Seth Meyers on the Evolution of ‘Late Night’, the Origins of A Closer Look, and ‘Documentary Now!’

     June 11, 2018

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Never before in the history of late night television has the format been so radically changed. Late night talk shows have always been a staple of the broadcast television lineup, but the advent of social media, YouTube, and On Demand viewing coupled with declining live ratings across the board has drastically changed the way late night TV is now consumed. Luckily for NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, the show had a host, producers, and writers who were more than ready to shake things up.

When Late Night debuted in 2014, Meyers was a logical choice to take the reins from departing host Jimmy Fallon, and the SNL alum did a swell job of bringing his wit and charisma to the nightly series. But when the landscape drastically changed with the departures of Jon Stewart and David Letterman in 2015, Meyers and his team not only helped fill the void left by those two giants of late night, but morphed Late Night into a must-see program anchored by strong points of view and a keen eye on the ever-changing news cycle.

In the four years Late Night with Seth Meyers has been on the air, the show has only gotten better. The “A Closer Look” segment has essentially grown to become its own must-see franchise, Meyers’ interviewing skills make for comfortable, insightful, and conversational guest appearances, and the show’s wildly talented writing staff gets a chance to shine on their own in segments like “Amber Says What” and “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” To put it bluntly, Late Night with Seth Meyers is far and away the best late night show on TV right now.

Recently I got the chance to speak with Meyers about the show over the phone, and it was a delight to pick his brain about what goes into crafting the series. Meyers discussed how the show has evolved since it debuted, and why certain ideas that seemed crucial to the series in the beginning were subsequently jettisoned. He also discussed the departures of Stewart and Letterman, the origins and evolution of “A Closer Look,” the makeup of the show’s writing staff, what kinds of people make the best talk show guests, his interview process, and more. He also revealed we might finally see the return of “Second Chance Theater” and gave a tantalizing tease about what to expect in Documentary Now! Season 3, which will feature more guest stars in lieu of the incredibly busy Bill Hader and Fred Armisen.

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Image via NBC

It’s an insightful, wide-ranging interview, and if you’re at all interested in what it’s been like to be inside the late night machine during this significant shift, I think you’ll find what Meyers has to say fascinating. Check out the full interview below.

The show’s been on the air for a few years now, and it’s gone through some evolution along the way. I’m curious, when you started the show were there any cornerstones or hallmarks you felt were absolutely essential to what you wanted your Late Night to be that you subsequently jettisoned as the show progressed?

SETH MEYERS: I would say more has been jettisoned than has been kept. One idea that we had—playing off all the years of doing Weekend Update—is we thought it would be fun for me to interact with our writers as crazy characters, and the reality is you just realize that’s a really hard thing to do even for SNL cast members before people know who they are. It’s one thing when you’re Bill Hader in your seventh or eighth season to come out and crush as Stefon, and it’s another thing to ask a writer to come out as an unknown and play characters. So that was something, and then we just didn’t really have much of a plan other than to try and be a show that had a lot of writing. Obviously what we have ended up writing about was very different from what we started writing about. I think we started wanting to approach it maybe the way Conan did when he first had the franchise, and I think we realized what was cool when Conan was doing it lacked the same spark doing it in 2014.

One of the things you did in the beginning that I enjoyed a lot was Second Chance Theater. Is that dead, or did that go away for a reason?

MEYERS: No it was mostly just we realized there are fewer beautiful failures than we thought (laughs). It can’t just be a sketch that stinks, it has to be something that had lofty aspirations. But I feel like we’ve tapped into a whole new vein of potential Second Chance Theaters because the last time Will Ferrell was on the show he was like, “How come you guys haven’t asked me to do that?” Cause Will has like millions of those. It’s really just that. It’s crazy we’ve only done it three times, but the three we’ve done were ones we still talk about constantly for how badly they fail. But Will has some good ones and I’d love to get another one out of Forte or Samberg because they had a lot of bad failures too. They came from beautiful places.

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Image via NBC

In 2015, two giants of late night TV left with Letterman and Jon Stewart. It really felt like the late night landscape as a whole was shifting, and I’m curious as someone on the inside of things, did you feel that big shift happening and did you and your staff have discussions about your show’s role in late night at the time? 

MEYERS: No, I mean it did line up—Jon leaving, and it was not by design, but that was very close to the time that we went back behind the desk to start the show, which we did purely for my own personal comfort. But the weird thing for me when that happened was we got to be a new show for a very short period of time. Again I haven’t been doing this [for a very long time], but when you go down the list, Corden, Colbert, Trevor, John Oliver, Sam Bee, they all started after us. So the strange thing was the timeline for how long I thought we’d have until we were sort of one of the old guards moved a lot faster than I thought it would.

Was that a discussion about shifting the show’s direction? Did you guys ever have some meeting where you were like, “Listen I think this is the direction we’re going in and this is what I want to do.”

