NPR Story
11:44 am
Wed April 23, 2014

Seth Meyers' 'Late Night' Challenge: What To Do With His Hands

Originally published on Wed April 23, 2014 1:32 pm

Seth Meyers already had his dream job. As the host of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, "I sort of had already accomplished the job I never thought I would accomplish," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. He joined the cast in 2001 and was there for 12 years.

But in one of the recent rounds of musical chairs/desks in the late-night talk show scene, Meyers landed Late Night. Lorne Michaels, executive producer of Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show and Late Night, encouraged Meyers to host the 12:30 a.m. spot and make it his own. Meyers took it over when Jimmy Fallon moved to The Tonight Show.

"My biggest fear with any job coming after SNL was that the next job would be boring compared to SNL," Meyers says. "So when this came up, I was thrilled at the idea that it would be something that would move as fast as SNL, as well as being in the same building, so I didn't have to get a new ID photo."


Interview Highlights

On his first week hosting Late Night

They have to put a mark on the floor where you're supposed to end up every night, and just the stress of hitting that mark, I think the whole first week I couldn't even bear to watch myself walk out because I felt like I would look like an insane person, just staring at a spot on the floor.

... I've done standup for a long time but even in standup the main difference is holding a microphone. The trickiest part of this job the first week was just figuring out what to do with my hands. I think one of the great discoveries I made at the show was the memory of pockets. I was like, "OK, I can put one of these away."

I as a person in conversation tend to use my hands a great deal, and I think my first couple of monologues I looked like someone on a desert island trying to signal for a passing plane.

It's weird, a few people said, a friend even after the first couple of shows, "You seemed a little nervous the first night." To which I replied, "Yeah, I was a little nervous, that's why. You nailed it."

On his Late Night desk

The first [desk] I thought was a bit — didn't quite have much personality. I sort of like this Danish modern desk. We did a little bit of work to it because originally you could see my feet, which turns out, I think accurately was criticized as being a mistake. Especially because I realize I tap my foot to keep time. ... I think just to keep my own internal rhythm, if that makes sense, to keep joke time. That's something I noticed, because at Weekend Update I felt like my foot was always tapping, even when I was talking — which you realize when you're doing a monologue, you've got to stop, lest you look like Fred Astaire getting ready to start a big number.

... The thing I like about the desk is that the right-hand side of the desk that leans toward the guest is smaller than the left-hand side, which leans away from it. What we wanted to do was have it be a little more intimate as far as talking to the guests — and the physics of the desk draw me toward the guests, which I like.

On missing SNL

I do [miss it]. I miss it a little bit less every day, which is nice. The thing I was so worried about leaving SNL was just the family and the routine and all of the wonderful people that I got to spend so much time with. And obviously as you build a new show like we have, you find there are other really lovely people that you get to sort of build a new family with. I do miss the rush of SNL, and on Saturday at 11:30 [p.m.] when I'm sitting at home I feel phantom limbs, if that's the right expression, of just wanting to be out there.

The part you miss the most not being on the show anymore is Wednesday, which was the table read where you basically had to watch 40 pieces all with varying degrees of success. I remember when people like Kristen Wiig left, or people like Andy Samberg left, the thing that I felt so lucky about was that I got to see everything they tried to do for a seven- or eight-year period. Like all their failures, all their successes, you got to see everything in the incubator stage to the final product, and that part of the job is so wonderful.

On hosting the White House Correspondents' Dinner the day before Osama bin Laden's assassination

It's one thing that [Obama] was planning this crazy assassination that to some degree would define his presidency in history books. But the fact that he could be planning that and also go out and just knock it dead at the Correspondents' Dinner, that made me very jealous — because it required 110 percent of my concentration to do the job I did.

... I felt so good about the job that I did at the Correspondents' Dinner, and I remember taking the Acela [train] back to New York with my father, and it was Sunday afternoon, and we were sort of sitting around feeling just on cloud nine about how [it went] — this is a story of hubris.

... And we were feeling so good I remember thinking, "When the news comes on Monday, all they're going to do is talk about how funny I was on Saturday night. As long as nothing happens on Sunday, a notoriously slow news day — Monday belongs to Seth Meyers." It was a really funny thing that I think of everybody in the country upon hearing that bin Laden had been assassinated I was the one guy who was like, "Aw, tonight? They got him tonight?"

On making jokes about Obama — while sitting next to him

We approached it knowing that [Obama] has a very good sense of humor, and even if he doesn't, he has a very smart quality, which is he knows that if you tell a joke about him, it's more attractive to laugh at that joke, get caught laughing than get caught simmering. We knew if the jokes were good enough and smart enough that we'd probably have him on our side. It was fun.

