Seth Meyers' 'Late Night' Challenge: What To Do With His Hands

Aug 25, 2014

Meyers is hosting the Emmys Monday. In April, he told Fresh Air why he left a dream job at Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update to take over Late Night from Jimmy Fallon. Meyers says not having a mic in hand — like he did in standup — took some adjusting.

Originally broadcast April 23.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Emmy Awards are tonight. The ceremony will be hosted by Seth Meyers. He reached another milestone in his career last February.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, it's "Late Night" with Seth Meyers.

GROSS: Meyers took over as the host of NBC's "Late Night" in after Jimmy Fallon moved to "The Tonight Show." Meyers and Fallon worked together on "Saturday Night Live." Seth Meyers joined the cast of SNL in 2001. He became head writer and anchored "Weekend Update," initially with Amy Poehler. SNL was his dream job, but Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night," encouraged Meyers to move on to the 12:30 show and make it his own. When I spoke with Meyers last April, we played back the opening of the first time he hosted "Late Night." It's an homage to a regular feature Jimmy Fallon used to do when he was the host, "Thank You Notes."


SETH MEYERS: Thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for taking over "The Tonight Show" at 11:30 so I could take over "Late Night" at 12:30. I promise to treat it with respect and dignity and to only use it to do completely original comedy pieces. Starting now.

GROSS: Seth Meyers, welcome to FRESH AIR. That was such a great way of kicking off the Seth Meyers' "Late Night."

MEYERS: Yes, it was a very nice idea by our head writer, Alex Bays(ph). I was very relieved that we came up with something like that.

GROSS: Now, I read in an interview with you that one of the reasons why you left SNL for "Late Night" is that you wanted a saner life. Having a daily hour-long show as offering a saner life struck me as one of the most delusional things I've ever heard in my life.


MEYERS: And I'm so happy to say that seven weeks in, I think I was right.

GROSS: Really?

MEYERS: I could have very possibly been delusional, but this new schedule, unlike SNL, every day at SNL is wildly different, like Mondays are so different than Wednesdays, and the whole week is sort of this teakettle boiling with the release coming, obviously Saturday at 11:30. And everyone who works there feels like they're, to some degree, inside this teakettle, and that pressure really gets to you and I think wears you down. And everybody who works at SNL looks, like, 10 years older than they are. The makeup hides that come Saturday, but trust me, if you see us at Tuesday night in the hallway, it's a bunch of ghosts and zombies. So this new job, because you get the release of doing a show every night, as well as the fact that, you know, we're not doing the show at 12:30, we're doing the show at 6:30, you finish the show, actually I'm getting home at like 8:30 or 9 o'clock, which is a fairly human time to walk in the door. And I've found the schedule, you know, a lot more amenable to having a healthier existence.

GROSS: So let's talk about figuring out what your version of "Late Night" would be. One of the things you actually had to figure out was how to walk out.


MEYERS: You can't believe how hard that is.

GROSS: No, I can believe it.

MEYERS: Yeah, the funny thing is, you know, they have to put a mark on the floor where you're supposed to end up every night, and just the stress of hitting that mark, I think the whole first week, I couldn't even bear to watch myself walk out, because I felt like I would look like an insane person, like, just like staring at the spot on the floor. Also the trickiest part of this job the first week was just figuring out what to do with my hands. I think one of the great discoveries I made at the show was the memory of pockets.


MEYERS: It was like OK, I can put one of these away. I as a person in conversation tend to use my hands a great deal, and I think my first couple of monologues I looked like someone on a desert island trying to signal for a plane.


MEYERS: A passing plane.

GROSS: So, you know, on "Weekend Update," you were sitting behind a desk. So you didn't really have to worry about, you know, walking out there or standing or using your hands. Those desks are really protective. So did you consider...

MEYERS: They're really protective.

GROSS: Yeah. Did you consider doing your opening monologue from a desk?

MEYERS: Well, I wanted to be different than "Weekend Update." I didn't want it to be just this straight transition, and because I do like standing and telling jokes as well, you know, I feel like I was really lucky to have done things like host the ESPYs on ESPN, and do the White House correspondents dinner, and do standup. And so I've had sort of - I've had a standing...

