Intro: Hello, you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.
Greg Iwinski: Today, my guest is Seth Meyers, the host and executive producer of the Emmy nominated Late Night with Seth Meyers, now in its ninth season on NBC. In our interview, Seth and I talk about the spirit of 12:30, how a diverse writing staff is essential to success, and we take a closer look at A Closer Look.
Thank you so much for being on the show. I have a million questions for you. I’ll try to get to them all, but-
Seth Meyers: Okay, great.
Greg Iwinski: … excited about this. So first off, Late Night is nominated for best variety series. Congratulations for the Emmys.
Seth Meyers: Thank you.
Greg Iwinski: It is a great show. If you were going to sway the allegiances of Emmy voters with a swag bag, what would you bribe/swag them with?
Seth Meyers: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. What kind of-
Greg Iwinski: There’s an unlimited budget in this situation.
Seth Meyers: Oh, interesting. I feel like you don’t want to… If the swag bag’s too good though, they think that you’ve got the kind of budget where the last thing you need is an Emmy. So I feel like you want to make it look a little threadbare and desperate, a little homemade, like maybe a little yarn Seth Meyers man, that looks like I made it. And they think, “Oh.” I mean-
Greg Iwinski: Like a little-
Seth Meyers: I think I would go more for a sympathy move than an actual bribe of like, “Oh, here’s new AirPod headphones.”
Greg Iwinski: Right. So like, “Here are some mugs we had. I signed the bottom.”
Seth Meyers: Shipped mugs, right. And then, I think I might include a note that said, “If we don’t get nominated, could you send this back.”
Greg Iwinski: With a self addressed stamp envelope or just-
Seth Meyers: Yeah, I think I would self address it, but I would say like, “Do me a solid and give me a stamp. I mean, it’s the least you could do.”
Greg Iwinski: Oh, okay. Yeah, “The stamp’s on you, the envelope’s on me,” that’s good.
Seth Meyers: I’ve done the self addressing, which I feel like everybody kind of overlooks and they just want to focus on the stamp part. But if I self address it, I feel like you can do the stamp.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah. And so all these late night shows, I mean, I’ve worked at a couple shows and your show has an incredible legacy. Conan talked about how much The Tonight Show meant to him when he got it and dealt with it. This show goes from Dave, to Conan, to you. Do you see a through line in the spirit of Late Night as a show?
Seth Meyers: I don’t know if I do see a through line, but I will say of the franchises, this is the one that meant way more to me growing up because it started when I first started watching late night talk shows. Johnny Carson, who I came to have a far greater appreciation for as I got older, seemed like past what I thought was funny, whereas David Letterman didn’t. And then, I was in college for the Conan years. And then obviously, Jimmy was a former colleague and friend and so that was really fun to watch.
I don’t quite know what the through line is other than the fact that I feel like Late Night as a franchise, as opposed to maybe The Tonight Show works best when the host figures out what they want to do with it. And by being the second show on the network, there’s less influence from the executive saying, “Now what late night is…,” whereas I think that might happen, obviously I don’t know, but I feel like maybe when you get something like The Tonight Show or an 11:30 show anywhere, there’s a little bit more, not interference, but suggestion, whereas we have had neither of those.
Greg Iwinski: Well, and that dovetails exactly to my next question. I also grew up watching Conan. I had the benefit of being in Arizona, which timezone wise, it was on at 11:30. So it’s like Tonight Show at 10:30, so I could watch Conan with my dad and still be in bed in time. So I heavily grew up on that. And I’m a person who is obsessed with Late Night and walk around and talk to my three year old about the spirit of 12:30. Yeah, “Like 12:30 is different than 11:30 because it’s the weirdos who are still awake and shouldn’t be up.” Do you think that there is a 12:30, or like you said, that second show style of Late Night versus the kind of maybe more mainstream?
Seth Meyers: I do. I mean, it’s weird. Letterman was here in February for the 40th anniversary of the franchise. And I was saying to him that I feel like TV has changed more from when I got the show until now, than it did from when he had the show until I got the show. So again, people engage with the show online, there’s less time zone pressure in regards to what people are watching when. So it’s more about the fact there’s just another one of these shows in front of you. And so that is kind of the battering ram show that like busts through for the network. And then there you get to pick around and do the things that you most want to do.