Also, I think to some degree we realized that — lose the president, lose the room, because it is very unique in a performance. ... If it was him in the front row, that's one thing, but him next to you means the entire audience can watch him as well. So to some degree, it might be more interesting to listen to me tell jokes and watch the president than it would be to listen and watch me.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, it's "Late Night with Seth Meyers."

GROSS: My guest, Seth Meyers, took over as the host of NBC's "Late Night" in February, replacing Jimmy Fallon, who moved to "The Tonight Show." Meyers and Fallon worked together on "Saturday Night Live." Seth Meyers joined the cast of SNL in 2001. He became head writer and anchored "Weekend Update," initially with Amy Poehler.

SNL was his dream job, but Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night," encouraged Meyers to move on to the 12:30 show and make it his own. Let's start with the opening of Meyers' first edition of "Late Night" on February 24. It's an homage to Jimmy Fallon's regular feature on "Late Night," "Thank You Notes."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT")

SETH MEYERS: Thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for taking over "The Tonight Show" at 11:30 so I could take over "Late Night" at 12:30. I promise to treat it with respect and dignity and to only use it to do completely original comedy pieces. Starting now.

GROSS: Seth Meyers, welcome to FRESH AIR. That was such a great way of kicking off the Seth Meyers "Late Night."

MEYERS: Yes, it was a very nice idea by our head writer, Alex Bays(ph). I was very relieved that we came up with something like that.

GROSS: Well, I'm wondering what else you were thinking of. Like, it must have been so hard to figure out how do you introduce yourself, how do you introduce that it's now "Late Night with Seth Meyers." What's - what are you going to do to open the show? What was that process like, of figuring out how do you start?

MEYERS: Well, it was interesting. It made it even more interesting that I was really only off the air for three weeks after my last SNL to my first "Late Night," which didn't give us a lot of time to sort of decide exactly how we were going to open things up. I mean, we knew we were going to do a monologue. It was nice to have a piece of tape before that first monologue.

But to some degree, you know, we'd always approached the show as not deconstructing the late-night model. We knew we wanted to sort of do a similar version of "Late Night," knowing that the people who had done "Late Night" before had managed to do a lot of different things using that format. So - but having only, you know, having it only been like three weeks since SNL, you kind of - there was no real way to, like, rebuild who I was, as far as the audience's relationship with me.

GROSS: Now, I read in an interview with you that one of the reasons why you left SNL for "Late Night" is that you wanted a saner life. Having a daily hour-long show as offering a saner life struck me as one of the most delusional things I've ever heard in my life.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: And I'm so happy to say that seven weeks in, I think I was right.

GROSS: Really?

MEYERS: I could have very possibly been delusional, but this new schedule, unlike SNL, every day at SNL is wildly different, like Mondays are so different than Wednesdays, and the whole week is sort of this teakettle boiling with the release coming, obviously Saturday at 11:30. And everyone who works there feels like they're, to some degree, inside this teakettle, and that pressure really gets to you and I think wears you down.

And everybody who works at SNL looks like 10 years older than they are. The makeup hides that come Saturday, but trust me, if you see us at Tuesday night in the hallway, it's a bunch of ghosts and zombies. So this new job, because you get the release of doing a show every night, as well as the fact that, you know, we're not doing the show at 12:30, we're doing the show at 6:30, you finish the show, actually I'm getting home at like 8:30 or 9 o'clock, which is a fairly human time to walk in the door.

And I've found the schedule, you know, a lot more amenable to having a healthier existence.

GROSS: So let's talk about figuring out what your version of "Late Night" would be. One of the things you actually had to figure out was how to walk out.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: You can't believe how hard that is.

GROSS: No, I can believe it.

MEYERS: Yeah, the funny thing is, you know, they have to put a mark on the floor where you're supposed to end up every night, and just the stress of hitting that mark, I think the whole first week, I couldn't even bear to watch myself walk out, because I felt like I would look like an insane person, like, just like staring at the spot on the floor. Also...

GROSS: Wait, you have to be on that spot on the floor so that the camera gets you just right, and the lighting gets you just right.

MEYERS: Yeah, and that's where the spot is. You know, that's where the lighting is sort of optimal. And so that is a very, for me, unnatural thing. You know, I've done standup for a long time, but even in standup, the main difference is holding a microphone. The trickiest part of this job the first week was just figuring out what to do with my hands.

I think one of the great discoveries I made at the show was the memory of pockets.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: It was like OK, I can put one of these away. I as a person in conversation tend to use my hands a great deal, and I think my first couple of monologues I looked like someone on a desert island trying to signal for a plane.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: A passing plane. And, you know, it's just, it's weird. A few people said, you know, a friend even after the first couple of shows, like you seemed a little nervous the first night, to which I replied, yeah, I was a little nervous. That's why. You nailed it.

GROSS: You'd be crazy if you weren't nervous.

MEYERS: You would be crazy, yeah.

