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Seth Meyers on Surviving (and Thriving) on Late-Night TV in the Age of Trump

Seth Meyers is ready for a break. Halfway through the taping of his late-night show at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, he runs up and down the aisles, spontaneously answering questions from the audience. Although this part of the program isn’t televised, it’s a secret tradition for him, a way to reward his fans for all the hours they spent waiting outside. On this night, a woman asks Meyers about the time he got plastered in a nearby bar with Kelly Clarkson for an interview segment called “Day Drinking.” Meyers laughs. “I think I had nine to 10 drinks,” he says. “I was so drunk I said bye to Kelly Clarkson twice, and after she left I turned to my producer and said, ‘Aww, I didn’t say goodbye to her.’”

Another audience member asks him who would be his dream guest. “I really want to have Rihanna on my show,” Meyers says. “My wife knows I love Rihanna. My wife has encouraged me to share my feelings with Rihanna.” He holds a beat. “My wife is very confident that Rihanna will not respond.”

Both on and off TV, Meyers is an affable comedian who is not beyond dishing stories that he would share with close friends in his living room. You might say that the 44-year-old New Yorker is the Tom Hanks of talk-show hosts. He’s not one to lose his temper or wallow in self-pity or doubt. “Seth is what I would call severely regular,” says Amber Ruffin, one of his writers. “You work with people who are a lot less of a big deal than they are, and they act crazy. He’s just super normal.”

In the past four years, “Late Night With Seth Meyers” has forged its own identity in a crowded landscape of political shows that derive their energy from righteous anger. Practically every late-night host has turned his or her sights to Washington, D.C., to mine comedy — the material writes itself. But while Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert can’t seem to contain their outrage, often to great effect, Meyers has taken a slightly different approach. His style is in the spirit of Jon Stewart’s old “The Daily Show,” which rebranded itself with Trevor Noah. Meyers isn’t flippant about the real-world consequences of the news, but he also stops short of perpetual fury. He’s more interested in putting the news in perspective than in sharing his own point of view.

Meyers’ pivot to politics wasn’t part of the plan when he started his show in 2014, but it’s become a winning formula that draws an average of 1.5 million insomniacs. His “A Closer Look” segments, a dissection of Trump’s latest meltdowns and lies delivered in a rapid-fire, almost deadpan manner, attract an additional 1 million or more viewers on YouTube. “Seth is a very smart and thoughtful person, but also, he’s very funny,” says “Late Night” executive producer Lorne Michaels, who compares his dry wit to that of “Saturday Night Live” alum Tina Fey. “What you’re attracted to is the sheer intelligence of it. And it appears exactly right for the moment.”

On “Late Night,” Meyers will often hold up a mirror to the current political environment just as Stewart did during the George W. Bush and Obama years. His show cycles through three guests, but the top half generates the most buzz. On the day after Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh granted an interview to Fox News to deny sexual harassment allegations against him, Meyers went to town in a segment called “Couple Things.” “First thing,” he said matter-of-factly. “It does not matter if you were a virgin. You are being accused of sexual assault, not sexual intercourse.”

Meyers arrives at work at 9 a.m., spending the first two hours of his day writing. “I cannot stress the luxury of coming to your office and already having a first draft of something that’s well constructed,” he says a few weeks earlier over a summer dinner of roast chicken and two glasses of red wine at a restaurant in the West Village near his apartment. At around 2 p.m., he scans as many as 400 jokes before deciding on the 20 or so he’ll use for his monologue. “I read them very flat and fast,” he says. By the time the show airs at 12:35 a.m., he’s sound asleep with his wife, Alexi Ashe. They are the parents of two small boys (one of whom was famously born in the lobby of his building, which he spun into an incredibly sweet yarn last April).

