Interview: Seth Meyers talks about his diverse writing staff, making a late night show in a pandemic, and why Andy Samberg is the worst person in the world
From New Hampshire hot dog stands at Northwestern, an improv troupe in Amsterdam, and being the head writer at Saturday Night Live, Seth Meyers’ journey to the late night television landscape has been long and winding. Meyers took over Jimmy Fallon’s time slot when he moved to The Tonight Show in February of 2014. He brought his own twist to late-night television and a fearless nature which he picked up working at studio 8H all those years. Whether it’s shows like Day Drinking, A Closer Look, or Forced Friendship, Meyers and his team of writers leave no stone unturned in their quest to entertain the audience.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the Emmy winner recently and discuss how his monologue for Late Night is developed, why it was so important for his show to always have a diverse group of writers on staff and how horrible Andy Samberg is.
Dewey Singleton : Who would you trust more? Andy Samberg with your phone, or Kenan Thompson driving a car?
Seth Meyers: Oh man. I mean, I guess it would go Andy with my phone, Kenan driving a car and then last place would be Andy with my dog.
DS: Why is that?
SM: Because Andy Samberg, who’s a terrible person, hates my dog.
DS: Why does he hate your… What has your dog done to Andy?
SM: “She look like a rat,” to use his words. I have a beautiful, graceful Italian Greyhound, who comes in at a very svelte eight pounds and Andy, who met her when she was a puppy, and from that day on has said, she looked like a rat, has nothing but unkind words for her. (laughs)
DS: How do you go about writing that monologue? Do you start early in the morning with a set of jokes? What’s that process?
SM: Yeah. I mean, so everything in our first act is written night before or day of, because it’s so tied to the news of the day, but everything in the monologue, those first 10, 12 jokes, that’s written by our monologue writers and they write upwards of 300 jokes a day and we whittle it down to 10 to 12. And then we have Sal Gentile, who writes a closer look for us and that can sometimes be 12 to 15 minutes. And we basically, in the morning, get his draft and go to work on it, trying to put as many extra jokes in there as possible and getting comfortable with it. But especially because we’re doing our show a little bit earlier now, without an audience, everything has to move really fast and we have to be really agile in the writing and rehearsing. So we just jam it out full speed the minute we show up.
DS: You take pride in having a diverse group of writers. Is that something that’s sort of a deliberate approach on your part or is it just something that you knew you were going to do when you took over?
SM: Yeah, no, I think that we always thought… Mike Shoemaker and I worked together for a long time as SNL, as well as our head writer, Alex Baze, and we always knew from working there that when you have a chance to hire a writer, hire something you don’t have. Don’t try to get another version of a person who currently exists on the staff. And so from the very beginning, we tried to get voices that were different from mine, people who had backgrounds that are different than mine. And we also looked for people who could perform and that’s been an incredible luxury for our show over the last seven years is to know we have writers who are going to be the right kind of people to comment on things in the news that are maybe going to do a more effective job than I would in the same situation.
DS: The thing is you keep hiring these superstars and they keep going on to bigger and better things. You might want to take it down a notch, Seth. (laughs)
SM: Or those people can show some loyalty and not just leave the next time a bigger and better thing presents itself.
DS: This is true. I mean, who cares about having your own show or having a brilliant career? What about Seth? What about his needs?
SM: I know. Well, I do wish them all the best of luck. And of course, they’re more than welcome to come back as a guest on Late Night to plug their role at a giant, what I’m sure to be, blockbuster film.
DS: Does it give you a sense of pride when you see that your members of your team are going on to these projects?
SM: Yeah, 100%. Well also knowing that the kind of people we hire would have succeeded with or without our help, but you know, for me, it makes me so happy to… When I watch Michelle Wolf do stand up or I see the latest thing Conner O’Malley did, it just mostly makes me feel so grateful to have been able to work with them for the time that I did, because being in a room with these people is the best part about having a show like this.
DS: Is there a guest that you’re still seeking out a guest that you’ve wanted to book that you have not managed to secure at this point?
SM: No. And you know, it was Rihanna for a really long time. And when she came on the show and we did day drinking together, I made a vow, which was not to just move on to the next dream guest. I’m going to be one of those people who had my dream come true and now everything after that is just gravy.
DS: Man. I am so disappointed with your answer. I still thought you were going to say Keith Morrison.
SM: From Dateline?
DS: The guy form Dateline.
SM: He’s been on.
DS: I just want to see you guys have that day of friendship again.
SM: That’s a very early recurring bit, forced friendship. Thank you very much for the shout out. Not a lot of people bring it up. That’s all I’m saying. Thank you.
DS: I’m OG man. I’ve been there since the beginning. I’ve been there since when you came out and did the monologue in the center of the stage.
SM: Yeah. (laughs)
DS: Did you just feel comfortable going back to the desk?
SM: I mean, first of all, anybody who was an OG, who managed to stick through the 18 months that I was standing, I really appreciate it. Thank you for your continued service. I felt so much better when I sat down and I think it showed. I mean, I thought I could do a standing monologue, but long story short, I still don’t know where you’re supposed to put your hands. And so I’m happy that I can now pick up a pencil if I ever panic. (laughs)
DS: So we have, I guess, Amy Poehler to blame for this or Tina Fey?
