Seth Meyers on 'Late Night' Jitters, Lorne Michaels' Advice and Leaving His Dream Job
This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Seth Meyers can't turn around without someone talking to him about "patience."
And as he readies for his Feb. 24 debut as the newest host of NBC's Late Night, it's growing more intense. First, it was Jimmy Fallon, his Late Night predecessor, who urged the former Saturday Night Live head writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor to have it. Then Lorne Michaels, the SNL impresario who doubles as his mentor, assured him that NBC would, too. Others -- hosts, executives, friends -- piled on.
"I think when people tell you to be patient, it's just a way of them trying to get a confident performance out of you," suggests Meyers, appreciative of any form of encouragement. At the same time, he's not naive: "I'm sure if there's a problem a month from now, the patience statement can be refined."
This is, after all, the sharp-elbowed world of late-night television, where the past maneuverings of NBC alone -- the painfully clunky handoff of hosts, from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien to Leno again -- have been the subject of multiple books, a made-for-TV-movie and myriad monologue jokes. Sure, the profits have plummeted along with the ratings, but not the fierce competition for attention, guests and, above all, reputation. Add to that a social-media landscape that encourages minute-by-minute verdicts on every joke, interview and viewership stat. As Leno, who lorded over The Tonight Show for two decades, surely can attest, the claws come out in 140 characters.
Given all this, Meyers has every right to be panicked. In a matter of days, the 40-year-old comedian, an ensemble player who never has preened for the spotlight, will be tossed into that shark tank. At 12:35 a.m. each night, it will be him -- not the stable of performers for whom he has written SNL sketches -- whom viewers will tune in to see and then decide whether to come back the following night. Already, the network has provided a Comcast jet for him to pay house calls to affiliates, wallpapered major cities with Late Night With Seth Meyers billboards and poured millions into a brand-new set. But when we sit down for breakfast at Norma's in the Parker Meridien Hotel in January, Meyers, casual in a plaid shirt and jeans, makes a believable show of having the pressure under control. Pushing a ham-and-cheese crepe around his plate, he insists he knows better than to overthink the significance of the franchise or stress out about every joke like he did when he started at SNL 12 years ago. Good comedy is like hitting a baseball, he reminds himself; it's a very hard thing to do consistently, and he'll improve with practice, just as O'Brien and Fallon did in that chair.
Meyers, focused, thoughtful and often self-deprecating, has spent the better part of a year surrounded by people who tell him he's ideally suited for the late-night perch. One close associate even compares his potential to Johnny Carson: "Carson was at the center of the storm; the comedy happened around him, and the guests were elevated by him," says longtime SNL writer Alex Baze, noting it's the same for Meyers, as he proved at the "Update" desk with an array of larger-than-life characters from Stefon (Bill Hader) to Drunk Uncle (Bobby Moynihan). Although it likely will take time for Meyers to figure out who he wants to be as Late Night's host, he should have little trouble differentiating himself in a mix of goofy man-boy (Fallon), master prankster (Jimmy Kimmel) and cranky elder statesman (Letterman). If history is any guide, the whip-smart SNL veteran is more likely to ask probing questions (a la The Daily Show's Jon Stewart) than he is to slow-jam the news (a la Fallon). Adds Baze, who will go with him to Late Night, of Meyers' appeal: "Seth's not going to be the guy in the crazy wig -- he's the guy next to him making him look great."
But the votes of confidence get him only so far. Meyers looks up from his plate, his deep blue eyes sitting heavy, and confesses: "For everything that I'm telling you now, all this wisdom that we're both agreeing is very good, there's no way I'm not going to spin out."
Spend time with Meyers, and you can't help but wonder why he agreed to walk away from Saturday Night Live, which was, by all accounts, his dream job.
Unlike Letterman, who came of age coveting the role of Carson, or Kimmel, who looked to follow in the footsteps of Letterman, Meyers had no ambitions of being a late-night host. He was raised in suburban New Hampshire, where his French teacher mother -- "Madame Meyers," he teases -- and finance-industry father took him and his younger brother, Josh, also now a comedian, to see Neil Simon plays and stand-up acts such as Jerry Seinfeld or Gilbert Gottfried. Also popular in the Meyers' house: Steve Martin, Monty Python and, yes, SNL.