But for us, finding the spirit of 12:30, I think took the pandemic more than anything else. I think that we feel more like what maybe a classic 12:30 show is now after having spent 20 months away from a studio audience. Because when you have no audience to play to night in and night out, it’s amazing the freedom that gives you to take giant creative swings.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah. I mean, I think the quote that I’ve seen either you or Shoemaker use before is that your brains broke in the pandemic.
Seth Meyers: Yeah. And everybody was nice-
Greg Iwinski: And I think that’s revealed in a lot of your content.
Seth Meyers: Yeah. And I think it’s more, it’s better timing to have your brains break at the same moment that everyone else’s brains are breaking for the same reason. You know what I mean? If we just started doing addict shows apropos of nothing, I don’t know if it would’ve worked as well. But I think that shared, I don’t know, it was a shared mayhem as opposed to mayhem that just came from us internally.
Greg Iwinski: Well, I think it did represent the moment as well in terms of, we’re all stuck. We all have cabin fever, attic fever. What lessons did you learn in the nuts and bolts of making the show when you had to make it at home? Because you don’t have 30 Rock and all the building and the cameras and cue cards and things?
Seth Meyers: I mean, really, as far as technical lessons, there was almost nothing I learned that would be worth passing. I mean, certainly will not be doing a masterclass on how to self produce. In fact, one of the nicest things that happened to me in the early days of the pandemic, which led to interacting more with our viewers online, is a guy basically made a YouTube video. It was very polite, where he said, “I really like these Late Night shows, but they’re so bad at filming at home.” And he goes, “As a YouTuber, I just have a few tips for them.” So it was that thing. It supposedly doesn’t exist on the internet, which was a very kind helpful man.
And then I reached out to him, he basically DM ed me. And then he led me through the pandemic with tips on the right kind of mic to use and the right kind of lights to use. And so that was great. I think the thing we learned, or I learned, which was more philosophical, was when I’m doing a show into an iPad for those whatever six months, a lot of people are just watching the show on an iPad. And so where it’s usually me and a studio audience and these studio cameras, I felt like there was almost no wall between me and the audience. And that closeness was the thing that we wanted to hold onto once we got the audience back in the studio.
Greg Iwinski: And one of the things I think that’s also changed, at least from my side, with pandemic stuff is more people writing remote. I mean, you were remote in the attic, but then came back. But there are still rooms and shows that are remote now and shows continue to happen. And I think I’ve seen positives from that in terms of getting to stay home or getting to work from a home office, but also drawbacks of not physically being there. What has your experience been with remote rooms and what do you see in the future in terms of remote writing? Do you think we’re ending it, we’ll end up going back to everybody being in person or that remote writing might be more of a thing?
Seth Meyers: I feel like remote writing has a pretty good future on a show like ours, where a lot of the writing is siloed off. I mean, I’ve never worked in a sitcom room, but it does seem like that might be more requiring of the tossing back and forth of ideas. Our monologue joke writers, they’re all just sort of going off on their own anyway. And A Closer Look is a very small group of us so that has worked out fine. It’s nice now that the three of us are in a room together when we’re working on it. But even in the pre pandemic days, when you walked into our writers’ room, which was a bullpen of about 15 writers, all their desks, it was very rarely what I think people picture of a writer’s room, which was sort of zaniness, people flying around paper airplanes. It was mostly people hunkered over their own keyboard doing their thing.
With that said, I would like it to be a place that people can come back to just because one of the nice elements of having a show like this is that you get to work with people who make you laugh, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be that they’re making you laugh because you’re working on a sketch that makes you laugh. It’s just nice to be around funny people. That’s always been one of the upsides of working on a writing staff of a place like SNL, or any of the late night shows, is you get to go to work today with people who are brilliantly funny.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah. I mean, it is one of the best things when you sit back and go like, “I’m hanging out with all the funniest people and getting paid to do it.” It’s one of the upsides. I want to talk about A Closer Look. It’s a huge hit. I mean, it is a staple of the show, is A Closer Look in views and in attention and in what it’s doing that people weren’t doing before. How do you balance the explosion of A Closer Look with the rest of the show, because when it’s online, people can pick and choose and do those things, but you’re making a whole show every night?
