Given the frantic pace at which monologue-ripe news erupts, the late-night TV arena in 2017 is not for the slow-footed.
Seth Meyers can always tell when something is probably going to upend his carefully planned edition of “Late Night.”
“My door is right outside of our script department and you hear paper flying around like someone opened a window on a windy day and all of a sudden it’s like — Fwump!” he said with a laugh. “The amount that I hear the volume getting turned up on cable news — that’s basically my life now — it goes from a low hum to very loud, and that’s how I know.”
But as has been true for other late-night hosts willing to jump into the political fray, Meyers has been winning critical plaudits for his sharp comic commentary.
Thanks to his incisive “A Closer Look” segments — both during the election and since President Trump’s inauguration — the show has become a much buzzier affair three years into Meyers’ tenure. That is particularly visible online where the “Late Night” YouTube subscriber base jumped more than 50% in the latter half of 2016.
We caught up with Meyers for a quick chat when he recently was in town. When asked the odds that his phones would be tapped, he joked, “Let’s face it, they probably already are.”
Do you ever get nervous because you go so hard on Trump?
No, the thing I would regret is when this was over, I would look back and think that we hadn’t stood by our principles. And, again, they’re comedy writer principles, so there are other people that are more principled than us. But with the meager principles we have, the least we can do is try to effect them.
What is that scramble like when news breaks just as you are about to tape the show?
It’s a real credit to the people who are writing “A Closer Look.” We have this wonderful guy, Sal Gentile, who does the lion’s share of it. And, again, at 5 o’clock he really has to go through the actual logistics of putting “A Closer Look” together. That’s the one hour of the day where he can’t pay attention to the news, so somebody has to run up and tap him on the shoulder and give him the terrible information that what he has written is now so boring compared to what has just happened. And on top of that, Sal is backed up by this incredible support system of researchers and people who are building graphics at the last second and people have to pull quotes and find the clips. We’re just so lucky — again we’re only lucky in that it’s helped us figure out how to do this, overall I would say we share unluckiness with the rest of the country — but we’ve gotten better and better at doing things fast.
The irony for some hosts such as yourself who have been very critical of Trump is that he has been a boon to their shows. Do you find yourself saying, “Yay for us! Sorry, America!”
We don’t say yay a lot in general. We’ve just decided that we’re going to make the first 15 minutes of our show as much about the last 24 hours as possible. So it’s mostly just trying to make sure you get good enough and competent enough at handling that last 24 hours that you can get the best version of that out. You obviously fear, when you have to do a show every day, that there won’t be content, and that is a fear we don’t currently have. [Laughs.] But hopefully we’re learning enough that when the day comes — and I do think the day will come because nothing is permanent in America — in the same way we adapted to this period of time, I hope we can adapt to the next period of time.
There are those who contend that NBC helped humanize Trump during the election thanks to his appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.” What’s your take on that?
I’m always a little surprised that anybody thinks that NBC has some grand plan for the handling of Trump. They’ve certainly embraced our position on it, which we came to the day he announced [his candidacy], and we’ve been consistent and they’ve celebrated that consistency. No one’s humanized Donald Trump like Donald Trump. He went out and behaved like a human in a way that no politician ever has. So as far as the aiding abetting of other people, at the end of the day the reason he was humanized was his incredible skill at dropping all the pretense and going out and being human.
But there’s no reason for the network not to embrace what you’re doing because it’s helping boost the show’s profile. And having him on “SNL” and “The Tonight Show” also helped ratings at the time. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Wait a second, are they a company? I am starting to think they’re a business! (Laughs.) Well, this is an interesting theory, I’m going to put my best people on it and I’ll get back to you as soon as I find stuff out.
In terms of an online following, “Late Night” really started to surge with “A Closer Look.” Do you get the sense that more people are consuming it that way?
Sure, we get our “A Closer Look” up early mostly because we know that every minute that passes, it is less the news of the moment. We were not a viral show in any way, shape or form before this period of time came about, and we’re very happy to be because we didn’t think that we had the skills to do viral stuff, so we thought “OK, we’ll just do a good show where, over the course of an hour, people will see the breadth of what we do and enjoy it.” I feel like if you approach your hour with integrity, people the next day are going to find a part of it they want to watch, so we’re thrilled.
You probably don’t have a lot of time, but what are you watching these days?
With a 1-year-old it’s a little hard, but my wife’s never seen “The Sopranos,” so since last June we’ve been trying to watch that, which has been outstanding. And then in the time in between, based on my commute, basically I can knock out two hours a week and it’s been “Better Call Saul” and “Fargo.” With “Better Call Saul,” it’s so wonderful when you watch a show that is that patient and you know they aren’t taking you on a long walk without a destination.