It’s been three years since Seth Meyers left the grind of Saturday Night Live, but recently his job as host of Late Night with Seth Meyers is starting to feel like it where the President of the United States is concerned.
Late Night episodes begin taping around 6:30 p.m. And for the last few weeks, huge developments in the investigation into the Trump campaign/administration’s ties to Russia, and Russian interference in the 2016 election, have broken around 5:30 p.m. And since Late Night has carved out a niche as a place to immediately react to the big news of the day, Meyers and his team have no choice but to respond instantly to this latest Trump O’Clock development, and quickly, so that that night’s monologue, or “A Closer Look” segment, or even some interviews, don’t feel outdated before they even air. Some days, they’ve gotten lucky, like having Senator Ben Sasse scheduled as a guest on the night POTUS fired FBI Director James Comey, while on many others, they’ve had to scramble to even try keeping up.
Late Night was off on Friday while Meyers traveled to Los Angeles for a day of interviews, but I got on the phone with him shortly after Trump O’Clock arrived early with a pair of big stories in the New York Times and Washington Post.
You’ve been doing press all day; are you even aware of the two new stories that broke in the last hour?
I saw the Trump quote about Comey. What was it? “Nuts?” Or “He was a nut bag?”
“Nut job,” that’s great. Very happy about that.
And then The Washington Post put out a story saying that a current member of the administration — who a lot of people are assuming is Jared Kushner — is a person of interest in the Russian investigation.
Oh my God.
I think he two stories published within a minute of each other.
All right, so here’s my question to you. Make a predication: Will either those be a big enough story for us to even mention them on Monday? Or will the cycle move so fast that both of those will go completely unmentioned on Late Night With Seth Meyers.
I don’t know. But do you wish you were doing a show today?
I don’t, only because we have yet to have a show [recently] where there hasn’t been something else to cover. I would feel that way if we just finished up a month of shows where it had been dry land and we hadn’t managed to find a single thing to talk about. I don’t know if confidence is the right word, because that seems too positive, but I don’t doubt that, if it’s not that, it will be something else come Monday.
What has it been like like having these news stories break after the show is largely written and you’re getting ready to go and trying to edit things?
On the one side, it’s really exciting. It feels like the SNL days of you have this time that you’re gonna start and something happens late and you want to make sure that you get at least a mention of it into the show. I feel really proud of our staff in the way that they’ve learned to deal with it. A writer can come up with a joke in a split second, but production is up against the physical realities of time, so they can only get faster. So be it cue cards or be it the researchers or be it the people who build graphics, they’re so much faster than they were two years ago, and we’re really lucky for it, because we wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for their improvement.
With something like “A Closer Look,” which involves more than just rewriting the cue cards for a stray joke here or there, how do you choose between, “We have to include this,” “We have to now re-do everything from scratch,” and, “We should just ignore this and leave it as is?
One of the things we’re doing now is just trying to at the very least mention it at the end of “A Closer Look” as a way of letting people know, “Tune in tomorrow.” It weirdly feels like cliffhangers as to the thing that just happened that we’re gonna deal with tomorrow. The Comey news broke really late and so we could mention it, but we knew as far as being the subject with “A Closer Look” — which it deserved — we’d be better off putting all our very efforts in to hit that twenty-four hours later in which you could both do “A Closer Look” about the news and about the fall out.
I used to tune into The Daily Show on nights when there was huge news, and the bulk of the show would be focusing on what had happened the day before. It would be frustrating, but they could also do it a lot more thoroughly than, you know, if they were trying to react to it within a space of a half hour or so.
One of the most interesting elements as to what’s happening with the news is, one, what is the Trump reaction to the news? Two, what is the Republican Party’s reaction to the news? Three, what is the next domino that will fall because of this news? And those things are really hard to process. Even if we did have an extra hour, we probably couldn’t pull it together as much as giving ourselves a day.
You not only have to obviously get those pieces ready and maybe put some new jokes in the monologue, but if you have a political guest or a news guest on, you have to be prepared to now discuss this new development that’s just happened right before you’re about to tape. What’s that been like for you?