GROSS: But you had a podium for the White House dinner, didn't you?

MEYERS: I did have a podium for the White House - one that I imagine if you check, you'd still see my grip marks in the wood.


MEYERS: But, you know, I enjoy the idea, at least, of transitioning to standing and knowing that, you know, 85, 90 percent of the show is still going to be sitting behind a desk. So - but there is something nice about doing a monologue, and that was the thing, certainly when we were doing our hiring as well. We wanted the show to have a really strong monologue. We thought it was something people liked. We liked the idea of it, we thought we could get really good joke writers. And one of the nice developments, I think over the first seven weeks, was the idea that unlike "Weekend Update," when you tell a joke that doesn't get the reaction you thought it would get or were expecting it to get, you sort of move on to the next joke. There's not a lot of room to play around in "Weekend Update." You're in a much smaller box, just with the framing of the shot. And it's been nice to sort of understand and get to learn that. The monologue is - a lot of it is how good the jokes are, but a lot of it too is having fun with those jokes and sort of making it a bit of a performance piece instead of just a delivery of jokes.

GROSS: Well, you told one joke that I think it was about the Spice Girls and I forget which boy band reuniting.


GROSS: And the whole joke was about, like, who cares, they're so, they're so old.


GROSS: And the audience, you mentioned this reunion tour with the Spice Girls and whichever boy band it was, and people are, like, whooping like yeah, wow, that's so great. And you were really like oh, this is - you're not supposed to...

MEYERS: Yeah, when the setup gets a completely opposite reaction of the point of view that the punch line is about to deliver, it's a very interesting place. But, you know, it leaves this space on "Late Night" to be very honest with the audience as far as how you, as the host of the show, sort of did the miscalculation. I think if you're honest with the audience, they enjoy that part. And probably, you know, remember that more than the best joke in that monologue.

GROSS: So one of the regular things that you do is you tell a story after the opening monologue.


GROSS: And I'm going to play one of my favorites, and this is from, like, early in the show, like it was the first week, but I'll just play the story, and then we'll talk about it. So this is Seth Meyers from the first week of "Late Night."


MEYERS: One of my favorite things about getting to stay in this building and stay in New York is I love interactions with strangers in New York. I had a great one the other day. I was in a restaurant, and I had gone to the bathroom, and I walked out of the bathroom, and there was just a woman standing there. And she grabbed me by the arm, and she goes, it's my son's birthday, he's a huge fan, will you come take a picture with him.

And I said, of course I will. And so she's walking over - and I guess, shame on me, but I thought because of the way she was talking, we were talking like a 12 or 13-year-old kid.


MEYERS: And I get to the table, and he's 25. He's like a young man. And his - the look on his face, he was so bummed out. Like the look on his face was not, like, oh my God, Seth Meyers, it was like, oh my God, mom, what did you do? And it was my nightmare because he was in the center of a booth, and I was, like, well, I'll just slide in on the end, and you can take the pictures. She's like no, you have to be next to the birthday boy. He was not psyched to be called the birthday boy. So everybody had to get out of the booth, and I had to go sit next to him, and it was like he was mad at me. He was like, oh, hey, how are you. And I felt bad for him, but part of me wanted to be, like, so, what do you want to be when you grow up. And so then we're sitting there, and like everybody had to get out, everybody had to get back in, I'm sitting with them, and then the mom takes the pictures, and in like the history of, like, moms and cell phone cameras, like they never nail the first picture. Like she, like, took it and then looked at it, and was like I didn't get anyone, which I - like she definitely pointed it at us.

So finally they take it, and I got out, and he was so - he was never happy at any of it. And so I got up, and I left, and he said something to her under his breath, and I didn't hear what he said, but I did hear what she said because she said it very loudly for the whole restaurant to hear what she said, well, I am sorry, but I'm your mother. So I'd just like to say, to that guy, happy birthday, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry about that bummer of a moment.

GROSS: That's Seth Meyers hosting "Late Night." That's such a great story.

MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah, so how did you come up with the idea of, like, telling a personal story?

