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Before Wrestling Donald Trump, Seth Meyers Fought for His ‘Late Night’ Voice

Seth Meyers’ tenure at “Late Night” on NBC has really begun to pop, but during one recent taping, the crew probably wished it hadn’t.

Meyers was in the middle of one of his signature “Closer Look” segments, when a sudden bang startled the audience in Studio 8G at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters. It was a tough break for the host and his crew. These pointed broadsides on current events are complex pieces, and typically use a mix of the host’s gimlet-eyed analysis, jokes, outtakes from news reports and clever graphics (a Donald Trump baseball card that has him playing left field) to uncover the machinations behind the news of the moment. There’s pressure, too. The pieces are put together over the course of 24 hours, often less. They are so tied in to current events they may be useless the next day. The show even field-tests the segments in front of a quickly assembled group of tourists and others asked to attend an almost “secret” rehearsal of “Late Night” material in the middle of the afternoon, before an actual taping takes place. And they are becoming more important to the core of the program. In the early months of Meyers’ late-night tenure, a “Closer Look” might have surfaced once a month, maybe twice. Now, with the election cycle in full frenzy, the segment might appear two or three times a week.

The culprit for the noise? A blown bulb, with a bang so loud some members of the audience might have thought Jon Theodore, the Queens of the Stone Age drummer who was sitting in with the band that evening, had taken a thwack to his kit.

You would forgive Meyers if the mishap got under his skin. The burst came just as he was telling what he thought was one of the nearly 10-minute segment’s best jokes, and producers wound up editing the piece before it aired later that night. But when he came to talk to the audience during a break in the taping, he was sanguine — the natural reflex of someone who spent years doing the live “Weekend Update” segment and other sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”  “I paid the ultimate price,” he joked to the crowd.

Seth Meyers is also reaping some rewards. “Late Night” is the venue where David Letterman first came to prominence, and has long served as a forum where new, sometimes unproven talent (think Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon) sounds what Walt Whitman called a “barbaric yawp” to the rest of the world. Now, after months of paying dues in a crowded late-night circle in which two handfuls of hosts are working furiously to break out on CBS, ABC, Comedy Central, HBO and even Netflix, Meyers is making a lot of headway in the difficult area of making viewers think as well as laugh.

Enough to fill a void left by the departure of the revered Jon Stewart? “Jon Stewart was a giant, and obviously, Colbert was as well. But there is definitely a vacuum, and Trevor Noah is doing a good show, but I think Seth was already doing that, as it were, on ‘Update,'” said Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of “Late Night” and the veteran keeper of NBC’s late-night schedule. Meyers “has a strong point of view. He’s not an angry person, and that makes it easier. He doesn’t do outrage.” Even so, said Michaels, “the jokes are tough.”

Meyers’ recent salvo against Donald Trump, in which he banned the Republican presidential candidate from his show in retaliation for the real estate mogul withdrawing credentials for covering his campaign from The Washington Post, drew blood. Trump, who has made multiple appearances on Michaels’ other TV properties, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” decreed he would not show up on “Late Night.” It’s the latest in a string of jokes and riffs that have lent Meyers’ version of the show new credibility among a cadre of young viewers now moving more firmly into adulthood.

“I feel like we are in an era now where a joke is allowed to be interesting as well as funny,” said Meyers during a recent interview in his office at 30 Rock. When it comes to the “Closer Look” segments that generate a lot of chatter for the program, for instance, he said, “we obviously want them to be funny and that’s the primary goal, but we’ve allowed ourselves to be interesting if we feel like the story is interesting. Sometimes, we leave something in even if we don’t have an A-plus joke for this, but it’s important for the takeaway.”

The first 20 minutes of Meyers’ program are getting more attention than many of the guests who stop by to visit. The host first delivers an ersatz newscast, poking at the absurdities of the day in a style that is reminiscent of his time behind the “Weekend Update” desk. From there, the show often moves into segments that can include “Closer Look” but also stuff like “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” that tap his writers to examine matters of race, sexuality and gender, or “Ya Burnt,” which allows the host to deliver rapid-fire riffs on anything that might be under his craw.

“I feel like the first act of the show is our ‘newspaper act.’ It’s the day’s events as much as possible,” said Meyers. “Maybe we’ll talk about something big that’s happened during the week, or maybe we’ll catch people up on a story we think is important, but we are really trying to do as much ‘day of’ as possible. It gives the first act a little bit of a snap.”

The approach has helped the program, which is luring more viewers overall, despite a slight dip in the key demo of adults 18-49. It also provides a yin to Jimmy Fallon’s yang. “Late Night” is more attuned to the headlines that Fallon’s “Tonight Show” purposely avoids in favor of celebrity antics and fun. “People are yearning for a credible, trusted, mainstream voice – not a partisan mouthpiece, not a pundit, but a fair-minded, reasonable person who will speak honestly to these larger issues we are facing,” said Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication who has studied TV’s late-night shows for more than 15 years. “We are seeing him find his way.”

Even Donald Trump has noticed. The candidate retaliated to Meyers’ humorous ban, elevating a simple joke to something decidedly more. Staffers “were tickled,” said Meyers. Trump’s “inability to let anything go without comment is one of his most delightful qualities.” The bit “was pitched as a joke, because we’re all well aware he has no intention of coming here. It would be akin to banning the Queen of England. It’s comedy far more than principle,” Meyers added. “With that said, he’s still banned.”