His passion turned more serious during the early 1990s, when, as a senior at Northwestern, Meyers landed a part in one of the university's prestigious improv troupes. He would go on to perform with Chicago's Improv Olympic and Amsterdam's Boom Chicago before being discovered by SNL's then-talent chief Ayala Cohen at a Chicago improv festival in 2000. "He was doing a two-person show called Pickups & Hiccups … and his quick wit, his charm and, obviously, his good looks were all right there," recalls Cohen, now a talent agent to SNL's Cecily Strong and Jay Pharoah at ICM Partners. She found him after the show and hooked him up with an audition for SNL.
Meyers holed himself up in a temporary apartment in Los Angeles, where he moved briefly to try his hand at pilot season, and began crafting impressions of David Arquette (ubiquitous at the time in those 1-800 AT&T commercials), Hugh Grant (to whom Meyers bears a slight resemblance) and Russell Crowe (as the ultimate unenthused talk-show host). His Crowe impersonation played best at the audition but never made it to air. Says Meyers: "Lorne was like, 'Your head is half the size of his. There's no wig we can put on you that makes you look like Russell Crowe.'"
He joined the cast in 2001, the same year Amy Poehler did, but it would take him a few seasons to get comfortable. "I had so much self-doubt about my role on the show," he says, aware that he "couldn't hold a candle" to Fred Armisen or Will Forte as a sketch performer, and castmates Hader, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis simply were "better actors." He heaped pressure on himself: "After every table read where things didn't go well, I was worrying about what that meant on a grander scale … making every micro a macro."
Over time, Meyers found his niche behind the camera, joining the show's writing staff in 2005. It's not unusual for SNL castmembers to be writers, too, but the more common trajectory is for a writer to move into performing, as Tina Fey did. Meyers thrived in the new role and within months was elevated to head writer alongside Fey and Andrew Steele. But even as he emerged as the creative mainstay of SNL, anxiety continued to be a powerful motivating force. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Michaels referred to him as a "worrier," and Late Night producer Michael Shoemaker says he keeps things in the office for a fidgety Meyers to play with "just so he won't break things." Meyers laughs at the latter: "Did he tell you about the old chair in his office? He had to give me things because I would just peel the leather off the arms."
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Michaels suggests his former head writer was one of the "happiest" at SNL, a word rarely used in the cutthroat world of comedy, much less the pressure cooker of SNL, and Meyers doesn't argue. The comedian, who lacks both an ego and an edge, describes even the most grueling aspects of the weekly show -- the infamous all-nighters, the last-minute rewrites, the ruthlessly Darwinian selection of sketches -- with genuine enthusiasm, as though he has blocked out all of the agony. In his 12 years, Meyers has survived the full arc of the show, from the iconic seasons (2008 to 2009, when he wrote Fey's unforgettable Sarah Palin sketches) to the patchier transition ones (the current season). Through ups and downs, say colleagues, he consistently maintains his quick wit, staggering work ethic and uncommon generosity as a performer. "He makes the people around him funnier," says Strong, his "Update" co-anchor, with Samberg adding: "He loves writing jokes, really good jokes, for other people and watching them shine." But it is Michaels, who will executive produce Late Night as well as Fallon's Tonight Show, who sums up his role best: "Seth was the anchor of the show."
Once it was settled that Fallon would move into Leno's seat at The Tonight Show, Meyers became the clear choice to take over Late Night. There was speculation in the media about Chelsea Handler and Howard Stern, among others, and the network briefly flirted with the idea of returning Tonight to its former 90-minute format, ditching Late Night altogether. But once the decision was made to keep the show, Michaels says he immediately pinpointed Meyers, who had been courted for other talk-show opportunities at outlets including ESPN. NBC executives, led by Bob Greenblatt, Ted Harbert and CEO Steve Burke, were fully on board. Says Greenblatt, "Seth is this very experienced, very clever, very mature comedic observer -- it just seemed obvious."
