Seth Meyers Embraced ‘Flights of Fancy’ to Turn ‘Late Night’ Into One of TV’s Best Shows

“I don’t think I could make a show that was fun to watch if I wasn’t having fun doing it,” the NBC host tells TheWrap in a wide-ranging interview

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Seth Meyers during his “Late Night” monologue on December 13, 2023 (Lloyd Bishop/NBC)

Few late night hosts talk about their writers as much as Seth Meyers does. Which is why it wasn’t surprising when he directly threw his support behind WGA members ahead of the writers’ strike earlier this year, telling viewers he felt “very strongly” that what the writers were asking for was not unreasonable before cautioning that the strike would not be done “lightly.”

That devotion to his writing staff has also directly led to a largely unchanged roster of talent that, over the course of nearly 10 years now, has fine-tuned and evolved “Late Night with Seth Meyers” into a show that embraces looseness and in-jokes, standing wholly apart from its other late night counterparts.

But ask Seth Meyers how he did it, and he’s loathe to take the credit.

“Now I just feel like I’m talking like a poster in a dentist’s office – don’t you see, I don’t carry them, they carry me,” Meyers told TheWrap during a backstage interview after taping one of his final episodes before the holiday break. With a grin on his face, he acknowledged the clichéd nature of what he just said while emphasizing the “team” aspect that fuels “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

“If you watch ‘Corrections,’ you know that in it he sees everyone. He’s been that way forever, but ‘Corrections’ is maybe the best portrait of that. People like being seen,” showrunner Mike Shoemaker told TheWrap of why Meyers’ staff remains largely intact.

The NBC talk show premiered in 2014 when Meyers made the jump from “Saturday Night Live,” where he served as head writer for nearly a decade. Meyers made his debut just as the late night landscape was completely shifting – Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show,” David Letterman departed “Late Show” and John Oliver launched his own HBO show just two months after Meyers went on the air.

Quickly, Meyers leaned into his own interest in politics, and “Late Night” fell into a sharp-edged style that dove deep into the political news of the day in a segment called “A Closer Look,” which can run up to 15 minutes in length and airs three times a week. Yet the show also found time for silliness in segments that spotlight writers like “Amber Says What,” “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” and the relatively new “Surprise Inspection,” in which Meyers roasts his writers for specific jokes they wrote.

Shoemaker — who has worked with Meyers since his “SNL” days — said it’s the host’s close attention to his staff that leads the writers to trust him when he says a joke is great — and when a joke is not so great: “When he says, ‘This is a s—ty joke,’ they also know it and they kind of love it.”

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Seth Meyers (Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap)

‘Compassionate leadership’

True to form, when asked about his leadership style, Meyers deferred. “I am the core result of what trickled down from Mike Shoemaker,” he said. “I respected the way he did things at ‘SNL,’ and that’s one of the reasons we became friends and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to do ‘Late Night’ without someone like him. But his producing style is don’t create problems where there aren’t problems.”

Even after taping an episode during the middle of a busy pre-holiday week, Meyers was welcoming and breezy, with a hot tea in hand – a host in every sense of the word. But when pressed that the tightness and talent of his longtime writing staff is the result of his leadership, he began to squirm. The thought of taking any kind of sole credit for the show with his namesake made him physically uncomfortable. He crossed his outstretched arms and bashfully looked up at the ceiling.

At last he relented. Kind of.

“These are the things I think I’m good at: I think I’m very good at giving credit,” he said. “Every day I’m hyper-aware of how little of this show I could do if it was just me. I think – I hope – I’m clear in what I want. So I’m not the kind of person who, at the end of the day if I didn’t get what I wanted, pretends like I asked for it if I hadn’t.”

Shoemaker dubbed their management style as “compassionate leadership,” adding that they adopted the phrase “They don’t work for us, we work for them” when running their staff.

But Meyers also said the jovial and team-focused atmosphere of “Late Night” is a result of the fact he never dreamed he’d have this job in the first place.

