Five hours before taping on a recent Thursday, the eighth-floor offices at 30 Rockefeller Center are a hive of focused activity. In the bullpenlike space that most of the 16 writers for NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers share, jokes about a woman arrested for handing out pot cookies at a St. Patrick’s Day parade (“Police became suspicious when nobody got into a fistfight”) and a “two strike” proposal for sexual harassment on New York City public transportation (“Two?!”) are tapped into iMacs without hair-rending or tears. Down the hall in his corner office, Seth Meyers reads through a segment, making minor adjustments. For followers of late-night TV mythology, accustomed to tales of brutal production schedules and hosts’ hurricanelike mood swings, this all might seem a little tame. “I think the pace of SNL and what it puts the staff through is really important for that show,” says Meyers, who arrived at Late Night after eight years as SNL‘s head writer. “What we’re doing here doesn’t have to have that kind of pace. The realization was really big for us.”
Four nights a week for the past five years, the 45-year-old Meyers has entered a chilly studio down the hall at 6:30 p.m., encapsulated the news of the day, exposed its breathtaking weirdness, and skewered its deserving main characters—all with precision and steadiness. Fellow network-TV hosts Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and time-slot rival James Corden use headlines to tee up punch lines in their monologues, but they soon move on to lighter, celeb-driven bits. Late Night, by contrast, continues probing with its heterogenous mix of guests (a recent episode featured both Kamala Harris and Henry Winkler) and hilariously barbed segments written and performed by a diverse staff. Meyers is less theatrical than Stephen Colbert and has a lighter touch than Trevor Noah. (And he’s a lot funnier than Rachel Maddow.) Whereas like-minded hosts John Oliver and Samantha Bee have at least a full week to burnish their scripts for their cable shows, Meyers and his staff absorb the daily firehose of geopolitical developments, “Baby Shark” memes, and Trump administration–led cruelty and answer almost instantly with depth and wit. It’s as if Meyers is responding with emergency-room urgency while his competitors perform elective procedures, and viewers can sense the difference. Late Night consistently wins its 12:35 a.m. time slot in both general ratings and the 18-to-49 demo, earning an average of 1.8 million viewers in its current season. For networks facing increasingly fragmented audiences, these late-night programming slates have become uniquely valuable because they reliably bring in younger viewers. “When I started, there were all these articles saying, ‘Do we need late-night shows?’ ” Meyers says. “Right now, nobody’s asking that question.”
It’s easy to forget, but when Meyers took over Late Night from Fallon in the waning years of the Obama administration, the conventional wisdom was still that network viewers just wanted to be sent to bed amused and untaxed. Fallon’s Tonight Show became best known for celeb-driven bits like lip-synch battles and word-association games, which, along with Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” emerged as a new form of viral (and evergreen) YouTube content. At the same time, comedy-news pioneer Jon Stewart had retired from The Daily Show, and Colbert was jettisoning his satirical Comedy Central persona for a less pointed one on CBS. An opening had emerged for a progressive-minded host willing to face the awful truths of our times and mold them into bits that would provide real value at the end of the day, no matter how much news a viewer had already consumed. “There was a presidential campaign, so even without Trump, we were like, ‘Oh, things are about to change,’ ” Meyers recalls. “Suddenly, there are all these new characters and story lines. Over time, with Trump in the race, we were able to get into fighting shape in terms of being able to adjust to the quantity of news coming in.”
If anything best illustrates Late Night‘s unique political-comedy skill set, it’s the program’s most popular segment, “A Closer Look,” which emerged as the show began to find its footing in its second year. Three times a week, Meyers devotes as many as 15 minutes of the program to a virtuosic, discursive, joke-packed deep-dive into the day’s Trump-related news that offers a clarifying, but still comedy-driven, take on a news cycle that churns way too fast for anyone to fully digest. “I think the best thing we can hope to provide is the catharsis of laughter, with a subject that people wouldn’t otherwise be laughing at,” Meyers says. “We’re going to say things that are true, we’re going to say things we believe, and we’re not going to try to hide our feelings. And we’re going to try to have as many jokes as we can.”
Each script for “A Closer Look” is drafted by 33-year-old writer Sal Gentile, who previously wrote news-analysis pieces for Chris Hayes’s old weekend show on MSNBC, Up With Chris Hayes, while honing his improv chops at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade. Gentile had arrived at Late Night in 2014 as a segment producer, specializing in political and literary guests. As the presidential campaign ramped up, Meyers kept finding himself in fascinating conversations with Gentile about the news, which eventually led to the first segments of “A Closer Look.” At the time, no one’s idea of a perfect viral video was 12 dense minutes on James Comey getting fired. “We all heard that nobody would watch anything longer than two minutes online,” Meyers recalls. “I remember when the Lonely Island guys started. For my money, those are the greatest pieces of comedy of the last 20 years, but they were all two minutes.”
