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Seth Meyers and Fred Armisen Tell Us How They Pull Off the Best Bit in Late-Night TV

All Meyers has to do is ask his friend and "Late Night" bandleader Armisen one simple, totally secret, question.

Seth Meyers and Fred Armisen on NBC's "Late Night"

Seth Meyers and Fred Armisen on NBC’s “Late Night”

Lloyd Bishop/NBC

“Late Night” loves its recurring comedy bits like the popular “A Closer Look” and “Day Drinking,”  in which host Seth Meyers gets plastered while the sun’s still out with celebrities like Lizzo, Rihanna, and Ina Garten — but it’s hard to beat the simple genius of Meyers politely asking Fred Armisen, his buddy of 20 years, about launching his first celebrity fragrance or Armisen’s plan to come up with a competing Academy Awards show.

Unofficially referred to as “It’s Time to Ask Fred a Question,” it’s a brief improv exercise on steroids: When Armisen is on the show, serving as its occasional bandleader, Meyers asks the drummer an absurd question (“I heard you also made a bid for Twitter?”) They’re ones Armisen doesn’t know and can’t possibly anticipate: Seth comes up with the questions by himself, often at the last minute while he’s walking from his dressing room to the stage. (Armisen learned that during our interview; he thought it was a joint effort of showrunner Mike Shoemaker and Meyers.)

And from there, it’s two minutes of Armisen’s high-wire riffing, like the one for his alternative Valentine’s Day holiday. “It’s called Acquaintance Day. So, we’re just celebrating people that you know kind of well. You see them once in a while, every couple of years. Those are really important relationships. People who you don’t know their last name, just recognize their face.”

Ahead of the show, Meyers lets his studio audience know how the bit works. “They have that extra thing where they get to be extra excited because they’ve gotten tipped that he is doing what to them feels like a magic trick,” he told IndieWire. “And that makes it contagious in a really fun way.”

When the inquiry comes, Fred must quickly shift from percussion mode to comedy mode, which means ripping out his in-ear monitors (a necessity to play in the house band) and agreeing with Meyers’ nonsense. That’s Rule No. 1 of improv: “Yes, and.” Rule No. 2, “Not only that, but,” is the tricky part.

“We’ve known each other for so long and worked with each other so closely…[Meyers] knows what subject matter to get into to set up a question,” Armisen told IndieWire. “I purposely just try to clear my mind before he asks me.”

“I only enjoy doing it because I’ve become so comfortable with how fearless Fred is,” Meyers added. “I would not enjoy this if it was putting someone on the spot who did not enjoy being on the spot.”

Armisen not only has to make it funny, but also just believable enough. One of the ways Armisen does that, per Meyers, is by varying the type and the length of his answers.

“There’s a music to it, and it speaks to Fred’s musical background,” Meyers said.

“The setups are perfect, too,” Armisen said. “They’re not meant to outsmart me or so complicated that it’s too much of a challenge… [they] always have a conversational quality to them.”

Meyers says if he tries too hard to be funny in the question, he can sense the audience trying to guess what Seth wants Armisen to say and that undermines the bit. “There’s so much comedy in specificity,” he said. “If the question is specific, then I’ve given Fred less room to move.”

If all of this sounds a lot like “SNL: Weekend Update’s” Garth (Armisen) and Kat (Kristen Wiig), it is. Meyers was also the set-up man for that off-the-cuff recurring musical gag, in which Armisen would make up themed lyrics on the spot and Wiig would (do her best) to stay perfectly on top of his words.

Why does this all work so well? “I think all of us are kind of delighted by the fact that we will never know Fred enough to get ahead of him,” Meyers said. “And that is tickling as well.”

Armisen is drumming — and answering “Ask Fred” questions — for Meyers all week long. However, there will be no “Let’s Ask Fred a Question” tonight: Armisen is stepping in as Meyers’ first couch guest. No matter, we’ve got YouTube.

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