Seth Meyers on How the Pandemic Helped Turn ‘Late Night’ Into an Even Better Show

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

It was the second day back from the holidays, at the start of January, when Seth Meyers tested positive for COVID-19. He was immediately sent home, and a week’s worth of shows were canceled.

“I had no symptoms, so I was fine,” Meyers recounts. “But the whole family had it. So, it wasn’t the worst group of people to be stuck with, obviously.”

It’s one of the more unusual aspects of hosting a talk show in 2022, something that others including Jimmy Fallon, James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel (twice!) have also experienced: A positive COVID diagnosis that sends your show either into repeats or guest hosts.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Meyers spoke to Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast during a recent stop in Los Angeles, his first trip to the city in three years, before the pandemic began. Listen below!

To kick off the conversation, we unearthed a copy of his alma mater Northwestern University’s 1996 freshman facebook, and flipped to the page featuring a baby-faced Meyers’ high school photo from Manchester West in Bedford, N.H.

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For the facebook, they asked you to pick your two hobbies or passions.

Yep. I said “film” and “baseball.” And there you go. And then years later, I starred in “Fever Pitch.” That was me, right? Yes. I feel like that was me.

Look at that photo of you! You haven’t aged.

That’s very kind of you. The difference, of course, is a hair and makeup budget. You’ve seen David Letterman recently, right? As soon as you leave one of these shows, that’s when people realize what you’ve looked like the whole time, before someone professionally put your face on … I look closer to this haircut now. But by the senior year of college, I had really long hair. I wouldn’t call it a mullet. I would say it was more than long flowing locks of maybe some sort of Greek god.

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Northwestern/Melanie Schneider

And that’s the steps that led to now.

It’s really clichéd, but I remember standing on stage for my last college improv show, in that passion of youth saying, “I shall do this, until they rip it from my hands!” And then I just really dedicated myself, not assuming that I would ever succeed, but knowing that it was the thing I loved the most.

Let’s shift to today’s world. When did “Late Night With Seth Meyers” bring the audience back?

October 2021. I think we were one of the last shows to bring an audience back. Trevor [Noah] was the final one, and then John Oliver. He was very sweet, I should say. When I fell ill with COVID and we had to do it remotely, he texted and said I could use his void [set].

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

The thaw of the talk show wars is a popular subject these days.

I didn’t take him up on it. It could have very well had been a trap. It looks like a nice offer, but there’s no way of ever knowing. I do think there is a full thaw of the talk show wars. As we live in a present where we have actual wars, I think it’s nice to reflect back and say that maybe those wars were frivolous.

It does sort of remind you how innocent we were.

I often think about the late ’90s. There was almost nothing on our minds. That was when I was getting my start as an improviser. I moved to New York in August 2001, where it was still “Sex and the City.” And then 9/11 happened, and it was a different [city]. My wife and I went back and watched “Sex and the City.” I had never watched it. It is a fantastic show that I completely underestimated, and I want to apologize for the way I felt about it.

Does it hold up?

I enjoyed it a great deal. I thought it was an incredible show about friendship. That was what I feel like the color palette I saw the world in late ’90s — blown out, bright colors. The things we worried about were all our interpersonal relationships. And then I feel like since 2001 [it] has been a whole different deal.

We thought the world was going to change in 2001. But it changed in an entirely different way.

Yes, it’s a good reminder that we’re pretty bad at gaming out how massive events will change things.

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Host Seth Meyers does his opening monologue on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” Lloyd Bishop/NBC

We’re going through another now. How do you approach what you have to talk about and explore every day — and do it so intensely with “A Closer Look”?

It is so much easier to be able to talk about it than to not. It’s more stressful for me to be on hiatus with nowhere to put my yammerings. To have the show and have the writing staff and to have this catharsis of talking it through every night and hopefully providing catharsis to other people, that’s the gift … I think that when it all falls apart, there will still be YouTube playlists, and everybody can go back and look at all the funny things I said. They’ll say it was all worth it.

What happens if Trump is reelected, or ends up running again? Are you going to have the stomach?

The very thought of it makes you understand where Jon Stewart was when he said, “I might not want to do this anymore.” As we talk about that impossibility to gaze into the future, I think you just have to stay in the present and talk about the show each day.

We do also still have really dumb moments like the Will Smith slap.

Did the city shake when that happened? I can only imagine.

And I loved Amber Ruffin’s take.

One of the many benefits of having Amber Ruffin on your writing staff is you don’t even have to pick up the phone and ask her to start thinking about something for Monday. She came in with two different sketch forms for it. One of the silver linings of the pandemic shows was talking about the writing staff more as part of the show’s cinematic universe. We’ve built this cast of characters. Trying to keep that connection as we started getting audiences back in was a really important part of our show.

There is a little bit of this pandemic nostalgia that I’ve been hearing about.

I very much would have told you on March 12, 2020, that our show was in a groove. And I felt really good about it. But I like this version of the show a lot more. There were things that happened during this terrible pandemic that brought us closer to our sensibility, comedically, our authenticity as people.

The irony is, for years, we’ve been talking about how can we reconstruct the talk show format and it took the pandemic for everyone to do it in their own way.

I think a lot of it works because we had to show our work. If I had said to NBC, independent of a pandemic, “I’d like to do the show from my attic, and I’m going to wear flannels and do my own hair and makeup, and I think we’re going to use a really shoddy camera,” they would have said, “People will hate it,” and they would have been right. But everybody got to go on the journey of watching why you did the things you did. Now, it all sticks.