On days that are crammed with major breaking news, Gentile and associate producer Emily Erotas will remain on high alert, making changes in the script—which will then need to be reflected in the handwritten cue cards, video clips, and graphics—until as late as 5:45 p.m. “The day of Michael Cohen’s testimony I just sat and watched it, and as he’d say something I’d write something,” Gentile recalls. “It’s like being on Fear Factor and getting exposed to a scorpion.”
Early on, Gentile’s drafts were somewhat stronger on current affairs than comedy, and Meyers, head writer Alex Baze, and writer Jenny Hagel would help punch up the funny. But these days, Meyers performs them much as Gentile writes them, with the majority of cuts and changes being made for time or to address breaking news. “Everything I’ve loved and wanted to do converges in this job,” Gentile says. “And there’s a major emotional reward to doing it—otherwise I’d probably be wandering around Central Park yelling at people about what’s happening.”
People clearly feel the same way about watching it: The segment attracts an average of 1.67 million YouTube views in its first 24 hours of being posted, while some top 3 million views. The first quarter of 2019 saw every important metric trending upward for the show’s YouTube channel—views, minutes watched, likes, and shares—which has made Late Night a key digital property for NBC. “While we still care a lot about linear ratings, what excites us right now is the way Seth’s show finds a whole other audience on digital,” says NBC cochairman George Cheeks, who ran the network’s late-night programming before being promoted last year. The show’s increasingly political perspective has been anything but a hindrance. A surge in interest in NBC’s after-hours slate allowed the network to hike advertising rates by at least 10%, according to a 2015 Variety report. As far as Cheeks can recall, not a single advertiser has complained. “There’s something about Seth’s approach where it can be polemical in context, without being alienating,” he says.
Meyers’s willingness to experiment has been an asset for NBC in other ways. Cheeks points to the podcast the show launched last year, which allows potential fans to catch “A Closer Look” and other segments on the go. The podcast had close to a million downloads in March, driven in part by new content Meyers created specifically for the format, including long-form interviews with fellow SNL alumni including John Mulaney and Will Forte. “Seth is extremely self-aware,” Cheeks says. “He takes his time to think about what makes sense for him and his brand, but when he invests, he really invests.”
Meyers’s colleagues say that, at his core, he is a gifted comedian with a sound moral compass and an intellectual curiosity that frequently leads him to invite fiction writers like Marlon James on his show and actually read their books. But he wasn’t always so assured. The first year and a half of Late Night felt unfocused, in part because Meyers, wanting to distinguish the program from SNL‘s “Weekend Update,” delivered his monologue standing—despite feeling far more comfortable behind the desk. “It took us a while to get there,” he says. “But you have to make mistakes like that.” In his first couple years at SNL, Meyers grew depressed as he struggled to get sketches onto the show, leaving him feeling like an impostor. As a result, by the time he became head writer, he’d gained a real sensitivity to the emotional needs of his staff. “What Seth is super comfortable with, and what he’s good at, is, he’s a writer,” says Late Night‘s main producer, Mike Shoemaker, a former colleague from SNL. “What he loves to do is encourage writing. Each writer is in charge of his or her script. He doesn’t just take it and change it—he’ll make suggestions, and you change it. He’s fostering that feeling of control.”
When I meet Meyers in his office on a Thursday afternoon in March, he’s dressed casually in a cozy-but-expensive-looking gray sweater and blue New Balance sneakers. After putting the finishing touches on an email, he swings around his L-shaped midcentury-modern desk and settles into a comfortable chair by a window. His office is an airy, unpretentious space that is arranged for actual work. A large sofa and several comfortable chairs create enough seating for the multiple daily meetings Meyers hosts, including sketch pitches and read-throughs of his monologue and “A Closer Look.” Although Gentile was in the office until midnight the previous night honing his 29-page draft of “A Closer Look,” the equivalent of around 10 minutes of airtime, no significant news has broken so far today, and Meyers is able to relax. He’s looking forward to having New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on that evening, who will make news with a quip asking her GOP colleagues why they’re so obsessed with her.
