Seth Meyers On The ‘Late Night’ Learning Curve & The Beauty Of ‘Documentary Now!’s “Long Shelf Life”

Dan Doperalski

In February, when Seth Meyers completed his fifth year as the host of Late Night, he decided to take stock of his experience, recognizing how far the series had come in his tenure. Starting out in 2014, Meyers had a modest goal: “To keep my head above water.” But in recent years, Late Night has hit its stride, earning Emmy and WGA Award nominations, while leading in its timeslot. “Ultimately, you just get better with more trips to the plate,” the host says. “Now, we feel as though our audience and the network knows who we are.”

What were your expectations when you first set out with Late Night

I think we knew you had to do the show to figure out what the show was going to be, so then, the requirement is to do enough shows to be able to figure it out before they pull the rug out from under you. The hardest press I ever did in my life was the six months leading up to that premiere, because you had to talk about a TV show, [where] you didn’t know what it was. The thing that we were right about is, we thought we would talk to authors and politicians. But I don’t think this format was anything close to what we conceived in the beginning. The great gift of a nightly show is that we get the reps, and the reps inform what the show is.

The show seemed to hit its stride a few years in. From your perspective, what are the factors that have resulted in its growing success?

I think if you listen to your audience, they are a great feedback device, as far as what it is you’re doing that works, and what you’re doing that’s not. We have a writing staff that has grown up with us; a lot of them, it was their first job. So, when you look back at those first 18 months, there was [producer Michael] Shoemaker and I, and Alex Baze, our head writer, who used to run Weekend Update. We had a lot of experience, but most of our writers were green. Now, they’re veteran comedy writers on a television show, and I think it shows up in the product.

Lloyd Bishop/NBC

But the other thing is, I think these shows work when the host has a level of comfort. It took a couple of years to feel comfortable, and now we feel as though our audience knows who we are, and the network knows who we are, so you don’t go out every night thinking, “Oh boy, I hope I don’t drop the ball tonight, or else I might be out on the street.”

In recent years, some late-night series have changed tack: In the face of shrinking attention spans, a more clip-oriented culture has emerged. Would you say that changing patterns of consumption have influenced the approach you’ve taken with your show?

It’s interesting because I do think when we started in 2014, there was this idea that attention spans were shorter, and it was about clips. And yet the most success we’ve found with anything the next day is our longest pieces. “A Closer Look” is sometimes 12, 14 minutes, and yet that is consistently the part of the show that audiences engage with online. So, we haven’t had to chase it, because we were wrong. We felt like, “Well, we’ll do this thing, and we’ll pay the price online,” but the opposite has happened. Shoemaker and I have been in TV for a long time, and we’re wrong about exactly half of it. You could flip a coin and have the exact same results as us, plus our experience.

Creatively, what has been on your mind over the last year with Late Night? Where have you been looking to push boundaries?

The part of our show that we put the most effort into on any given day is that first act. We want our first act to be as much about the day’s news as possible, so we just constantly are trying to become better and more agile at reacting to the news as it happens. If we decide at 9 a.m. what the show’s going to be about that night, we’re effectively going to be wrong more often than not, so we are then trying to figure out, “How can we do the same quality show we’d want to do if news happens at 2 in the afternoon?” So, if there’s anything we’ve been trying to do, it’s just to be faster and better.

Between Late Night and Saturday Night Live, you must have encountered every possible public figure by this point. But have there been recent guests that you found particularly memorable or surprising?

Dr. Ruth. She’s been going on talk shows forever, but it’s sort of stunning to be around someone with that longevity who you can still be surprised by. Glenda Jackson…Again, I don’t know why I’m surprised that a woman who’s playing King Lear every night is sharp as a tack, but she was amazing. The longer you do a job in show business, the more respect you have for people who’ve been in show business for a long time. Steve Martin was on the show for the first time this year, and again, I had high expectations that he met with ease. But it’s still kind of amazing to watch that, someone who makes it look easy because they’ve put so much work into it. Those are the most inspiring.

Recently, you’ve started interviewing candidates for the 2020 presidential election. What kind of perspective has that given you on the race, or the political sphere in general?