“This is more than I ever wanted. I feel like when you’re given what’s beyond your wildest dreams, you should walk around in a good mood,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I have bad days, I have stressed days, there are days where things outside the body of the show are happening and it’s hard. I feel like probably people aren’t getting the best of me – I hope the audience does, but maybe internally in the office I’m less of that. But I want everybody here to feel like I do, which is great that we get to do this. Because I don’t think I could make a show that was fun to watch if I wasn’t having fun doing it.”

That joy shines through in “A Closer Look,” which has evolved to contain what Meyers calls “flights of fancy.”

“There’s so much whimsy now. For example, there was a ‘Closer Look’ a couple of days ago where we had a long run about how LaGuardia [airport]’s nice now, and also who listens to music on their cable channels. It just came up in the meeting with us complaining about those things and then writing it in in real time,” he said, clearly still tickled that these detours made their way into the politically focused segment. “It all happens so fast now, and we give ourselves permission to embrace how temporary they are. They’re good for a day. We put a lot of care into it and we want to make sure it’s right, but we also give ourselves permission to be loose.”

That looseness has made the show light on its feet, and Meyers said the pandemic shows – during which the whimsy came through more and more – gave the staff a newfound love of the show. “We’re always reminding ourselves don’t be afraid of change. Because if you have to change your show, you could actually decide to make it a better version of what it was before.”

Late night’s symbiotic future

The entire late night landscape has shifted yet again in the nearly 10 years Meyers has been on the air. There was a boom of new late night shows as the streaming services expanded, but none of them are still around today. Meyers admitted he’s not sure what the future of the late night medium has in store. “It would be sad if there weren’t these homes for the next generation of people,” he said. But one thing’s for certain: He doesn’t feel any pressure to take over “The Tonight Show.”

“One of the things that made this different was the fact that Jimmy [Fallon] and I are of the same generation and the same age,” he said. “One of the reasons it seemed like a stepping stone is there was always an older person and a younger person, so the fact that we’ve never had that has never put any pressure on it.”

In previous generations, “Late Night” was the precursor to hosting NBC’s earlier “Tonight Show.” Former “Late Night” hosts David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon all made the jump to an earlier time slot, but Meyers views his and Fallon’s shows as two very different vehicles — and he doesn’t view them as in competition with one another.

“One of the reasons our shows compliment each other so well is he’s gotten to make his without thinking there was anyone coming in the future, and I’ve gotten to do mine not ever thinking I had to show them I could also do ‘The Tonight Show,’” he continued. “I don’t think of it as ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Late Night’ as much as like Jimmy’s show and Seth’s show.”

The host did admit one way in which he and Fallon are competitors: “We’re both great podcast hosts.”

Indeed, Meyers, Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver teamed up in an unprecedented show of late night solidarity this summer during the writers’ strike for the 12-episode Strike Force Five podcast, the proceeds of which paid the staffs of their shows while they were off the air.

Meyers said that while the podcast is unlikely to be revived, the text chain is still going strong.

“Rarely does a week go by without a newfound appreciation for what that provided in terms of our friendship with one another,” he said. “I knew how to contact all of them, but it’s nice when something happens or somebody does a good interview or has a funny bit, it’s great to have this text chain.”

Another benefit of the text chain? Roasting each other.

“There was a very robust welcome back to Stephen after his appendix burst, and it was very sincere and then quickly turned into a bunch of jokes about how Kimmel had poisoned his blood.”

That podcast also outlined the ways in which all these hosts are doing something different with their shows. Gone are the cutthroat days of “The Tonight Show” vs. “Late Show.” Now it seems like they’re each happy filling their own respective lanes.

For Meyers, his attitude towards “Late Night” reflects the more casual dress he adopted after the pandemic, when he ditched suits in favor of shirts and jeans.

“I do feel like to some degree, this show is a really good pair of jeans that gets better the more you wear them,” he said. “So then the way the show is funny and the way we get to be funny doing it is we’re not living or dying with each joke. Hopefully, it feels like a good hang.”

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