There’s an interesting dichotomy at play while watching an entire episode of Late Night with David Letterman from 1983, a little over one year after Letterman started hosting. (He had his own short-lived morning show in 1980.) On one hand, Letterman is retroactively great because he’s Letterman, and in 2015, it’s easy to see what he’d become. But trying to place yourself in the mindset of someone from May of 1983, watching this show at 12:30 a.m. with no knowledge of the future (which is not easy), a lot of the flaws become more obvious.
As Late Night with Seth Meyers turns one year old on Tuesday, the lack of glaring, obvious flaws is almost this current rendition of Late Night’s biggest problem. Whereas Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon showed their growing pains as host, Seth Meyers came to the job polished and already extremely comfortable being on television. (O’Brien’s early struggles as the host of Late Night are well-documented; when Fallon took over Late Night, he hadn’t been on SNL in five years, and by the time he’d taken over The Tonight Show, he was an old pro.) I suspect observers of Late Night look at Meyers and think, Well, here’s what we’ve got, as opposed to looking at him as someone with “potential.” If you’re bad, you have “potential.” It’s cool to get in early with the host who is struggling. Meyers has never “struggled” as a host.
The problem with this attitude, at least in how it relates to Late Night, is that, critically, Seth Meyers gets less of a benefit of the doubt because people already think of him as “good.” But being on Saturday Night Live is very different than hosting a late night hour-long comedy show four times a week. It’s kind of like how Jon Stewart was treated for directing Rosewater — a fine movie, but still a film by a first-time director, but Rosewater wasn’t just any movie by a first-time director — Jon Stewart was held to a higher standard, as Seth Meyers is being held to a higher standard than if, say, the show was called Late Night with Murray Steadman. If it were, people would be saying, “You know, this Steadman guy stinks, but he has potential.”
The reality is, Seth Meyers is still learning how to do this job. He has “potential,” even though that sounds like a weird thing to say. At first, the thought of comparing Meyers and Letterman, when they are both about a year into their respective tenures, doesn’t seem like a terribly fair thing to do, but there are more similarities than I thought there would be, so here we go.
First of all, Meyers is a better interviewer than Letterman was in 1983. Letterman’s second guest on the show I watched was Laraine Newman, who I’m pretty sure is doing an extensive bit about appearances and plastic surgery. But Letterman doesn’t sell it, so the audience is left quite confused, leading to an audience member to spontaneously yell at Newman, “You look great!,” in an effort to cheer her up (which, retroactively, is pretty funny). Now, Meyers is already the best in the business at playing off characters. I couldn’t help but think how Meyers would have just killed with this particular segment. With Letterman, it died.
Early in the show, Letterman does a bit where he simply stands in front of the elevators on the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center and interviews whoever happens to walk out. It’s pretty wonderful, as the always frightened people are offered hot towels and duck sauce. This is a great segment and it’s endearing and Letterman was just fantastic at this kind of thing, even early on. After watching Meyers kind of co-opt this sort of segment last week when he went to Toy Fair, Meyers would be wise to do more of this kind of thing because he’s very good at it. Remember, Meyers was “brought up,” so to speak, with the strict rigidness of SNL, where every second is accounted for and there’s little to no improvisation. Meyers has a sharp and quick wit and would excel at more segments like this, but it almost feels like the ghosts of his 13 seasons of SNL are talking him out of it.
Late Night With Seth Meyers feels like two shows stretching against each other, elasticizing only so far, before it just bounces back to the middle. On one side, it feels like a show that desperately wants to be more interesting, which happens every time writer Conner O’Malley appears on screen. (For the record, I like O’Malley’s presence on the show and feel he should be used more.) But Late Night follows The Tonight Show, which also uses the age-old template for late night talk shows. With both shows, the host comes onstage — the band is on his left, his desk is on his right — then there’s the monologue and so on and so on. No matter how off the wall or even spontaneous the show tries to get — and it’s aired some weird things! — the show just feels so structured, often to a fault. Late Night is never going to get the credit for being a different kind of show without differentiating its structure. (This following clip is pretty weird and it’s pretty great.)