Seth Meyers: Yeah. I mean, it’s been wonderful that A Closer Look has become a thing that we can count on doing three days a week. It takes a lot of pressure off the idea of how are we going to fill up the show every night. It does take up a lot of real estate. And so sometimes I wish we had another act every night where we could do stuff that was more sketch based or maybe more of a classic desk piece. But what we tried really hard to do is, within the body of A Closer Look, build in a lot of room for the silly bits that might not be self-sustaining if they were their own bits, but within the body of A Closer Look thrive.
We should never write a comedy piece around my terrible impressions, but my terrible impressions within A Closer Look, I think is a perfectly nice place to do it. But for me, it’s always been, and this was even from the very beginning when I didn’t quite have my sea legs. It always feels like the work of the show is over once we get to the guests, talking to interesting people and funny people, as long as you can get out of their way. That doesn’t feel like a part of the show that’s particularly burdensome to me.
Greg Iwinski: You talk about it having silliness in it. I think it ramped up in the pandemic. You didn’t have your sea legs, but you did have a sea captain.
Seth Meyers: Yeah, I did.
Greg Iwinski: And has that also helped, I think with the… There’s a relentlessness to heavy political news comedy, because it’s the worst people in the world doing the worst things in the world every day. And so has that provided maybe an outlet to that to make it easier to write, that you can dip into silliness?
Seth Meyers: Very much. Because again, we do want A Closer Look to be informative and Sal Gentile, who’s our head writer for that, does a great job. His first draft is very much, “I’m going to make a thesis statement. I’m going to present an argument. I’m going to come to a conclusion,” and he builds those bones so strongly that they can bear the burden of really dumb bits. Now I should note, Sal also loves writing those dumb bits. It’s not like he comes in and he’s like, “What have you done to my precious political writing?”
So we understand that if you put a lot of work into the veracity of what you’re doing and trying to make your point of view super clear, that sort of buys you the permission to load the silly stuff on top of it. And then it makes it both, for us, more fun to do, obviously the hope is, it’s more fun to listen to. I think everybody who’s engaging with A Closer Look, from the people who write it to the people who watch it are in agreement on how shitty a lot of things are. And so providing a little catharsis in there is one of the services we’re hoping to get across.
Greg Iwinski: Well, that brings up another question. I think I’ve watched thousands of hours of Trump. I mean, I think from 2018 to 2020, I watched every minute of everything he said. And so it raises a question too, where it’s like, “What does this do when we write these things that point out the hypocrisy and do that,” because I would love to tell my kids, I brought down a president, but if he wins in 2024, I’m going to have to throw that out the window.
Seth Meyers: Oh, yeah. I mean, well, it’s so funny because I’ve been through so many of these to know that comedy writing, to a point… I was at SNL in 2004, and playing John Kerry, it should be noted, with a great amount of charisma, but obviously, you know that. People aren’t watching, you made a real doubtful face.
Greg Iwinski: I think I did. I did.
Seth Meyers: I hadn’t grown in-
Greg Iwinski: I did a “Hmm,” as well.
Seth Meyers: I hadn’t grown as an impressionist yet. But then in 2008, SNL, not alone obviously, The Daily Show was also, it was like, what they did with Sarah Palin, that was the tipping point. But then of course, in 2016, it just goes to show you like, “Oh, I don’t know if our levers of power are as strong as anybody thinks.” I think what we tried to do then is, look, I don’t think Trump fans on any given night say, “Huh, you know what? I’m going to check back in on Seth Meyers. I feel like maybe he’s come around.”
