“I think it’s on you. This article will persuade the world that this is the right choice, or not.” These are the words of Late Night with Seth Meyers producer Mike Shoemaker, half-joking, but half not, that the onus is on me to convince you that the current iteration of Late Night – this one that currently does not have a studio audience – is a Late Night finally firing on all cylinders.
Now, it’s true I do believe that. And, yes, I showed up to studio 8G at 30 Rockefeller Center on a hot June New York City Thursday afternoon with an agenda: to convince Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker of this (correct) opinion. But both Meyers and Shoemaker have been in television a long time and I know that they also know this, but haven’t fully decided quite what to do about it yet. So I, somewhat jokingly, but mostly seriously, said back to Shoemaker, “I don’t think this article needs to convince America, I think it’s just the two of you.” To which Shoemaker replied, “Now you know Seth’s secrets. That’s the way to do it.”
“Look, one day the audiences are going to come back and I’ll fall back in love with them. I feel very confident about that,” says Meyers. To which I respond there’s no part of me that believes that even a little bit. To which Meyers says, “That’s very fair of you to say. A very fair assessment based on how much I’m talking about enjoying them not being here.”
Since the Seth Meyers version of Late Night debuted in 2014, the show has undergone some tweaks here and there. There was the decision to start the show with Meyers seated at his desk instead of starting with the more traditional stand-up monologue. And there was the addition of the show’s now-signature feature, “A Closer Look.” But it would take world-changing-level circumstances to force Late Night (and everyone else in the world, really) to make significant changes to its format. The difference with Late Night, though, is the significant changes to its format have been for the better. It’s, now, less a structured late night talk show, and more a madcap hour featuring Seth Meyers and a carnival full of jokes from Amber Ruffin and Jeff Wright; a fake recap of a television show called Tiny Secret Whispers; weird off-camera characters Meyers just has full conversations with; yelling at his cue card guy, Wally; yelling at his writer Mike Scollins about jokes he doesn’t like; Al Pacino impressions; Werner Herzog impressions; Meyers’s new fake musical, Cicada Cicada; and, well, a lot of Meyers laughing. He’s almost now the late night equivalent of Mister Rogers (this is now a show that features talking inanimate objects, like paintings and craft-works) only with Meyers as sort of a playfully reluctant host to all this whimsy, but, by the end, can’t resist. Right now, it’s not a show easily comparable to any other iteration of Late Night, or any other talk show, really. And in the seven years Meyers has been hosting Late Night, I’ve never seen him happier.
“It got here sort of step-by-step,” says Meyers. “Starting with, of course, a pandemic and the many different iterations the show had taken until it’s reached its way back into an empty studio, post a Trump presidency. I feel like a lot of different things happened to make it what it is now.”
But, however, it got to what it is now, isn’t this the best version?
Meyers: “Well, we certainly are aware it’s the most natural version of the show we’ve ever done. Wouldn’t you agree with that?”
Shoemaker: “Yeah. Definitely, yes. I don’t even know if it’s natural, it’s certainly not labored. We don’t have to work hard to fit it into this box. It doesn’t take much of that. So in that sense, it is very natural.”
So in the past did you feel you were trying to fit Late Night into a box?
Shoemaker: “I think we always took how something would play to an audience into account.”
Meyers: “I mean, when I look back at this show and the sort of different acts it’s had, I think the first 18 months was probably the most we ever tried to fit it into a box, and what we thought a late night show was. And then we found our way via ‘A Closer Look,’ certainly, into doing the show we most wanted to do. But, now … I guess I thought we were doing the show we most wanted to do, but it wasn’t the show, so I was wrong. This is the show we’ve most wanted to do for sure.
So on that aforementioned hot New York City Thursday at studio 8G inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza, I watched a taping of Late Night with Seth Meyers. A thing I had done before, but not like this, not without an audience. As an “audience member,” under these circumstances, it was a fascinating experience in that watching the process is so much more interesting because literally nothing was conducive to me having an enjoyable viewing experience. It was much more like watching all the stuff that happens behind the scenes during the commercial breaks at SNL than it was “an afternoon of comedy for the crowd,” like it used to be. Almost everything that now plays so well and so weird for the actually late at night television crowd at home, I just imagined the silence of a full crowd in the room wondering, “What on Earth am I watching here? Why is Seth Meyers doing an Al Pacino impression? Wait, who is Werner Herzog?”
But there’s the conundrum, it’s the best experience watching Late Night in person, but you can’t have an audience to have this experience. I mention this to Meyers after the show and he jokes, “That’s like saying how much you love flying coach, as long as there’s no one else in coach.”
