Less Jaywalking, More Web-friendly Clips: Dos and Don'ts for Seth Meyers' Late Night Career
After weeks of educated speculation, NBC made it official during the Upfronts: Seth Meyers is taking over Jimmy Fallon's seat on Late Night come February 2014. Despite the surface similarities between Meyers and Fallon (Saturday Night Live pedigree, "Weekend Update" hosting credits, a relationship with super-producer Lorne Michaels, whiteness), Meyers' move to Late Night is a logical, safe choice for NBC. And really, he brings a more composed, intelligent persona to the show, something both Fallon and Conan O'Brien lacked when they started on Late Night. Although the transition will not be easy, I would wager that Meyers will fare better in the early going than those two who came before him. He's certainly not as awkward as Conan was in the early 1990s, nor is he as full of kinetic energy as Fallon was (and sort of still is) when he started. Meyers is, above all else, a professional. Late Night might not be the most exciting or thrilling show with him behind the desk, but it will likely be smart and well-composed.
But here's the thing (and this seemingly always gets brought up in discussions about who's going to host what, and when): late-night shows are part of an older model and era of television. They haven't aged particularly well since David Letterman deconstructed the format with his turn on Late Night two-plus decades ago. The format and components have remained mostly the same for ages: monologue, a few pre-taped or in-studio bits, two guests, and a musical or comedy performance. The monologues aren't especially lively anymore, as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have grabbed hold of the relevant political commentary and the viral nature of the web takes care of a lot of the buzzy pop culture content. The guest interviews rarely provide any fascinating insights or must-see moments because the entire process is so orchestrated by publicity people (no shots at them; keep doing your thing). And most of all, there's no real impetus to watch late-night shows live. Most of us either have stuff on our DVRs that we need to get through or we assume that any relevant moments will spread on Twitter, Reddit, or Buzzfeed the next day.
In short, there's very little innovation in the late-night formula right now. Yet, every time someone gets a new show, we hope that they'll start to reinvent the process. When Conan O'Brien was freed from the "mainstream" vibes of The Tonight Show, lots of people thought he'd do all kinds of interesting stuff on his TBS show. That didn't happen. Fallon's version of Late Night is the most "current" show in late-night, full of pre-tapes and in-studio segments that are tailored completely to the internet, but he still struggles with everything else—and I get the sense that some of his more interesting elements might get flushed once he moves to an earlier time period in 2014. So with Meyers becoming the latest possible savior of late-night TV, I thought it might be prudent to discuss what he could consider borrowing from his competitors, and what he should avoid all together.
So over the last couple weeks, I've watched all the major late-night talk shows (Letterman, Leno, Conan, Kimmel, Fallon, and Ferguson) at least twice, and I've crafted a list of dos and don'ts inspired by each host/show for Meyers to consider once he takes over Late Night early next year.
DO: Embrace what you're good at, and don't shy away from politics and sports
This one is pretty self-explanatory, and surely Meyers (with Lorne Michaels' help) will do it anyway. However, I do think it's important, at least in the beginning, that he stick to what he knows. It's likely that the interviewing skills will only come with time, but we know that Seth can write (after years as the head writer at SNL) and that he does pretty well delivering a string of jokes (after years as the "Weekend Update" anchor). I'm wary of advocating for any new late-night host to emphasize the monologue because the pressure of delivering a solid one night after night can be horrible, but Meyers already has the skill set to do it. Even though I haven't seen him do a single monologue, I would bet that he's already better at them than Fallon and probably better than Conan (who coasts almost entirely on performative tics and interactions with Andy Richter, which is fine). Letterman and Leno almost entirely phone it in at this point (for example, Leno recently told a number of tepid O.J. Simpson jokes), while Kimmel and Ferguson's monologues work because they mix in some extra goodies that avoid set-up-joke-set-up-joke structures. Kimmel uses a lot of clip gags, and Ferguson's interaction with the close-up camera and audience members inject just enough life into their respective shows at the top.
Based on what I know about Meyers, he has a number of different interests, but it might be interesting to see him take on politics a bit more directly. He killed at the White House Correspondent's Dinner a few years ago and has certainly guided some solid political sketches at SNL. None of the current late-night hosts go that route very often (well, Leno tries, but his potshots are't funny), perhaps out of disinterest or perhaps out of fear that Stewart and Colbert already have that sector on lockdown. Meyers is capable of handling the material on his own, which might make his monologue stronger than some of his competitors who rely on partners or band leaders to bounce material off.
I'd also be interested in seeing Seth engage with sports more regularly. It was reported last week that ESPN pushed real hard to build a late-night show around him. Generally, the late-night hosts avoid that topic unless there's a scandal to talk about. Meyers is a knowledgeable sports fan; that could be appealing to new viewers, and it could differentiate him from everyone else on late night.