GROSS: So, you know, on "Weekend Update," you were sitting behind a desk. So you didn't really have to worry about, you know, walking out there or standing or using your hands. Those desks are really protective. So did you consider...

MEYERS: They're really protective.

GROSS: Yeah. Did you consider doing your opening monologue from a desk?

MEYERS: Well, I wanted to be different than "Weekend Update." I didn't want it to be just this straight transition, and because I do like standing and telling jokes as well, you know, I feel like I was really lucky to have done things like host the ESPYs on ESPN, and I do the White House correspondents dinner, and I do standup.

And so I've had sort of - I've had a standing...

GROSS: But you had a podium for the White House dinner, didn't you?

MEYERS: I did have a podium for the White House - one that I imagine if you check, you'd still see my grip marks in the wood.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: But, you know, I enjoy the idea, at least, of transitioning to standing and knowing that, you know, 85, 90 percent of the show is still going to be sitting behind a desk. So - but there is something nice about doing a monologue, and that was the thing, certainly when we were doing our hiring as well. We wanted the show to have a really strong monologue. We thought it was something people liked. We liked the idea of it, we thought we could get really good joke writers.

And one of the nice developments, I think over the first seven weeks, was the idea that unlike "Weekend Update," when you tell a joke that doesn't get the reaction you thought it would get or were expecting it to get, you sort of move on to the next joke. There's not a lot of room to play around in "Weekend Update." You're in a much smaller box, just with the framing of the shot.

And it's been nice to sort of understand and get to learn that. The monologue is - a lot of it is how good the jokes are, but a lot of it too is having fun with those jokes and sort of making it a bit of a performance piece instead of just a delivery of jokes.

GROSS: Well, you told one joke that I think it was about the Spice Girls and I forget which boy band reuniting.

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: And the whole joke was about, like, who cares, they're so, they're so old.

MEYERS: Yeah.

GROSS: And the audience, you mentioned this reunion tour with the Spice Girls and whichever boy band it was, and people are, like, whooping like yeah, wow, that's so great. And you were really like oh, this is - you're not supposed to...

MEYERS: Yeah, when the setup gets a completely opposite reaction of the point of view that the punch line is about to deliver, it's a very interesting place. But, you know, it leaves this space on "Late Night" to be very honest with the audience as far as how you, as the host of the show, sort of did the miscalculation. I think if you're honest with the audience, they enjoy that part, and probably, you know, remember that more than the best joke in that monologue.

GROSS: So is your desk a little bit smaller than other desks?

MEYERS: I will say, you know, a lot of people have commented on our furniture. I think it must be a little bit smaller. It was one of those things that I just sort of sat at it and was like, oh, I like this desk. I like this style.

GROSS: Did they give you a lot of ones to try?

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: They did - I will say more than you would think. And the first one I just sort of thought was a bit - didn't quite have much personality. I sort of liked this Danish modern desk. We did a little bit of work to it because originally you could see my feet, which turns out, I think accurately, was criticized as being a mistake.

So - especially because I realize I sort of tap my foot to keep time, and in a wide shot...

GROSS: To keep time?

MEYERS: I think just like to keep my own internal rhythm, if that makes sense, to keep joke time. That's something I noticed, because on "Weekend Update" I felt like my foot was always tapping, even when I was talking, which you realize when you're doing a monologue you have to stop, lest you look like Fred Astaire getting ready to start a big number.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: So yes, but I think it's a slightly smaller desk. The thing I like about the desk is the right-hand side of the desk that leans towards the guest is smaller than the left-hand side, which leans away from it. So, you know, all about - you know, what we wanted to do was have it be a little more intimate as far as talking to the guests, and this desk has a nice - the physics of the desk lead, sort of draw me towards the guests, which I like.

GROSS: Oh, I know what you mean because sometimes those desks can be, like, the protective barrier for the host.

MEYERS: Right, which I, you know, again, we were very - when I think of the great conversations I've had in my life, they didn't take place at giant desks and big, comfy easy chairs.

They were sort of, you know, at a, you know, at restaurants or bars or even just in your office, where you're sort of - you know, the furniture sort of helps bring people closer.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers, who is now the host of "Late Night" on NBC. Let's take a short break; then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers, who has been hosting "Late Night" on NBC since February, and he's the former anchor of "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live." He was with the show for many years.

So one of the regular things that you do is you tell a story after the opening monologue.

MEYERS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm going to play one of my favorites, and this is from, like, early in the show, like it was the first week, but I'll just play the story, and then we'll talk about it. So this is Seth Meyers from the first week of "Late Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT")

MEYERS: One of my favorite things about getting to stay in this building and stay in New York is I love interactions with strangers in New York. I had a great one the other day. I was in a restaurant, and I had gone to the bathroom, and I walked out of the bathroom, and there was just a woman standing there. And she grabbed me by the arm, and she goes, it's my son's birthday, he's a huge fan, will you come take a picture with him.