MEYERS: Well, you do these, like, test shows when you have one of these gigs, and it was the two weeks before we did our first show. We did two one week, three the following week, and you have actual guests, and you bring in an actual audience, and it just gives you a chance to work through the show, not just for the host but for everybody, from lighting to camera and sound. And I had a story that I ended up telling on the first night about fixing a flat tire, or I should say not fixing a flat tire.

And I told it just because I thought it would be a fun thing to tell at the desk during one of the test shows, and Lorne Michaels and my producer, Mike Schumacher(ph), both said that was really nice. Because that was a moment where you went from a monologue, which I think is slightly different than what people are accustomed from you, and then to be able to sit down and show people who you really are, which is so much part of this job, unlike being a "Weekend Update" anchor, where you're basically to some degree playing a character, to be able to share your personal life is, I think, a big advantage of doing a show like this.

And so Lorne said, you know, you should tell that story the first night. It'll be a nice thing. You'll go into the first night knowing it's a story that works, and it'll tell people a little about yourself. And then it became a thing where any day I had a story, it's a really nice place to tell it. And, you know, unlike a lot of the comedy on the show, you know, it's not on cue cards. I get to just address the camera. And it - I find it really settles me, and it settles the show, and I've enjoyed it a great deal.

GROSS: So getting back to the story itself, when somebody asks you to take a picture with them, whether it's a selfie with them or somebody else taking the picture, do you ever say no? And if you say no, are you afraid that people will tweet that you are a cold and selfish egomaniac?

MEYERS: It's an excellent question. I will say, if anyone's listening, I so prefer a selfie.


MEYERS: Once somebody hands their phone to a stranger, oftentimes I find too that people will hand the phone to the oldest person nearby.


MEYERS: Who has not come to terms with this new technological advancement. So I'd far - a selfie is fast, you can knock that out pretty quickly. My other pet peeve is when you're - there's a group of people who want a picture, and someone says just one more because - as if they're speaking for the group, because it's probably not the last one.


MEYERS: But there were two people at SNL that I always remember at times like that, Derek Jeter being one and Paul McCartney being the other, who more than anyone else, I felt like everybody at SNL, from the crew to the cast to guests of the show, had something they wanted to tell them, like some moment of their career that had so affected this person. And both Derek Jeter and Paul McCartney made so much time for everybody that had wanted it, and I always remember anytime I don't take a picture with someone, I'm saying I'm a bigger deal than Paul McCartney and Derek Jeter. So I try to take them every time.

GROSS: Do you miss "Saturday Night Live"?

MEYERS: I do. I miss it a little bit less every day, which is nice. The thing I was so worried about leaving SNL with just the family and the routine and all the wonderful people that I got to spend so much time with, and obviously as you build your - a new show, like we have, you find that there are other really lovely people that you get to sort of build a new family with. So that's been great.

I do miss the rush of SNL, and on Saturday at 1130 when I'm sitting at home, I feel like phantom limbs, if that's the right expression.


MEYERS: Just wanting to be out there. So that I certainly miss.

GROSS: Do you watch it, or is it too painful to watch?

MEYERS: I watch the first one live, which was a real - I felt the way I bet Jeff...

GROSS: You mean live like in the studio audience?

MEYERS: Live at home, no, live at home, I should say. And let me just say as a viewer, there are too many commercials.


GROSS: You never knew that.

MEYERS: Now that I'm on the other side. I never knew. Or I'd known as a child and then forgotten. But I felt like just this awful metamorphosis of no longer being on the show. And then in the following weeks, you know, a couple times I've been out of town, I've had to watch it Sunday morning, which is a lovely way to watch the show. The part you miss the most, not being on the show anymore, is Wednesday, which was the table read, where you basically get to watch 40 pieces, all with varying degrees of success. But I remember when people like Kristen Wiig left, or people like Andy Samberg left, the thing that I felt, you know, so lucky about was that I got to see everything they tried to do for a seven or eight-year period, like all their failures, all their successes. You got to see everything, like, in the incubator stage to the final product, and it's so - that part of the job is so wonderful.

GROSS: We're listening to an interview recorded earlier this year with Seth Meyers who hosts the Emmys tonight. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.