The Tonight Show has gotten nearly all of the attention as NBC has upended its late night lineup, but while there have been numerous callbacks to the 11:35 show’s rich and abundant history, the Late Night show has a tradition all its own that demands reverence.
The 12:35 show also comes with its own set of expectations and responsibilities. This is the show of Letterman and Conan – two hosts with a fascination for the absurd; it’s also the show of Jimmy Fallon and his ceaseless energy. What kind of Late Night host will Seth Meyers be? Since his only real experience came from behind the desk of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, we had vague notions of our new late night host, but little else.
Opening cold with a hat-tip to Fallon’s “Thank you notes” bit, Meyers promised originality (but mostly didn’t deliver) in a debut episode that strangely didn’t find its way until the halfway point. As a comic with no talk show experience, one of the biggest concerns about Meyers’ Late Night was that the interviews would be soft or listless, or that the guests would take over control of the show. Thankfully that concern proved to be unfounded, as Meyers displayed a natural aptitude that could put him in the upper echelon of late night interviewers if he continues to shine.
We can discount the playful and engaging interview with first guest, Amy Poehler. Poehler is a friend and former colleague who shared the Weekend Update desk with Meyers. Of course they are going to click. You can say the same thing about Meyers’ somewhat weird, but also smirk-inducing interactions with band leader, Fred Armisen, who contributed far less to the comedy than many likely envisioned.
Meyers and Armisen and Poehler have a natural patter that comes from working together – but Meyers’ interview with Vice President Joe Biden was a completely different animal. To say nothing of Biden’s intimating job title, he’s also been interviewed by the best, and while Meyers isn’t there yet, he kept control of the conversation, seemed genuinely curious, and even pushed Biden a little on his controversial comments about LaGuardia Airport. It wasn’t Meet the Press (it also lagged at points) but a softball interview it was not.
As for the show’s rough spots: unfortunately there were many, but it’s also important to remember that these shows never come assembled out of the box. Ample slack needs to be given. Patience isn’t just a virtue with a new late night show, it is a requirement. With that said, we have to note Meyers’ initial missteps.
If there was one thing that seemed assured about this show, it was that Meyers’ Weekend Update experience would come in handy when it came to the monologue; but last night, it actually seemed like it hindered Meyers, who mimicked his Update delivery sans the desk, speeding through an uncommonly large batch of jokes like he was reading off the items on his grocery list. There was no connection to the material (which was admittedly sharp) or the audience. It was just a man telling jokes with no space in-between them and no effort to relate or “sell” the humor. One expects that this will smooth out over time, and that Meyers will acquire the sense to pace and trim down his monologue, but this first impression may have been a turn-off to some viewers.
Speaking of Meyers’ introduction to audiences: he did the opposite of what Jimmy Fallon did on his first Tonight Show, burying his “hello” until after the monologue. Meyers also kept it short and sweet, telling a humorous story that showed that he can be self-deprecating. Sadly, the bridge between that story and the interviews – the vital second segment (or third in this case) – lacked a spark, a complete 180° from what Late Night viewers were used too with Jimmy Fallon, whose 12:35 show shined brightest during desk pieces and comedy bits.
Unfortunately, Meyers’ desk pieces felt flat and generic, with a smartly written but uninviting Venn Diagram bit that sought to find the commonality between two different things and an Olympic Wrap-Up that fell victim to its hackneyed premise and stale Bob Costas eye jokes. Again, it’s early, so no one should panic yet, but it is also worth noting that Meyers’ strength on SNL was not sketch work, so these kinds of desk pieces may be the norm unless he turns his writers (and perhaps Armisen) into a kind of repertory company in the way that his predecessors have. Though doing that might inject silliness into a show that seems a bit more grown up.
From Meyers’ conflicted set (sophisticated blue glass accents and dark wood with charmingly lo-fi furniture that looks like the thrown together reception area of a two-week old start-up) to his demeanor and stated interest in interviewing “authors, politicians, [and] athletes,” Late Night with Seth Meyers seems like it might be a more serious place than we are accustomed to for the 12:35 time-slot -but that may not be too surprising.
Meyers’ predecessors all found a way to offer a contrast between their shows and their lead-ins. David Letterman was forced to veer far away from Carson’s Tonight Show while Conan O’Brien seemed to gravitate toward big stunts and often bizarre comedy bits and characters with his version of Late Night, in order to differentiate his show from Jay Leno’s tamer Tonight Show. Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night stood out for his show’s viral moments and comedy bits that were powered by the host’s enthusiasm and energy, but that has carried over to his version of The Tonight Show. Stylistically, Meyers really has no choice but to be more staid – something that is contrary to the history of Late Night – but which ultimately may work for his more cerebral approach to comedy.
Are viewers ready for a version of Late Night that is alternative to the alternative, more news based (assuming the lengthy monologues continue) and centered on a diverse group of guests? Time will tell, but we’re curious to see how this show evolves.
Late Night with Seth Meyers airs on NBC weeknights @12:37PM