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When it comes to late-night debuts, it would be hard to have a less stressful launch — in terms of expectations — than Seth Meyers taking over NBC’s Late Night program.
All of the attention is elsewhere. And all of the troubles in that slot came well before Meyers.
PHOTOS: Seth Meyers: Exclusive Portraits
It’s pretty safe to say that David Letterman was the template, and that all the pressure then fell on Conan O’Brien, who was virtually unknown (and yes, nobody liked his name). Jimmy Fallon, too, felt some pressure, but it wasn’t the typical kind. When Fallon was announced as host, nobody really thought he could do it. He was primarily known as the guy on Saturday Night Live who laughed during all the skits. He wasn’t taken seriously, and so there was, oddly, an expectation of total failure. What Fallon managed to do, however, was beat the odds — he made himself extremely likable. He chose easily the best band in late night, and he, or someone close to him, homed in on the skits that had maximum impact and showcased his talents (mostly revolving around music). Once he became more comfortable in his own skin and with the show, Fallon really took off and cemented himself as the nice guy of late night, willing to be goofy and non-confrontational, and created bits that were almost immediate viral sensations.
Jimmy Kimmel had it harder, too. Much harder. And what he’s done is nothing short of revolutionary. Craig Ferguson even had it harder, because he was kind of this raffle-winning, second-thought selection. Everybody’s attention was also elsewhere — setting the tone for Ferguson’s tenure of trying to earn respect even though he, over time, just kept bashing at it and molding the show to his own whims and interests, creating a unique presence in late night that is still under-appreciated.
Come on. Jay Leno‘s second notorious departure from The Tonight Show was really the leading headline. After that it was how well Fallon would do in that slot — whether Leno’s audience would follow him, and whether Fallon would lose some of his cool cache by having to appeal to a broader audience. After that? What did O’Brien, Letterman and Kimmel think about Jay leaving and Jimmy taking over?
Meyers had almost zero doubt going into Monday’s premiere, and that’s why his was the easiest and smoothest transition in memory.
VIDEO: Inside Seth Meyers’ ‘Late Night’ Debut
Which is probably good, because Meyers and his new Late Night are going to have to find their own rhythm. Nobody knows how well he’ll do as an interviewer, for starters, and Fallon set a pretty high bar with viral videos (not to mention Kimmel’s insane amount of online power). Beyond that, Meyers will have to come up with something that suits him and works as an identifier, like Fallon did with his emphasis on music.
On Monday night, Meyers had that grand buffer of low expectations to play with. His monologue was staccato and hit and miss — sounding more like his “Weekend Update” bits than a real monologue. And his first attempt at a recurring bit, “Venn Diagrams,” was overly clinical and less than funny, despite some good material. He wasn’t in the territory of O’Brien’s manic nervousness or even Fallon’s relentless fawning on their first nights, but he was lost a bit in the spotlight, as expected.
Hey, it was his first night. He’s learning. Meyers and his writing staff will likely come up with a number of bits people will be quoting in the near future. It’s the story of late night. He’s been given a less glaring spotlight to get lost in, and that’s an enormous gift he should take advantage of — then call Conan every single night and say, “Man, how the hell did you survive this?” Because that’s really a great story unto itself. Hats off to the internal fortitude of O’Brien — a night like tonight really puts his struggle into perspective.
On the plus side for Meyers, he booked good friend and fantastic late-night guest Amy Poehler (who is, let’s be honest, pretty fantastic at everything she does). The chemistry between Poehler and Meyers was immediately evident, and he really dropped any hesitations or worries he might have had up until that point and became himself — relaxed, funny, confident and charming.
VIDEO: Seth Meyers Predicts ‘White-Hot Panic’ for First ‘Late Night’
That’s why he got the job, after all. There’s little doubt that those traits will surface. It’s just a matter of when and how consistently. Riding the vibe with Poehler, Meyers was able to channel his confidence into an interview with Vice President Joe Biden, also no stranger to tossing off quips without nerves. If anything, the back-to-back segments of Poehler and Biden offered an early hint that Meyers really can do interviews and that worries over that element of his arsenal are exaggerated.
Poehler was the key. She got Meyers to be himself. “I’ve watched you for 13 years pretend to listen to people,” she said, assuring him that he’d do just fine.
Another factor that seemed to calm Meyers was the presence of Fred Armisen, his new Late Night band leader, who fronted the 8G band. They’re not the Roots — but nobody is. In that sense, having Armisen as the central attraction actually helped rather than distracted. He was particularly good when riffing with Poehler. A good band leader is essential in helping a late-night host find a little breathing room, so Armisen did his job. The band itself didn’t exactly stand out on night one, but nobody was really pressing their ears to the TV speaker.
PHOTOS: Jay Leno’s Final Days With ‘The Tonight Show’
Elsewhere, though, Late Night could do itself (and Meyers) a real favor by getting a couch. The two chairs it used for Poehler and Biden looked both ugly and uncomfortable. Some kind of mid-century minimalism is at play on the set — which would be fantastic if done right — but those chairs have to go, and Meyers’ desk looks tiny and nearly useless.
Hey, if you’re going for the mid-century look with the desk and its clean lines, getting him a nice Eames desk chair to match would be a good start. Credit the Tonight Show designers for giving Fallon a distinctive set, and let’s hope that in comparison the Late Night set is an ever-evolving work-in-progress. (Although a complete renovation by next week would also be nice.)
Beyond that? Listen, this is Meyers’ first really big night, so nerves are to be expected. And if not nerves, then just an all-around sense of trying to figure out a new gig on the fly. He didn’t hit it out of the park like Fallon did on his first night in Tonight Show chair, but he also doesn’t have Fallon’s experience.
You only get that by walking out from behind the curtain night after night. So, Meyers’ time will come. And, luckily for him, it will come under a forgiving spotlight.
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