The Late Night TV landscape—much like the television landscape in general—is going through a pretty intense transformation at the moment. Come this August, the “oldest” regular program in late night will be Jimmy Kimmel Live, which launched in 2003. The Tonight Show Wars finally came to a close (again) in February 2014 when Jay Leno stepped down a second time, making way for Jimmy Fallon to take over the established franchise. And somewhat fittingly, David Letterman felt it was time to retire just over a year later, bringing Late Show with David Letterman to a close this past May.
Letterman’s loss was the most striking, not only because Late Show paved the way for a new kind of comedy on late night television, but also Letterman’s interview skills/style was unrivaled. His somewhat prickly personality made for some of the most fascinating and entertaining interactions in all of television, and in the final few years he essentially stopped pretending to care about pushing whatever film or TV show his guest was promoting and opted instead to have real, unrehearsed conversations about whatever he felt like; family, fishing, and child rearing became the new topics of conversation, and it was utterly captivating.
While it had a smaller audience, Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show also regularly delved into unscripted interview territory to candid and sometimes excellent results, but Ferguson opted to depart that series when Stephen Colbert was announced as Letterman’s replacement.
But with Letterman gone we still had one great interviewer left: Jon Stewart. Much more openly endearing than Letterman, Stewart is able to effortlessly steer two very different kinds of conversations: open and honest dialogues with some of the most prominent political figures in the world today, and goofy and loose detours with a slew of actors, comedians, and musicians. But now Stewart is leaving us too, with his last Daily Show set to air on August 6th.
So with Letterman and Stewart—our great interviewers—no longer on the air, where does this leave the late night TV landscape? Fallon has carved out a successful niche for his Tonight Show by playing a slew of interactive games with his guests that admittedly lead to memorable and funny moments, but they don’t come close to touching on the kind of honesty or poignancy that Letterman and Stewart could hit. The overly rehearsed interview segment on Fallon’s Tonight Show seems like more of a formality than an opportunity.
Conan O’Brien, while still whip-smart and kind, has lost some of his edge on TBS’ Conan since the Tonight Show debacle, and Jimmy Kimmel excels more with bits than conversations. James Corden, likewise, is following more in Fallon’s footsteps with his iteration of The Late Late Show, though his “all guests at once” interview style has promise.
But there’s one person who’s been absolutely nailing it lately, and he’s been flying a bit under the radar: Seth Meyers. The SNL alum took over as host of NBC’s Late Night in 2014, and he quickly found his footing as a solid addition to the late night landscape. Recently, however, his interview skills have really taken off, and if there’s anyone who can provide a sliver of hope for some TV moments that aren’t specifically engineered to “go viral,” it’s Meyers.
When Jerry Seinfeld was a guest on Meyers’ show earlier this month, he remarked that Meyers was conducting the interview without notecards. Most late night hosts keep a couple of notecards in front of them during the interviews as a “cheat sheet” to remind them of the various talking points to touch on. This has been a late night staple for decades, and Seinfeld noted that Meyers’ disuse of notecards was a big deal—and it is. So much of late night television is scripted before the guests even come out, and what made Letterman and Stewart so fun to watch was their willingness to go off-topic and thus off-script. Meyers, likewise, conducts his interviews with a comfort and ease that makes every interview come off as more of a conversation than an effort to “plug” some big movie or TV show coming up.
Case in point: Meyers had Colin Farrell as a guest on his show recently, and while Farrell was obviously there to promote HBO’s True Detective, Meyers instead opted to spend most of the interview talking about Farrell’s little-seen but beloved 2008 film In Bruges. Most of the people in the audience likely had never heard of In Bruges, but Meyers loves the film and wanted to talk about it—so he did.
Additionally, when Judd Apatow appeared as a guest last week to promote his new book, Meyers touched on the filmmaker’s outspoken criticism of Bill Cosby. This is the kind of topic that would never be broached on Fallon’s Tonight Show, but Meyers was able to navigate the subject with tact and humor.
While there will never again be anyone like David Letterman or even Jon Stewart, Seth Meyers is a shining beacon of hope in this severely changed late night TV landscape. Success may now be counted in how many YouTube views a bit gets the next morning, or whether a segment topic starts trending on Twitter, but Meyers has shown an ability to balance this kind of buzzworthy material (like the excellent revival of Really?! With Seth and Amy) with honest-to-goodness conversations, and that’s something worth celebrating. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years we’ll be bidding a fond farewell to “late night legend Seth Meyers.”