Seth Meyers on Standing vs. Sitting Down and Being Wrong About Donald Trump

The 'Late Night' host talks about making changes on a rigorous nightly schedule.
Courtesy of NBC
'Late Night With Seth Meyers'

[The Hollywood Reporter spoke with an assortment of the biggest names in late night about changes to the volatile variety talk category at the upcoming Emmys for a magazine story. Some longer Q&As from those interviews are going online.]

Standing up and sitting down. 

Many of us do it multiple times every day without any commentary from the media, but when Seth Meyers made the shift from opening NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers with a standard monologue to doing a desk segment redolent of his work on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," the pundits all weighed in.

Fortunately for Meyers, the reviews for the August shift were almost entirely positive, and what might have seemed like a tiny format change has yielded a large shift in perception for the show, which has become a late-night destination for political commentary this election season, particularly when it unleashes one of its deep-dive "Closer Look" segment.

In this Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, Meyers discusses the challenges of the stand-up/sit-down move, why Donald Trump has become like a heckler at a comedy club and the advantages of going nightly when competition like Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight With Jon Oliver air only once a week.

Anyway though, Jon Stewart and company have been the 800-pound gorilla in your Emmy categories for such a long time and I'm wondering if that show and also Colbert, if their dominance colored the way that you guys looked at your first couple of shots at Emmys.

I think we just try to put together a good show night in and night out. I think there's a lot about Jon and Stephen's shows that I liked and was inspired by, but I don't think the Emmy thing has much to do with it.

How about this year though? Did having these couple of shows that won every year and took up all of these nominating spots and all of that, did it take some of the air out of the room as you looked at awards and whatnot and does that change when that vacuum suddenly exists and opportunity abounds?

I was a multiple-time nominee with SNL in years that we lost to those shows. Look, you'd always be happier to win than lose, but you also thought that they had made an excellent choice, the voters. With that said, this time, sure, it might make it more exciting to have it be a more open race.

You guys had that brief window where you were the new kids on the late-night block, but suddenly you're almost middle of the pack in terms of seniority. Does that seem almost funny to you how many new shows have come out since you guys started?

It's insane. I feel like we got to be the new kid on block for five minutes. I didn't realize the sea change that was coming when we got Late Night. It seemed like almost the end of a round of turnover as opposed to the beginning. It was nice in that every time a new show starts, a lot of attention then gets drawn to those shows which almost not having everybody pay attention to us I feel like allowed us to make changes on our own time. It was nice to be a part of this wave of change.

Speaking of the changes you guys made, you guys made a fairly big and really successful shift when you went back behind the desk to open the show. Late-night is this locomotive where you guys are constantly having to do this every night churning out the content. How hard was it to make any change at all when you're in the middle of that?

The reality was it was very easy to actually make the logistic change, it was just having the time to sit and think about whether or not it was the right decision to make was where the schedule got in our way. When we actually did sit down and talk about it, it was all of five minutes before we decided, "Oh, it's worth trying, and it's not like we have to fire all of our standing-up joke writers and replace them with sitting-down joke writers." We have to keep the same staff and for myself, for Mike Shoemaker and Alex Baze, we have been part of Team Update which was a lot closer with what we're doing now than a conventional standing monologue. It was just the grind of the show. Sometimes you forget that you can actually slow down for a second and make a change like that.

Is that the situation where you knew within a week or two or a month or two that you wanted to do that and as you say, you had to find the time to slow down, or was it a gradual, slow-building thing in your mind where you realized, "Okay, a tweak would be useful"?

I was very stubborn. It took me a long time to come to this decision. The first thing was, there wasn't a lot of time between my last SNL and my first Late Night, and I thought if we came out with the show looking too much like "Weekend Update," it wouldn't seem different enough or exciting enough or new enough to people and forgetting that then I would do it a way that also was what people were used to. So I was choosing between two things that were both familiar to some degree. Then I stubbornly thought we would just have a great monologue if we just stuck with it. Sometimes at the fault of mine, of "No, we will just grind away at this and then it will be great one day."

