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How Seth Meyers Maintained the New Spirit of ‘Late Night’ When the Studio Audience Came Back

”We really doubled down on the idea that what we had written during the pandemic was our favorite kind of writing,“ the host tells TheWrap

Before the audience came back to “Late Night” last October, host Seth Meyers was nervous. He and his team had spent the last two years evolving the NBC series into “its purest form” by his own admission, and they had cultivated a friendly and fervent audience in the YouTube comments as episodes shot in Meyers’ home — and then in an audience-less studio — developed a fun, free-wheeling and incredibly silly vibe.

But on the night the audience came back, Meyers was overwhelmed with emotion.

“I was genuinely emotional the first time I walked out to our audience in October of last year,” Meyers told TheWrap in a recent interview. “Because the way they reacted helped me realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t just an audience. This is the audience that watched us in the attic and watched us in an empty studio, and they got to know Wally the Cue Card Guy. They got to know Scollins, the writer, and they got to know everybody as a character in the show. It felt like a reunion, which was really special.”

Meyers is a little embarrassed to admit it took the show this long to settle on what it’s become – a mix of whip-smart political dissections, goofy impressions and a bevy of serialized inside jokes that stretch on for weeks. “But I think when you’re given a show, you’re so stressed out about just competently hosting a talk show that you don’t give yourself the space to do the things we did over the course of the two years we were gone,” Meyers said before adding with a laugh, “I don’t know if the network would have been super psyched if our first take on the show was doing casually dressed in an attic.”

During our wide-ranging discussion about “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” the host also discussed why he and his team were determined for the writing not to change once the audience came back, the crafting of “A Closer Look,” what fans can expect from the next season of “Documentary Now!” — and he even answers a question submitted by Bill Hader.

Read the full interview below and don’t miss our discussion about “Corrections.”

How has the last year been for you? I know it’s kind of hard to quantify “Late Night” because you don’t have super strict seasons.

If we’re saying from last year, this certainly feels like the season that I would describe as the audience came back. So in that way, you can look at it as a chunk and assess how it felt, and it was great. We spoke at length, anybody who would ask, about how we had a hesitation about bringing the audience back because we sort of fell in love with the show and how it had grown over the course of the pandemic. The element of bringing the audience back, we thought, might change it. But we had this really lovely thing — I was genuinely emotional the first time I walked out to our audience in October of last year, because the way they reacted helped me realize: Oh, this isn’t just an audience. This is the audience that watched us in the attic and watched us in an empty studio, and they got to know Wally the Cue Card Guy. They got to know Scollins, the writer, and they got to know everybody as a character in the show. It felt like a reunion, which was really special.

I remember the last time we spoke, I could hear the trepidation in your voice about bringing the audience back. Because you guys have had so much fun without an audience and had really kind of found the purest form of the show at that time.

Yes, that was definitely the case. And [there] was a silver lining, which is we did have to strip it down to find the purest version of the show. It’s weird that we completely failed to do that when we were given the show in the first place. But I think when you’re given a show, you’re so stressed out about just competently hosting a talk show that you don’t give yourself the space to do the things we did over the course of the two years we were gone. And with that said, I don’t know if the network would have been super psyched if our first take on the show was doing casually dressed in an attic (laughs).

It feels like you have serialized late night, in a way. Before the pandemic, you acknowledged the kind of disposable nature of the show you do each night since the news will be old by the next day. Was it a conscious decision to serialize the show during the pandemic with so many recurring bits and gags?

Yeah, I think what happened was the only way to engage with the audience was to read YouTube comments. And then you realize that — which has always been the case — but I think as a performer it’s impossible to ignore the people in the room. And the reality is those 180 people probably have a lower percentage chance of having watched the show last night than the ones who are watching at home. So it’s crazy to have missed it, but all of a sudden, we collectively realized: Oh, we can weave in a week-long joke. We can reference something from a month ago. And either people will get it and love it because they were there a month ago, or people will realize they missed something. As opposed to saying, “I don’t get that,” I think our audience is smart enough to know, “This must be referencing back to something they did a month ago.”

I remember I used to read comic books and somebody would say something and there’d be an asterisk and it would say, “See ‘Batman in Issue 72,’” and I as a kid that was like, “Oh, I gotta go find that!” We built in characters, we built in bits, and every one of them, it should be noted, were things that we liked. As opposed to considering, “Do audiences like half-baked impressions?” We never talked our way into it that way (laughs).

Yeah, “Do audiences really like Pizza Hut puns?

Pizza Hut content does a lot better than you think. Especially when they don’t pay you for it.

