A funny thing happened early this morning as Seth Meyers took the stage during the opening moments of NBC’s “Late Night”: He took a detour to his desk.
The host, who typically delivers a standup monologue, then proceeded to deliver a spate of jokes about Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian and Hillary Clinton in a manner that evoked comparisons to his tenure on the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” where he held forth from 2006 to 2014. On “Late Night,” Meyers was seated, and pictures appeared behind his right shoulder that showed the famous people mentioned in his jokes. The graphics added “oomph” to each effort.
That detour is likely to become a permanent new step on the program, Meyers said in an interview Tuesday. “The plan was to sort of use these next two weeks to experiment. We want to mess around with it. It felt really good last night,” he said. “You don’t try to make too many decisions based on a sample size of one, but we’re going to keep doing it for the next two weeks.” Chances are high, Meyers said, that the segment will become the new way of opening the show, a change he said was largely “cosmetic.”
Wee-hours talk shows are like giant aircraft that require maintenance after they have already left the ground. When alterations are made, they must take place in full public view. There’s little if any time to duck out and get the consensus of a focus group behind the scenes.
And yet, in an environment that has only grown more competitive, hosts and producers have to keep trying new stuff. Several new programs and hosts have joined the latenight fray in recent months – Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” Josh Wolf on CMT and, opposite Meyers, James Corden on CBS’ “The Late Late Show.” All have played around with the genre’s standard format, and continue to test new elements. Stephen Colbert is set to debut on CBS’ “Late Show” in September, and Time Warner’s TBS is readying a new program featuring “Daily Show” alumna Samantha Bee.
Lorne Michaels, the “Saturday Night Live” creator who oversees both Meyers’ “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” has long advised Meyers’ staff, “’You don’t have to stay married to what you started with,’” Meyers said. “He has always sort of told us to stay open minded.”
The seated delivery seems natural for Meyers, who is a master of the format. He has, after all, logged more episodes behind SNL’s “Weekend Update” desk than anyone else in the history of the program– more than Dennis Miller, Tina Fey, Norm MacDonald or Chevy Chase.
Producers were eager to take a step away from that concept when his program launched in 2014. “One of the big reasons we didn’t start doing this was I had such a short gap” – just three weeks or so between his departure from “Saturday Night Live” and his “Late Night” debut. He wanted to lend his new effort its own identity and show he could embrace new challenges and formats.
There are some other advantages. The delivery of jokes from behind the desk separates Meyers’ post-midnight hour from Fallon’s program before it, where the host does a standup monologue. Use of graphics lets the staff put an accent on the jokes Meyers delivers. It’s a technique Wilmore’s program has tapped, with pictures that appear in an unorthodox spot, the bottom left corner of the screen.
Meyers didn’t dislike doing a standup spot. “My legs were very excited to get their time onscreen,” he quipped.
The studio audience for this morning’s broadcast – taped Monday – seemed to welcome the tweak, Meyers reported. He took an informal “straw poll” before taping started. “I just wanted to let them know we were going to be doing something different,” he recalled. “Only one woman had the guts to say she missed the traditional monologue. We asked her to leave,” he joked, “and went on with the show.”
No matter how fierce the jockeying becomes in latenight, Meyers said he is unlikely to embrace things that don’t dovetail with his sensibilities. “At this point in time, everyone should be able to find a latenight show that suits their taste,” said Meyers, “and, ultimately, you just have to be true to what your own sense of humor is.”