And I said of course I will. And so she's walking over - and I guess, shame on me, that I thought because of the way she was talking, we were talking like a 12 or 13-year-old kid. And I get to the table, and he's 25.

He's like a young man. And his - the look on his face, he was so bummed out. Like the look on his face was not, like, oh my God, Seth Meyers, it was like, oh my God, mom, what did you do.

And it was my nightmare because he was in the center of a booth, and I was, like, well, I'll just slide in on the end, and you can take the pictures. She's like no, you have to be next to the birthday boy. He was not psyched to be called the birthday boy. So everybody had to get out of the booth, and I had to go sit next to him, and it was like he was mad at me. He was like, oh, hey, how are you.

And I felt bad for him, but part of me wanted to be, like, so, what do you want to be when you grow up.

And so then we're sitting there, and like everybody had to get out, everybody had to get back in, I'm sitting with them, and then the mom takes the pictures, and in like the history of, like, moms and cell phone cameras, like they never nail the first picture.

Like she, like, took it and then looked at it, and was like I didn't get anyone, which I - like she definitely pointed it at us. So finally they take it, and I got out, and he was so - he was never happy at any of it. And so I got up, and I left, and he said something to her under his breath, and I didn't hear what he said, but I did hear what she said because she said it very loudly for the whole restaurant to hear what she said: Well, I am sorry, but I'm your mother.

So I'd just like to say, to that guy, happy birthday, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry about that bummer of a moment.

GROSS: That's Seth Meyers hosting "Late Night." That's such a great story.

MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah, so how did you come up with the idea of, like, telling a personal story?

MEYERS: Well, you do these, like, test shows when you have one of these gigs, and it was the two weeks before we did our first show. We did two one week, three the following week, and you have actual guests, and you bring in an actual audience, and it just gives you a chance to work through the show, not just for the host but for everybody, from lighting to camera and sound.

And I had a story that I ended up telling on the first night about fixing a flat tire, or I should say not fixing a flat tire. And I told it just because I thought it would be a fun thing to tell at the desk during one of the test shows, and Lorne Michaels and my producer, Mike Schumacher(ph), both said that was really nice because that was a moment where you went from a monologue, which I think is slightly different than what people are accustomed from you, and then to be able to sit down and show people who you really are, which is so much part of this job, unlike being a "Weekend Update" anchor, where you're basically to some degree playing a character, to be able to share your personal life is, I think, a big advantage of doing a show like this. And so Lorne said, you know, you should tell that story the first night. It'll be nice thing. You'll go into the first night knowing it's a story that works, and it'll tell people a little about yourself. And then it became a thing where any day I had a story, it's a really nice place to tell it. And, you know, unlike a lot of the comedy on the show, you know, it's not on cue cards.

I get to just address the camera. And it - I find it really settles me, and it settles the show, and I've enjoyed it a great deal.

GROSS: So getting back to the story itself, when somebody asks you to take a picture with them, whether it's a selfie with them or somebody else taking the picture, do you ever say no? And if you say no, are you afraid that people will tweet that you are a cold and selfish egomaniac?

MEYERS: It's an excellent question. I will say, if anyone's listening, I so prefer a selfie.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Once somebody hands their phone to a stranger, oftentimes I find too that people will hand the phone to the oldest person nearby.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Who has not come to terms with this new technological advancement. So I'd far - a selfie is fast, you can knock that out pretty quickly. My other pet peeve is when you're - there's a group of people who want a picture, and someone says just one more because - as if they're speaking for the group, because it's probably not the last one.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: But there were two people at SNL that I always remember at times like that, Derek Jeter being one and Paul McCartney being the other, who more than anyone else, I felt like everybody at SNL, from the crew to the cast to guests of the show, had something they wanted to tell them, like some moment of their career that had so affected this person. And both Derek Jeter and Paul McCartney made so much time for everybody that had wanted it, and I always remember anytime I don't take a picture with someone, I'm saying I'm a bigger deal than Paul McCartney and Derek Jeter. So I try to take them every time.

GROSS: So the bandleader on "Late Night" now is Fred Armisen, who is an alum of "Saturday Night Live" and the co-star, co-creator of "Portlandia." How did you decide to make him the bandleader, and how much of it was about his musicianship, and how much was it about him as a comic?

MEYERS: Full credit to Lorne for that. Music was something that we - it wasn't on the backburner, it was just a thing I don't think any of us really had a handle on what we wanted it to be. Like, I love music, but I don't have musical skill. I don't have, like, I didn't have a musical vision for the show, and I sort of assumed it would just work itself out.