“You know, pre-COVID, we had a test audience,” says Shoemaker. “Which is, basically, during our rehearsal, we would invite people from the building, 25 tourists. And we didn’t always rely on it, but that based a lot of the choices. We tried everything that way, and then that was kind of the barrier to entry. And that’s all gone. It’s really like brain to mouth to television.”
Meyers: “Now, I should note, there are a few stopgaps in place. It’s not like we’re just barfing things onto the page and then doing it.”
Shoemaker: “I mean, some things are!”
But, see, that’s the strange dichotomy of a late night studio audience. The show has to play to both the 200-some people in the room in the late afternoon, as well as to the millions of people watching at home well past midnight. That balance seems way off. Why should the 200 people in the room, who, mostly, were just asked off the street if they want to watch a taping and hadn’t really considered it much before that day, dictate what millions of people are seeing at home? (Also, daytime humor seems a lot different than humor after midnight.)
Meyers recalls, “When I was doing a show in an attic, and I was talking into an iPad with the realization that most of the people who would be watching it would be on the other side of their iPad, it felt really stripped down. And when you take out the performance to an audience? A very small percentage of the people who watch your show, obviously, are in the live studio any given night. And by removing them, I did feel like it brought us a lot closer to the people at home.”
I mention to Meyers that when he was on Conan O’Brien’s podcast a few weeks ago he told Conan that if a studio audience reacts too positively to a joke, he starts to question himself.
Meyers: “I mean, it has been very liberating. We have people, of the 10 to 12 people that are watching any given night, they’re people like Shoemaker who is not an easy laugh. And so there’s still a way to mark, as it’s going, how it’s going.”
I then mentioned that, in the press, Meyers has a tendency to tell us that he will love audiences again, as he said to me, but then he will tell guests and other late night hosts the complete opposite and that, yes, we can see him when he does this because this is on television. Meyers jokes, “I’m not going to lie to Gayle King.”
Shoemaker: “It took you time for you to even realize that it was a possibility for them not to be here.”
Meyers: “Well, I think the reality and the thing I keep coming back to is, I didn’t dislike the audience when they were here. I liked them a great deal.”
Shoemaker: “It wasn’t an option. I mean, it’s possible that you could say you’d have to do it from your house. I mean, I could see that in a catastrophe, but we never thought we’d get to do it in the studio with lights and audio that works … and nobody here. This is the most unpredictable outcome. And yet, it’s the thing we found the most fun, because it wasn’t as much fun when you were at your house, for you. I think that there’s a lot of lifting that being actually done in the studio, when you didn’t have to worry about everything.”
Meyers: “My entire day is taken up focused on writing and performance, which was not the case when I was home. And so that also is liberating.”
Look, I know, and if you’re reading this, you know, that Meyers and Jimmy Fallon have very different comedic tastes and styles. But to the layperson who is just flipping through channels around 12:30 a.m. (11:30 a.m. central), there’s now a sharp contrast between the two shows. Back in 2014, Fallon, a host in a suit, would be delivering jokes to a crowd of people and then here comes Meyers, a host in a suit, located one floor above Fallon, delivering jokes to an audience. But now, Fallon ends, and viewers instead get a casual Meyers, with no audience in sight, delivering Al Pacino impressions to the delight of only his crew. It’s filmed at 4 p.m., but it feels like something that was filmed at 12:30 a.m. It feels like something made specifically for someone still up in the wee hours on a weekday.
Meyers: “It makes total sense that the contrast would be bigger now.”
Shoemaker: “Last week, Seth even said, I wonder what it’s like watching the end of Jimmy that has a full audience and applause, and go into us. And I said yeah, I wonder. I still haven’t checked. Like, I don’t know. I wonder if that’s jarring.”
I can answer that. The answer is it feels like something that’s actually filmed late at night.
Meyers: “I think one of the things we’re going to be most interested by, and obviously are going to try to stay tuned into is, whether or not people will find it jarring. And whether once more shows come back with audiences, will people watching at home opt for those shows over ones like ours that don’t have a studio audience there.”
Well, I don’t think people care as much about there being an audience at a show than maybe someone who works on a TV show thinks.
Shoemaker: “I think that you’re right and I made this argument in the past. I know there’s a thinking, like in regular primetime television, that if you have a multi-cam, you don’t put it in the same block as the single cam. And I think it doesn’t matter. I think that people go to what they like. I don’t think that you’re shaken when all of a sudden you go from The Office to Will and Grace. I don’t think that it matters. And I think this is probably the latest example that maybe it doesn’t.”
