Less Jaywalking, More Web-friendly Clips: Dos and Don'ts for Seth Meyers' Late Night Career

By Cory Barker

May 23, 2013


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 elseā€”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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  • Bakes79 May 26, 2013

    I've never been all that sold on Meyers. Let's face it. He only really got the Weekend Update desk cuz Fallon, Fey, and Poehler moved out. He was the only one left and got the desk by default.

    It's like when you start a job as a truck unloader at a retail store and you have a manager and 3 - 4 other guys that have been there longer to help guide you. You work there long enough and eventually the manager (Fallon) leaves or gets promoted somewhere else and the 3 - 4 other guys (Fey & Poehler) above you quit at some point to get real jobs. Then, there you are, suddenly at the top of the heap cuz you've been there the longest. Same with Meyers at SNL.

    His jokes aren't that great. Sure there's one or two gems in the pile of coal. But that's not enough to base a nightly, hourly show around. And he DOES YELL his punchlines, as if that makes them somehow funnier. Also, saying you're a "head writer" at SNL isn't something to brag too loudly about. That show sucks. Has for years. Name me 2 funny skits, or 3 even, if you can from the last 2 years that don't have Justin Timberlake in them. Can you? Did Meyers write them?

    His new show won't be any better than what's already out there, thats for sure. And a slight possibility exists that it wont be any worse. So, kudos NBC. You found another scoop of plain boring vanilla to throw on top of your already melting ice cream cone.

  • Spoontown May 25, 2013

    The one section of American TV that I just don't get, a UK weekly late night show like Jonathan Ross is hard to sit through let alone a daily one, and any time I've seen bits of American late night shows they are awful. The Larry Sanders Show killed them all dead years ago.

  • JT_Kirk May 24, 2013

    And by "composed, intelligent persona" you mean he screws up easy jokes with clumsy punchlines, he yells his jokes, he finds the lowest common denominator punchlines, laughs at his own jokes and breaks constantly, uses recurring characters from other cast members to fill time, and basically exists solely on pretenses that he's composed and intelligent?

    I highly doubt that people will flock to Seth Meyers' take on the Late Night show right after Fallon. Meyers isn't as smart as his competition for that "smart, hip" market, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Meyers isn't as funny, creative, or fresh as his timeslot competition, Craig Ferguson. He doesn't have a particularly loyal following on his own. And his writing style on SNL isn't as tight as his predecessors, starting with Tina Fey.

    Your take on late night is pretty much spot on, it's why I stopped watching Conan. That said, it's also why I watch Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson so devotedly, the show openly and loudly mocks the format far moreso than Letterman's schtick. Ferguson never turns in a cheap interview, there's very little salesmanship going on, no "tell me about your new project" stuff unless he himself is interested. He doesn't go for a pre-written monologue about the day's events, it's 80% or more improvised in the moment and rarely about the political scene. There's a reason Craig Ferguson was hand-picked by Johnny Carson's old producer to helm the show, and there's not a lot of chance that Meyers can compete in any of that.

    To me, Meyers' take on politics is infantile, it shows a low understanding, but that could be him shooting for the lowest common denominator in which case it's smarter than it seems - I don't see that though. I don't doubt he'll be better at monologuing than Fallon, that guy is stiff as a board.

    I can't stand the Jon Stewart interviews anymore, he's either too soft, too much a pushover for "tell me about your movie", or too outraged - that's the part of the show I fast-forward through most of the time when I watch. Less of that would be better, so naturally that's where they'll aim anybody new that comes out of a political comedy background.

    Meyers' show will be New York-based, and it seems like those sorts of man on the street bits come out of LA-based shows. Letterman has mocked it and done it in the past, but it always seems more challenging because the atmosphere on the street is more "fuck you, get out of my way, I'm going somewhere to stab someone and snort something, and it's cold as a witch's tit out here!"

  • docspector May 25, 2013

    So you're saying he shouldn't quit his day job?

  • JT_Kirk May 25, 2013

    Not saying that, he should TOTALLY quit his day job.