And we were getting closer and closer to the show starting, and some things sort of almost came together and then didn't, and very late in the game Lorne said, what about Fred? And as soon as he said it, it became one of those things that I would have been heartbroken if it hadn't worked out. I was so desperate that Lorne hadn't just said this off the cuff, that he at least had done some of the legwork to know that he could actually deliver Fred, because I know Fred as, you know, obviously he's one of the funniest people I've ever met, but he's also so musically talented.

And so it seemed like the full package when Lorne suggested him. Now, you know, Fred's approach to it was, and it was nice to have someone who is such a good friend as Fred so that you could actually have this conversation, he really wanted to take the job as a bandleader, as opposed to a sidekick or a sketch comedian, you know, with, I think the years where Fred was doing both SNL and "Portlandia" - like in the history of sketch performance, like that's almost like "Your Show of Shows"-type schedule, where he was doing almost like 50 weeks of sketch comedy a year.

And I think he was looking to have a break from that, so for him he wanted this show to be a musical job, which we were perfectly happy with as well. Lorne thought it would be nice to have someone comforting out there with me. It's certainly proven to be the case. And the speed with which Fred put that band together was outstanding because it instantly went from a huge problem to no problem at all.

GROSS: Do you miss "Saturday Night Live"?

MEYERS: I do. I miss it a little bit less every day, which is nice. The thing I was so worried about leaving SNL with just the family and the routine and all the wonderful people that I got to spend so much time with, and obviously as you build your - a new show, like we have, you find that there are other really lovely people that you get to sort of build a new family with. So that's been great.

I do miss the rush of SNL, and on Saturday at 11:30 when I'm sitting at home, I feel like phantom limbs, if that's the right expression.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Just wanting to be out there. So that I certainly miss.

GROSS: Do you watch it, or is it too painful to watch?

MEYERS: I watch the first one live, which was a real - I felt the way I bet Jeff...

GROSS: You mean live like in the studio audience?

MEYERS: Live at home, no, live at home, I should say. And let me just say as a viewer, there are too many commercials.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You never knew that.

MEYERS: Now that I'm on the other side. I never knew. Or I'd known as a child and then forgotten. But I felt like just this awful metamorphosis of no longer being on the show. And then in the following weeks, you know, a couple times I've been out of town, I've had to watch it Sunday morning, which is a lovely way to watch the show.

The part you miss the most, not being on the show anymore, is Wednesday, which was the table read, where you basically get to watch 40 pieces, all with varying degrees of success. But I remember when people like Kristen Wiig left, or people like Andy Samberg left, the thing that I felt, you know, so lucky about was that I got to see everything they tried to do for a seven or eight-year period, like all their failures, all their successes.

You got to see everything, like, in the incubator stage to the final product, and it so - that part of the job is so wonderful.

GROSS: Seth Meyers will be back in the second half of the show. He became the host of NBC's "Late Night" in February, after having worked on "Saturday Night Live" since 2001. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Seth Meyers. He's been hosting NBC's "Late Night" since February, replacing Jimmy Fallon, who now hosts "The Tonight Show." Meyers had been with "Saturday Night Live" since 2001. He became the co-anchor of "Weekend Update" with Amy Poehler. When she left the show, he became the solo anchor. He also was the show's head writer.

Three years ago, he got great reviews performing at the White House Correspondents Dinner. We'll talk about that experience a little later. Let's get back to talking about his work on "Saturday Night Live."

What is the job of head writer?

MEYERS: Well, the job of head writer is basically just helping facilitate the writing staff and the cast to get the best stuff out every week. And by that, you know, you run a rewrite table once you pick the sketches that, you know, if you pick sort of 10 of the 40 that get produced on Tuesday night and you do a read-through on Wednesday, you pick about 10. And there's two writers, two had writers who have rewrite tables, and you just try to make everything a little bit better. You try to take notes from Lorne and pass them on to the writing staff. The other job of the head writer is just to sort of look - always be looking at the landscape of the show and seeing what's missing. Oftentimes, the last pieces that are filled in are the monologue for the host or the cold open, you know, the political cold open at the start of the show. "Weekend Update" features, which are the guests that come on "Weekend Update," those are the things that sort of break later in the week. So, you know, that's really the job. But a head writer is as good as the writing staff in the cast who are all wonderful writers, as well.

GROSS: So, as the head writer, you have to say, we're not using this sketch, but we are using that sketch. So when you're saying no to somebody who's a colleague and a friend, how difficult is that?

MEYERS: Well, you try to remind people that every week, just because of the small amount of real estate on the show, you know, everybody's hearing no's every week, and fewer people are hearing yes's. But, you know, one week is no indicator of how the next week's going to go. And when all else fails, you just blame it on Lorne.

GROSS: And how often is it really Lorne who decides?