But at one point in the spring of 2013, Michaels acknowledges he had second thoughts, panicked by the prospect of losing his right hand at SNL. Suddenly, those NBC executives were the ones urging him to let Meyers transition: "The only minor reluctance -- and it was minor -- was mine," he admits, a role reversal after having famously pushed the network to put both O'Brien and Fallon at Late Night years earlier. "[Seth and I] were both ambivalent about it because it was going to be hard [for him to leave Saturday Night Live]. But I was doing the honorable thing, which was let him make the decision; at the same time, I really needed him to get comfortable with it."
Meyers was deeply committed at SNL and had given little thought to going elsewhere when he got the call from Michaels. He was on the road for a stand-up gig at the time; when he returned home, he took a couple of weeks to mull over the offer, drafting a list of pros and cons with now-wife Alexi Ashe, a human-rights lawyer. The couple recognized fairly quickly that Late Night was the natural next step, given Meyers' skill set. In addition to a salary that multiple sources peg around $3 million, on par with Fallon's initial Late Night pay, a more normal work schedule held appeal as both his wedding (September) and his 40th birthday (December) approached.
With Fallon shifting Tonight Show to New York, a move to Los Angeles would have given Meyers a booking advantage. But he was set on remaining in Manhattan, where he and Ashe live in the West Village. "It was pretty much the only thing that was important to me," he says. Also key for him, as well as for Michaels, was being able to guide SNL through the first half of the season: "I never really wanted to make an exit plan because nothing out there ever seemed more interesting to me than Saturday Night Live. And because of that, I hadn't done any of the work of falling out of love with the show in the way it's helpful to do before you leave."
As February approached, he had yet to transfer any of his things to his new Late Night offices nine floors below. While the rest of his staff -- including Jimmy Kimmel Live! executive producer Jill Leiderman's brother Eric and Vogue editor Anna Wintour's daughter, Bee Shaffer -- had been settled for weeks, Meyers' corner office sat empty except for two canisters of No. 2 pencils. Shoemaker had offered to help him carry boxes on a few occasions, but each time Meyers asked that everything be left in place. "I'm just sentimental," he says. "I'm going to miss it forever, so I might as well put off missing it as long as I can."
The SNL writers room on the 17th floor of 30 Rock is a spare, utilitarian place, and the food isn't any better than a picked-over bag of Murray's bagels. But as Meyers works on his second-to-last show with a group of seven colleagues, it becomes obvious why he has been in no hurry to leave. This is his element. Gently, he pushes the "Update" writers to drum up ideas for a skit called "The Worst Lady at the Gym," a follow-up to November's "Worst Lady on the Airplane." Meyers, himself an avid runner with a fit band on his right wrist, starts riffing: "I like to stand naked in the locker room and pat myself dry, which requires most of the towels." "I'm a people person, so I like to make intense eye contact." There are chuckles as he continues, restless in his chair: "Is there something about a boom box?"
Given that Late Night is just down the hall from the SNL stage, Meyers intends to have many of the castmembers stop by, with Mike O'Brien already on one of his mid-February test shows. (Others guests included screenwriter Brian Koppelman, designer Zac Posen and Today co-hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford.) Poehler will be his first official Late Night interview, and Samberg, for whom Meyers was a groomsman in his late-summer wedding, says he has put in his request to appear next time he's in New York. In early February, Meyers announced he had tapped another SNL vet, Armisen, to be his bandleader, a plan that came together during Meyers' final week on SNL. For now, Armisen claims he's more focused on making music with the newly formed in-house 8G Band than he is on reviving or creating characters, but it's hard to imagine the pair responsible for SNL's Ian Rubbish (see sidebar) won't have some fun together. Meyers admits as much: "I think eventually we'll see [some character] stuff from Fred."
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At the same time, Meyers is determined not to have his new show become a mere extension of his old one. He has hired several new writers with improv backgrounds (see page 53) whom he will rely on for character work the way he did Hader or Moynihan at SNL's "Update." (Meyers would be "surprised if over the course of the show Stefon never showed up.") In his first few practice shows, he experimented with his stable of characters either joining him or interrupting him, depending on the bit. If it sounds like the plan has the potential to reinvent the broadcast genre, much as The Daily Show did the cable one, Meyers insists that's not the goal. "The idea of blowing it up," he says, "sounds better than it actually is."
