Self-evaluation: Late Night with Seth Meyers after 10 shows #SXSW

If it’s too much of a rush to judgment to review Late Night with Seth Meyers after its debut, then how about two weeks later?

And yet, here Meyers was with his executive producer Mike Shoemaker on Saturday afternoon at SXSW for a panel “Inside Late Night with Seth Meyers,” moderated by Olivia Munn. A clip package sizzle reel opened with only one monologue joke before launching into a riff of riffs between Meyers and his bandleader, Fred Armisen, then snippets of audience game show “Fake or Florida,” a “What Are They Texting?” then a brief look at the first two weeks’ of guests (highlighted by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) and a couple of musical guest power chords.

“Do you really have a greatest hits reel for two weeks?” Meyers quipped afterward, taking the piss out of himself pre-emptively.

And prompted by Munn to describe his version of Late Night in one word, Meyers first chose: “Work-in-progress.” On second thought: “Fun.”

As the fourth host of NBC’s Late Night 12:30 a.m. Eastern/Pacific time-slot (preceded by David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon), Meyers certainly is the former, and sometimes the latter.

Shoemaker already was a producer at SNL when Meyers first got hired there in 2001, and left first to help Fallon launch his version of Late Night in 2009. When Lorne Michaels decided to pluck Meyers as Fallon’s replacement, Shoemaker — who also collaborates with Meyers on the Hulu animated series, The Awesomes — jumped at the chance to stay behind to launch this Late Night, too. Meyers also brought his SNL Weekend Update head writer, Alex Baze, with him for an even smoother transition.

Adding Armisen to the mix, it turns out, was a last-minute decision of Lorne Michaels’ making.

“It was Lorne,” Meyers said. “It was two weeks away and we hadn’t solved it, and Lorne came over and said, how about Fred?”

Armisen stars in IFC’s Portlandia, so his commitment to Late Night is framed more as band “curator” with the expectation that he’ll be there 20-25 weeks per year (which, counting rerun weeks, is most of the time).  After two weeks, Shoemaker said of Armisen: “He’s enjoying it so much we think he’ll be there even more than he thought he’d be there.” Just not most of this week. Since Armisen is at SXSW for Portlandia panels and music and comedy and whatnot.

The nightly post-monologue bit of banter between Meyers and Armisen was an even more last-minute decision. Meyers said he realized during recording of test episodes the week before the debut that “we couldn’t have Fred lead the band on the show and not use him as a comedian…The third show, I said, ‘I’m just going to ask you a question about a business you started.’ He said, ‘Great, don’t tell me what it is!'” Shoemaker added: “He never knows what it’s going to be.” And as Armisen told a SXSW comedy audience at Sunday night’s “Up Next” showcase for Above Average, his favorite SNL character to play was Garth and Kat, the singing duo with Kristen Wiig that improvised every single song. Leaping into the unknown thrilled Armisen on SNL, and this new recurring bit with Meyers allows him to do likewise.

Meyers hinted — or perhaps our own expectations did, as well — that his proximity next door to SNL would lead to even more cameos by his past co-workers. “Temptation is crazy,” he said. “We’re trying to tamper it.” Though he did promise that Bill Hader eventually will visit as Meyers’ imagined life partner nightclub expert Stefon, “Stefon is on camera every night, which makes me happy,” he said, as a nesting doll on his desk. “We have been very clear with Lorne that we will not poach SNL characters…but you will see (Stefon) on the show at some point.”

The pencils in a mug next to the Stefon doll (and also next to a local NBC affiliate mug — hello affiliates!) are a nostalgic nod to his childhood — pencils from the 1980s featuring all of the NFL teams. “They’re comfort pencils,” Meyers said.

Even this soon into his run as Late Night host, Meyers said he’s surprised by the speed of it all, moving from weekly to nightly, and learning to interview guests and bring it in under seven minutes for a hard commercial break. “It flies by. From the monologue, to the end, it just goes,” he said. That said, with SNL, there was a sense during the week that time was running short to fix potential problems by airtime; “here, there’s 23 hours to get another chance to get to the plate.”

He learned early on back at SNL that he was a sketch writer, but not so much a sketch actor. “I don’t like sketches,” he said. “I always look like me in a wig…Some people are just transformative (he cited Armisen and Wiig as examples). I look like a guy who found a wig.” Shoemaker added: “And yet, Seth won’t tell you this but he’s the best sketch writer I’ve ever seen.”

Failure is an option. At least when you’re young, Meyers said. Your 20s — “That is the perfect age to fail all the time,” he said. “Even now, I’m very happy to say that the last sketch I wrote at SNL in the Melissa McCarthy show, I had the last sketch at dress. I pitched this idea that, she had ordered wings to a Super Bowl party, and she wouldn’t pay the delivery guy until she did a full count of the 300 wings. And it played to silence. And I was just under the bleachers, I’ve been here 12 and a half years, I’ve probably written 1,000 sketches, and my last one is a total zero. Which is just a good reminder that I never have this thing figured out.”

“SNL was my dream. And then when I got SNL, Update was my dream,” he also said, saying that’s “one of the reasons I stayed so long…I wasn’t one of those kids who was interviewing my stuffed animals. But I am doing that now.”

“I had no exit strategy until this came up,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy falling into a routine if this keeps going.”

Now he just needs to have a name for his fans. Shoemaker said he came up with FalPals for Fallon. Munn’s suggestions for Seth: “Meyer Choir”; the “Ad-Meyers-ers.” What do you got?

Above: Photo of Seth Meyers by Mindy Tucker.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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