MEYERS: It really is Lorne's decision. You know, I always say that like when we're picking sketches, you know, Lorne asks for an open discussion, and in the end, it's everyone else's vote combines for 1 percent, and then Lorne has the other 99. But the longer you work with Lorne, the more comfortable you are to sort of speak your mind, and the better chance you have of sort of convincing him of your position. But, you know, at the end of the day, it's Lorne's show, and at the end, the final product is going to be with Lorne wants it to be.

GROSS: When a guest host comes on, what's the process like of deciding how to show off the guest host in the monologue?

MEYERS: Well, it's very interesting. If it's a guest host you know, if someone who's coming back, if it's a Ben Affleck, if it's a Alec Baldwin, if you already sort of know their toolkit as far as their comedy chops go, then people often tend to try to write a monologue on a Tuesday night so you can hear it on Wednesday. With other people who are there for the sort of the first time, what sometimes happens is you want to wait and hear them on Wednesday. You get to listen to them read, like, 40 different pieces and that will give you a better sense of who they are and sort of what they can pull off. But it's a very strange thing, because a lot of times people host the show, and the one thing that they're not great at is being themselves. You know, that's certainly true of the best actors. Whereas, you know, obviously, when you have somebody like Louis CK and it's time for the monologue, you just blissfully get out of the way and know that he'll do all the work, and it'll be as good as a monologue could possibly be.

So it can be really tricky and, you know, there are times where it just makes sense to have someone sing, because they're an excellent singer and it's a great way to start a variety show. There are other times where people are very good playing off other people, so you might have cast members come out and share the burden with them in the monologue. But there are a lot of different ways to skin a cat with a monologue, and sometimes the cat even makes it out alive.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you ask if they have any secret gifts, like singing or dancing, or a preference?

MEYERS: That's one of the first questions you ask.

GROSS: Yeah.

MEYERS: You know, do you sing? Do you dance? Do you do accents? Do you have impressions? And again, that's something that, to some degree, the thing you most and least want to hear from a host is them saying, whatever you want me to do, I'm game. Because that's great, and that implies that they have the right attitude about it. But you also would love sort of five specific things that they can do better than someone else. And again, not to go back to someone like Alec Baldwin, but he's the kind of guy who shows up and is like, I think I can do Tony Bennett, which...

GROSS: Oh, yes. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

MEYERS: But that, you know, you don't look at Alec Baldwin and naturally think, oh, perfect. You know, he'll be Tony Bennett. That sort of comes from Alec showing up, knowing how the show works, and suggesting to the writing staff I think this would be really fun.

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers who now hosts "Late Night" on NBC. He's the former head writer of "Saturday Night Live," and for many years was the anchor of "Weekend Update." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers, the former anchor and head writer - anchor of "Weekend Update" and head writer of "Saturday Night Live," and he's now the host of NBC's "Late Night."

Two years ago, you hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner, in which the president comes out and makes, you know, does a little stand-up, and then a guest comic performs. And you were really funny. So, like, you're seated at the head table next to Michelle Obama, and I think next to President Obama, too. And then...

MEYERS: Yeah. He was on the other side of the podium. I was next to her. I was next to the first lady, yeah.

GROSS: Well, OK. So you were just next to Michelle.

MEYERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Right, OK. And then - so I want to play something that you said. The dinner was broadcast on C-SPAN.

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: And you made some funny jokes about C-SPAN. And it will soon be clear why we've chosen this clip to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS DINNER)

MEYERS: I am also honored to be performing for those of you here tonight, as well as the handful of people watching at home on C-SPAN.

C-SPAN is, of course, the official network for wide-shots of empty chairs. Every time I tune into C-SPAN, it looks like they just had a fire drill. C-SPAN is one unpaid electric bill away from being a radio station.

People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush, but did you know that every day, from four to five, he hosts a show on C-SPAN?

GROSS: OK, great joke about bin Laden. Little did you know that the next day, U.S. Navy SEALs...

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: ...with the approval of President Obama, was going to get bin Laden. So when you found out what was in store the next day, after having made that joke, and after having performed with President Obama, what went through your mind?

MEYERS: First of all, you're just blown away, because the president was great at the Correspondents Dinner. He has, like, a stand-up's rhythm. Even when I watch him give speeches now, I'm like, oh, he has a stand-up's rhythm. So it's one thing that he was, you know, planning this thing that, to some degree, would, you know, define his presidency in the history books, but the fact that he could be planning that and also go out and just knock it dead at the Correspondents Dinner. So that made me very jealous, because...

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: ...I, of course - it required 100 percent of my concentration to do the job I did. But it's very funny, and I've talked about this a lot, but the idea of I felt so good about the job I did at the Correspondents Dinner, and I remember taking the Acela back to New York with my father. And it was Sunday afternoon, and we were sort of sitting around feeling just on cloud nine about how the Correspondents - this is a story of hubris. I'm telling a story of hubris.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: And we were feeling so good, and I just remember thinking, like, when the news comes Monday, all they're going to do is talk about how funny I was on Saturday night, as long as nothing happens on Sunday, a notoriously slow news day.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Monday belongs to Seth Meyers. So it was that really funny thing that I think of everybody in the country, upon hearing that bin Laden had been assassinated, I was the one guy who was like, aw, tonight?

