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In Conversation: Seth Meyers

By Frank Bruni

Sean Donnola

Late-night television comedy used to be exactly that: comedy. Sure, it was topical. Obviously, it dab­bled in politics. But it wasn’t a running commentary — a gaping, keening, raging one — on the nation’s political life. It wasn’t a main crucible for Americans’ political angst. The election of Donald Trump changed that. The president gave Americans more angst to work out.

He also gave hosts like Seth Meyers material and a challenge: How do you make fun of often grave events without making light of them? “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, does this distinctively and brilliantly, by folding barbed one­ liners into more shapely structures, including “A Closer Look,” which is essentially a spoken essay, about 10 minutes long, that hews tightly to a discrete theme — one from mid­-December mulled the tandem hooey of Trump’s philanthropy and his proposed border wall — and that Meyers does every few days. Each weeknight’s broadcast takes a similarly cerebral approach that extends to his selection of guests, which often includes writers and politicians.

Meyers, 45, has a long history with Trump, who hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first of two times in 2004 (the other was in 2015), back when the comic was in his third season as a writer and cast member on the show. Meyers was also the featured performer at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner where he and President Barack Obama separately roasted Trump, who was in the audience. Some political observers have suggested that Trump’s presidential ambitions were fuelled by his anger after that evening, when he sat stone­-faced as Meyers made jokes like, “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

Meyers lives in Manhattan, where “Late Night” is taped, with his wife, Alexi, a lawyer, and their two sons, Ashe and Axel, who are both under 3 years old. We spoke in early January at his studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and in a phone call a few weeks later.

FRANK BRUNI: A colleague of mine at The Times who has spent more time with Trump than I have was just saying that when you’re in his presence, there is a charisma that helps explain how this all happened. Do you agree? 

SETH MEYERS: Yes. It’s interesting, because when he hosted “S.N.L.” [in 2004], I didn’t find him to be particularly charismatic. Now, that was not him at his best — hosting a comedy show. My takeaway was that he was not unfriendly but he wasn’t particularly friendly either. His reaction to most of the comedy was that he liked it if it worked. It didn’t strike me that he had a taste for it.

FB: So the audience is the arbiter of everything. That’s consistent with the Trump who went on to run
for president.

SM: We did this sketch called “Donald Trump’s House of Wings,” as in chicken wings. I’m as proud of it as almost anything that I was a part of. There was a line of sketches that had been on the show about bad restaurants: There was [the baseball player] Derek Jeter’s Taco Hole, [Reverend] Al Sharpton’s Casa de Sushi. In Donald Trump’s House of Wings, it was him in a yellow suit with a yellow tie talking about having a chicken-wing restaurant, and the song was “Jump (for My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters (1983), but it was to “Trump.” And there was me and Amy Poehler, Kenan Thompson and Maya Rudolph dressed as chicks in eggs. 

We danced next to him. And there’s actually a moment when it’s crushing with the audience and he’s surprised, because he hadn’t liked the sketch the whole week. He does a thing that he does now all the time during rallies where he has no poker face, he just takes it in: Oh! Look at that! A hit! And then he starts to dance and enjoy it. He’s very good in the sketch.

FB: That is such a perfect harbinger and illustration of his outsourcing of his judgment to whatever gets him applause. Like, “I’m going to build a wall and Mexico will pay for it.”

SM: The difference is that he didn’t actually have to open the House of Wings. The other thing I remember is that he had cut out a page of Variety, just the column of the ratings, and he carried it around in his breast pocket and would show you how well “The Apprentice” had done.

Looking back at that week, I want to make clear: It was fascinating to be around what was at the time this New York icon. I remember him saying, “Where are you from?” “Do you like working here?” “Have you seen the ratings of ‘The Apprentice’?” It was almost as though: I’ll ask two personal questions and then, having done that part of humanity, I’ll drop this interesting tidbit.

FB: I think your show and others like it play a distinct and important psychological role in the nation’s processing of this presidency.

SM: I have personally found it cathartic to do this show. I hope it provides some catharsis for the audience as well. There is a sense now, certainly more than when we started the show in 2014, that we are all going through something together.

FB: Aren’t there some Americans in this Balkanised information environment who get as much news from your show as from any other source?

SM: I don’t know. I’m aware of the possibility. We try not to say things that are untrue. If somebody should make what I believe is probably not the safest choice to get their news from us, we don’t want to lead them astray.

FB: Do you see what you do as a form of journalism?

SM: No. If you watch “A Closer Look,” we use so many clips of actual journalists to make our point. Most journalists don’t just show clips of other journalists. They actually go out and do journalism.

FB: On a recent episode, you said, “The president is incompetent and unhinged. He’s virtually incapable of uttering a truthful or coherent thought about almost anything.” Nuanced! Do you believe every word of that?

SM: Yeah. I remember doing an interview with someone who said, “You called him a liar. That’s a big word.” It’s actually not a big word to call somebody a liar. The definition is really simple. When somebody tells a bunch of lies, that’s the perfect word for it. Maybe you can say, “Wow, your definition of unhinged is pretty severe.” But I’ve got to be honest: I don’t think that was a crazy thing to say.

FB: Are there things in the news that you feel you can’t joke about?