But I do think there are people who are on the fence, right? Like, I mean, these elections are decided by 40,000 people, at least the last two, based on where they live. So maybe if you just lay out, you just really try to lay an argument, maybe it has some effect. But really the goal is to, in an entertaining way as possible, let people know they’re not the only ones who think this is also fucking crazy.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah. I mean, I think that catharsis is important. I think it also speaks to why it’s so important that diversity grows in late night. So that the number and group of people who are getting catharsis grows, because like the catharsis needed from a spate of police shootings is slightly different for maybe a group of black people versus white people. And the more people we have talking about that, the better.
Seth Meyers: Yeah. And that was a situation where we were so fortunate. During the George Floyd moment, not only did I not know what to say, I didn’t particularly think anybody wanted to hear what I had to say to begin with. And Amber Ruffin, who’s just a superstar writer and performer on our show. She did us the great service of emailing Shoemaker and I, and saying, “I can tell a story, a true story, about myself interacting with police.” And not only was it incredibly moving and resonant, I also just felt such relief to know, “Oh God, it’s so nice to work with somebody who, when the time comes, can actually step in and say, “This one’s not for you. This one’s for me.”
Greg Iwinski: Yeah. Because I think, again, I’ve never been a white man, so I’m not going to make your culture, my costume.
Seth Meyers: You got to try it.
Greg Iwinski: Oh, I would love to, just give me one day. But there is a balance to be done because, I mean, like my wife is white and is an ally, at least as far as I know, and there is a thing where it’s like, you want white people to speak out against racism for you, but also realize, like you said, there’s a point at which it’s like, “Well, I’ve gone as far as I can. Now I see the floor.” And I think that even when you’re talking about things like jokes Seth can’t tell, there’s been a thing in the voice of the show that I think is pretty objective of you being able to say, “This is where I realize the limit I should be talking, and now these people will talk.” It’s a great thing to see in the field of late night. I don’t know. I don’t even have a question. I just appreciate it.
Seth Meyers: The other thing that’s really important to note is, you just don’t as a white comedy writer who obviously thinks all those things are great. You also just never even think to come up with them, right? Like your brain, like jokes I can’t tell which I get to be a participant in, like not in a million years would it have occurred to me as a bit. And yet the minute Amber and Jenny brought it to us, we all… A comedy writer’s mind could immediately appreciate like, “Oh, that’s a great idea,” and appreciate why it also worked on the level of just pure representation.
So it’s not just the jokes you can’t tell. It’s also like the ideas you’re never going to come up with, and to no fault of your own. We all have these lenses we see things through. And the older you get, you’re not going to develop new lenses. It’s far more better to just bring in a bunch of different sets of eyes.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah. And I mean, and your room is a fairly diverse room, especially for late night. I mean, and I just know a couple people, Amber and Karen Chee and some of those people, but is that the benefit of diversity is that you’re getting, that’s what I would believe, is that you’re getting jokes from so many more places, even on the same news headlines.
Seth Meyers: 100%, and also, for us, it’s been helpful that with Jenny, with Amber, with Karen, with Jeff Wright, they’re also wonderful performers. Because it’s not just that they write good jokes for me, it’s far better that they can be on camera and present it from their perspective. And having that background at SNL, which was the entire, feels like, the first three acts in my career, but to work at that place and realize, at some point, it isn’t just about the writing, right? It’s also about the delivery system, which is what comedy’s always been, a great joke for one comedian is a bad joke for another, and it’s insane to pretend like it doesn’t matter. The joke’s good, it should work for whoever says it.
That’s never been the case. It’s crazy to say it has. And so the fact that we also have writers from different backgrounds who can get in front of camera and tell their story is so much better than if I was up there saying, “We have a writer named Dina Gusovsky who came here from Russia. And she was telling me…,” it’s just far better for Dina to get up there and be able to say that.
Greg Iwinski: Yeah, because I mean her experience, she said like, “Last year, the first time I’ve used a washing machine,” or like, “A dishwasher.” I remember I DM ed her like, “Is this a joke?” She’s like, “No, I didn’t have one. I was in Russia.” I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.”
Well, one thing that you have that I think is a 30 Rock thing are writers working and producing. So if you have a segment or a piece, you’re working on getting it done and obviously that helps a writer maybe moving forward if they’re going to produce something. But how do you think that helps their writing?