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: They got him tonight?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, you know, President Obama was so funny. He must be like the worst opening act to follow.

MEYERS: Well, I want to point something out, and I'm pretty sure I'm right about this. I think the presidents used to close. I think the comedian used to go first, and Obama flipped it, because he's a genius. But, yeah, it's an impossible opening act to follow, and you shouldn't have to follow the president. The president should always talk last, because he's the president.

GROSS: I was worried about you. No, I was worried.

MEYERS: Yeah.

GROSS: I thought like, oh, my God. That's going to be so hard to follow. But you were great. You were really funny.

MEYERS: Thank you. I do - because he's also - because here's why he's the worst opening act of all time: He also closes - he doesn't close with a joke. He closes, like, talking about, like, spare a thought for the troops.

GROSS: Right.

MEYERS: It's all...

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: ...spare a thought for the troops, and give it up for your next comedian.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, you're also in the position, hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner, of making jokes about the president, something you're used to doing from "Weekend Update." But this time around, he's sitting right next to the podium as you're making jokes about him. And the first lady is right there, too. So how did that affect both the material and delivery?

MEYERS: Well, we approached it - and when I say we, I mean myself and the numerous joke writers that were kind enough to help me out with this process, which we spent about three weeks on, writing the material for this. We approached it knowing that he has a very good sense of humor, and even if he doesn't, he has a very smart quality, which is he knows that if you tell a joke about him, it's more attractive to laugh at that joke, get caught laughing then get caught sort of simmering. So we knew if the jokes were sort of good enough and smart enough that we'd probably have him on our side, and it was fun. Also, you know, I think to some degree, we realized that lose the president, lose the room, because it is very unique in a performance where it's not just that he's next to you. It's like if it was him in the front row, that's one thing. But him next to you means the entire audience can watch him, as well. So, to some degree, it might be more interesting to listen to me tell jokes and watch the president than it would be to listen and watch me. I think that's certainly what I would do.

GROSS: Oh, no, I see your point. Right. Like, how's the president taking this? Yeah.

MEYERS: Yeah, like if you're in the audience - yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's hear an example of one of your President Obama jokes. So, this is coming out of a section in which you were talking about what a weak field of Republican presidential candidates there were. So here's Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner two years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS DINNER)

MEYERS: So, it's not a strong field, and who knows if they can beat you in 2012. But I tell you who could definitely beat you, Mr. President: 2008 Barack Obama. You would've loved him.

So charismatic, so charming. Was he a little too idealistic? Maybe. But you would've loved him. I still think we all remember that Inauguration Day. The first lady was there. And may I say, for as beautiful as you looked that day, you look even more beautiful tonight.

Now, you, on the other hand, Mr. President, have aged a little. What happened to you? When you were sworn in, you looked like the guy from the Old Spice commercials. Now you look like Louis Gossett, Sr.

I've never said this to anyone before, but maybe you should start smoking again. Is this the change you were talking about? Mr. President, look at your hair. If your hair gets any whiter, the Tea Party is going to endorse it.

GROSS: That's Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner two years ago. So you were talking about how you know the audience was watching President Obama's face to see how he was taking the jokes.

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: Were you watching his face, too? I mean, were you kind of picking up the vibe of whether he was liking it?

MEYERS: I was. I did look over to him a few times during that, and was aware that it was going well. And it's interesting, because the section before where I sort of have a joke about everybody in the GOP field at that time - which I do believe history has borne out that it was a fairly weak field- I found him not enjoying it. Not - maybe not enjoying it, but not wanting to get caught laughing at it as much.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MEYERS: And I sort of ended up making a few on-the-fly cuts during that, and knowing that I...

GROSS: Oh, really?

MEYERS: Yeah. Like, I was, like, you know, what? This is not - I'm not enjoying this. This seems like piling on, to some degree, like...

GROSS: What did you cut? Give us an example.

MEYERS: I can't remember exactly. But I remember, you know, at the time, I believe, there were probably nine candidates in the GOP field, if there was, you know, April that year. And I just remember, to some degree, I was, like, OK, so, you know, maybe I'll skip this Herman Cain joke. You know, maybe this is just going to seem a little too easy, or, you know, this Newt Gingrich joke. The level of difficulty doesn't feel very high, and I feel like that room appreciates a level of difficulty. Whereas, one of the first things I - when I accepted to do the Correspondents Dinner, one of the first things we started writing jokes about was the fact that he looks so much older, and how much this job had sort of aged him. So that was something that I couldn't wait to get to, like I felt very good about that round of jokes.

