Seth Meyers knows a thing or two about American politics – at least, he sure knows how to write about them in a way that’s both deeply funny and very informative – but even the “Late Night” host was surprised by the year-long political ascendency of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“I’ve been wrong at every turn about how I thought this would all go down. I was right about [how] it would be Hillary, and then wrong about everything else,” Meyers recently told IndieWire, when asked if he could have possibly foreseen the wild way this year’s presidential election would shake out.
For the late night talk show host (and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor, another venue in which he often trafficked in political humor), the first moments of Trump’s campaign seemed like prime fodder for a joke or two, especially his June 2015 campaign announcement that partially took place on an escalator heading straight down.
“When Trump took that down escalator, the whole staff sort of just kind gathered around the TV and we were so delighted at what we were seeing, because we thought, ‘Oh, this will be one piece of comedy for our show tomorrow, and then that’s it, that will be the end of it,'” he remembered.
That was a year ago.
A few months later, Trump was picked to host “SNL,” a move that resulted in a notoriously unfunny episode that some argued impacted the sketch comedy’s show ability to really skewer the candidate for the rest of the season.
Meyers doesn’t see it that way, however.
“I thought there was a risk of that, but then I thought that wasn’t the case. I think, particularly with what Colin [Jost] and [Michael] Che were doing on ‘Weekend Update,’ I kind of forgot that he was on, in a weird way,” he said when asked if he thought the episode cast a pall over the rest of the season.
But he’s not exactly sad he wasn’t around to write that particular episode. “I found that to be a weird, eggy week where I was not jealous of the writing staff. I kind of thought that was a burden just for one week, and then it wasn’t,” he admitted.
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A big decision like picking Donald Trump to host your comedy show in the middle of a contentious (and often just plain weird) election cycle may have been a big leap on the part of “SNL,” but the late night landscape is often shaken up by far smaller changes. For Meyers, his biggest controversy so far has involved a chair.
Meyers made some waves 10 months ago when he switched up his “Late Show” monologue, abandoning a show-opening standing monologue in favor of starting an episode already sitting behind his desk.
“We don’t have a ton of choices as talk show hosts as far as what we’re doing, and so standing versus sitting turns out to have a lot more weight to it than any of us probably thought,” Meyers laughed.
But that doesn’t mean Meyers and his staff took the decision lightly, and he made it his business to figure out what worked best for him, even taking cues from some other late night hosts who have their own postures down pat.
“There are different ways to stand, there are different ways to sit. I feel like Samantha Bee stands in a way that I’ve never seen anybody stand before, and I think that’s one of the strengths of her show. For me, I tried a bunch of different standing ways over the course of the first few months, and I realized, ‘Oh, sitting, that’s my jam,'” he said.
It’s a seemingly small choice that’s paid off, especially given the current tenure of the news Meyers likes to cover right off the bat.
“I think, based on the kind of things we do once I get to the desk, it would be weird if I started with a different kind of monologue. Tonally, the way we start now feeds into what we open with a lot better,” he said.
It’s not the only adjustment Meyers has had to make since taking over at “Late Night.” For the longtime “SNL” writer, his current gig has offered up plenty of chances to tap into both his work on the sketch comedy series and to flex some new muscles.
“The burden of ‘SNL’ is, you can keep staying later every night to try to hone this one shot you get with this one host on any given Saturday, whereas with our show, we have to generate so much more content. It was about shifting your muscles to just generate more, and shifting your head to being a little less precious about it,” he explained.
Although the pressure of generating more and more content might sound stressful, Meyers has already found a kind of freedom in it that he didn’t experience at “SNL.”
“At ‘SNL,’ each week is a ship in a bottle, whereas now, we’re just making car parts, you just have to churn them out. It’s been nice to get to that place of, ‘Okay, you know what, if this is eggy today, we get to do a show tomorrow.’ When you think back to [Trump hosting ‘SNL’], that’s an episode that is sort of stuck in time. We don’t have that,” Meyers said.
One product of that content-generating machine? The current climate of late night consumption, one that’s dominated by quick-hitting viral clips and easily shareable sketches, the sort of thing Meyers’ NBC lead-in, “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon,” excels at. But that’s not what Meyers is after.
“The perception is we’re not that kind of show, and I kind of knew from the beginning that we weren’t going to create giant viral hits. I don’t think I have the skill set to do those, I’m jealous of that skill set, but I am aware that it’s not mine,” he said.
Meyers has instead steered his show into more intellectual, long-form offerings that can still offer those essential social media wins, like his “A Closer Look” segment, which takes a deep dive approach to important topics.
“With stuff like ‘A Closer Look,’ they’re not viral monsters, but I think we’ve taught people now, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this seven-to-10-minute piece on the news each day,’ and they seem to have nice lives,” he said.
Similarly, Meyers is also dedicated to making a show that doesn’t live or die from being delivered in quick clips, instead seeking to package a complete show that those kinds of snippets can provide a taste of for all kinds of viewers.
“I’m thrilled when people watch stuff the next day, but there are quite a few people who watch it sort of head to tail each night, and I want to make that a cohesive viewing experience for them. That’s why we take our last interview as seriously as our monologue, we don’t want the quality to drop during the show,” Meyers said.
That’s not to say that Meyers is wholly uninterested in crafting sketches that do gangbusters on the web, like his “Second Chance Theatre,” which offers his “SNL” brethren the chance to show off sketches that never made it onto the original show. But even those have to pass muster.
“The hardest part about ‘Second Chance Theatre’ is there weren’t that many brilliant failures. There were a lot of mediocre failures, but those wouldn’t be fun as ‘Second Chance Theatre.’ It’s been almost two and a half years on the show, and we’ve done three,” he laughed.
But Meyers does want to do more, and even has a few in mind already.
“[Will] Forte has a bunch more than I’m sure we could do, there’s a [Kristen] Wiig one I really want to do, and there’s a Fred [Armisen] and Horatio [Sanz], but the reality is, we might never pull any of them off,” Meyers said.
When asked about his expectations for the rest of the campaign and how it will impact the flow and feel of the show, Meyers reminded us of his bad track record with predicting the news cycle.
“I’m not good at predicting,” he laughed. “We try very hard to write so much about the day’s news, that long-lead thinking is not great for our show. I don’t think we thought, even two weeks, that we would be doing stuff on gun control. But then a bunch of different factors converge, from Orlando to the sit-in, and then tonally, the show sort of shifts to gun control.”
Meyers and his team do have a few ideas in their back pocket, however, and the host hopes to be able to work them in during the waning days of the election (a few of them involve campaigning and elections, naturally enough). Still, Meyers is characteristically able to find the humor in the unpredictable nature of his beat.
“This job is more fun when the unexpected happens. That’s certainly been the case, this time around,” he laughed.
“Late Night With Seth Meyers” airs weeknights at 12:35pm on NBC.