I think just based on the fact that there’s 20-plus of them, you realize, “Wow, they’re just regular people.” Exceptional people, but they’re all coming on the show in an effort to show people who they are. They need to connect with our audience the same as someone who’s trying to promote a film, and ultimately we’re just trying to give them space to introduce themselves. I’d certainly rather talk to them that way than as a debate moderator. [But] some people are really good. Last night, Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado, who I probably couldn’t have picked out from a line-up six months ago, [came on the show]…Great! When someone like Kamala Harris sits down, you’re like, “Oh, you’re exactly as charismatic as most actors or writers we have on the show.”

You went live this past fall, on the night of the midterm elections. What was that experience like?

Ultimately, we pretty much do our show as though it’s live. We don’t edit much, so it’s mostly just having to react, to have a little bit shorter turnaround, as far as material goes. But it’s always fun. I feel as though, on a night like that, it would be very strange to watch our show, having taped before the results. So, those are the nights where it’s more out of necessity, making your show not feel like yesterday’s news by the time people watch it.

What are you most proud of, in the work you’ve done on Late Night this past year?

In the daily grind-out of the show, I’m really proud of how I do feel like there’s a real consistency to “A Closer Look.” I’m also happy that every now and then, we have a film piece that I’m really proud of—be it “Game of Jones” with Leslie [Jones] or “White Savior” with Amber [Ruffin]— and still have a platform for our writers to address the audience on things that have more strength coming from them than it would from me.

You’re developing television series with a number of your up-and-coming writers, including Ruffin and Allison Hord, while giving them the on-air platform you mentioned. Why has this been important for you to do?

We’ve always felt as though we want this to be their first job, [which] hopefully will lead to their next job. More often than not, the people that work for us, this is the first time they’ve worked for a TV show—and after a few years, if there’s somebody who wants to go try to express it even more from their point of view than our show allows, we’re trying very hard to provide that platform for them, and just basically be friends to them on that journey.

This past year, you wrote a few new episodes and some original songs for Documentary Now!, the series you co-created with Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Rhys Thomas. What about Season 3 stood out to you?

We went into it with a little trepidation because we knew—for the best possible reason, which was Barry—we wouldn’t have Bill Hader, who is as good a sketch actor as I think the world has ever produced. Yet that became this challenge that I feel the show rose to meet. When you can get Michael Keaton and Owen Wilson, and Richard Kind and Cate Blanchett, it was just so exciting—and in the really safe hands of Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, our directors, I feel as though this season was as good as any we’ve ever done.

Rhys Thomas/IFC

It seems like it would be difficult to carve out time from your late-night schedule to take on other creative projects. How have you made that work?

Every day is such a labor of love. I think the thing about Late Night is, every episode we do is most valuable to an audience within the 24 hours that we do it. It’s like very fresh vegetables; eat them right away, or they will go bad. Whereas Documentary Now!, I think, will endure. If you go back and watch any of those episodes in 10 years, they will have the same quality to them, and it’s nice to work on something that has a long shelf life.

I understand that you were also tending to your newborn son during this period.

I will say, my wife definitely looked at me side-eyed when we would put our infant son down, and then I would crack a Red Bull and go downstairs, and work on Documentary Now! scripts in the middle of the night. But I’m really proud of this season, and so happy it’s still a show. It was a miracle it was a show in the first place, and the fact that IFC is being nice enough to give us a fourth season, I’m just thrilled.

Have you found new inspiration in any recent documentaries, or docuseries?

Yeah, there’s so many now. The one rule we have, which we might not have to stick to, is: Anything anyone suggests to us, we decide not to do. So, if you have one you really want us to do, don’t tell it to one of us in person. [Laughs] But it’s been fun. We got to break out a little bit [in Season 3], because I think we approached the first two years like, “What would be funny for Bill and Fred to play?” Now, there is a bit of freedom, because Fred did three this year and Bill couldn’t do any. So, moving forward, I think there’s certain parts that we wouldn’t have been able to play before that now are open to us. I think that’ll be fun.

Your current Late Night contract will take you through 2021. Do you have a sense yet of how long you want to remain as host?

We hit five years, and I think that was a nice time to take stock of things and say, “I’m happy in this, I like doing this.” So, knock on wood, we can go another five years and have the same assessment.

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