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Seth Meyers on Late Night, SNL, Lorne Michaels, Drinking with Rihanna

Seth Meyers on Late Night, SNL, Lorne Michaels, Drinking with Rihanna

In his early years at Late Night, Seth Meyers was, in his own estimation, “competent” at the job. “I remember thinking, like, ‘Oh, this is a slightly worse copy of a thing that came before,’ ” he acknowledges over coffee on a recent work trip to Los Angeles. Then came an ugly election and a deadly pandemic, and the Saturday Night Live vet was forced to rethink his whole formula.

Tune in now, a decade later, and you’ll see Meyers start his just-renewed late night show at his desk, a familiar position for the former “Weekend Update” anchor, and proceed to lean into longer-form political comedy, notably with his “Closer Look” segment. He’s also ditched the stodgy suit and tie and perfected a viral segment in which the now-50-year-old dad of three goes day drinking with A-listers.

On the heels of his 10th anniversary, a milestone he celebrated with original guests Amy Poehler and President Biden in studio, Meyers opens up about his NBC bosses’ early jitters, the Donald Trump bullet he managed to dodge and the reason he’s perfectly fine hearing his name attached to the Lorne Michaels retirement rumors.

Was there any point in the past decade where you didn’t feel the confidence of your bosses?

The first year, there was definitely at least one memorable conversation. There was a, “Hey, come out to L.A. for a quick meeting.” And when the meeting was over, there were not garlands at our feet.

What were your marching orders?

I will say that I understood what they were asking us to do, but it ended up being the opposite direction of where we went. They definitely weren’t saying, “We think you should lean into longform political things.” It was more, “Try to be a better show for the current era we’re in.” This was the way talk shows worked in 2015, and it was not wrong to suggest that we lean into shorter, viral, poppier things, but we left the meeting knowing that we wouldn’t be able to do that in a way that would be gratifying for us, nor would we be able to make them happy. That was the scariest time for the show. Then the circumstances of the world changed, and we became a better show for the moment.

Here we are, likely heading into another Trump/Biden election …

On the long list of reasons that this is a drag, this is very low down, but it does seem absent of silliness. So, it feels a lot harder to find [humor]. Hopefully there’s some catharsis in knowing that we’re all perceiving this in the same way — weird and not what we were told things would be like.

President Biden was back in the studio for Meyers’ 10th anniversary show in February.

Lloyd Bishop/NBC/Getty Images

You are now 10 years in. What makes a good and bad guest? 

After 10 years, you should be good enough that there are no bad guests. You should’ve learned how to pull the best out of anyone. If there is a bad kind of guest, it’s one who comes not just with material they’re going to do no matter what, but with an expectation of how it’s going to go. And you can see them, in real time, being thrown by the reaction. 

So, what do you do? 

You become the audience that they’re not getting. The other nice thing about 10 years, of course, is you learn who you like and who you don’t. There’s a tier of guest that all of us [in late night] would take any night no matter what, and then there’s a middle that we all share from. And then there’s the sort of guests that are the most interesting ones because they establish how your identity is different from the other shows. For us, that could be a first-time author or a fourth lead on a show that’s critically acclaimed but nobody’s ever seen. I think the worst guest is a politician. 

Why is that?

They’re so boring. They all answer the questions they wish you had asked them, and they’ll answer two times in a row if you don’t stop them. They also have young staffers who are not plugged into the importance of writing toward a person’s specific voice and have given them three jokes that are going to bomb. And they’re going to tell them, no matter what. 

Meyers has the final card from his last “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live hanging on his wall. “Looking at it reminds me that no one ever worked with better people than I did,” he says.

Photographed by Amy Lombard

I assume there are exceptions?

I enjoy Bernie Sanders. He does not care how he’s perceived and if he doesn’t hear you, he will just scream, “What?” I like that. There’s also a total lack of vanity that is very refreshing for a talk show guest, and he appreciates that you’re going to ask him two dumb things about mittens or his Grammy nomination, and he’s good to get to that before he moves on to his issues. 

You have history with Trump. Do you even try to book him?

No. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think he’s waiting for the invite and I don’t think there’d be any value to it. Certainly, as everyone was, we were trying to book him in late ’15 or early ’16 when I’m ashamed to say we all thought it was a big old joke and it seemed like a great booking. So, we dodged a bullet because there would be nothing about that that I’d look back on proudly. I bet he’d host SNL again, don’t you? And then he’d argue that he can’t be in court because there’s a table read and rehearsal.

“The quote is from a former president who did not care for my jokes about him at our White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” says Meyers. “Fun fact: That same former president would go on to lose reelection to someone who battled a lifelong stutter. Karma!”

Photographed by Amy Lombard

Would Lorne have him back?

No. I think that ship has sailed.

You’ve been quick to quiet the Lorne retirement rumors, which I believe he started years ago.

He definitely started them. I get it, though. It was a perfect answer five, 10 years ago; 50 sounds like a round number until you hit it, and then it’s just like a day. I also think a grand exit is all well and good until you realize you’re doing the thing you love most in the world. So, why would you leave? 

People keep asking you and Tina Fey about your names coming up as the most likely to replace him.

Let me just say, that part’s the best. I’m definitely not going to do it, but I never want any of you to stop saying that.

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Does SNL not continue without him or do you just not want to be the one that attempts it? 

I think both things can be true. Everybody underestimates what Lorne brings to the show, week in and week out, even though I think people estimate it quite highly. Lorne has this invisible hand that gets things done in that building for a show that is unreasonable to even attempt. And I learned so much from watching Lorne, and yet I’m also acutely aware that there are things you just can’t learn. It’s like, if you’re a muggle, you’re a muggle. You can watch Dumbledore all you want …

Meyers keeps an Ian Rubbish nesting doll on his shelf — a memento from one of his favorite sketches, “History of Punk,” which he wrote with Fred Armisen.

Photographed by Amy Lombard

You’ve had a lot of fun with your “Day Drinking” segment. At this point, how much of those pitches are incoming versus outgoing? 

It’s all incoming. It’s what’s known as the Rihanna bounce. The heartbreak is it isn’t as good an idea as, say, “Carpool Karaoke,” where you could do it as many times as possible and it doesn’t have a negative effect on your liver. (Laughs.) It’s so weird to have been this sort of lo-fi talk show and then have a thing like this break out that is completely different from the vibe of our show. I should also note that the minute we book one, I dread it. And then I have a great time, and then I wake up the next morning in a full white-hot panic because I only have a foggy memory of how it went.

Talk to me about the prep. Do you research what kind of drunk someone is prior to booking them?

When the incoming pitch happens, people will often say, “Trust us, they’re fun to drink with.” The thing you don’t want is anybody who’s surly or blacked out. It’s funny because day drinking was a thing that I thought we’d do one time. It was just me trying to figure out a way to do something with my brother. We always thought we’d do more comedy with guests on the show, and then we realized it was not our strength. I think day drinking is a heightened version of the authenticity that we’re looking for in the interviews when we’re stone-cold sober. 

I’m curious: Have you become a better drinker in this process?

No! As I’m aging and have kids, I’m actually drinking less in my regular life, but I do think having gone to a Midwestern college during the binge-drinking ’90s, I laid a nice base coat. I mean, I have love and affection for Dua Lipa, but I also feel bad that she has to know every day of her life that an almost-50-year-old man at the time drank her under the table.

During the strike, you joined forces with your late-night peers for the Strike Force Five podcast. I’m curious how those relationships have benefitted you then and now?

It’s credit to [Jimmy] Kimmel for putting together the podcast, but also really credit to Stephen [Colbert.] When the winds were blowing towards a strike, Stephen was the one who thought, and I’m incredibly grateful for it, “Let’s all talk and stay on the same page. Let’s make sure that there’s a cohesion with how we’re approaching this strike and what we’re telling our staffs and what we’re going to do for them.” He and Kimmel had been through it before in a way that the other three of us hadn’t. So, it was a very nice act of leadership in Colbert, and then Kimmel just pulled the whole podcast together.

You still regularly do standup, and often with John Oliver now. What itch does that scratch that the show doesn’t?

It’s a totally different muscle. I also think there’s a risk when you have an incredibly talented writing staff of just getting a little soft — you can kind of ride off of their talents. And because you also owe it to your writers to constantly be trying to sharpen your delivery system, standup is great because it forces you to do that.

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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