His “Late Night” dressing room, steps away from his old grounds as the head writer of “SNL,” has a 1990s Nintendo, but he says he doesn’t have time to play games. There’s a photograph of Martha Stewart from her modeling days on the wall, which Meyers swiped from her when he visited her talk show, asking if she’d sign it for him. He says the most fun part of assembling a talk show is hiring all the writers, who come from an eclectic background — Meyers found one (Bryan Donaldson) from Twitter; he was working in the IT department of an Illinois insurance company. “I was a nanny in Los Angeles,” says Ruffin, the first African-American woman writer on a late-night broadcast TV show, who got the call from Meyers after she was rejected from “SNL.” “I was like, yay! Money and food.”

It took some months for Meyers to find his rhythm. Initially, he wouldn’t perch at his desk for his monologue, because he was worried it would remind viewers too much of his prior gig as the anchor of “SNL’s” “Weekend Update.” “I think sitting down at the start of the show was the smallest change that also had the biggest impact,” says Meyers, who is set to return to “SNL” on Oct. 13 as guest host.

CREDIT: Jason Kim for Variety

Meyers is aware that Trump’s presidency has affected his place on TV. “I think Donald Trump running for president changed the show, because it helped us,” he says. “If, all of a sudden, we just woke up one morning and Trump was president, I don’t think we would’ve been ready for it. But because his campaign was a perfect reflection of what his presidency was going to be, we had gotten in shape.” He considers the alternative. “Like, no matter what your politics are, I don’t think that Hillary Clinton would’ve given us this much to go through every day.”

Meyers has a long history with Trump. He faced off with him as the host of the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, delivering savage jokes about the real estate mogul’s politics, racism and hair. “That room is so poorly lit,” recalls Meyers, who couldn’t see Trump’s menacing scowl during his routine. “C-SPAN had asked me for my jokes beforehand, because they wanted to know who to cut to.” He’d turned them down. “I didn’t want it to be just about the reactions,” he says. At the end of his roast, he received a call from then-Sen. Al Franken. “If you see Donald Trump at the after-party,” he told him, “go the other direction.”

That wasn’t possible in February 2015, when the two ran into each other at the “SNL” 40th-anniversary reunion. “It was very crowded,” Meyers says. “I had to get to one side, and he had to get to the other.” They had a surprisingly pleasant exchange. “It was like a scene in a movie, where I put out my hand and he pulled me in and said, ‘You do have talent.’ And I said, ‘I won’t tell anybody you said that.’ And he said, ‘You better not!’ The vibe of the ‘SNL’ 40th was let bygones be bygones.”

The last time Meyers spoke to Trump was shortly after that, when Meyers was courting him for a booking: “I always thought it would be interesting to have him on the show to talk about the Correspondents’ Dinner,” Meyers says, then revealing the name of the person who arranged the call. “We were going through Michael Cohen,” he says of Trump’s attorney, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations. “We talked on the phone, and I remember Trump saying, ‘I’m going to make a big announcement, and it’s going to be really big.’ I cannot tell you the speed in which I dismissed that.”

When Meyers is asked if he still wants to interview Trump, he responds honestly. “No,” he says. “He would never come on, so this is not me taking some high road. I just don’t think I’d enjoy it.”

On an early fall morning, Meyers is game to play along at a Variety photo shoot, pretending to take a stroll down Bleecker Street with a cup of diner coffee. “I want to make it clear in the article that I wouldn’t walk in the bike lane,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be that asshole.” After every costume change — from one fitted hipster suit to the next — he keeps running into people he knows, including a family friend and “SNL’s” Kenan Thompson. He’s largely unnoticed by the rest of the pedestrians on the celebrity-jaded block, until a green Chevrolet screeches to a halt in the middle of an intersection, with two passengers unloading for an emergency selfie. “We love you, Seth,” they say as he smiles and agrees to the picture.

LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) -- Episode 727 -- Pictured: Host Seth Meyers during a commerical break on September 5, 2018 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
CREDIT: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Meyers has lived in the West Village for so long, he’s as much of an institution as the Stonewall Inn or Gourmet Garage. He first moved onto a cobblestone downtown Manhattan block three weeks before 9/11, as a fledgling cast member on “SNL.” “I lucked into a great neighborhood, albeit a bad apartment,” he says of his garden-facing room on Charles and Washington streets. “Then it was Bleecker and 11th, and then it was 12th and Eighth, and then we moved right down the street here.”