And then there’s Venn diagrams. Look, Venn diagrams and its lot are fine enough segments (I guess), but Late Night uses segments like this so often and so early on the show that it’s what people have a tendency to take away from the entire show: a safe and perfectly serviceable segment. “Couple Things” (a cousin of SNL‘s REALLY?!?) is a huge step in the right direction. I’d much rather watch Seth Meyers just talk about a current event than watch him do a segment that I can tell he doesn’t completely believe in. Late Night has a reputation for being “safe,” but “Couple Things” becoming a nightly feature could really change this perception.
Letterman did segments like Venn diagrams, too. But he was terrible at hiding his disdain, which made the whole thing a meta commentary on this type of segment. Meyers, being the pro that he is, can convince a good portion of the audience that he’s fully sold on these segments every time. Almost. (On a recent podcast with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, Meyers admitted he used to be pretty bad about controlling his body language after a joke fails. If you look closely, it’s obvious that this still bothers him when the material fails him, as opposed to his own personal delivery.) It almost feels like an internal tug of war between a “traditional late night show” (why Meyers doesn’t start the show from behind his desk instead of doing a traditional monologue is beyond me; I am not a television producer, so I mean that literally) and a show that wants to experiment. Eventually, one of these ways will win. Personally, I hope it’s the latter.
On Monday, Meyers was a guest on Howard Stern, and Stern asked him about having cast members from SNL on the show. Meyers had a good answer: So many members of the cast have gone on to successful endeavors, it would be stupid to not have them on. That’s completely fair. And the last time Amy Poehler was on the show (before this Tuesday night), a wonderful game of Game of Thrones trivia happened with George R.R. Martin. But Meyers is such a skilled interviewer — see his Kanye West or his Demi Lovato interviews — he’s doing himself a disservice when he has people who he considers friends on the show as often as he does. This may just be personal preference, but I find it alienating when a host says, “Welcome my good friend,” as Meyers often does. For me, the interviewer acts as my surrogate on the show. But once I hear “my good friend,” all of a sudden, I’m the one on the outside looking in. It’s a strange dynamic change that’s frustrating when watching Meyers because when he is in “interview mode,” he’s fantastic. (With both Letterman and Stewart leaving soon, there’s a sudden dearth of good interviewers in late night. Meyers could capitalize on this.)
As an aside, Fred Armisen’s role on the show is perplexing to a viewer. I get the impression Armisen just wants to play his music and forget about comedy while he’s doing the show, and that’s totally fair. But the problem is, aside from one segment of improvisation (assuming Armisen is even there that night; he’s a busy guy and is often gone working on other projects), it leaves Meyers with no one to banter with… and no one is better at banter than Seth Meyers! How can this possibly be the case? Meyers looks like he’s having the time of his life while he’s doing this short bit of improvisation with Armisen — and it’s nice! — but it’s been a year and that segment hasn’t really created a relationship between that brief Meyers/Armisen dynamic and the viewer. Borrowing a word from earlier, even though it’s technically improv, it still just feels “structured” in a “come get your three minutes of comedy” kind of way, followed by, “Everyone say goodbye to Fred. He’s done talking for the night.” (Personally, I’d strongly consider having Conner O’Malley just “around” for any time Meyers feels like talking. I bet they’d talk about weird things.)
But having said all this, it’s kind of remarkable what Late Night with Seth Meyers has done in only a year when compared to the people who hosted before him and in a heightened environment where people expect results immediately and with such little time for preparation — compared to the amount of time that James Corden and Stephen Colbert are getting to develop their shows at CBS. But, with Corden’s show lurking, Late Night does need to figure out what it wants to be because Corden is legitimate competition, something this version of Late Night hasn’t really had yet.
Late Night with Seth Meyers still has a lot of potential — it’s all right there; the pieces are pretty much in place — but now, on its one year anniversary and about to face real competition, it needs to start exercising that potential.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.