It’s been a chaotic five or so years for network late-night television. Leno was out, then back, then out again. Conan was in, then out, then off to TBS. Fallon was in, then promoted, and replaced at 12:30 by Seth Meyers. Letterman retired. Colbert dropped his iconic basic cable persona to take over Letterman’s spot, and has been followed on the schedule by James Corden, who got Craig Ferguson’s gig when he stepped down. The result of this half-decade after-hours hokey-pokey has been twofold: One, after years of relative stability, NBC and CBS have completely revamped their lineups, with fresh faces in all the time slots. Two, and I admit this next thing really snuck up on me, Jimmy Kimmel, who started his show on ABC in 2003, is now the longest-tenured late-night host, by a lot.
And with this near-total changing of the guard comes a new pecking order. Kimmel is the longest-tenured, sure. And Fallon is the undisputed ratings king. But just hear me out on this next one: Seth Meyers is currently producing the best show of all of them.
There are a lot of factors at play in that assessment. Part of it is the way Fallon, Kimmel, and Corden seem to chase viral hits, with their various hoaxes and singing and uh, more singing, all of which is fine and understandable in the segmented world of content-based media in 2016 (hi!), but makes Meyers’ show stand out for its avoidance of it. Part of it has been that Colbert seems like he’s constantly on the verge of unlocking something really great, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet because he’s still settling in and figuring out how to do a big, fancy, high-pressure job without the mask he wore for a decade. And part of it is this clip from last year, featuring Bill Hader and a very “stoned” Vanessa Bayer, which has about 440,000 views as of this writing, a solid 250,000 of which have come from my IP address.
But mostly it’s because Seth Meyers has gotten really good, in all facets of the gig. He never looked quite comfortable doing the traditional late-night “walk out from behind a curtain and stand there for six to eight minutes telling topical jokes” monologue at the beginning of the show, and so, last August, he ditched it in favor of one from the desk. This feels like an obvious move in hindsight, because it allows him to take advantage of the comedic muscles he spent five years developing as the solo Weekend Update host on SNL, but it was and is kind of a big deal. While openings from a desk have been common on cable for a while now (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show, Last Week Tonight, all of which have also been created, been ended, or changed hosts in the last few years, too), it’s a pretty revolutionary move for a network late-night host. It makes you wonder why Letterman and Conan — two other hosts who excelled/excel behind the desk — never gave it a serious shot. Maybe a Carson thing? Probably a Carson thing.
Meyers has also benefited from the 2016 election cycle, and all the Trump-based anarchy that has come with it. His longer second segments have leaned hard on politics lately, going for more of a Daily Show vibe in his social commentary than his predecessors at Late Night, Fallon and Conan, who leaned more on goofiness and absurdity, respectively. This also makes a ton of sense in hindsight. Meyers was the head writer at SNL for both the 2008 and 2012 elections, which the show knocked out of the park. Perhaps you recall this sketch.
The other element Meyers has gotten much better at in recent months is interviews. Late-night interviews are hard. You have to toe the line between playing nice and making the show interesting. (Letterman, especially in his later years, was probably the last network host for a while who could show open, mischievous disdain for a guest. Kimmel comes the closest. Maybe in another 10 to 15 years when he’s in full IDGAF mode.) As Meyers has gotten more comfortable with them, he’s done this nicely, thanks in no small part to 1) making the segments a little more conversational, a la Craig Ferguson; and 2) booking interesting guests. Not many shows can feature a presidential candidate one night and two comedians in character as older New Yorkers who love cocaine and tuna-based pranks six days later. That’s some really solid range.
Will Seth Meyers be able to keep this strong run going once the election process stops providing him with free diamond-plated material just about every day? Who knows? It’s not even really the point. The point is that right now, today, in early 2016, he’s probably doing the best work of any network late-night host. I just think we should acknowledge that.