When Seth Meyers hits the stage at the Nokia Theatre on Monday as host of the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, it will be almost six months to the day after taking over NBC’s “Late Night.”
The new job requires Meyers, who spent more than a dozen years in the trenches at “Saturday Night Live,” to watch hours of television as preparation for interviews with the celebrities who grace his guest chair each weeknight.
“Everyone’s been like a drug dealer getting me hooked,” Meyers says of the advance peeks at shows like “Fargo” and “The Knick.”
But glance around his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and the space is lined with an eclectic collection of books ( “The Last Lion,” William Manchester’s massive biography of Winston Churchill, sits on a shelf with Wallpaper* magazine travel guides) and sports memorabilia (framed vintage football cards, Dutch newspapers celebrating the Netherlands’ World Cup win over Spain). One gets the impression that this all hardly feels like homework for the 40-year-old funnyman.
If fellow “SNL” alum and NBC lead-in Jimmy Fallon is the host with a boundless and uncritical enthusiasm for pop culture, Meyers is the slightly more discriminating connoisseur — the kind of guy who casually uses the word “cinema” instead of “the movies” and thoughtfully ruminates about why the upcoming finale of “Mad Men” feels so different from that of “Breaking Bad.”
He’s also particularly happy to see sketch comedy shows like “Portlandia,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Key & Peele” getting Emmy recognition this year, and says he’s a fan of “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones.”
“The line between film and television gets blurrier every year,” he says. “There’s a lot of really high-quality stuff happening in television that feels very cinematic.”
Of course, there’s also been plenty of excitement this past year in the world of late night. One of the cruel ironies of the genre is that most reviews come out after just a single show, a situation that Meyers, ever the sports enthusiast, likens to filing a story after the first at-bat of the baseball season.
While Meyers received kinder notices than Fallon did five years earlier, his understated “Late Night” debut still felt like something of an afterthought after the much-ballyhooed handoff of “The Tonight Show.” If he was guilty of anything, according to the critics, it was being a little too safe.
But in the intervening months, his show has developed a more confident and distinctive voice. Unlike Fallon, a master of the viral video, Meyers is more focused on nuts-and-bolts joke-telling. The monologue, full of topical observations, has always been a main focus for the former “Weekend Update” anchor, but as he’s settled into the job, he’s loosened the rhythms of his delivery and grown more comfortable ad-libbing with the audience.
“We learned more in a week of doing shows than we would have in six months of talking about shows,” says Meyers, who had just three weeks off between his “Saturday Night Live” send-off and his “Late Night” unveiling.
Each episode of the show also includes a pleasingly low-concept, loosely scripted desk piece called “Seth’s Stories,” in which Meyers shares an amusing and often self-deprecating anecdote about, say, the time Amy Poehler took his credit card hostage or his inability to operate a new stove.
In what’s become another “Late Night” signature, New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick stops by to introduce highly dramatic live stagings of cartoons from the esteemed magazine. Meyers has mixed up the usual late-night guest list with authors like Sarah Lewis and Linda Fairstein, suggesting an ambition to be a sort of network television’s answer to Jon Stewart.
“I don’t think we’re trying to be highbrow,” producer Michael Shoemaker says, “but I would say that Seth’s tastes are intelligent.”
For Meyers, who had mixed feelings about leaving his home a short elevator ride away at “Saturday Night Live,” the transition to “Late Night” has been more enjoyable than he imagined.
“I don’t think this job is easy, but I do think that maybe everything seems a little easy after ‘SNL.’ That might be the greatest gift that ‘SNL’ gives you,” he muses. “I think what makes ‘SNL’ a grind is you spend all week rolling this boulder up a hill and you only get the release of letting it go the one time.”
At “Late Night,” he adds, “it’s been lovely to be less precious about things. If something goes wrong, it feels a little less permanent because you know you’re going to get another trip to the playpen the next day.”
His new show has also held up well in the ratings, averaging 1.6 million viewers a night and handily beating its main rival, “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” on CBS. That network is poised for its own major transition early next year, when Stephen Colbert will take over for a retiring David Letterman and Ferguson’s as-yet-unnamed replacement (rumored to be British comedian James Corden) will step in at 12:35, but Meyers is unfazed by the changes afoot in the increasingly crowded wee hours. “I don’t see it as competition as much as it’s kind of nice that we all get to have shows.”
In 2010, the Emmys gig proved to be a turning point for Fallon, an opportunity to erase the memory of his wobbly “Late Night” debut 18 months earlier and to play to his strengths as an all-around performer. Though Meyers sees the hosting job as a possible “springboard” for his show, he insists that bringing more eyeballs to “Late Night” is not his primary goal. “I’m not really looking at what the Emmys can do for this show, I more just want to do a good Emmys.”
Despite the proliferation of quality TV, that task seems to have grown only harder lately: Even Hollywood super-host Neil Patrick Harris wasn’t enough to save last year’s oddly downbeat Emmys telecast.
Luckily, Meyers already has plenty of experience as an emcee, having hosted the ESPYs in 2010 and 2011 and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. What makes the Emmys different, though, is that “the room is full of comedians, so the stakes are sort of raised,” he says. “Everyone in the audience are entertainers themselves, so if you’re not entertaining, you’re not going to get any sympathy.”
Perhaps just as valuable, he knows what it’s like to be a nominee putting on a brave face for the cameras. The comedian has been nominated for a dozen writing Emmys, with just a single win — for, of all things, the music and lyrics to a song Justin Timberlake performed in an “SNL” monologue. (Meyers is nominated again this year, for his work on the Golden Globes.)
“Even when you’re sure you’re not going to win,” he says, “it still really is a bummer.”