Seth Meyers On Keeping Up With Trump, His Supposed Rivalry With Jimmy Fallon, And Embracing His Anger

Getty Image

When reached by phone at his office last week on the eighth floor of 30 Rock in downtown Manhattan, Seth Meyers sounded relaxed and in his element. It was three and a half hours before that night’s taping of Late Night With Seth Meyers, the second episode after a restful spring break in mid-April. During his two weeks away from the show, Meyers, 43, took a necessary breather from the relentless Trump news cycle, a constant source of material for Meyers’ politically minded iteration of the Late Night franchise. But now that he was back, Meyers actually felt relieved that he once again had an outlet for processing the madness of the last three months.

“It’s not that I’m sitting there watching the news and thinking, ‘Oh, I wish we could be on to get the sweet jokes that this is providing,'” Meyers says. “It’s more that telling the same story with jokes is a nice way to break it down and make it easier for me to digest.”

He adds wryly, “Hopefully we provide a service to the audience as well.”

It’s only been three years and some change since Meyers assumed Jimmy Fallon’s chair on Late Night in February 2014 (after a 13-year stint as a writer and cast member on Saturday Night Live). But in a late-night field that was destabilized in the wake of an older generation’s departure — Leno, Letterman, Stewart — Meyers has already attained a certain gravitas that sets him apart from the pack. Along with Stephen Colbert, as well as weekly hosts John Oliver and Samantha Bee, Meyers has established himself as a nightly source for smart, incisive and occasionally infuriated political comedy. His “A Closer Look” segment — launched in September 2015 and modeled after the “jokes plus surprisingly thorough reporting” monologues pioneered by Stewart — has become a valuable source of viral content for a show that initially struggled to make a digital imprint in the shadow of Fallon’s celebrity-driven Tonight Show. While Meyers wasn’t sure at first if viewers would still be engaged with politics after the election, “A Closer Look” has remained a near-nightly staple on Late Night, and helped generate reams of positive press for the affable but tough Meyers.

At times, the line between comedian and journalist has blurred for Meyers, perhaps even more than it did for Stewart. Late Night‘s most celebrated moment of 2017 thus far was a rigorous interview that Meyers conducted with Kellyanne Conway just hours after CNN published a sensational dossier charging that the Russians had compromising personal and financial information on Donald Trump. Meyers was widely praised for politely yet aggressively questioning the ever-elusive Conway, in a manner that was more reminiscent of Jake Tapper than Meyers’ easy-going Late Night predecessor, Jimmy Fallon. In fact, as Meyers has become a media darling, reporters have often praised Meyers by criticizing Fallon, whose infamous Tonight Show segment with Trump from last September continues to haunt him.

During a break before in his day before that night’s taping, Meyers spoke about pacing himself during the maelstrom of Trump’s first 100 days, feeling more comfortable about getting angry on-camera, whether there’s a rivalry between him and Fallon, and why Trump is justified if he thinks Meyers is a “smug f*ucker.”

Amazingly, we’re only about three months into the Trump administration. It already feels like two years.

Yeah, I was thinking that pretty early on we did “A Closer Look” about the Carrier air conditioner factory. That feels like the Teapot Dome scandal.

This is obviously a great time for political comedy, as for the audience being engaged. But do you worry that we’re on the verge of burnout? We can’t keep up this pace forever.

I really want to stress how wrong I’ve been at predicting the future over the course of the last few years, because I actually thought when he won that people wouldn’t want to watch the kind of hosts that talk about this stuff. That they’d be so bummed out that it went this way, that we’d be in trouble because of that. It turns out that I was wrong and it’s been really refreshing that people do want have the news be the crux of shows like mine, which is great.

I do always doubt the permanence of anything with shows like this, and I’m very aware that people, at some point, might say, “You know what? Enough. I don’t really wanna take any more ‘Closer Looks.’ I wanna step back.” The nice thing for us is we’re only good at the one thing, so we have to do it no matter what. Hopefully, people will maintain [the appetite] for it.

Do you ever feel hemmed in by politics? You and Stephen Colbert are the two hosts with nightly shows that people expect to comment on whatever happens during the day. Do you personally ever get burned out by the deathless Trump news cycle?

Early in my run on this show, I ran into Paul Shaffer, and I was saying to him, “I’ve been doing this for a year and I actually like this schedule more than SNL,” and he just looked at me sideways and said, “Yeah, you’ve been doing it for a year, you can’t talk about how easy it is.” In general, even talking about Trump, we’re very early on in it. I do think there’s a chance of burnout for us, but right now, we think what’s happening is important. We like talking about important things. We feel like that makes our show for us, both the writing and the performing of it feel a little bit more vital. It’s a lot harder when you’re kind of going to page eight or nine of the New York Times for your story.