DON'T: Limit the focus on guest interview, and change it up a little
Serious question: When's the last time an interview segment from a late-night show interested you? They usually aren't worth the time. I tried not to skip some of them during my viewing, but it's hard to listen to Conan ask Jennifer Love Hewitt about her boobs for the fourteenth time since 2000, or to watch Letterman and Mark Harmon compete for the title of the most disinterested multi-millionaire. Leno has always lofted softball questions to his guests, Conan can still be an awkward mess, Fallon is way too nice, and Letterman only busts out a retro performance every once in a while (I guess the most recent one would be Selena Gomez). Kimmel is probably today's best interviewer, if only because he isn't afraid to verbally spar with, or even flat-out make fun of, his guests. Ferguson creates a more playful, cocktail hour-like feel with his, which can be fun, but also sometimes results in interviews that go absolutely nowhere.
For better or for worse, the interviews are going to be part of this new version of Late Night; otherwise, the studios, networks, and record companies just won't be interested in the show. It would be really fascinating to watch Meyers push guests into more serious discussions (something like a watered-down version of what Jon Stewart does), but it's unlikely that he will. However, I would advocate mixing up the format and number of the interviews more often. Why not have some nights where there's only one guest who can then be involved in pre-tapes and in-studio bits along with an interview? Why not interview more than one person at once more regularly? Fallon did this when Justin Timberlake hung around for an entire week a few months back and Kimmel let Matt Damon hijack the entire show for a night. And guess what? Those are probably the most memorable shows of 2013 so far. It might also be interesting to start the interviews much earlier or much later, depending on the guest or the night. Fallon and Ferguson sometimes don't start their first interviews until nearly halfway through the show, and it almost doesn't matter if the guests are rushed because the conversations aren't compelling anyway. The point is that very few viewers care about the interviews unless they simply love that guest, so don't just have them because that's how it's always been done.
DO: Keep the guests involved, just in other ways
This doesn't mean that guests shouldn't come on the show; the format just won't work without them. But the better late-night shows (Kimmel, Fallon, sometimes Conan, Ferguson, and Letterman) use their guests in different contexts. The traditional model is to let the guest play a role in some silly in-studio bit (like Kimmel and J.J. Abrams taking "suggestions" from diehard Star Wars fans), but that typically results in more misses than hits. Kimmel and Fallon do their best work with pre-taped interactions with the guests, from musical performances to video series primed for web viewing. Even when Conan, Leno, Fallon and Letterman come up with stupid games for the guests to play (such as Fallon's recent Facesketball segment with Bradley Cooper), it takes a really good guest to make the bit work. Conan and Letterman are especially good at making something very stupid seem enjoyable, because they take it to an ironic extreme, whereas Fallon's enthusiasm for everything sometimes makes a childish game feel even more moronic. Meyers' experience working on SNL means he probably has a good relationship with the cavalcade of stars who will appear on his show; thus, he should, in theory, be able to convince them to participate in non-interview segments.
DO/DON'T: More short videos, less man-on-the-street stuff
This might just come down to budget and time constraints, but because the 21st century late-night show should always be thinking about how to produce segments that fit perfectly into a short internet clip, video-like projects should be valorized over man on the street gags. Again, think about the content you've watched from late-night shows over the last few years. Chances are it was probably something Fallon, Kimmel, and maybe Conan did in short video form. It probably wasn't "Jaywalking," or other of the other "let people do dumb things on camera" bits that Leno churns out on a seemingly nightly basis. Leno recently had comedian/actor Trevor Moore on, who offered really dumb inventions to people and then filmed the results. It wasn't funny, and it also felt like it could have been dusted off from Leno's 1996 archives.
On the flip side, Kimmel introduced his latest video series, "The Baby Bachelor," and it was both amusing and all over the internet the next morning. Fallon's various ongoing pre-taped video segments ("Downton Sixby," "Real Housewives of Late Night," Robert is Bothered, etc.) regularly produce laughs, they give various guests something different to do, and they work perfectly on the internet. There's really no reason why Meyers cannot do something similar, while finding his own voice within the framework.
Ultimately, I think the best version of Late Night with Seth Meyers looks like a mash-up of "Weekend Update," The Daily Show, and Kimmel and Fallon's prioritization of the internet and shareable clips. If the publicity machine won't allow him to engage in real discourse with his guests (and it probably won't), then he should ditch the typical framework as much as he can. Meyers has the potential to be the best new late-night host in years; with his established skills, he could probably do a typical late-night show easily. But he could also turn the format on its head by doing something brand-new. I'm betting the new show will end up somewhere in the middle.
What do YOU think Meyers should do? What parts of late-night TV are still appealing to you in 2013?
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