  • bicelis May 24, 2013

    Cory's articles are always very thoughtful. I like them.

    However for me Conan, Leno, Kimmel, Fallon, Letterman and I'm guessing Myers are late-night hosts. While Craig Ferguson is... well.. Craig Ferguson. He's in a league of his own, doing a thing of his own. It's the most natural, most funny, most awkward, most silly (a gay robot skeleton and a horse. Come on!) and most entertaining late night show. I agree that if you watch a couple of shows you just see it as a late night show. And in an objective look at the late-night scene, which Cory did right here, that is appropriate. But when you watch Ferguson longer - for two weeks or more, it begins to work like crack. You just can't stop and you never want to switch to anything else. After Ferguson, every single one of those other hosts seem unfunny, unnatural and most importantly - FAKE. I can't take Fallon's exaggerated enthusiasm like a real thing, Leno is just ... well sad really, Kimmel quite ok actually, Letterman - monotonous and Conan quite funny but awkward (in a bad way) with his sidekick sitting there. All sidekicks in late-night scene after Ferguson seem like Robins (the one from that old silly tv show) to their Batmans - sad, useless and unhappy that they're not Batman themselves.

    Ferguson has the one thing other seem to lack - HEART. You might have to watch the show for two weeks, maybe for a month, have to look up clips where he eulogized his mother, his father, talked about the bombings, talked about Britney Spears' problems, talks about his own addiction problems, his interviews with Bishop Desmond Tutu, Stephen Fry and other clips, but you will come to see the heart of the show.

    And then it's nearly impossible to take the other late-night hosts as real people.

  • docspector May 25, 2013

    You left out the puppets, and the occasionally laser-eyed kitten at the end.

  • JT_Kirk May 24, 2013

    Totally agreed, and I had to consciously restrain myself from my own comment gushing more beyond that over Ferguson.

  • GirishKrishna1 May 24, 2013

    Craig Ferguson is the only one who makes the Late Night Show watchable. He's brilliant, funny and has just enough of a quirk to make his shows interesting and entertaining. I hope Seth goes along Ferguson's path rather than Fallon, Leno or Letterman's path (all three are equally dreadful).

  • torrijos May 24, 2013

    I really like Craig Ferguson for his nonsensical interviews, most of the time the guest seem to be having fun, I also like Letterman because he doesn't try to force anything otherwise late shows are pretty boring (Leno, Conan etc.)

  • FilmFanatic May 24, 2013

    Nobody can be better than Jimmy Fallon! The guy is the best and funniest from all night shows! Second place goes to Craig Ferguson cause the guy doesn't need to do anything other than just talk and he is funny

  • layton2012 May 24, 2013

    I doubt I'll watch Seth, my dislike for him grew as I begun to feel he overstayed his welcome on SNL. I'll stick with Fallon, and Ferguson, and now I can watch them back to back. :)

  • FilmFanatic May 24, 2013

    Thank you! Couldn't agree more!

  • samig26 May 24, 2013

    does anyone know who will replace him on weekend update?

  • FilmFanatic May 24, 2013

    I think it's time to kill weekend updates. It was the one part of SNL that I didn't like. I liked it ONLY when he had characters like Stefan for example... And now that's also gone!

  • mrjimmyjames May 25, 2013

    What a ridiculous statement. It's considered to be the best sketch of the show. Look at all of the great people who have come off of the segment. Without WU, Tina Fey would have not done 30 Rock, Fallon may not have gotten the Tonight Show, and Poehler might not be doing Parks and Rec.

  • FilmFanatic May 28, 2013

    @mrjimmyjames

    I don't like Seth and I don'r really fuss about something on tv.com to go looking for it on wikipedia. I see your point but at the same time, I don't completely agree. It takes much more than JUST one SNL skit to really highlight an actor/writer. Plus, as you mentioned Mean girls, Tina Fey was the one that pushed the book on the first place to be made into a film and not the other way around. Also, for the past years Weekend update IS with just Seth Meyers and even though I watch and love every SNL episode, I almost always find this skit unfunny; only the occasional appearance of some other characters makes it ok. I find Seth Meyers always unoriginal and uncreative and the fact that people keep referring to all that history behind WU, just makes it even more lame as it used to be great and now it's not. Nevertheless you are right, I should have just said to bring another anchor for WU.