How conscious is that? Do you have someone who’s keeping track of all the bits, like how George R.R. Martin has someone to keep track of all his lore?

No. I will say someone online has started keeping track, and it’s incredibly helpful (laughs). I do think the same thing happened for George R.R. Martin. We put a lot of our hard work into writing about the news and making it clear, and then the silly bits we try not to overthink. So it’s really nice when someone else is like, “Oh, remember they did this thing?”

When the audience came back, did that impact the writing of the show at all?

It really didn’t. We really doubled down on the idea that what we had written during the pandemic was our favorite kind of writing, and it wasn’t a massive departure from the writing we were doing leading up to March 2020. It had evolved in a way, and if there were any conversations we were having, it was not to backslide or not to blink if what we were trying to do changed with an audience. We felt very strongly that the important thing to do is to push through and find [the] place that we’re at now where the studio audience is getting exactly what they expect, insofar as the tone that we’re doing.

It helps to that you have this established franchise that works for the audience but also online in “A Closer Look.” How has that evolved over the last year?

You know, Sal Gentile does an incredible job of setting out to make an argument, and there’s a thesis statement, and there’s a conclusion, and in the middle, we try to lay out factual arguments and also leave all this room for wild tangents and silly diversions. Because we realize there are certain things that it’s impossible to make jokes about, but very possible to make jokes next to. Trying to synthesize all that together is a pretty fun challenge.

Any chance you have to do a physical impersonation of Rudy Giuliani is a gift.

I couldn’t believe how well that went. Somebody screengrabbed it. Again, I can’t stress this enough, Adam: A lot of my impressions speak through me. It’s very spirit-driven, it is not craft. And in the moment, I can’t see that photo of Rudy. I mean, I know what it looks like (laughs). He is not visible to me, but man oh man I looked at that and I thought: There’s a real undiscovered talent here. (laughs)

Speaking of “A Closer Look,” you recently tweeted the one you put out when the insurrection was happening, and it was a really chilling look at how little has actually changed since then. Doing the show every day, does it feel like it gives you a bit more of a granular perspective on this stuff versus some of the general public?

I do. I mean, I think I’m really lucky to be able to go through the day’s news with this writing staff. I think that gives you a great deal of perspective on it. But at the same time, I was taken aback when I went and rewatched it, because I remember the day and I remember how stressful it was in the decision to go live because we didn’t know how the world was going to change in the eight hours between when we were normally taping when the show would air. And even though I’ve been paying attention every day, it’s still sort of stunning to look back and say, “Wow, it was obvious then. Like really obvious then.”

Do you ever feel like you’re taking crazy pills when you’re just still kind of drilling this stuff down and you’re covering the same thing over and over again?

I think it’s more that we want to tell the audience, “You’re not crazy to think this is crazy.” You know that what we’re seeing is such nonsense, that it’s cathartic to talk to people who agree with you about that.

Looking at the YouTube numbers, these segments get millions of views. Is that heartening? In discussions with the network, is “A Closer Look” almost viewed as separate from “Late Night” because it lives on the internet the next day?

It’s both heartening and shocking to us. Certainly from when we started doing the show in 2014, we never expected that we’d be doing a long chunk like “A Closer Look” [or] that it would be the thing that people would engage with the most. It’s really nice that it fits so nicely into the bottom of the show. It gives a real propulsive energy to each episode to start with it. And at the same time, it works really well as part of the whole and lives really nicely as an independent thing online.

I can’t let you go without asking about “Documentary Now!” What can you tease about the next season?

We’re doing one on “My Octopus Teacher.” We’re doing an episode off of a documentary that Cate Blanchett liked (laughs). So Cate Blanchett is now also basically finding our source material. We shot an episode with a complete Welsh cast. I still can’t believe we did Season 1, and each gap between seasons has been longer and so it’s just beyond belief that it’ll be out later this year. [Directors Alexander Buono and Rhys Thomas] are the two people we can most not do the show without. We were so lucky that they came back; they’re very busy right now doing incredible work on other shows. But it’s the nuttiest thing in the world. You get to write these things, and I’m never on set when they shoot them, and then you get a rough cut and the work you do is so elevated. Those guys are amazing. I think you’re gonna like it.

Speaking of “Documentary Now!” I told Bill Hader I was talking to you and asked him for a question. So this question is from Bill Hader.

OK, great.

Bill asks, “Why didn’t you talk to me more at your wedding?”

(Laughs) He wanted me to talk to him more at my wedding? I don’t know, man, I feel like there was a lot going on! There were like 400 people there. I feel like I talked to him a lot at his wedding, don’t I get credit for that?

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