We certainly are still pretty fresh in regards to our energy for doing this kind of show. Again, I’m not particularly good at looking very far into the distance. I think we’re happy that we’re doing it tonight, and I’m happy we will do it tomorrow, and we’ll see how it feels months from now.

The last time I interviewed you it was August of 2015, and the big story at that time was that you were doing the sit down monologue rather than standing up. Jon Stewart had also just left The Daily Show, and there was suddenly this void for political comedy in late night. The following month, you started doing “A Closer Look,” which is now the signature segment of the show. When you introduced that segment, did you feel like this had the potential to be something you were going to do several times a week?

No. I think when we first started doing it, it was a couple of times a month. We weren’t in the day-to-day chase of the election yet, and I think that’s what really provided us with the amount of news that was necessary to generate them on a daily basis. It was one of the things where the audience kind of told us that they wanted it. You started hearing about them just sort of being out and about, or people would say on Twitter how much they enjoyed them. We created it more than anything else just to have a way and to tell people, “Hey, this isn’t really gonna be a monologue or a desk piece.'” We kind of stumbled into it. I don’t think we ever thought it would be this.

You are a naturally affable presence on screen — unlike some politically oriented late-night hosts, you don’t really come across as angry. However, at times in the past six months, you have allowed yourself to be a little more emotional — your “A Closer Look” segment on Trump downplaying his role in the birther moment definitely had an angry edge, and you got choked up while talking about your mother the night after Trump was elected. Do you feel that you have permission now from the audience to be more emotional?

I think it took me a while to embrace the freedom you have when your name is on one of these shows. People are tuning in to hear your point of view. Certainly, I’m not writing everything that’s on our show, but I think that, at the very least, people know it’s my taste that they’re gonna see. In regards to those moments where you get to be angry, or you get to be emotional, or when you’re talking about your mom, I didn’t have that freedom on Weekend Update. I felt like even though I was Seth Meyers on Weekend Update, part of the role was sort of playing an anchor on a news show. Whereas here I don’t really feel like you have to play anything. That’s been a great thing to sort of figure out is an asset over the last year and a half.

I will say that the night of the election, I think I was not alone in having trouble sleeping because this thing had happened that I did not think was going to happen and I was very upset that it had happened. I felt very, very lucky that I knew I was gonna have this chance to tell people how I felt about it. I in no way felt that what I was feeling was unique. I think the unique thing, and the thing that I feel very lucky about is that unlike a lot of people, is I got to sit down and say, “Okay, so here are my thoughts,” and we’re just lucky that we have an audience that is okay with that.

President Trump seems unusually responsive to how his administration is skewered on late-night comedy shows, to the point where his personnel moves appear to be influenced by how comedians talk about him. Is that level of power exciting or scary?

I have to be honest: I think the moment that I was most on Trump’s radar was probably the Correspondents’ Dinner, and after that I probably faded. I think he likes bigger institutions than the 12:30 show on NBC. It does not surprise me that he’s so zeroed in on SNL. Also, I’m sure he considers the SNL thing, to some degree, a betrayal, because he probably believed at some point that SNL was a place he was welcome and now that’s shifted.

During the campaign, we very tongue-and-cheek banned him from the show and he pretty quickly issued a press release saying he would never come on my show, and that’s kind of the last we’ve heard of him. We were real happy about that, because again, we thought it was really funny that we could predict a man’s reaction and it’s less funny now that he’s president. Back then it was a real high.

I think you can get really caught up when you overstate the impact you’re having when you’re doing these shows. I think the important thing is to do the show you want to do. Then you’re basically making this promise to the audience of, “Hey, this is what we think is important and what we’re gonna talk about every night.” As far as how we impact politics, pretty much the comedy shows went oh-for, in terms of affecting the outcome of the election.

Your show’s most celebrated moment of the last six months is probably the Kellyanne Conway interview, where you actually broke news. In that interview, you were more like Jake Tapper than a comedian. Do you like that role? You did a great job, but it seems like an uncomfortable fit for a guy who’s supposed to tell jokes for a living.

I mean, it was definitely outside of my comfort zone, and I think when you get out of your comfort zone sometimes it just forces you to be a little bit more dialed in. Jason Sudeikis was on the show last night. That interview is going to be better the less I prepare because he’s got the gift of gab and we know each other really well and the looser the better. Obviously Kellyanne Conway was a different thing. I wanted to make sure I boned up on the information we’re here to talk about so I didn’t look stupid, and didn’t look like a comedian that was out of his depth. And then the other thing was all of a sudden this news broke an hour before we interviewed her and so I found myself sort of familiarizing myself with that as much as possible. It was definitely a unique night.

