Seth Meyers’ new office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a blank. Bare walls, a few boxes, a fresh legal pad on the otherwise empty desktop. There’s one lonely picture tacked on his desk, of Meyers with the Count from Sesame Street.
You’ll have to excuse the future Late Night host for not decorating: he still has another NBC office upstairs, at Saturday Night Live, where he’s been since 2001. (Meyers’ last SNL episode won’t be before the beginning of February, he guesses.) So he commutes, by elevator. This December morning, he’s going to take comedy pitches from his still incomplete Late Night writing staff. “Then I’ll go upstairs and start writing on something,” he says. “Then I’ll pop down here and look at the next pass of those bits. Then I’ll spend the night sleeping upstairs. Then I’ll wake up and come down here. It’s like having two families. I feel like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas, with the helicopter following me.”
For now, though, much of Meyers’ Late Night job is waiting for Feb. 24, after Jimmy Fallon moves from Late Night to Tonight, when Meyers takes over the 12:35 a.m. E.T. show. Waiting for his new studio to get built. And waiting, in a way, to figure out who he is–at least as a host. When you make a drama or a sitcom, you decide what it will be, then hope it gets on the air. In late night, you get the show, then figure out what it will be like. Which depends largely on what you are like.
So who’s Seth Meyers? Says Amy Poehler, who worked with him when he was SNL’s head writer and plans to appear on his first show: “He enjoys bringing the best out of people. Maybe it’s his improv training, but he really knows how to make other people look good.” He’s regularly described as a comedy writer’s writer. “The defining thing with him is his intelligence and curiosity,” says Lorne Michaels, the SNL impresario who brought Fallon to Late Night then tapped Meyers to replace him. “He can construct a joke in conversation,” says his producer, Mike Shoemaker. “As he’s talking, he writes.”
He’s also not entirely unlike the guy he’s replacing. As Jay Leno leaves Tonight (again), to be replaced by the younger host of Late Night (again), both shows will be hosted by white guys, former Weekend Update anchors within a few months of 40 years old, broadcasting from Manhattan. (Fallon is moving Tonight from Los Angeles for the first time in half a century.) Meyers’ studio will literally sit on top of the new Tonight digs.
“On paper, Seth and Jimmy look the same, but they’re so completely different,” says Shoemaker, a longtime SNL producer who also helped launch Fallon’s show. Fallon has an eager enthusiast’s persona, so he put on an upbeat Late Night that broke from the David Letterman–Conan O’Brien ironist tradition. A music buff, he hired the Roots as a house band and did inspired musical-comedy bits like “History of Rap” with Justin Timberlake.
Don’t expect Meyers to sing. Like a groom planning a wedding, he doesn’t yet even know if he’ll have a DJ or a band. His interests are politics, sports, current events. He wrote much of Tina Fey’s blistering Sarah Palin material in 2008, SNL’s high-water mark of cultural pull in the past decade. He’s a cerebral and incisive stand-up who can cut sharp with a nice guy’s smile. At the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he roasted Donald Trump while the mogul fumed, stone-faced. “Donald Trump said recently he has a great relationship with the blacks,” Meyers said, “though unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he’s mistaken.”
Since Late Night will be in the same city as the higher-profile Tonight, Shoemaker and Meyers talk about making a virtue of being lower on the booking chain, getting more authors, politicians and explainers. And building off Meyers’ SNL work, expect more sketches, with staffers playing recurring characters. On SNL, Meyers killed as the straight man. His impromptu wedding to Bill Hader’s departing “city correspondent” Stefon was one of the funniest bits SNL has done in recent years. “People will say to me, ‘You were so good with Stefon, I can’t wait to see you do interviews!'” Meyers says. “I have to remind them, You know those were scripted.”
What Meyers won’t do is reinvent the format. There will be a monologue, a desk, celebrities–all while the competition has become more numerous and varied. But there are worse things in a host than a level of familiarity. “These kinds of jobs are the definition of overexposed,” Michaels says. “It needs to be somebody you want to spend a lot of time with.”
The fact that Michaels runs essentially all of NBC’s late night–SNL, Fallon and now Meyers–should buy some network patience. “I like that everyone before me has established this as a place to try things out,” Meyers says. “It’s 12:35 at night. You can do crazy stuff.” As with Letterman, O’Brien and Fallon, the work of figuring out who Seth Meyers is will have to take place partly before our eyes. You can plan all you want, but only time can fill in the blank.
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