It was a weird thing of one August day and I think because it was that time of year, right before the fall season started, we thought, "Shouldn't we just try the sit-down for a week at the end of August and if it doesn't work, we'll just go back and no one will even notice?" We were mostly surprised by how much people noticed. Also, I should say, I was surprised that I was all of two jokes into my first desk monologue when I could've told you, "Oh, this is how we're going to do it from now on."

You made the joke about the difference between firing all of the stand-up writers and hiring a bunch of sit-down writers, but it does feel totally different. How do your define in your mind what the difference between Stand-up Seth and Sit-Down Seth ended up being?

It is a news delivery system for comedy as opposed to a comedy delivery system for comedy, so we get to use graphics, which feels a lot more like the news. And those graphics then serve the role of replacing having to say things like, "Hey, did you guys hear about this story?" or, "I don't know if you guys saw this in the news." You get a lot more efficient because of that and we get to tell a lot more jokes in the period of time that used to probably tell about half as many, because of all that in-the-middle that you have to do.

Also, I realize that people were used to me doing things a certain way and I almost felt more comfortable because I felt the audience feel more comfortable. I felt like when I sat down, a collective sense of the audience, "Oh, thank God. Finally."

I know how busy this process is for all of you guys. Do you have any time to watch anybody else in late-night?

You every now and then will hear about something really funny somebody did, a interview, and you try to find time to watch it, but you're right in that we don't have enough time to watch other people's shows. It's nice over the course of a year to see everybody's three or four best things. Although then you have to remind yourself, you can really drive yourself crazy if you only see seven hits from one of the other shows. Then you forget, "Oh wait, they also did a bunch of other shows and they probably aren't all these super A+s."

Is there someone on your staff whose job it is though to keep an eye on what people are doing to avoid duplication or anything like that?

Yeah. I would say our writers do a pretty good job of, and especially on the top end of our staff, it's a little bit more in charge of the construction of our show, people try to keep an eye out. The other thing is sometimes you don't even have to watch stuff. You can just see headlines on websites to know what somebody did, what they did over on this show or this show. If it's something that you had coming up that you're planning on doing, then you watch it to make sure you're not bumping with it.

From the outside, I think we all assume that the election cycle has been comedy gold, but has it been a rather great challenge to keep finding new ways to laugh at the ridiculousness?

To some degree, you worry that you are like a stand-up who's been hammering the same heckler for two hours. You know he deserves it but at the same time, at what point is too much? Then every time you try to go back to your act, the heckler says something else. So I don't know. It is not quite pure comedy gold, but it is better than trying to write jokes about the debt ceiling.

Did you figure you were going to have, like, two months of Donald Trump, you were going to be able to get that out of your system and then you were going to be able to go on with life?

Yeah. I've been wrong at every turn about Donald Trump. When he first came down that escalator, I said on the show, I thought he would never do it [run for president], maybe never fill out the paperwork and this was just for attention. We talk a lot about politics on the show, but I would not turn to me for any fortunetelling that you might need done as far as what's going to happen next.

How aware are you when Trump says something dumb or when Hillary Clinton makes a flub that there are 10 other people with roughly the same job as yours getting ready to point at the exact same quote, the exact same clip and make nearly the same joke? How conscious are you of that?

You're aware. You know that it's going to happen, but then I think you have faith. I feel really good about the joke writers we have on our staff. I think they're excellent. Every now and then, we'll have to drop a joke because The Tonight Show does something too close. That's obviously a bigger issue because so many other people who're watched our show watch that. You'd never want to let those people see the same joke. It's not like anybody's watching all 10 shows. They're picking the one they want to watch and you don't want to not make a joke about something because one of the other shows that person is watching they really aren't watching.

I've had weeks where I've had to be watching all 10 of the shows and let me tell you, I watched Carly Fiorina fall down an awful lot of times.

Yeah. Well, I don't know who's to blame, the 10 of us or Carly Fiorina.