  • FilmFanatic May 25, 2013

    Considered to be the best sketch of the show according to whom? You give a sketch too much power over all those people. It's not because of that sketch but their involvement in general to SNL that made them who they are now! Maybe Weekend updates is 'important' but Seth Meyers is nonetheless annoying. And that is my opinion and the reason I don't like Weekend Updates With Seth Meyers!

  • mrjimmyjames May 28, 2013

    @FilmFanatic

    Relax, I'm under 30 too. Have you ever considered looking at the wikipedia page referring to the segment or the actors involved before replying? That's cool if you don't like Seth, but you could have chosen to say "i wish for a different anchor". You're ignoring a long list of comedians that got their start due to the segment. (Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller, Norm McDonald, Dan Aykroyd, etc.) And I'm not sure what to tell you about Tina, this was the thing that made her popular and got her enough attention to get Mean Girls and 30 Rock. The difference between being only a writer and a cast member is drastic. You don't see any good movies starring Fred Wolf, Dennis MacNicholas, Adam McKay, Paula Pell, or Colin Jost do you? They're forever stuck behind the camera.

  • FilmFanatic May 26, 2013

    @mrjimmyjames How am I supposed to refer to it? It's called weekend update! I ve been watching the show for the past 8 years ( I am just 22 ). I don't believe Tina Fey became famous from that, yes. I believe she's who she is cause she is an excellent comedy writer/actress. Plus, I don't like weekend update with seth meyers cause I don't like him. Is it THAT hard to believe? Also Tina Fey didn't appear on the show before because she didn't want to. She was one of the writers and first made her acting debut in the show.

  • mrjimmyjames May 26, 2013

    Are you very familiar with the show? I say that because you keep referring to it as Weekend Updates. It is the most successful sketch in the show's history and started on day one (38 yrs). You might want to go back at least 13 years. No, WU is what made Tina and Seth successful. Fallon and Amy got a signifcant boost as well. Seth was a largely unsuccessful cast member before and Tina didn't appear on the show at all.

  • layton2012 May 25, 2013

    Weekend Update needs to return to the two co-anchor style, I don't think it was coincidence that enjoyed WU more than I did all season when Amy showed up during the finale.

  • docspector May 25, 2013

    You also would have liked it better with just Amy, I suspect. I know I would have.

    Looking at who's left, I can't see even one WU host, much less two. Taran Killam comes closest but I hope he doesn't get it. Maybe they can get John Oliver.

  • layton2012 May 25, 2013

    I've heard the most likely candidate is John Mulaney.

  • JT_Kirk May 24, 2013

    Yeah, it's only been around 38 years, what's that in the scheme of things? Weekend Update allows the players to rest up between acts, and allows direction changes and big set and costume elements to come up next. It's not likely to go anywhere. I hope WU gets a new anchor that's a writer but not the head writer, and maybe go back to the 2-manned style that worked so well for so many.

  • mrjimmyjames May 25, 2013

    I think you summed it up best. I agree.

  • torontogirl98 May 24, 2013

    I don't watch late night shows besides The Daily Show unless I really love the guests. I find the best interviews come from certain host/celebrity parings. Usually the more familiar the guests are with the host the funnier the interview like Kristen Bell on Kimmel or Joel McHale with Ferguson. These ancient hosts like Letterman and Leno make me want to pull all my hair out because they really aren't funny anymore and they seem to have lost touch with what people want to see

  • docspector May 25, 2013

    Try Kristen Bell with Ferguson. Awesome.

  • torontogirl98 May 25, 2013

    Yeah totally Kristen is just plain awesome wherever she goes!

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