Well that is where you actually feel lucky. We had Senator Sasse on the night of the Comey news as our third guest. It wasn’t like I was gonna use my Tracy Morgan interview to get his take on Comey. The fact that I had a Republican senator made for, good luck on our case. I mean, you kind of put yourself in the position to have good luck when you have somebody like Senator Sasse on the show, but that’s always nice.
But have there been times were like you’re about to do an interview and you’re worrying that you don’t have as full of command of what has just gone down as you maybe should for something that’s going to air several hours after the interview’s conducted?
Yeah, all of a sudden that raises the stakes on the Senator Sasse interview. We had news break the night [Kellyanne] Conway was on, and for me not being a professional politician or a professional journalist, you are just backstage boning up on it as much as possible to make sure you understand it in a way that you can talk about it and not sound like an idiot.
Was there any one particular story over these past few weeks where it seemed most urgent that you guys figure out a way to rejigger the show for it?
The night with Comey, we had a piece about the FBI investigation set for the next day and we have a piece about healthcare that was that day, and it was a realization of, “We’re probably not gonna do the healthcare one. Not even today or tomorrow.” And it was just flipping everything forward a day because that was then the story. This week was certainly the most late breaking news rippling that we had since this administration started.
I’ve joked with Late Night producer Mike Shoemaker on Twitter that you guys should just go live for a while. Would that even solve the problem, though?
No, because you can’t predict these things. I love going live for things like conventions or events where you know there will be things that will happen where everybody who watches our show will have watched in the time between when we tape and do it, but you can’t predict when things like a Comey firing are gonna happen and I wouldn’t want to shift our entire lives six hours for the possibility that something might go down. Also, I am hoping for the alternative, which is less crazy things will happen between six and midnight.
Good luck with that.
Yeah, thank you.
Back in the SNL days, what are some instances you can think of where something happened either on Saturday or even on Thursday or Friday that forced you to significantly change things to react to something big that had happened?
I remember scrambling to find a joke for the passage of the healthcare bill, which I feel like happened late on that Saturday. Again, it’s about predictable versus unpredictable. If you would have a Thursday presidential debate, you would know going into that week there was no point in writing a cold open until that happened. The difference we have, which is an advantage over SNL, is when news breaks on a Saturday at SNL, no one in the audience is usually aware of that news. You know what I mean? They’ve been out all day, or they’ve been at a dinner beforehand, and SNL has less of a space to explain the news before they make a joke about it, whereas we can do that. We can always give ourselves time to say, “Hey, we know that over the course of your day, you didn’t see this thing that happened 45 minutes ago. Here’s the story, now here’s the joke.” In a weird way like we have a nice advantage built in that we have that room to realistically do that.
I always wondered about that, specifically with ‘Update’: is there a cutoff at a certain point on Saturday where it doesn’t matter what’s happened, it’s not worth the bother to try to squeeze something in now?
If you can explain it quickly, it’s probably not worth the bother. With that said, I will say that Lorne always thought it was worth it, and in the same way that I think we try to aspire to with our show now, we want the audience to know you are working till the last possible minute.
Do you feel like this show is better for not only all of this stuff happening, but this stuff happening so close to when you have to tape?
I don’t know about “better,” but we made this decision almost two years ago now that we want our show’s first 15 minutes to be about the day’s news, and for us, we worry about, “Can you fill the show every night?” Content is, I think, every talk show host’s biggest fear, and that is not a fear right now that there will not be content. It’s been replaced with many other fears. They can be far more scary, but that’s the one box that is not a concern of mine anymore.
Is there anything you can do format-wise or scheduling-wise to better safeguard the show for when this happens, especially since it seems to keep happening over and over?
We’ll see. I think if months from now, it still seems that way, maybe we would look at that? One thing we try to do is just get “A Closer Look” online as early as possible. We try to get that up at 9, 9:30 as opposed to 12:30, because we know that every second that passes these days, news becomes a little bit older.
Have there been days where you’re watching the clock tick closer to 12:30 and worrying, “Oh God. By the time the show actually airs, all of this stuff is gonna seem terribly old”?
I feel like if you make it to 9 o’clock, you’re good. We still haven’t had any 9 to midnight news, I feel like. Maybe I’m wrong.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org