Meyers: “I think you’ve been here when there were audiences before?”
Meyers: “You come out, you talk to the audience ahead of time, there’s a warm-up comedian. Before the band comes on I would go into the audience and do a Q&A, and those were all things I liked doing. But, obviously, now, I would be mentally, clinically insane if I did that now. So it is true as well I think doing this show now, you realize, oh, 12:30 at night on a Tuesday is not a time where you’re usually with a large group of people. Like, when I was in high school, I would watch SNL with a bunch of friends, but I never had people over to watch Letterman.”
Okay, it’s time to try and convince “the world.” (In other words, it’s time to try and convince Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker.) Both Meyers and Shoemaker know right now the show is the best its ever been. They both say it’s the most fun. And they both agree this is the version of Late Night they’ve wanted to do. Also, it’s the most efficient version: All that time spent warming up an audience is time used on the show for the home viewer instead. So if the show is the best it’s been, if the show is the show they both want to be doing the most, if the show is the most fun it’s been … why is bringing audiences back even a question right now?
Well, first, it sounds like some filibustering is going on before any real decisions are made. Meyers says they could have audiences now (like Fallon and Colbert have done), but the earliest audiences even would possibly come back to Late Night is September. Which, to be fair, gives them three full months to kick the tires a few more times to see how it’s going before any real decisions are made. But, also, they make it clear that they believe the decision is theirs to make and they know they only get one shot at this because once audiences come back, they can’t just decide, oh, we made a mistake, and make them go away again.
How much power do you actually have just to tell the suits you would rather keep the show the way it is with no audience?
Meyers: “We feel like we have the power to say that.”
Shoemaker: “We haven’t had a lot of conversations about it. I mean, it wasn’t an option until very recently. And if anything, they felt bad that it wasn’t. Because there are many COVID protocols. Whereas other shows, I think, were unhappy to not have an audience. Like SNL and Fallon, we were not. So now that the people are coming back no one is saying to us, “When are you?” They just want to know, ‘Hey, when are you (bringing back audiences) so that we have notice because we have to get the elevators working and things like that.’ Literally no one from the network has asked to speed it up, or even for a timetable. Which is not to say that they haven’t discussed it without us, but it isn’t an issue yet.”
Meyers: “I will say this. We will not even… the earliest would be September for us. And so we’ve given ourselves the freedom to enjoy a summer without putting any pressure on it.”
Shoemaker: “But we feel it’s coming. Mostly, guests, which are now maybe half Zoom and half here, I think guests enjoy the audience a little more.”
Do they? I’ve been watching a lot of clips of Later with Bob Costas. Everyone on that show seems to have a great time and there’s no audience.
Shoemaker: “And they’re perfectly fine?”
You know why, because I think they like the crew laughter better than audience laughter, too.
Shoemaker: “Yeah, that could be. We haven’t done a poll. We have not asked them. We have all this time to figure it out. It’s only been a handful of guests since we started letting them in. So we don’t really have a good sampling.”
Meyers: “I think it’s very fair for you to make the observation that I’m not telling the truth when I say I want an audience to come back. I think what it really is, Mike, and again, I’m not disabusing you of your previous notions: I’m very aware that once we have audiences back, it’s only a one-way street, right? Unless there’s another pandemic, you don’t go back to no audiences.”
Which nobody wants.
Meyers: “You don’t, right. So you knock on wood that once the audience has come back, it’ll be like that forever. And so it will be hard not to mourn the ending of a thing that we have managed to find joy in. I guess I do know that when audiences come back, I’m going to have to go out for the warmup and be like, no, look, I know you guys have read some stuff I’ve said. But I love you. It wasn’t you, it was me! That was stuff I was working through!”
Could you imagine being in that first audience back? Knowing you are the most unwelcome guests of a late night show ever? You are going to be hissed.
Meyers: “The best will be when a joke bombs in front of an audience and my save is that would have worked if none of you were here. If the studio was empty, that would have killed. I’m going to have a side camera for the people watching at home that I’m just going to look at and be like, sorry about my guests.”
Shoemaker: “Well, Mike, now I think it’s on you. This article will persuade the world that this is the right choice, or not.”
Who am I trying to convince? You both just said you have the power to do this. Am I trying to convince the two of you?
Shoemaker: “We’re not saying that out loud so much.”
Okay, then I’m just telling you, just don’t do it. Don’t do it.
Shoemaker: “Let’s see how you convince America. I think you could do it, Mike. I believe in you.”
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.