SM: It’s case by case. We don’t have some overarching idea. But I will say that when you’re doing a show the day after Charlottesville or the day after a school shooting, those were cases where we spoke of it earnestly. There are other times — like the day after the [2016] election — when you’re honest about where you’re at but also trying to have jokes in there.

FB: Your opening monologue right after the election was heartfelt and personal. You mentioned being a father; you noted that some parents out there would see their daughter become the first female president. How did those remarks come together?

SM: There were just a few times on the show when I was lucky to be able to sit and talk off the top of my head, not off a script.

FB: That was impromptu? So it could feel and be more direct? 

SM: I wrote it out, but it wasn’t on cue cards, the way a monologue usually is.

FB: I also noticed that while you didn’t mask your being upset about the outcome, you extended a hand to, and spoke kindly of, Trump voters.

SM: I never pretended that I wasn’t shocked by the outcome. But at that moment, I really did want to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone. There are people in other parts of the country that are not Manhattan who have a different set of fears than I would have.

FB: What other subject matter, besides shootings, feels worth approaching with special care?

SM: When you do stuff about the opioid crisis, it’s a lot harder to get comic traction. But I think we’ve managed. Those segments have been less of a laugh riot, but we’re lucky that we have an audience that’s willing to forgive the lack of jokes if they realise that the topic is serious.

FB: What kind of joke about the opioid crisis does work?

SM: When you can frame it in the absurdity of the fact that there was a town in West Virginia that filled enough prescriptions for painkillers to treat the entire Eastern Seaboard, you can make a joke off that. You
can separate that from the real-world impact. This is something that’s absurd. It’s absurd that we allowed that to happen.

FB: So absurdity is humour’s saving grace?

SM: Yeah.

FB: What do you worry most about in terms of the lasting damage of Trump’s presidency?

SM: When I think of my kids, I worry the most — it feels clichéd to say — about climate change. I also want to stress that no matter who was president right now, I think that would still be a very scary thing. I don’t want to put that on Trump’s doorstep. Also, I want to live in a world where you can be kind to people and they can be kind to you if you have different political views. I do charity events every now and then, and there will be people who come up to me and say they voted for Trump. And we will have a nice conversation. I hope that’s not unique to me.

FB: I have relatives who voted for Trump. 

SM: Can you still be kind to them and can they be kind to you?

FB: I love them, and they help me not to see this in really reductive ways. So when people say, “Everybody
who voted for Donald Trump is a racist,” I know that not to be true. Everyone who voted for Donald Trump perhaps averted their gaze from racism, and we can make moral judgments about that. 

SM: I agree with that 100 percent.

FB: Do you ever worry, whether it’s your show or The Times, that because we’re seen as creatures of the coast, our criticisms and focus on Trump actually embolden his supporters?

SM: I think he does a great job of framing himself as a victim, but I also think he would have done that no matter what. I don’t know how we don’t make fun of him based on the standards we had for making fun of people before he came to office. You can’t reframe the standards of what is deserving of mockery based on this three-dimensional chess game of Is this actually helping him? Because ultimately you want these standards — of what is mocked — to survive him. Certainly there are people on the right who will say that comics were easy on Obama. But I don’t think it’s a one-for-one because it’s not like Obama ever behaved like this.

FB: Has the consumption of media and culture in this country become so fractured, in the way we set
up our social-media feeds and such, that the idea of a changed mind is an anachronism at this point?

SM: That worries me a ton. I try to follow conservative news sources as well, because I want to hear what they’re saying. I don’t know that my mind is changed.

FB: I do feel like a healthy measure of humility is gained, though. Have you had many conservative writers on the show?

SM: We’ve had people like Shepard Smith from Fox News, [the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016)] J. D. Vance and [the Nebraska senator] Ben Sasse. 

FB: What is your own consumption of culture like?

SM: I try to read the fiction of all the authors on the show.

FB: Is there a risk with fiction writers in holding the audience’s attention?

SM: We really have found not.

FB: Did you decide from the start to include authors?

SM: We thought that would be fun early on. I remember saying, “We’re going to have politicians and authors.” And in the end, authors have turned out to be so much better than politicians — so much better.

Authors are genuinely great storytellers. There is still something a little magical to an audience about people who can write a book. Most people, the longest thing they ever wrote was a paper in high school, and they had to mess with the margins just to get it to 10 pages. And I just think that people like to hear authors talk. Whereas what I’ve found with politicians — and this is bipartisan — they’re just gonna answer the question they wish you’d asked and they’re going to say it the way they practiced it, and oftentimes it’s something they’ve said a bunch. So there’s the lack of the crackle you want during an interview.

FB: What has most surprised you about fatherhood?

SM: I had really high hopes for it — it’s matched them. I was so close to my father as a child, and I hoped it to be true for me and my boys, and it has been so far. I’m uncommonly close with my parents. They were and continue to be as close friends as I have.

Here’s the thing. This was always my dream — beyond my dream — to be where I am now. I wanted to have a job in comedy. I wanted to have a job writing. And my favourite show as a kid was “Saturday Night Live.” I’m so much farther beyond what I had ever hoped for myself professionally, and yet, when I leave for work in the morning, my son gives me a running hug. So I walk out the door and even though I have this whole wonderful day ahead of me, I know for a fact that I’ve already had the best part of my day. And that, I guess, is kind of surprising.