Not to keep asking the same question different ways but: Do you ever wish you could do a sillier show? Something that was more lighthearted?

In the 18 months we sort of were taking to figure out what our show was about, there were elements of that. I think we were doing a silly show in a way that we had seen on the Late Night [programs] we grew up with. And I certainly enjoyed doing shows like that. But I don’t know if it particularly fit with my skillset. As much as I enjoy watching those things, I have to appreciate that other people might not want to watch me doing those things. So I have a great love for silliness and we still try to have that be part of the show. Tonight we’ll be doing another installment of “Popsicle Schtick” — one of the dumbest things we do on our show, which brings me great delight. But those are not the things that generate a ton of traction for our show.

Amid all of the positive press your show has gotten lately, it seems like a common thread is praising you by criticizing Jimmy Fallon. Writers still bring up that Trump appearance on The Tonight Show from last fall, and contrast it with your more confrontational style. Which must be strange on some level — you and Fallon are essentially teammates, working for the same network and even with the same executive producer, Lorne Michaels. And yet you’re pitched as rivals in many ways. How awkward is that?

The only thing I’ll say is there are a lot of people that I feel are doing shows similar to the kind of show we’re doing right now. And I think it’s great that there is a diversity in the way that people approach late-night comedy. I remember when I started this show one of the things that was really important to us was to differentiate ourselves from Jimmy because we, even to this day, are such a beneficiary of his lead-in that we need to make sure that people don’t think they’re seeing the exact same show an hour later. Also it’s very important to note that I have none of Jimmy’s skillset, and none of his talents for any of the things he does on his show. If I was trying to do a version of his show it would be very unwatched. So I do think this idea of, “Oh he should be doing what I’m doing,” that would just be in general bad for TV and bad for audiences.

I don’t think a lot of Trump voters watch my show. I don’t think I’ve given them reason to. We try very hard not to be critical of Trump voters — we try very hard to be critical of Trump and the Trump administration. Especially after this election, I think that it was important to try to figure out and have empathy for why people made choices they made. If you were someone that spent eight years under the Obama administration and your life got markedly worse, you vote for change. So, in trying to have an understanding of those people, part of that is wanting there to be shows that people can tune into and maybe watch Trump take less of an ass-kicking than they have to if they tune in to watch ours.

What is it about the narrative of a war between late-night talk show hosts that’s so exciting for the media? I don’t exclude myself from that — as a ’90s kid raised on Letterman and Leno, I love it when you guys are at each others’ throats. But it does seem like the media’s fallback position on covering these shows is to pit them against each other, like battling nation-states.

I guess we have to blame Bill Carter for writing two such excellent books about the inner workings of these things that were incredibly readable and made it all seem more dramatic than it really is. Because when you look at it, the differences in the ratings of these shows are pretty small. It’s not like the Patriots and the Falcons where one definitely won and the other definitely lost.

It’s weird to me. I don’t fully understand it, either. Because when you like a TV show — a sitcom, let’s say — you don’t constantly frame the praise for that against other sitcoms. But it does seem like that’s one of the traps of talking about late-night TV. And it’s unfortunate because I do think the people who do shows like this have an appreciation for how hard they are and we all therefore have an appreciation for the work each other is doing.

Before I let you go, I have to ask about the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner and the role it supposedly played in convincing Trump to run for president. I feel like you’ll probably be asked about this in every interview until the day you die but: Any regrets about mocking poor Donald so much?

I don’t have any regrets about that night, and in general I think the only way I would feel bad right now is, if given the opportunity that I had leading up to the election, if I had said less about what I felt about Donald Trump. Then I would feel regret.

In 2011, that was the heart of the birther nonsense and that’s probably why I was particularly angry when it came up again during the election and he tried to excuse that behavior. That really brought me back to 2011. I thought he made himself a very fair target and I have no regret about it. Even if that is true, that it was beginning of this narrative, I can’t say it wasn’t a really fun night.

Do you really think that’s true though, that he decided to run because you and Obama embarrassed him?

I mean, look, it was a real bad night for him. I also should stress this: It’s the biggest “fuck you” to me that I made fun of him that night and five years later he was president. And I really tip my cap. The amount of people that told me that night, “That’s the end of him, thanks to you” — and, you know, he showed us all. So there’s a lot of things about him where I think he’s a liar and I think that he’s disingenuous but if he ever said, “I showed the smug fucker Seth Meyers,” that would be a 100 percent truth.