His growing power in late-night is testament to the idea that sometimes, a host just needs time to find his or her voice. It’s a strategy that has been come under scrutiny in an era that might be dubbed “Carson 3.0.” Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart are no longer around, and the wee-hours landscape has a larger group of newcomers. CBS brought in an executive to help bolster Stephen Colbert at “The Late Show” after executives felt the host was inundated with too many duties, affecting the quality of his program. At Comedy Central, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah once greeted his audience doing the same thing Jon Stewart did: anchoring from behind the desk.  On Jan. 4, just a few months into his tenure, Noah decided to stand. These days, he will alternate positions, depending on what element opens the program. More people are trying to make a go of it ‘round midnight, and there is not always an infinite amount of patience as TV networks make their way in a new world in which time-shifting viewers might watch late-night favorites before they head to work in the morning.

“The competition in network television now is not other network television. You’re competing for an audience with so many choices,” said Michaels. “You really have to know who you are and what kind of show you are doing, or else they won’t show up.” And getting there, he added, can take some time.

By Meyers’ own admission, his self-assurance is relatively new. When he first jumped into “Late Night” in February 2014, he was not on solid ground. He grappled more with the nuts and bolts of the show, leaving him with less time to focus on humor that stings but doesn’t kill (“Chelsea Clinton gave birth to a son this weekend,” goes one recent Meyers monologue joke. “Unfortunately, due to his young age, he’s a Sanders supporter”). CBS and Comedy Central gave Noah, Colbert and “Late Late Show’s” James Corden months of lead time before they took up residence behind their desks. Weeks before the launch of his tenure on “Late Night,” Seth Meyers was still leading “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I don’t think a host is really comfortable on that set until about a year in. It takes about that long to get used to it,” said Rick Ludwin, who supervised NBC’s late-night programs for decades. “That’s when you start to see organic things happen.”

Meyers was fortunate. He had a big ratings lead-in from Fallon’s “Tonight.” And he gives a lot of credit to Michaels, who he said provided a “buffer” as he worked to find his voice.

Early on, Meyers notched attention by spotlighting up and comers (In an early show Amy Poehler announced the second-season renewal of “Broad City,” the Comedy Central show produces); enticing his family to join him for Thanksgiving; indulging in a bit called “Extreme Dog Shaming”; and letting his writers develop an array of kooky characters. In late August, a simple decision changed the tone of the show: Meyers and team stopped doing the traditional opening monologue. Instead, he held forth from behind his desk and talked about the news. Suddenly, Meyers wasn’t trying to inhabit the same Johnny Carson hand-me-down that is a staple of the genre. Meyers points to the late-2015 hiring of writers like Sal Gentile, who has experience working with the Upright Citizens Brigade improv-comedy teams as well as producing shows for MSNBC, as a factor in his show’s newsy turn.

If NBC executives had their druthers, “I would have sat down behind the desk a little bit sooner,” said Meyers. “I was very stubborn about it. I thought this was a new chapter, and I wanted to prove to everyone I could do a new thing.” Over the months, as he grew less tense about his performance, he came to a realization: “It’s hard enough being good at one thing. You don’t have to try to show people you can do everything.”

Producers quickly noticed the pivot to focusing current events gave the show new purpose. “We didn’t know it wasn’t until it was,” said Mike Shoemaker, the veteran late-night producer who oversees the show. “That’s the thing: You don’t know that it’s not until it is – ‘oh, yeah, it’s better now,’ ” he said. Now, “we can focus on making more of the things we like.”

Meyers sees himself as a beneficiary of what Stewart developed during his tenure on Comedy Central, not a usurper to the throne. “I think it would be a fool’s errand for anyone to try and replace Jon,” Meyers said, noting that Stewart was “instrumental” in gaining acceptance for the discussion of politics in late night and “politics with a little more of a point of view behind it as opposed to just doing a monologue. Certainly, we owe a debt to the work he did in making this kind of thing accepted in late-night television.”

Yet Meyers may be gaining wider acceptance for a late-night host who isn’t afraid to wear political leanings on his sleeve. Keep in mind “Late Night” appears not on cable but on a broadcast network, where broad audience appeal is typically key to success. And while it’s not hard to guess where Samantha Bee and John Oliver stand on various issues, they only hold court once a week. Meyers, who freely admits he tilts more blue-state than red, typically offers fresh material four nights out of five. “I think global warming is real,” he noted. It’s not hard to figure out what he makes of the world around him.

The host isn’t looking to keep his views a secret. “You famously hear how nobody knew Johnny Carson’s politics, but I feel like we live in a different time now,” Meyers said. “People know so much more about not just our politics, but people know everything about everybody. The idea that we can be coy and keep our opinions hidden – if we have them, it’s very hard to hide them, and I feel like the audience is very good at spotting authenticity,” he said. “We kind of made the decision that we will try to be fair and well-reasoned, but at the same time, I don’t mind if people know how I feel about things.”

Chances are viewers are going to hear a lot more. The race for White House is in full swing, and the staff is growing more adept at polishing “Closer Look” segments. The process often takes root in the hands of writers the night before so Meyers can give it his polish when he arrives the next day. And then it’s handed off to graphics personnel who can start to find video segments that help bolster the riff. “We do it probably in less time than we should,” Meyers said, “but until it kills the writers who are putting it together, we are going to keep trying to do it as fast as possible.”

Already, the staff is contemplating how to keep the show’s momentum going after the election. Meyers could weigh in on matters of popular culture, Shoemaker suggested, and both he and Meyers expressed a desire to do more taped pieces that put a spotlight on what the host can do outside his studio.

He will have to be ready for anything, whether it be a taping mishap, a belligerent billionaire or the next “OMG” moment fueled by the 24/7 swirl of social media. After making his way through episode after episode, Meyers said, “I feel more confident now.” You might say he’s prepared for whatever is about to pop.

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