Seth Meyers’ Late-Night Gamble
After hosting “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live for eight years, incoming Late Night host Seth Meyers isn’t worried about doing a monologue every night – riffing on the news is, at this point, a familiar challenge. But conducting interviews? That’s scary, especially since his closest relevant experience involves hilarious but scripted chats with the likes of Stefon and Drunk Uncle. “With almost no exceptions, I’ve had a good sense of what Stefon’s going to say next,” Meyers says. “And the first time a conversation is not going well, I can’t use my go-to move at a dinner party, where I say, ‘I need to get another drink.'”
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Fortunately, the otherwise still-vague plans for Late Night With Seth Meyers, which debuts February 24th on NBC, include a fair number of fake guests, drawn both from the freshly hired writing staff and, on occasion, the cast of SNL, who will be just down the hall. But in general, expect the expected. “We’re not trying to deconstruct the idea of what a late-night show is,” says Meyers, 40, whose original late-night hero was David Letterman. “We’re just trying to do a really good one.”
Meyers is sitting in an upscale breakfast spot on his sleepy block in Manhattan’s West Village, where it’s almost disconcerting to see him in a plaid shirt and jeans instead of his “Update” suit. It’s even stranger when he introduces himself with a big, winning smile instead of his usual sarcastic-schoolboy smirk. Meyers has never been afraid of looking smart on-air – an approach he took from the pre-right-wing Dennis Miller. “Part of not dumbing it down,” Meyers says, “means you’re going to be out there twice a night with something that does not land. At ‘Weekend Update’ we called it ‘one for us,’ and those are the jokes where you just try to remember to keep the twinkle in your eye, knowing it’s about to eat some level of shit.”
At least until his final SNL episode aired in early February, Meyers was that show’s head writer, the creative force behind recent classics such as Louis C.K.’s “Lincoln” sketch. Meyers spent five years as a cast member before joining the writing staff in 2005. “It’s a Hollywood story of the actor desperate to be a writer,” he says, bringing out the smirk. “A tale as old as time.” Even in his pre-SNL improv days, he was never known for his versatility. “My most common character was ‘voice of reason,'” he says.
For SNL creator Lorne Michaels, NBC’s late-night guru, Meyers was the only choice to take over the 12:30 slot left open by Jimmy Fallon’s upcoming move to The Tonight Show. “He’s really funny, and he’s really smart,” Michaels says. “And if you had to bet on any two things, those would be two of the things you’d bet on.” Plus, Michaels notes, Meyers is an uncommonly generous performer. “There have been people who’ve done ‘Update’ where every time someone else does great, they die a little bit. Whereas Seth is truly happy when others succeed. You can see it in his face.”
As Meyers recalls it, Michaels called him one day last year and acted like the whole thing had been decided that Meyers had already taken the job – even though they had never discussed any of it before. Meyers didn’t have much hesitation either, even if he had never exactly dreamed of having this job: “Dreaming of hosting a talk show is like dreaming of being a major-league shortstop,” he says. “There’s more major-league shortstops than talk-show hosts.”
The only catch was that Meyers would continue his SNL duties until almost the last minute, even as he created a new show from scratch. But he’s not complaining: He maintains two offices at 30 Rock (he’s left his Late Night office mostly undecorated, since he’s too sentimental to clean out his SNL room until he’s really done). “I spent my first five years with Lorne thinking that the next time he’d talk to me, he’d fire me,” he says. “Being in the place where he’s like, ‘Work for me in two capacities,’ that’s a great gift.”
Growing up in suburban New Hampshire, Meyers was a smart underachiever who’d take Woody Allen stand-up albums out from the library and stay up late reading P.G. Wodehouse books (and a lot of superhero comics, too). At Northwestern University, he auditioned three times for one of the school’s improv troupes before finally making it in his senior year and setting his life on course.
There are two common assumptions about the offscreen Meyers, both of them wrong: 1) He’s Jewish. 2) He’s gay. His two recent weddings – one on SNL, to Bill Hader’s Stefon; and one in real life, to Alexi, a lawyer he met at Chris Kattan’s wedding – helped fuel each of them. “When I married a Jewish girl, it was a bone to people who thought I was Jewish,” he says. “And when I married Stefon, it was a bone to people who thought I was gay. I tried to throw a bone to all of my support groups.”
That aside, Meyers will be more of a known quantity than most new hosts. But he’s well aware that nothing’s guaranteed. Though Michaels doesn’t actually mention Chevy Chase’s name, he obliquely points out that success on “Weekend Update” alone is no guarantee of talk-show triumph. (Michaels’ faith is more in Meyers himself: “I’ve seen him solve things just brilliantly. Sometimes a sketch has to be completely torn down and rebuilt somewhere between 9:30 and 11:00, and he’s the guy who can do that.”) “That’s funny,” says Meyers, laughing. “He must be trying to keep my confidence up.”
But the best news for Meyers, and his fans, is that Michaels has promised him that NBC will be patient with the fledgling show, allowing months for its creative shape (and, if necessary, ratings) to emerge. “This will not be the first time that I have been a beneficiary of Lorne’s patience,” Meyers says, sounding serious, for once. “So hopefully I can pay it off for him again.”
This story is from the February 27th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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