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Critic's Notebook: Seth Meyers has strong start as 'Late Night' host

Jimmy FallonConan O'BrienSaturday Night Live (tv program)Amy PoehlerThe Tonight ShowSeth Meyers

Seth Meyers, late of "Saturday Night Live," became Monday night the fourth host of NBC's late-late-night "Late Night," after David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and his onetime cast-mate Jimmy Fallon, who has now famously become the star of "The Tonight Show." If two examples can make a rule, the road to this desk leads through "Weekend Update," the mid-show topical segment that Meyers hosted (again, like Fallon before him), a job that, its scripted nature not entirely aside, would seem fair training for running a talk show.

With Fallon's "Late Night" producer Mike Shoemaker sticking around to run the Meyers show, "Weekend Update" writer Alex Baze on staff, and executive producer Lorne Michaels still the king of all he surveys, it was an easy transition. (With "The Tonight Show" moving east, NBC's post-prime-time programs are all gathered at 30 Rock.) There was, additionally, none of the drama that accompanied Fallon's arrival at "Late Night" as Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien sorted out their mutual hurt feelings over "The Tonight Show."

Meyers, for his own part, seems thoroughly an adult, playful but self-possessed. At 40, he is six years older than Fallon was when he took the job, and had been a head writer at "SNL" since 2005. (Fallon is 39 now, but forever a puppy dog.) Where Fallon's first episode of "Late Night," following O'Brien's 16 years in the chair, felt both tentative and unproductively busy, Meyers -- though he admitted in the days leading up to the premiere to being nervous -- was shaky only fleetingly. He stuck his landings. He was cool, but clearly having fun.

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Of course, to book as a first guest his erstwhile "Update" co-anchor Amy Poehler -- who had dropped by his final appearance on "Saturday Night Live" -- almost guaranteed an easy show. (Just as Fallon's choice of Robert De Niro had almost guaranteed a difficult one.) Possibly the most adorable person in American comedy, Poehler is also one of the sharpest and the quickest, fully present in the moment. In her own segment; and later, alongside "gorgeous charm monster" Joe Biden, the vice president; or pretending a feud with the show's bandleader, comedian-musician Fred Armisen, another "SNL" vet ("It's hard sometimes to be friends after being very turbulent lovers"), she glowed as if in benediction.

"You are going to do such a wonderful job," she told Meyers. "I have watched you for 13 years pretend to listen to people."

The new set has a mid-century feel, with some art deco trimmings -- a New York space. For whatever reasons -- the size of the studio, the size of the budget, the lateness of the hour -- the 12:30 talk shows do feel more intimate than their 11:30 lead-ins: less "important," maybe, as the celebrity project-flogging business defines it, but with room to move. (Craig Ferguson, Meyers' direct competition at CBS, could exist only at 12:30.) It seemed notable, somehow, that Meyers' new desk was relatively small and unimposing, and that you could see his feet beneath it much of the time, and the wheeled feet of his chair besides; and that the chairs in which his guests sat had the look of having been dragged in from the living room at the last moment.

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For all the seeming formality of the form -- monologue, shtick with the sidekick, pre-taped bits, guest, guest, musical guest -- late-night is TV's great blank canvas. As well as we think we know it, each host finds something quite different to do. Monday, Meyers did not mess with the form -- “I'm gonna shake stuff up and open this thing with a monologue," he said, with irony, before beginning what was, essentially, a standing rendition of what he's been doing for years on "Weekend Update."  ("All right, our first sort of bomb," he said with bemused delight after a joke fell flat.) But the form shapes itself in time to the gifts of the performer. What Meyers finds himself doing in this job may be something we might not yet even know we want, just as it was unclear for a while who Jimmy Fallon was going to be in that job, or how widely his abilities ranged -- more widely than all his years on "Saturday Night Live" would have led one to guess.

Meyers has expressed his happiness in playing the straight man. His job here, or one job, is to partner his guests: to bring out the best in whatever greater or lesser talents he has sitting next to him, hold it up to the light, and stay out of its way. He may be new to talk shows, but his background is in improvisation, which is a matter of paying attention, remembering what was said -- earlier themes (like "Snakes on a Train," the movie Poehler imagined doing with Biden) came around again Monday night -- and being generous. Of all this, late night's latest host already seems more than capable.

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Jimmy FallonConan O'BrienSaturday Night Live (tv program)Amy PoehlerThe Tonight ShowSeth Meyers
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