Late Night with Seth Meyers debuted on Feb. 24, 2014, but the Meyers edition of NBC’s late-late talk show — following in the footsteps of David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon — didn’t start to find its own footing until he first ditched the stand-up monologue to open the show from behind his desk instead. That change felt familiar to Meyers, hearkening back to his previous gig as Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live.
Meyers’s Late Night really took off, though, once he began delivering regular installments of “A Closer Look.”
In this cover story today from Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, Fox spent a recent Monday with Meyers and his staff as they quickly assembled that night’s edition of “A Closer Look” on Mike Pence’s trip to Hamilton, along with the rest of the show.
Here’s an excerpt to set the mood:
Meyers has been in NBC’s 12:30 a.m. slot, following The Tonight Show, for nearly three years, but unlike Jimmy Fallon, who had the job before him, he came out of the gate pleasantly, but with no clear identity. Reviewing the premiere of Late Night With Seth Meyers in February 2014, Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote, it “needs more Seth Meyers.” There were glimpses that Meyers was trying to doing something smarter — he’d have David Remnick on to talk about Russia and jokingly comment on live performances of New Yorker cartoons — but it didn’t feel like Meyers’s show so much as Meyers hosting a somewhat generic late-night show. The introduction of A Closer Look in September of 2015, a longform desk piece that aspires to dive deep and explain a political story currently demanding attention — like a more news-cycle-driven version of what John Oliver was doing on Last Week Tonight — gave the show a more discernible point of view. In the 14 months since, the segment has become the show’s signature element, with videos like “Trump Lies about His Birther Past,” “The Trump Tape and Debate Fallout,” “Trump’s Response to the Orlando Shooting,” “Trump Attacks the Khan Family,” and “The Polls Tighten with Six Days Left” all getting over two million views on YouTube. It began as a weekly feature, but once they started to get traction and refine the process, they’ve done about three a week.
On the mornings of episodes in which he’s going to do A Closer Look, the segment is Meyers’s sole job. First drafts are always written by Gentile, a Late Night staff writer who came to the show after years working in cable news. Meyers says that usually he and Gentile text about what the topic should be, but this one was obvious: Trump v. Hamilton. Today, Gentile had sent the initial version at 2:30 in the morning. Meyers looked at it around 6 a.m., but he tells me he really starts working on it around 8 and focuses on it until about 11. (The show tapes at 6:30 p.m., with an abbreviated joke rehearsal at 4:30.)
Meyers compares Gentile’s draft to “the cowboy coming out of the milk in Westworld,” meaning, the bones of the piece are there. “We gotta put the hat on it,” he adds. Meyers also gets input from his “secret weapon,” Alex Baze, 50 — a producer on Late Night and the man Meyers has called “the best joke writer in America” ever since they worked together on Weekend Update — and his less secret weapon, Jenny Hagel, 39, a writer on the show who is on camera somewhat regularly as half the duo behind Late Night’s second-best segment, Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.
Photo above by Lloyd Bishop/NBC: Meyers talking “A Closer Look” with producer Mike Shoemaker, Alex Baze, Sal Gentile and Jenny Hagel.