camera. But Lorne saw me as someone who could produce a lot of writing every week. I found, in my years as a performer, I only ever played variations of myself. If I was playing a sea captain he tended to act, talk and think like me. That’s where I hope late night will be a good fit.
Hemispheres: As a late night talk show host, you’ll be entering a very exclusive club. There are not that many of these jobs in the business.
Meyers: It’s surreal. When I got to SNL, I walked down the hall, and they have a picture of every cast member past and present that’s taken their first day. And that club was exclusive enough. I almost can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I’m doing something so few people have done. I think it’s helpful that it’s in the same building and on the same floor and with the same boss. It feels like I am going to college in the next town over.
Hemispheres: So you aren’t intimidated?
Meyers: Well, the best advice I’ve gotten is just to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You’re hoping that the network and everybody who is watching is going to understand that you’re going to figure out what the show is in the course of the first six months. You get to figure out what exactly the show’s strengths are, stop doing the things that are the show’s weaknesses and build off that. You have to learn by doing.
Hemispheres: What part intimidates you?
Meyers: Lorne is obviously making all the final calls on SNL, and the most impressive thing about Lorne is that he’s an incredible arbiter of taste. Even though he’s the executive producer on “Late Night,” he’s not going to be there every week making the final calls with me. I hope, having spent 13 seasons with Lorne, I will have inherited some of that taste. There won’t be anyone to hide behind.
Hemispheres: So what’s the plan now that you’re The Man?
Meyers: I’d like it to be a place where you can watch somebody talk about something that maybe you’ve heard about in the news but you don’t quite understand, and have it explained to you a little bit better. I like talking to people who know about things that I want to know more about.
Hemispheres: That sounds a little like “The Daily Show.”
Meyers: “The Daily Show” certainly does it better than anyone did before or will do in the future. But in the hour-long format, you have time at the end of the show to maybe have someone on who’s not promoting a movie or a book, someone from sports or politics, two things I’ve always been drawn to. I want it to be a piece of real estate that can be really smart and really silly at the same time.
Hemispheres: Tell me about who you are as a sports fan.
Meyers: I grew up in New England. I’m a huge Red Sox fan. My dad is from Pittsburgh, though, so he raised us as Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
Hemispheres: Tough year for the Steelers.
Meyers: It’s a weird season. My wife, who is not a sports fan, cannot wrap her head around why anyone would want to involve themselves in watching something you have no control over and having it affect the rest of your day. I’m, like, shuffling around the house on Sunday in a terrible mood because the Steelers are losing. To her the only rational way to treat that would be to stop watching football altogether.
Hemispheres: If you bumped into the actual girl you don’t want to talk to at the party [one of the running characters on “Weekend Update,” played by Cecily Strong] and she started talking about SNL, what would be the big misconception about the show?
Meyers: I think people sometimes think that more thought has gone into the overarching sense of what each show is going to be—that we sit around Monday and we aim for the outcome that airs on Saturday—whereas in reality, you send everybody off to write their funniest thing, they all come back, we read it all and then we cut it down to the funniest 20 percent and then ultimately we cut it down to the funniest 10 percent. It’s as exciting for us to see where it ends up as it is for the audience. We don’t know what is going to happen either.
Hemispheres: To the extent that you have a comic persona, the one we see on “Weekend Update,” how do you describe it?
Meyers: I think I am a nice person with a fairly short temper when it comes to people being stupid. We do try to make fun of the people that deserve to be made fun of, if that makes sense. There are people and things you try to stay away from: The young celebrity who’s often the easiest of targets. I’m so glad I wasn’t on television in my late teens or early 20s. You try not to go after them the first time they make a mistake. You wait for them to establish a pattern, at which point it becomes a little bit more fair game.
Hemispheres: After 13 seasons, it would be hard to pick, but what’s your most memorable moment from SNL?
Meyers: In 2008 with Sarah Palin. That was a really exciting time to be on the show. I ended up sitting next to Palin at the “Update” desk while a 9-months-pregnant Amy Poehler was hardcore rapping as Palin and dancing with her. Then the following week, three days before the election, John McCain came and did a cameo on our show. I had written a sketch where he was going on QVC trying to raise money for the last days of the campaign, and he did it with Tina Fey. I realized that this is probably the only place on earth where this could happen.
Hemispheres: And what about President Obama, who appeared on the show during the same election cycle?
Meyers: We had a Halloween sketch in 2007, and he was going to do a cameo at Hillary Clinton’s house, and the joke was he would walk in wearing an Obama Halloween mask and take it off revealing that he was Barack Obama. I remember talking to him beforehand and saying, “If it’s too complicated to get off the mask, we’ll come up with something easier.” And he said, “I think you’ll find I am capable of taking off a Halloween mask.”
DAVID CARR is a reporter and columnist at The New York Times who is deeply ashamed to admit how many times he has been home alone on a Saturday night just waiting for “Saturday Night Live” to come on.
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Number of seasons on SNL: 13
Number of seasons as head writer: 9
Year “Late Night” premiered: 1982
Number of “Late Night” hosts preceding Meyers: 3
Percentage of “Late Night” hosts preceding Meyers who’ve ascended to the 11:30 p.m. time slot: 100
Total number of cast members in SNL history: 137
Number of SNL alums who’ve gone on to host a late night talk show: 3
Number of weeks Chevy Chase’s late night talk show lasted: 5
Number of episodes Conan O’Brien lasted on “The Tonight Show”: 146
Number of “Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” episodes: 4,531