Having spent the last 13 years on Saturday Night Live, the last seven as head writer and five anchoring Weekend Update, Seth Meyers is taking his considerable comedic chops to Late Night, inheriting new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon’s nightly gig. When the show premieres tonight on NBC, he’ll be in the friendly company of former SNL cohorts: Fred Armisen will lead the house band and Amy Poehler will christen the couch, along with Vice President Joe Biden. (Other week-one guests include Kanye West, Brad Paisley, Anthony Mackie, John Mayer, Lena Dunham and Sophia Bush.) We caught up with the affable funnyman as he prepared for his new job.
“There’s so much real estate to fill, and often I’ve found at SNL, the more real estate you have, the more creative ideas that come out of it.”
What’s your Late Night game plan?
We have a lot of respect for the three people who have done it already. We are not trying to deconstruct the model, but certainly, in the desk pieces, in the written sketches, I think that’s where you define yourself from other people. We are going to have a monologue. We are going to have guests, music, standup comedians. I think the biggest way to define yourself is those two or three acts of comedy before the guests start coming out. There’s so much real estate to fill, and often I’ve found at SNL, the more real estate you have, the more creative ideas that come out of it. I’m drawn to the idea of making jokes about current events, topical jokes. I’ve hired a lot of writers who are also performers. On Weekend Update, we interview people who are fictional. I’d like to continue that in some degree on the new show. I don’t think we’ll try to do a version of Weekend Update, but there will probably be elements that are reminiscent of it. It will definitely lend itself less to taped pieces.
Are you nervous at all?
Oh, yes. I constantly go between 51% excited and 49% nervous, and vice versa. But I think I am most nervous about the fast turnaround, and also the interviewing. You really won’t know how good you are at it until you do it. Then you just have to try to get better. It’s certainly a big thing to be stepping into. On the same note, though, Weekend Update was a big thing to step into. SNL was a big thing to step into. I think I’ve found over the years, if you get too hung up on the legacy of what you are taking over, it gets in the way a little bit of doing the work. So our goal is just to try to do the funniest thing we can every night and get better each time out.
Is standup good preparation for this job?
I’m certainly really happy for the last eight or so years of doing standup. It’s great to do something like the Correspondents’ Dinner or the ESPYs because the first time you start telling jokes standing up, you realize that it’s very different. The hardest thing about Weekend Update is it’s a very small box. There’s not a lot of room when a joke doesn’t land to do anything. You just have to move onto the next joke. I feel the best late-night hosts have always found a way to be entertaining when the joke didn’t work.
Did you get any advice from Jimmy Fallon?
We have been friends for a really long time and he has been really supportive. The biggest advice he has given is be patient with things like this. You want to know what the show is on the first night and you’ll have a better sense in six months and then a year, so just try to progress with the same integrity week in and week out.
Your studios are both at 30 Rock.
I’m next to SNL and directly above Jimmy. We can’t tape at the same time because of the Roots. You cannot sound proof the Roots. We have to completely empty out his audience before we bring ours in.
Who’s your ideal guest?
Hillary Clinton would be great. I would love people who are big political players who have a lot of influence on what’s going on in the world. But we are open to everybody, not just creative people in the showbiz world, but we’d also love to have authors, politicians, athletes. Hopefully we can get interesting people on, not only that the audience knows, but can get to know.
What guest would make you nervous?
I think preparation is the key to everything all the time, but I’d say, like, Bruce Springsteen was the guy when he came to SNL. I’d run into him at charity events and he’d say hello and I’d always feel like I’m 11 years old. But the longer you work at SNL the more you realize that most people are pretty cool once you actually treat them like a person, so hopefully that’ll be the environment here.
How hard was it to leave SNL?
Heartbreaking, but I’m really happy that I came back to do this first half of the year. I found out about this the week before my last show last year and I knew I wanted to come back, and I’m really glad I did.
Will you still watch the show?
I will, I really look forward to it, and think this cast right now has an exceptional future ahead of them. I can’t wait to watch.
Do you see yourself dropping in from time to time?
I don’t know if I’ll drop in. I do hope that the cast of SNL will drop in on us. And I’ve noticed they really don’t have room for you once you leave. Amy Poehler says when you go back to SNL, if you don’t have a cameo to do and you’re just there, you feel like a ghost at your own funeral. The show is eternal, there’s no essential staff at SNL other than Lorne Michaels. You leave and think, “How will they ever replace me?” But then you go back and you realize they filled the space immediately.