SM: I mean, you’re happy to blame them for whatever you want. I mean, I feel like they probably both deserve it, no matter what it is. Well, they are awful people (laughs). They’re better people than Samberg, who’s just a monster.
DS: I mean, I’ve seen serial killers with better personalities.
SM: I mean, he’s got like weird, it’s just like flat doll eyes. There’s just no soul in there. (laughs)
DS: So when you go behind the desk, is it just going back to your roots?
SM: Yeah. And I mean, that was a mistake in the first place, was thinking, “Oh, it’s a new show. I got to show people I can do something else.” And the reality is if you’ve been doing something for a long time and people like it, there’s no reason to upset the apple cart. So, it’s crazy now to think that I think, we’re over five years of starting the show behind the desk, but it’s really nice for me, because we’re really lucky that obviously to have a Jimmy Fallon lead-in, and as soon as his show’s over, we basically are telling jokes within 10, 15 seconds. And I think that’s really important at that hour.
DS: Now, in terms of the Jimmy lead in, it’s got to be comforting to know that, you’ve gone from 8H to this role and part of your success and part of his success is still tied together after all these years because I mean, you all came up through the ranks at SNL.
SM: Yeah. I mean, I think the part that’s undeniable is what you learn at SNL is just going to help you no matter what kind of show you do next. And I think that’s evidenced not just by guys like Jimmy and I that have talk shows, but you know, people like Andy and Will and Jason and Bill, we’re all doing different kinds of comedy shows right now. And it was an incredible time to work there and to learn from the people we got to spend our time with. So I’m always incredibly grateful for that.
DS: Well, I’m incredibly grateful that apparently according to what I read and I could be wrong because you know, the internet never lies, Mr. Myers, that…
SM: Never lies.
DS: … you might have had a hand in my favorite SNL sketch ever, and that would have been of course Getting in the Cage with Nicolas Cage and have Nicolas Cage showing up. I mean, is this true that you, did you write that sketch for Andy.
SM: No, no, but you and I do share something, which is we share a great affection for that sketch. And that was Mulaney and Rob Klein and Samberg, and I remember walking into their office at 3:00 in the morning when they were writing it for the first time and how hard they were laughing. The one thing I did get to do was walk into Nick Cage’s dressing room when he did it with Andy. And it became very clear to us that he had agreed to do it without ever reading it. And so we got to watch him in real time recognize how insane Andy was portraying him. And when it’s finished, he just looked up and said, “Let’s do it.” It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
DS: You generally look stunned at what you were just about to introduce, because it’s almost like you couldn’t believe he’d agreed to do it.
SM: I couldn’t believe he agreed to do it. Also. This is very strange, because I have been doing this with a lot of very famous people. Nic Cage is a fucking movie star. And what I mean by that is you cannot believe he is an actual real person. When you’re in the room with him, you just want to reach over and put a hand on him to believe that he is existing on the same plane as you are. And I knew the whole time it was happening that I would never forget it. And he was even better at air than he was at dress. His performance was different every time he did it And I think at one point I made a gasp. You hear an audible gasp.
DS: I’ve watched it so many times that I can confirm you absolutely gasp. And in fact, I watched it before you guys called in. Now, what are the hardest jokes to write? The ones that obviously are tied to the local news? Just what topics are the hardest to kind of turn into some sort of joke when you’re doing the Late Night show?
SM: Well, I think, the more, the deeper, the real-world consequences, sometimes the harder it is to make light of them. And we try to find a balance. And I think the longer we do the show, the more our audience appreciates the effort we put into that balance. But that’s it really. It’s when you know that in an effort to explain something, you’re going to also tell a joke that might make people think you’re taking it lightly. And the longer you do it, the better you get at figuring that out.
DS: Was that the toughest part of the pandemic, other than dealing with your kids as you’re shooting on late night show up in your attic?
SM: Yeah, that was… But the weird… Part of what made the pandemic so awful was how it was happening to all of us at the same time, and yet that made doing the show easier because it’s not like I had to explain to anybody what this was. We were all going through it together. And so I know the audience being there provided a great amount of comfort to me. And in return, we just tried to do our best to repay that favor.
DS: Well, seeing you, seeing Jimmy, seeing really all the late night hosts in some capacity provided sort of a sense of normalcy at a time when things weren’t quite frankly normal. So you guys enduring your children as you’re trying to write these jokes, and from what I understand, you had some, maybe some critter issues up in the attic, where you shot.
SM: Yeah. We had a couple of adorable wasps, who have since been dealt with. Although it is funny. My kids now have started fondly remembering that they once dressed up as wasps on my show, and I think they got a taste of that show biz nectar and they want back in. They keep asking where their wasp costumes are.
DS: So we might see a return now that you’re back in the studio?
SM: Yeah. Because they’re bullies. You can’t tell them what to do. For five and three year olds they’re impossible to stop.
DS: Well, I have one that’s in second grade, he’s eight years old and I have one that’s five. So I feel your pain.
SM: They’re the best thing that ever happened to me and they’re impossible. (laughs)
DS: You’ve done great work during the pandemic and you continue to do great work and love what you do. Thank you so much for your time.
SM: Hey, thank you for yours. I really appreciate talking to you.
Late Night with Seth Meyers airs on NBC. Seth Meyers is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Variety Talk Show and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series.
Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC