‘Late Night’ Turns 10: Seth Meyers Reveals How Trump’s Election Changed the Show Forever

The host takes a trip down memory lane with TheWrap

Seth Meyers
Host Seth Meyers during the monologue on "Late Night with Seth Meyers" (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC)

10 years ago this week, Seth Meyers made the jump from “Saturday Night Live” head writer to late night host with the debut of “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” For a show that has thrived on consistent evolution, those first episodes look nearly unrecognizable to what “Late Night” is now: A quick-witted, relaxed and politically charged show that delights in flights of fancy.

“It’s very jarring,” Meyers told TheWrap of looking back on those early episodes during an interview tied to the show’s 10th anniversary. “There were a lot of things that we got out of pretty quickly.”

That includes standing up during the monologue (Meyers now delivers the monologue from his desk), a more “night life-y” set (it’s now covered in blue) and Meyers in a suit (he now wears a button down or — *gasp* — a sweater).

Meyers said he feels like the show went through necessary growing pains to get to where it is today.

“When you start a show like this, out of the gate your main goal is survival, and one of the things you aim for when you’re trying to survive is competence,” he said. “I think that competence ultimately is less interesting than being risk-taking, but I do also feel like that’s the base coat. You have to be competent first and then you can sort of start taking bigger swings, and ultimately that’s what we did.”

In terms of those bigger swings, Meyers pointed to the 2016 election as a turning point for the show. In one of his most memorable monologues, a sober Meyers got personal the day after Donald Trump was elected.

“I just felt so at a loss. I didn’t think it could happen, and I hated what it said about where we were at as a country,” he remembered. “Then I got to come in and be with my staff, all of whom were feeling equally miserable, and we got to do a show. I got to talk honestly about the way I felt.”

He said that show set the direction for “Late Night” going forward. “We thought we could be a sane voice to a sane world, and now the world is a little bit crazy and it’s made us crazy, too. But the formerly sane should have a nice place to hang out and talk about how crazy the world has been.”

Below, Meyers reflects on the journey so far, including the origins of “A Closer Look” and “Corrections,” while also talking about key moments that have shaped the series through its tenure. And, yes, we touch on Jon Stewart’s return to “The Daily Show.”

So how are things going?

Good! Yeah, everything’s good. It doesn’t feel like 10 years ago and yet here it is.

I was going to ask if it feels like it’s been 10 years. I was watching clips from the first show and it almost feels like a different show.

It does. It’s very jarring. We have packets for the guests and we put their photo on the front, and if they’ve been on the show before we use a photo from the last time they were on. With Dakota Johnson, the last time she was here was before the pandemic and so you just look at the pictures and it really does feel like a different show. And at least that was the current set. You go back farther and it’s standing monologue, old set, desk on an arm. There were a lot of things that we got out of pretty quickly.

It’s also a strange thing in hindsight because it never felt like, for your iteration of “Late Night,” there were things that needed to be “fixed” early on. You were constantly sharpening and evolving, but it’s not like there were glaring blunders people were pointing out.

Certainly when you look back at the history of some shows, most famously Conan’s got off to a bumpy start, and you talk to people — Conan included — who worked there and it did feel as though everybody was just white-knuckling it. We had our stresses for sure, but we definitely feel a deep relief that we did not have to live through that.

What do you remember from those first shows? How comfortable were you feeling in the approach and while you were doing?

Like everything, it’s perspective. I thought, at the time, I felt fairly comfortable, but compared to how comfortable I feel now, I was on pins and needles. I think even just living joke to joke, living question to question for each interview. That thing of how much of it you get to do when you host a show like this, and you realize no one ever comes up to you in the street and says, “Hey, fourth joke, Tuesday’s monologue, real bad.” You get to be this content factory.

When you start, the stress is, “Oh my God, how do we fill an hour every night?” And then the longer you do it, you realize, “Oh, this is great. We get to fill an hour every night.” Because of that, you just try to bring up the average of what counts as a good show. I think what a good show to us now is, is a lot better than what a good show was for us in the early days.

It’s also funny looking back at how your writers were involved in the show in the early days, when they came out as characters. I don’t know if you’ve seen the clip that has been resurfacing recently of Tim Robinson as your sidekick.

It’s so funny because I feel as though anybody who worked at “SNL” during Tim Robinson’s era had a sense of, “There’s something really special in this guy and I want to be the one to show it to the world.” And then of course the answer was “No, he’ll be the one to show it to the world.” (Laughs). To be honest, I’ve seen the clip floating around, but I almost don’t want to watch it because I feel as though the truest version of Tim Robinson is now at our fingertips, that I don’t really need to go back to see how clumsily I tried to elevate him.

It’s good! It also feels a bit like an “I Think You Should Leave” sketch.

Yes. Nobody ever asks me to do their sketches! It’s like if I want to do an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I basically have to do it within the body of an interview (laughs).

That interview with Larry was so great.

I did feel like I got to be in an episode of “Curb.” I kind of backdoored my way in.

What did that feel like in the moment? As the interview started going in that direction and you and Larry both started playing into it, there was like a twinkle in his eye.

The funny thing about what a public grump Larry David is is that anyone can tell when he’s having a good time. The joy of watching a public grump just having a blast is so contagious. And that’s what I felt.

Your iteration of “Late Night” has thrived on evolution, from the attic episodes to what the show became after the pandemic. Was there ever a “got it” feeling, like you’ve nailed what the show is, or does it always feel like you guys are sharpening?

The first show we did from behind the desk felt as though it was a “got it.” We didn’t think, “Oh it’ll be great now forever,” but we just knew we were pointed in a better direction for how the show would develop, which it did. And when you decide to take a producer named Sal Gentile and put them in charge of writing “A Closer Look,” that felt like a “got it.” When we came back from the pandemic, not right when we got back in the studio but the first time we got an audience back, that wasn’t a “got it” moment for us, I think it was a moment where we realized that the audience got it. We’d gotten to do probably a year and a half of shows without an audience, and when the actual physical audience came back, the joy of realizing, “Oh, they enjoyed what we were doing,” while we sort of had the permission to build the show in a new way, that was really exciting.

But in general, it’s just constantly trying to do things differently and finding new ways to do things and trying to adjust the process sometimes. We’ve never been a show where the solution has been, “We gotta work every day of the week and twice on Sundays!” We have found that the looser it’s gotten, not in the way it deals with the facts or the way it tackles tricky subjects, but we want the show to feel comfortable and lived in. So mostly it’s just taking advantage of every night as a new rep just to try to be more comfortable with how we do it.

A prerequisite for any successful late night host is building a connection with the audience that feels genuine and human, and I do remember very pointedly your first show after the 2016 election was a big moment for you, when it felt like you were getting very personal with your reaction to Trump’s election. What do you remember about that show?

I mean, the night before felt like a slow-motion car crash. You could tell early in the night, it was like when you’re watching a movie and it just for some reason keeps cutting to an 18-wheeler and you see that one of the ball bearings on the wheel is loose and then they cut back to a family of ducks crossing the street and you’re like, “This isn’t good.” (laughs) So that was my take and then I just felt so at a loss. I didn’t think it could happen, and I hated what it said about where we were at as a country.

And to that end you have A Closer Look. What do you remember about first putting that together?

If memory serves, I wanted to write a longer form thing about the Greek debt crisis, and then there was another one on Planned Parenthood hearings. It was just that was the thing people would say they saw and liked. All of a sudden, people I hadn’t talked to in a while would email and say, “I loved that.” They’d never said “I hate your monologue” or “I hate your desk pieces,” I just think they maybe didn’t feel as unique or specific to me. So that was really great, when people who knew my voice the most said, “Oh, you should do more of those.” Then we’re so lucky obviously to find our way to Sal [Gentile] and Emily [Erotas] and they just got so much better as they did more. The fact that we can do three a week is an incredible feat.

It also fit right into the changing entertainment landscape, where everyone started consuming shorter videos and explainers.

To this day I still think it’s so amazing the way Sal writes a beginning, middle and end and there’s a thesis statement and a conclusion, and also because of the intellectual architecture of what he’s doing there’s so much room to just then throw on the dumbest jokes you can come up with. The low quality of my impressions only work in the context of really good writing (laughs). They almost just serve as pressure valves within a really beautiful construction. If it was just like Seth’s impressions and we weren’t doing anything about the news, it would be the worst show on TV.

Speaking of very dumb jokes, Corrections has become a wonderful bright spot to really lean into the weirdness and specificity of the humor you tend to be drawn toward. What do you remember about the beginning of that? Did no one tell you it was a dumb idea?

Nobody said anything was a dumb idea during COVID. Being without an audience and doing the show, which felt like we were just throwing it into the void, I did look at YouTube comments in a way that I’d never looked at before. Mostly it was just so lovely, but then also people would notice really small mistakes and it was really funny to me how — because again, I’d gone seven years without reading a single YouTube comment — I was so entertained by the fact that people had been just correcting stuff to nobody for so long. Nobody ever read them. It was like if you asked for letters to the editor, and then the address you gave people was a dumpster (laughs).

So then I was engaging with it and I remembered just tossing off this correction to Legos and how you’re supposed to say Lego bricks and getting it wrong in the correcting of it. There are certain kinds of people who are very picky about the way you talk about their hobbies: Lego enthusiasts, the knitting community, marching band people, these are all groups I would steer clear of if given the opportunity. I would say if they were down one alley and the other alley was that 1000 zombies, I’d try the zombies (laughs). It just became this fun thing because it was crowd-sourced comedy only for the crowd that chose to source it. And there are just so many dumb ways to write jokes about the way people have corrected things. So on Thursday, I just spend hours reading through everything and just making notes and then putting together a loose script of bad puns, terrible impressions, long shaggy dog jokes. It shouldn’t bring me as much joy as it does, but it is the most fun thing I do.

Is there a show in your memory that exemplifies “Late Night” at its best? If you could pinpoint the ideal of what you guys are trying to pull off.

The nice thing is how they don’t stand out, because they blend together in a way that I think we have a lot of good shows. I will say look, it’s recent history, but that Larry David show was one of my favorites. Also because I did a Jiminy Glick impression in “A Closer Look,” so for me, that was just the best of all worlds. It was a really great “Closer Look,” it was about the world we live in right now, it had an impression of a Martin Short character that is almost two decades old. Then we had a really loose, fun interview with Larry David. It was a delight, and Katy Tur was our final guest who then provided more context to the news.

And then to this day, I mean, I’ve said it a bunch and it wasn’t what exemplifies our show because I don’t ever want to have to go live again because of an insurrection, but the January 6 show in 2021. The fact that we had to stop everything and figure out how to write about history that was happening in real time. I was just so proud of everybody here, but in particular what Sal did. I go back and watch it because so many people have changed their tune about what it was and there’s really no reason to, it is exactly what it was. And I’m very happy we spoke about it in a way that’s aged as well as it has.

Early on in your tenure as you were starting to lean into politics more on the show, Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show” and that kind of opened up a late night gap where you seem to have fit in nicely. Now that Jon is back on “The Daily Show,” have you sent him a strongly worded letter to step off your beat?

(Laughs) I can send him an email. I think it’s very good for the country and people who love late night talk shows that he’s back.

I know your current contract is through 2025 and then the Internet tells me you’re taking over for Lorne Michaels at “SNL,” is that correct?

Well I know that Lorne wants to do it like a big sort of Hunger Games-type situation. He hasn’t said explicitly what we’re going to his “island retreat” for, but based on the names I’ve seen on the invite list, it does seem like a fight to the death with some very, very talented people. I’m just honored to get the invite.

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