So the show will have a traditional format: the monologue, some comedic bits, then interviews at the desk. Meyers, who has hosted both ESPN's ESPY Awards (twice) and the White House Correspondents' Dinner to rave reviews, is conversant in a wide range of subjects, so don't expect to see an overly heavy representation from the entertainment industry. "He can talk as [intelligently] about anything in sports as he can anything that's on an op-ed page," says Michaels. Confirmed guests for week one include Vice President Joe Biden, Lena Dunham and Kanye West. Asked about his dream guests, he jokes: "I'm on at 12:35 at night -- I will literally take anyone."
Meyers has spent recent months consulting with other hosts in preparation, including a January sit-down with Leno in his Burbank office, during which the two discussed the value of a lengthy monologue. Says the recently departed Tonight Show host, "It'll be a quieter show, and I think it'll be very good." Meyers has picked the brain of Fallon too, who, like Kimmel, has eclipsed late night's old guard by tailoring his content as much for next-day YouTube hits as for Nielsen ratings. Although he and Fallon share similar bios -- of the same generation and SNL pedigree -- they have vastly different styles. Fallon has the DNA of a performer, Meyers that of a writer. Both insist there will be no replay of the Leno-O'Brien rivalry, with Meyers noting the pair intend to be "the most boring chapter" of any future books on late-night television.
NBC's executives have said they'll give Meyers' Late Night time to find its footing, and surely he will benefit from having Michaels in his corner. (Many suggest O'Brien would have lasted longer at Tonight had Michaels been his executive producer, a point Michaels was asked about by New York. His coy response: "We'll never know.") Patience is easier to practice at 12:35 a.m. than it is at the higher-profile Tonight Show. After all, Late Night garners only $70 million or so a year in ad revenue, compared with about $125 million at Tonight Show, according to Kantar Media, and much of its audience is contingent on its Tonight lead-in. At this point, NBC will be pleased if Meyers' show delivers even a few million dollars in profit. (As recently as a few seasons ago, the network's top-rated Tonight was making roughly $12 million, down from more than $100 million years earlier, according to an insider.) Conscious of the time slot's waning value, the network allegedly will look to shave the Late Night budget to less than $1 million a week. The hope is that the youthful appeal of Meyers (and Fallon) will help NBC win back viewers lost to cable offerings such as The Daily Show and Adult Swim, which regularly beat NBC with younger audiences.
But even as he prepares to take the reins of Late Night, there continues to be speculation that he might one day inherit Michaels' job. He brushes that off, too: "Being next to Lorne is easier than being Lorne," he says of his boss, from whom he admittedly and relentlessly seeks approval. "What Lorne [offers] isn't just taste and quality; look at how much respect he has from the network. … People his age who are getting more powerful are usually dictators." Michaels says only that he envisions Meyers in late night for at least a decade: "This is his second job, and he had the first one for 12½ years. He doesn't seem like somebody who jumps."
As much of Manhattan settled in for another bitter cold evening Jan. 30, Meyers returned to the writers room. He was prepared to formally sign off that Saturday, and at 10 p.m., he swung by looking for a fellow writer. On the other side of the door were about 70 past and present colleagues there to see him off. Impressively, the tight-knit staff, with whom he'd pulled one last all-nighter earlier that week, had kept it a surprise. Pictures of Meyers lined the walls, drinks flowed freely until well past midnight, and familiar faces filled the suddenly cramped space: Rachel Dratch. Hader. Armisen. Samberg. Fey.
Meyers' eyes welled up as the spirited group began chanting, "Speech!" But he didn't make it far before cutting himself off, explaining how he'd rather hang out with his old friends than hold court before them. "That's Seth -- he's very understated in his way," says Samberg later. Adds Shoemaker, "Seth took care of all of these people, and so they all, especially when they leave, feel this debt to him."
Forty-eight hours later, Meyers took his seat at the "Update" desk, with many of them -- Poehler, Samberg, Armisen and Hader, in character as Stefon -- by his side. Elsewhere in the studio were his wife and his brother, along with NBCU's Burke, the man making the multimillion-dollar bet that Meyers is ready for his next act. With the new Late Night set nearing completion down the hall, he looked into the camera one final time and fought back the tears he later would allow to rush down his face: "This is the job I always wanted," he said, his voice shaking, "and I had the best time."