Probably true. You talked about not wanting to duplicate things that The Tonight Show did before you. Who do you look at honestly as your competition, or the shows that you put next to yours as being similar? Obviously, lots of you guys are doing similar things, but also, there are different things that The Tonight Show is doing or that The Late Late Show's James Corden is doing.

I don't think we've taken any of it as competition. Again, these jobs are too hard to do anything other than focus on the daily grind of putting them together in a way that you're proud of. I do think when it comes to politics, you have to be very aware that with [John] Oliver and [Samantha] Bee and [Larry] Wilmore and Trevor [Noah] and Bill [Maher] and [Stephen] Colbert, I am aware that there are a lot of people doing great things about the same topic that we're dealing with. That ultimately, if anything, just drives you to try to do it better so that you don't fall out of the pack.

With a lot of the shows that you just mentioned, you have competition that air one night a week, that do only sometimes only half-hour a week, that get the loser ends of cable. From your point of view, what are the advantages of doing what you do, of doing an hour every night and on network?

I think that the more you do this, the more you appreciate having real estate. Doing it every night gives you more real estate, you try more things. Also, you can spend the night on a smaller story that maybe if you were only doing it once a week, you would pass on, and that's great, because then you can mix up, over the course of the four shows you're doing, what stuff you're talking about. I do know from my time in SNL, we only had one show a week, and we had a ton of people that were in charge of putting it together and there were two songs we didn't even have to worry about it at all, but the fact that the show was always in the future put a lot of pressure on it. I think the people who are doing similar shows to ours that are doing it once a week, it doesn't necessarily make it any easier.

Do you ever dwell on the disadvantages you have? Do you ever stop and go, "Boy, if I only had to do 30 minutes a week, I could do a hell of a 30 minutes per week"?

I think if I only had to perform once a week, I would never go home, if that makes sense. I would want to stay and keep refining it and keep working on it because I only have that 30 minutes. I think it would drive me crazy, and I know that because I never went home when I worked at SNL.

Does that mean sometimes you actually have shows where you go, "Okay, we're kind of punting on this," or, "Okay, this is just not going to come together, but at least we've got another show tomorrow night to worry about"?

We never feel like we're punting, we just know that we only have a day to pull it together. You just don't have enough time to beat yourself up. We tried very hard to make the first act of our show is like our newspaper act, where when we feel like the show has a bit more crackle to it if it's all written even on the previous night or that day. It's all about the day's events. It's all stuff that would feel old the next day. We tried to pack as much writing the day-of in, and that makes it really exciting and really fun. Then when it's over, if you feel like, "Oh, I thought that would go a lot better," it is nice to know, "Oh, we'll come back in tomorrow and try again."

One of the big changes in the past few years has been the shift from an emphasis on live, on-air viewing to the importance of viral video and Youtube hits and all of that. Has that changed your perspective on the show that you're putting on the air at all?

It really hasn't. We do make our focus a head-to-tail, first-joke-to-last interview, we want it to be a good viewing experience for the people who are watching it when it airs. At the same time, we're perfectly happy when people want to share things that we did on the show and I would not be upset if we had a giant viral hit. It is less of our focus than putting a show together every day.

How often do you have things in a show where you go, "Okay, this feels viral," and then how often are you proven right or wrong?

I think when with things like our Jon Snow and his dinner party, because you're doing something that's pulling off a huge fanbase for a completely different show. You have an expectation that it will have a bit of a viral life. We tend to be right on things like that. The nice thing, we're not talking about a million views, but over the course of a week, it seems like our "Closer Looks," we'll have a bit of a life to them, because we do so many of them, it accumulates.

Is it gratifying when one of those "Closer Looks" actually hits because that's something that I can tell that you put a lot of thought and effort into it. Does it feel good when one of those actually goes wide?

Yeah, of course. Mostly because we try to make them about things that are important to us. They tend to have a life when they are both important and we succeed in making them funny, because when they're just important, then we did not do our job. Yeah, you're always happy and proud when something like that, especially like I said, it's been an issue you care about, it's nice that it makes it around.