MEYERS: The great thing about sitting behind a desk is it was a very quick decision that did not require new staff, it didn’t require a new set, it didn’t require any of the new things that take a long time or a new budget or approval from a network. It was as simple as my producer and I sitting one afternoon in the middle of summer where you sort of feel like you can be a bit more experimental with the show and saying, “Let’s just sit down and see how that feels.” In doing that, a very small move felt like it affected the DNA of the show greatly. We were just really lucky that we managed to fix something. It would be like when you’re like, “Ah, the TV’s not working,” and then you realize it’s like, “Oh, you didn’t turn it on.” (laughs). It’s not like you need a new TV, you just need batteries in the remote.

A Closer Look came not too long after that. What do you remember about the origins of that segment and the first time you did it? 

MEYERS: We did it a couple times, sort of longer form things that would become what A Closer Look was. [Producer Mike] Shoemaker and my father both said, “You should call them A Closer Look every time,” because otherwise if you just do this longform thing, people won’t know what to call it when they say that they like it. But the real evolution and the reason that it’s such a thriving, vital piece of the show is we were lucky enough to have this guy named Sal Gentile who had a background in news and was a segment producer on our show, but he also was a UCB guy and had a comedy background. He was just a guy I would bring in to fact check and bounce ideas off, he would always be able to remember something some politician said or some piece of video he’d seen that would be really helpful, because we were only doing them once a month at that point, and it became really obvious that he’d be really good at writing them so we made him a writer and we turned that part of the show over to him. It’s incredible, the speed at which he can crank them out and the fact that we can do three a week. We’re in the middle of a two week break as we’re talking and we just hope that Sal is lying in a spa somewhere, relaxing.

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Image via NBC

I’ve actually seen him tweeting out what seem to be jokes that would probably be in A Closer Look if the show was on tonight. 

MEYERS: (Laughs) Yeah I also follow him on Twitter and I think we both can attest he is not in a spa.

I thought that was funny. Other than the volume, has the process of making A Closer Look changed that much over time?

MEYERS: The biggest change was just we didn’t staff our show thinking that that would be a thing we would do. For people who come from The Daily Show comedy tree, they get their own shows and they know how to staff them because they know what it takes to make a show like that. We knew less, so we had these really young and enthusiastic talented people that were doing research and graphics and all the things that all of a sudden become more essential when you’re pulling together A Closer Look. So we both hired a few more people to do that but mostly they’ve just gotten so good and so fast, and they tend to predict what Sal’s gonna need before he even asks for it.

One of the other things I love about the show is your eagerness to highlight your writers through stuff like Jokes Seth Can’t Tell or Amber Says What. Was it a conscious decision on your part to start giving platforms to your writers, or was that something that just happened organically?

MEYERS: It’s interesting, going back to what I said because in the beginning we thought, “Oh we’ll interview crazy characters,” so we kind of came back around to using our writers but in a different way which was more point of view pieces, and more often than not they’re themselves. It was a combination of a couple things. Amber is a performer, I knew her first as a performer and I’ve known her for a really long time. So we just gave the space for people to suggest ideas they had. Amber doesn’t come to you with a half-baked idea, she comes to you with a fully formed idea which makes it a lot easier to say, “Oh yeah we will definitely try that.” Amber Says What came from it’s not any harder than something happened in the news and Amber said, “What?!” And then Jenny was the brains behind the initial idea of Jokes Seth Can’t Tell. We do a table read once a week where we just give all the writers freedom to write things that they want. We don’t give them a box that we want ideas to fit in, so I was not smart enough to come up with Jokes Seth Can’t Tell but I was smart enough to know it would work the minute they explained it to me.

You said that now that A Closer Look is a foundational thing you’re looking for people to help facilitate that. I was curious how not only the writers room has evolved, but how what you’re looking for in the makeup of your writers room has evolved as the show has gone on. Because you’re very far away from the traditional late night TV series. Your show contains multitudes. 

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Image via NBC

MEYERS: Yeah, I look back with great joy at the time where you start a show and you have like 10 writer slots, because then you feel like you have a lot of money and you’re in a really nice grocery store and you can pick out a lot of different things. So we would hire someone like Seth Reiss who came from The Onion and Conner O’Malley who came from whatever weird place a guy like Connor O’Malley came from (laughs). But you know he’s like an Annoyance Theater UCB guy who wants to really push the boundaries of what’s allowed on a late night talk show, then you hire somebody like Amber who I knew from Boom Chicago and Amsterdam, so we try to hire a lot of different people, like Michelle Wolff from standup. The only downside is then you don’t get another big hiring push the rest of the time you have a show unless you fire everybody, but we were never gonna do that because we like our staff. So you get turnover every now and then like when Michelle leaves to go to The Daily Show. You have a better sense of, “Okay so now since we’re doing A Closer Look, since we’re doing more verbal point of view things, then somebody like Ally Hord makes sense,” because all of a sudden when you only have one slot to fill you try to be a little more targeted with what you need. The only downside is that slots come up less than you would want, and the upside is it’s because you’re happy with the people in the slots you have.

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