As Jon Stewart discovered during “Indecision 2000,” late-night television can be a powerful tool when the political world threatens to cave in on itself. Just as the “Daily Show’s” coverage of the chaotic Florida recount cemented Stewart’s reputation as an influential entertainer-slash-pundit, the surreal 2016 presidential election might just be Seth Meyers’s moment.
Meyers, the host of NBC’s “Late Night” for the past two and a half years, has increasingly seen critical praise (and racked up millions of YouTube views) for the show’s incisive political takes, breaking through the cluttered late-night landscape. The segments mirror the tone of “Saturday Night Live” news parody “Weekend Update,” which Meyers anchored for eight seasons (five of them solo) during his 13-year run on the show. Whether he’s skewering the debates or Donald Trump’s birther conspiracies, “Late Night” is becoming the place to go for stinging political commentary combined with “Is this real life?” jokes.
“The one thing that I was always jealous of when I was working at SNL is that nightly shows can always talk about [events] right after they happen,” said Meyers, 42, during a recent interview in Washington. While he admits it feels weird to not be at SNL during an election, those writers had to wait six days to parody the first presidential debate. “They did a great job, but I’m sure the people who wrote that piece were chomping at the bit to actually have it produced.”
Now, Meyers’s staff is used to turning around material in less than a day, which is especially critical this week. For the first time, “Late Night With Seth Meyers” is on the road, taping four nights of shows in Washington at the Warner Theatre starting Monday.
Even before The Washington Post’s uncovering of a 2005 video of Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, making extremely lewd comments about women, Meyers was eager to dive in. “I was at SNL through three elections,” Meyers said. “And this feels, comedically, a lot closer to 2008 than 2004 and 2012 did.”
After earning fame in the “Update” chair and writing some famous sketches (such as the 2008 SNL cold open that starred Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, respectively), Meyers inherited “Late Night” from Jimmy Fallon in early 2014. Like the versions before it, Meyers’s show had a mix of comedy bits and celebrity interviews — but at first, it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be.
Then, in August 2015, Meyers did something groundbreaking: He sat down. Specifically, at his desk at the top of the show, forgoing the traditional standing monologue.It was a small change, one that producer Mike Shoemaker says was floated on a Friday and put into place the following Monday. The tweak made a difference. Immediately, Meyers looked at home, just like on “Weekend Update,” as he joked about the news of the day.
“I do think that was the first time I had a sense of ‘Oh, this has a level of comfort to it,’ ” Meyers said.
Then the show started to get more overtly political, so much so that Shoemaker and the “Late Night” team started to plan for a week of pre-election shows in Washington a year in advance. “A Closer Look” segments began to make the rounds online the mornings after the show aired — otherwise known as crucial currency in late-night land.
In “A Closer Look,” Meyers dives into everything, including gun control, Black Lives Matter and the many controversies of the election. (“In any other year, [national security] could be a real weakness for Hillary Clinton, given her support for the war in Iraq. But of course her opponent is Donald Trump, who keeps finding ways to remind us he has no idea what he’s talking about.”)
One of his most-viewed “A Closer Look” segments is titled “Trump Lies About His Birther Past,” which eviscerated Trump — who famously challenged President Obama to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011 — for saying that Clinton started the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in America. Meyers showed a clip of Trump now declaring, “Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”
“F--- you. Exclamation point!” Meyers said. “You don’t get to peddle racist rhetoric for five years and decide when it’s over.”
Viewers noticed the shift in “Late Night’s” point of view, which started to sound more in the vein of fiery cable hosts such as John Oliver and Samantha Bee, rather than other late-night broadcast shows that play it down the middle.
“One of the redeeming elements of the 2016 election coverage media hellscape has been watching Seth Meyers and the ‘Late Night’ writing team navigate the fine balance of rational reasoning and rational indignation that seems to have eluded most shows which air more than once a week,” IndieWire wrote.
The critical reaction to Meyers’s style is often quite the contrast from his NBC lead-in, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Fallon received major criticism last month when Trump visited his show. The affable host teased and mussed up Trump’s hair instead of asking real, hard-hitting questions.
When asked if it is awkward that the two shows are pitted against each other, Meyers immediately shot down the idea. “I think the network is really happy that they have two hosts that are each doing the kind of show they want to do,” he said.
“I feel like the biggest mistake is wanting all of these late-night shows to be the same,” he added. “What we’re finding out from this election is people in this country feel very differently about things. And I like that there’s different options for what they watch at night.”
Despite blowback, Fallon’s numbers remain strong; he’s solidly in the lead in the broadcast late-night game. In recent weeks, he has averaged about 3.4 million viewers per night, more than CBS’s “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (2.3 million) and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (2 million). Meyers, who this year signed a contract with NBC to host the show through 2021, is around the 1.5 million range an hour later, more than CBS’s “The Late Late Show With James Corden” (1.1 million).
In a way, Meyers’s visit to Washington is everything coming full circle. Five and a half years ago, Meyers hosted the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner — and made headlines when he and Obama mocked Trump, who was in attendance. Some speculated that Trump was so humiliated at the jokes that he’s running for president out of revenge. (That’s questionable.)
Now, Meyers returns when Trump is still a top news story. As you may have guessed, there’s no love lost between the two. In 2011, Trump trashed his correspondents’ dinner performance. This year, Meyers declared a tongue-in-cheek “ban” on Trump from “Late Night” after Trump banned The Washington Post from campaign events. Trump responded, essentially, that Meyers begged him to go on “Late Night” for two years, but Trump refused because he only goes on shows with “good ratings.”
Meyers said that he and Trump ran into each other at the SNL 40th reunion special in February 2015 and had “a very civil exchange.” There was even a date for Trump to appear on “Late Night” after that, but he had to back out for (legitimate) scheduling reasons. Afterward, the more Meyers was talking about his campaign on-air, “it just passed the point that it made sense for him to come on or us to have him on.”
In the meantime, Meyers and the “Late Night” writers continue to embrace the political comedy that has fueled them as the show hits its stride.
“I feel like we have kind of taught our audience over the last year what show we want to try and do. So the audiences are more on board to see it,” Meyers said. “When we first started doing longer pieces about politics, I think maybe it was a little jarring? Now people are used to it. But it’s nice — we do feel like it’s a show we like doing, and so then the next best thing after that is if people like watching it.”