How Seth Meyers Finally Found His Footing on Late Night TV
"I only have a couple of above-average skills,” Seth Meyers says. “One of them is writing, and I think I’m getting there as a performer.”
Anyone who’s seen Meyers host Late Night knows he’s also adept at working an audience, engaging in witty repartee with celebrities, and distilling complex news into bite-size comic riffs. His Trump impression is on point, and if holding one’s own with Kellyanne Conway counts as a skill, he’s got that too.
VIDEO: Seth Meyers' Wild Night Out in NYC
But the one thing he’s really underselling here is his knack for making it all look like no big deal, four breakneck days a week. (The episodes that air on Fridays are repeats.) “It’s really hard to make it look easy,” Meyers says. “People are in bed. They want to relax at the end of a long day. They don’t want to watch somebody who’s heartbroken every time a joke doesn’t work.”
More than three years into Late Night, Meyers, 43, is mostly past the freak-out phase. While he avoids self-aggrandizement, he allows that his critically lauded show is “the best version it’s been so far,” as we talk over tequila and soda and lettuce-wrapped tacos in an empty function area of the Rainbow Room, in New York’s Rockefeller Center, upstairs from his office. In particular, his typical monologue segment, “A Closer Look,” has been crushing it with audiences. But Meyers isn’t letting up.
“I think the worst mistake you can make with any of these shows is saying, ‘We’ve figured it out. This is it.’ ”
The man who turns up for our interview at 7:45 p.m. after his daily taping is the same one who will interview Scarlett Johansson a few nights later: engaged and easy in conversation, minus the edgy on-air metabolism. Instead of a suit and tie, he’s wearing—well, he doesn’t know exactly what. “Oh my god, please don’t tell the people in my life I don’t know this,” he says, staring at his white sneakers in puzzlement (his wardrobe stylist later IDs the shoes as Common Projects, the navy blazer as Sandro, and the shirt and jeans as Rag & Bone).
Raised in New Hampshire on Monty Python, Meyers comes across less like a late-night star and more like that talented guy you interned with a while back. But it’s also not hard to figure out why he was quite a baller in his single days (“I was all right,” he says with a sly smile); now he’s married to human rights lawyer Alexi Ashe. The missus, he declares, is “a real catch.”
“The day I met her I thought I wanted to be single forever. I should make that very clear,” he says. “We were introduced at a wedding. I don’t know what it was, but she struck me as both incredibly serious and incredibly silly—and that’s remained true. I think I wanted a little of each."
“I’m in awe of her,” he continues. “Mostly because I have a comedy show, and she prosecutes sex crimes, and yet I’m the one who comes home in a bad mood if a show doesn’t go well, and she’s the one who can come home and be upbeat.”
These days, there don’t seem to be many dark clouds around the couple’s West Village duplex, where they live with their 1-year-old son, Ashe. Meyers has been riding the Trump-era news cycle to acclaim and solid ratings, while doing his part to fill the void of liberal outrage that Jon Stewart left behind when he quit The Daily Show in 2015—though Meyers is quick to share credit with Daily Show alumni Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver.
“I think we all owe a huge debt to Jon,” Meyers says. “Letterman recently said in an interview—and I think it’s true—that Jon was the first person who kind of showed everybody that you could host these shows and have a point of view. You didn’t have to have your backstage politics and then your onstage apolitical presentation.”
When Meyers started at Late Night, that wasn’t so obvious. For his first five years at Saturday Night Live, he would get passed over for roles in sketches. “It was awful,” he recalls. “The other guys on the cast were Kenan Thompson, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Fred Armisen, and I just looked at them every week and said, ‘You know, if I were writing a sketch, I’d put them in it instead of me.’ ”
To make matters worse, those guys were his friends (and still are). “It’s not just that you feel like they’re better than you at the job,” he says. “You also are socially spending all your time with them. You love them, and you hate yourself for feeling jealous.”
By Year 6, Meyers had moved on to the writers’ room, where he remained for another six years. He admits that this was the first time he felt he was really contributing to SNL, and he eventually ascended to Tina Fey’s spot as head writer when she left in 2006. Meyers then landed his Late Night gig in 2013 when then-host Jimmy Fallon decamped to The Tonight Show.
When Meyers started in February 2014, his mentor Lorne Michaels, executive producer of both SNL and Late Night, told him it would take 18 months for him to find his footing, which turned out to be pretty accurate. “The first couple weeks of the show, you could see worry lines on me when things weren’t going well,” Meyers recalls. “And then I had this great revelation that we get to go out tomorrow and take another crack.” Now he’s so focused on the next episode that he is asleep before the show airs each night and rarely watches previous episodes. “I’m only going to see things that I want to change,” he says.
The 12:30 a.m. time slot gives Meyers space to experiment, especially with the show’s third interview spot. He’s brought on Hillbilly Elegy scribe J.D. Vance, religion scholar Reza Aslan, and George Saunders, author of the best-selling novel Lincoln in the Bardo.
“Every single talk show will have Gwen Stefani on,” Meyers explains. “She’s an A-list guest. But it’s in the third slot of the show that the host essentially gets to say, ‘This is who I want you to get to know.’ ”
He’s also distinguished himself with “A Closer Look,” his deep news dive, which rolls out first on YouTube at 9 p.m., where the more popular bits log more than two million views. Under the current presidential administration, there’s no shortage of material. “Your biggest fear when you have a late-night talk show is that you won’t have something to talk about,” says Meyers. “And although that has been replaced with a litany of other fears, at least that one is off the docket.”
Speaking of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, Meyers takes a hard pass on Trump (“an impossible interview”), but he’s hoping White House press secretary Sean Spicer will come on at some point. “I would love to talk to him,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, he asked for this job—but it doesn’t seem fair to have the same poor man go out every day and explain why all these things that were contradictory were actually very much cohesive statements.”
Even though Meyers is himself wading into the political muck much of the time, his show offers an escape, paradoxically. “Getting to talk about the day’s events to 200 people, where we can kind of all collectively laugh at it all, has been a great relief,” he says.
His other respite comes from getting home each night in time for dinner and TV, which he and Alexi watch on their iPad in bed. The show might be Girls, The Last Man on Earth, or The Sopranos, but they watch only one episode, because after that she conks out. “It’s problematic,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Please just tell me when you’re falling asleep,’ and she tries to explain to me, ‘It’s not a thing you know. I can’t yell, “Asleep!” ’ I am constantly waving my hand in front of her face.”
It’s just as well: The alarm sounds at 6:30 a.m., allowing Meyers to squeeze in some dad time before he gets to the office between 8 and 8:30. Mornings are a high point for him. “To watch Alexi with our son,” he says, “is truly seeing someone at the very top of their game every day.”
It must be rubbing off.
Photographed by Douglas Friedman. Fashion editor: Sabina Schreder. Grooming: Amy Komorowski for Art Department. Hair: Dennis Devoy for Art Department. Makeup: William Murphy for Atelier Management. Manicure: Yuko Wada for Atelier Management. Set design: Cooper Vasquez for The Magnet Agency. Production: First Light Productions. Models: Diana Cecil for CESD, Sheila Thomas for DBA, Kay Gaffney, Lydia Schmitt, and Priscilla Gore. Location: The Standard Highline.