It’s the holidays and “Late Night with Seth Meyers” has given us the greatest gift of all: another edition of Joke Bucket. What began as a goofy, tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of how a late-night monologue joke gets written has morphed and mutated into one of the most bizarre running segments on any nightly comedy show.
Each segment starts off the same way, with Meyers “explaining” how the writing staff comes up with the nightly one-liners that make up the monologue, matching jokes to punchlines instead of the other way around. He cycles through a series of options before landing on one that fits. Before finalizing the process, Meyers then sets off a labyrinthine process of stapling, stamping, and bell-ringing. Then, things gets weird. Take this early example from late 2016:
Two years later, even those jokeless punchlines act like an unofficial time capsule. (Remember when Samsung phones were exploding all the time?) The weirdness of the setup also gives the show free rein to go bigger. Is there a reason that the volcano needs to be as massive as it is? Not at all. Does it make it that much more satisfying when a tiny wisp of paper gets shot out of the opening at the top? Absolutely.
The never-ending escalation of each new wrinkle makes for a segment that really has no ceiling. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like the seven-layer dip of “Late Night” jokes. (Of course, not to be confused with “Late Night Casserole,” another glorious and profoundly weird example of what the show does best when it veers off its usual path.)
Last year’s edition of Joke Bucket also added another audience participation wrinkle. When IndieWire spoke to Meyers and “Late Night” producer Mike Shoemaker earlier this year, they talked about that response with each new step in the pre-Bucket process. “It’s shocking how quickly they learn ‘Stamp it! Ring the bell!’ They couldn’t have seen it before,” Shoemaker said.
“I’ve done it thirty times and I can’t remember it!” Meyers added. “When I go out to rehearse it, I’m like, ‘What are we doing? Why on earth are we still doing this impossible thing to remember?’ It’s also a lot of fun and it is one of those things that is better when it’s looser.” No wonder he can barely get through the setup without an ear-to-ear smile.
It’s been 20 months, but this 2017 combo of Picasso jokes, Popsicle Schtick-level dad jokes, and a tossed-off IKEA line that comes and goes before the audience can really parse it out in full is one of the best of the bunch.
At the risk of using up all available metaphors, each new addition to the Joke Bucket canon is like another shell in the Stefon nesting doll that sits on Meyers’ desk. On their own, they’re impressive bits of silliness, but watching them all together, you get a sense of a years-long simmering need to outdo each successive installment.
Which brings us to Tuesday night’s worthy addition to the grand tradition (and not just because that night’s affiliate mug was KCRA, the Sacramento NBC station). “Late Night” is always good about knowing when to drop the facade and let the audience in on the joke. To see Meyers make that decision in real-time is another fun twist to a segment that’s happy to keep heaping them on.
Above all, it’s a beautiful piece of late night catharsis. Working in a nightly release of tension is something that “Late Night” has honed with its marquee segments, from “A Closer Look” to “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” to “Amber Says What.” For seven minutes, “Joke Bucket” is an even more special chance to put Trump jokes and all the other anxieties of the world on the backburner. Sometimes, you even get to watch John Lutz wield a tiny chainsaw.
And to cap it off, we even get the payoff of Chekhov’s Fake Bit. God bless us, everyone.