One thing he kept from his upbringing in New Hampshire was his love of the Boston Red Sox. “I remember one night, I was going to meet Derek Jeter or David Wells at a club in New York,” says Jimmy Fallon, the “Tonight Show” host. Meyers, who worked with Fallon at “SNL,” decided to join them. “When he came back to work the next day,” Fallon says, “his office was covered in Yankees posters, and his screen saver was changed to a Yankees screen saver.” A producer on the show, also a Red Sox fan, took pleasure in hazing Meyers. “He was so embarrassed,” Fallon says.

There’s another way in which Meyers diverges from most New Yorkers. He never watched “Sex and the City” until his wife recently convinced him to binge the series. They are at Season 4, past the breaking point where Big gets married to another woman only to cheat on her with Carrie. “I know who she ends up with,” Meyers says. “It’s crazy to me. It seems like he’s done some really bad things.”

Meyers is the rare comedian who isn’t neurotic or tortured. “I had a very boring suburban childhood,” he says. “My parents always thought comedy was noble and comedians were impressive.” When he enrolled at Northwestern University, he envisioned a career as a film director, based on a high school gig at a video store where he watched all the rentals. “And then the minute school started, I realized I’m never going to have the patience for this,” he says. “My style of procrastination is far better suited to writing than directing.”

Meyers took improv classes in Chicago, which led to an invitation to join the college comedy group The Mee-Ow Show during his senior year. His travels took him to Amsterdam, where he spent two years performing. That experience helped fine-tune his timing. “All of a sudden you’re performing for businessmen from Idaho, and you have to find more universal comedy,” he says.

CREDIT: Jason Kim for Variety

At 27, after he accepted a job as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” he worried that he wouldn’t rise to the occasion. “When I got to ‘SNL,’ it was very jarring for me,” Meyers says. “At first you think, ‘Am I good enough to be on “SNL”?’ And then a day later, you realize, ‘Oh, my God. “SNL” made a terrible mistake.’” He didn’t believe he was adept at impersonations, including his channeling of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. “I think my John Kerry was pretty subpar. I feel like some people you watch, and you’re like, ‘Wow, they are that person!’ I was like a kid in a school play who got cast as John Kerry. I had a big old wig.”

Meyers needed a role at the show that matched his strengths. “It was really, for my confidence, an uncomfortable few years,” he says. “And what saved me was being able to be on the writing staff, which was the first time I was adding value to the show in a way that was commensurate to my pay.”

After 13 years of cramming all week for a Saturday show, Meyers wondered if it was time to leave “SNL.” He started thinking about making a change while filling in as a substitute co-host on “Live With Kelly” following Regis Philbin’s retirement. But he didn’t think it was the right fit. “I’m the biggest fan of hers,” he says of Kelly Ripa. “That job is pure fun, and it was an interesting idea. And yet, I enjoyed it a lot more when I filled in once a month, as opposed to when I did it a full week. There was not enough writing to it.”

He found another exit strategy. After Fallon got promoted to “The Tonight Show” from “Late Night,” Michaels offered Meyers the vacant seat. He accepted, with some trepidation. He managed to put his own footprint on the show, right down to booking the third guest from the documentary-filmmaking or literary worlds. His producer Mike Shoemaker notes that the “Late Night” audience doesn’t dip during these more esoteric conversations. “No one leaves during any of our interviews,” Shoemaker says. “It’s so gratifying. I really thought at some point they’d, say, get bigger names.”

Meyers is the star who sells viewers on the show, but his comic craftsmanship is less rooted in passionate partisanship than in a desire to make the headlines make sense. “I think there’s a service in showing the day’s news,” Meyers says. “We don’t decide whether or not this stuff happened. It happened. And we’re also going to give you a lot of jokes so it goes down, maybe, a little easier.”

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