GROSS: So your performance is over. The president gets up, shakes your hand, pats you on the back, and you pat the president on the back and then...

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: Did you say to yourself, oh, no, I just patted President Obama on the back? Like, you know atta boy, President Obama.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: The whole - that whole, like, first five minutes after finishing, I sort of like - my ears felt the way they do underwater, like everything was just sort of a weird hum, is what I remember. People have all said because - and especially, well, you know, after we found out the next day was, you know, the Seal Team Six assassination of Osama bin Laden, people would ask me: What did you say to President Obama? And I've always said, I told him: check Abbottabad.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: I feel like there's a compound in Abbottabad that doesn't smell right to me. But it was great. And I'm being - I'm not being humble. This is a very genuine thing. I didn't quite - it was very strange, those 20 minutes, which is about how long it is. Because it's a very strange room. Like, the Correspondents Dinner room is very wide. People are sitting around tables, so half of the audience is just sort of craning to see you. It's a very uncomfortable room.

As a comedy room, it's an F-minus. And the sort of sound goes straight up. So to some degree I felt like I had done well but I didn't quite know, to be honest. And, like most comedians, I probably walked off thinking about the three or four things that I wish had gone better. And very sweetly, my phone rang like two minutes after I finished, and it was Senator Al Franken, who of course...

GROSS: Oh.

MEYERS: ...I sort of crossed paths with at "SNL," and who had been a Correspondents Dinner host, himself, in the past. And he was very kind. And that was my first sense of, oh, that went really well.

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers, who now hosts "Late Night" on NBC. He's the former head writer of "Saturday Night Live" and the former anchor of "Weekend Update." So you looked like you were almost going to cry on your last night.

MEYERS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Anchoring "Weekend Update." And I thought I'd play your last words as the anchor of "Weekend Update." And this is at the end of a whole bit where people who you've worked with from "Saturday Night Live" over the years come out - Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, I think Fred Armisen was there.

MEYERS: Yes, Fred.

GROSS: Bill Hader.

MEYERS: Fred did his Governor Patterson.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And so I don't know if you knew that they were all going to be there or not.

MEYERS: I did. I was aware they were all going to be there. Yes.

GROSS: OK. OK. So here's, like, your last words.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MEYERS: It is my last show and I just want to say being out here with my co-anchors and my dear friend and my husband is the perfect way...

...to end. This is the job I always wanted and I had the best time and I met the best people. And I just want to thank the crew and the cast and especially the writers and Loren. And thank you very much. And take us out, Cecily.

CECILY STRONG: For "Weekend Update," I'm Cecily Strong.

AMY POEHLER: I'm Amy Poehler.

BILL HADER: I'm Stefon Meyers.

MEYERS: And I'm Seth Meyers. Good night!

GROSS: So Seth Meyers, what was going through your mind as you said that?

MEYERS: I was, I mean, I was a little heartbroken. I really - you know, I'd been there for 12 and a half years and I feel like I grew up there and I feel like the people I met there are really, truly my closest friends. And, you know, I got married this past summer and, I mean, oh, I think we decided, like, I think half of the people at our very large wedding were somehow connected to "SNL."

So it was really sad to think that was the last time I was going to sit behind that desk, because some of the greatest times of my life have been back there. And it was also the fact that Andy and Amy and Fred and Bill had all come back and, you know, had come back at sort of the first mention of the idea that I would like to have them there.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking when you were head writer on "Saturday Night Live" you wrote for the guest hosts.

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: And now you're talking to them; you're not writing for them. Which is more fun?

MEYERS: Well, there's - I mean, you know, when it goes well both are really fun. That's been the biggest difference in this job and the part of the job I was most worried about was of all the skill sets you develop at "SNL" the one you don't really develop is talking, is interviewing somebody. You know, people had always said, like, oh, you're so good at interviewing characters on "Weekend Update."

And I had to always point out, you know, those are fully scripted.

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: It doesn't really count as an interview if you know the answer.

GROSS: No, you really brought out the sensitivity of Stefon.

MEYERS: Yes. No, he really clammed up with other people.

GROSS: Yeah.

MEYERS: But I really delighted in interviewing people so far. I'm always surprised at how fast seven minutes can go if you're talking to an interesting person. It's a very - it's been a relief because that was the fear, was sitting out there with someone and feeling like neither they nor you knew what to say next. And that hasn't happened yet so that's been really fun.

GROSS: Seth Meyers, it's been great to have you back on FRESH AIR. Thank you so much and I wish you the best of luck with "Late Night."

MEYERS: Thank you so much, Terry. It's wonderful to be back.

GROSS: Seth Meyers is the new host of NBC's "Late Night" which follows "The Tonight Show." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by singer-songwriter Jessica Lee Mayfield who started out singing in her family's bluegrass band. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program