To get a sense of Meyers’s inner life, you could do worse than take a tour of the small museum’s worth of stuff he keeps in his office. SNL looms large, with a variety of gifts and keepsakes from that era. Keen-eyed viewers will notice the Stefon nesting doll on Meyers’s TV desk, but the rest of the toy is here on a shelf: ever smaller oblong likenesses of old colleagues including Kate McKinnon and Fred Armisen. A set of small bottles in the distinctive shape of Amsterdam’s canal-front houses recalls his postcollege years there, where he performed as part of the English-language improv group Boom Chicago, and where he met both Late Night writer Amber Ruffin and Jordan Peele, with whom he’d go see old horror movies. A stately photo-portrait of his Italian greyhound, Frisbee, hangs on one wall, while a shelf holds a plaque featuring a district attorney’s badge that used to belong to his wife, Alexi Meyers, a prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes in Brooklyn. The couple has two young sons, and creating a pace that allows the staff—well, everyone besides Gentile—to lead full lives is a priority. “It’s about working well, not working long,” says Hagel. “I have a 5-year-old, and it feels great. I can be totally engaged in this job all day and still be home for bedtime. That all comes from Seth.”
The Late Night workplace is notably inclusive, which was intentional from the start. “We didn’t fully know what the show was going to be, so we looked for not just a diversity of backgrounds, but a diversity of styles,” Meyers says. “And we’ve let that shape what the show has become.” Many of these writers have become on-air personalities in their own right. Ruffin, the first African American woman ever to write for a late-night show, does a bit called “Amber Says What,” in which she provides silly yet biting recaps of events like the Oscars and the Winter Olympics. (She recently finished shooting a pilot of a sitcom she wrote and stars in that Meyers and Late Night and SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels are producing.) Hagel, a Second City veteran who is both gay and a mom, two perspectives not exactly common in late-night writers’ rooms, created a segment she performs with Ruffin called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” which is exactly what it sounds like. “I keep trying to find the edge of what they’ll let me do,” says Ruffin. “And I have not found it yet.”
Late Night has plenty of Saturday Night Live DNA in it, from the belief that cue cards are superior to teleprompters to the ritual of testing jokes in front of a live audience. At around 4 p.m. each day, a group of tourists at 30 Rock is rounded up and led into Studio 8G to serve as a test audience for the monologue and “A Closer Look.” There are some legendary studios in this building—SNL‘s Studio 8H is right next door—but this is definitely not one of them. Greeting his audience, Meyers notes that the space has been occupied by such iconic programs as the original Jeopardy, Rosie O’Donnell’s late-’90s daytime talk show, and, just to see if the crowd is paying attention, Battlestar Galactica. He then takes a quick but necessary poll to see which of the visitors hail from a foreign land, discovering that at least a quarter are from outside the U.S. “We learned to ask, because I was always shocked when jokes didn’t quite work,” says Meyers. “If you have an audience that’s all from, like, Sweden,” he adds, only half-joking, “you can’t believe how little they know about Michael Cohen.”
He rolls through the monologue, occasionally presenting multiple writers’ takes on the same news-driven premise. As he reads through Gentile’s script, still on paper (with the crucial punch-line-selling graphics and video clips playing on monitors throughout the room), Shoemaker and the writers pay close attention to the response. Afterward, as the test audience files out, Baze, Hagel, Shoemaker, and Gentile gather around Meyers’s onstage desk. During the read-through earlier that day, Meyers had been unsure about a long, almost parenthetical section involving a fast-food-fueled road trip taken by Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke and Trump-skeptical GOP Rep. Will Hurd in 2017, when they were both Texas congressmen. The live audience, though, seemed to be engaged the whole time, and so it stays. Another section, about Glenn Beck, isn’t quite working. In a Fox News clip, Beck is seen delivering a bizarre, chalkboard-assisted anti-Obama rant that ends with him scrawling the word Oligarhy. The bit didn’t quite land, in part because so much other odd stuff was happening in the video that neither Meyers nor the audience noticed the misspelling. Gentile suggests a quick tag to sell the joke: “You spelled oligarchy without a c…you’re closer to spelling Olive Garden!” At the taping, the line gets one of the biggest laughs of the night.
Meyers knows that the show, and “A Closer Look” particularly, contribute something to the current discourse. He also might feel just a teensy bit responsible for our national predicament. Meyers hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, where both he and President Obama ripped into a clearly unamused Trump, who was sitting in the audience. (Meyers’s most memorable line: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”) One theory has held that Trump was motivated to make a more serious run at the office after his humiliation that night. In any case, it certainly wasn’t the last time Meyers and the greater comedic community got a rise out of Trump, who regularly complains via Twitter about being ill-treated by late-night comedy shows. Recently, the president went so far as to accuse them all of having secret ties to Russia and suggested that federal agencies should launch an investigation. Is there anything concerning about that prospect to Meyers? “I have many concerns, but that’s not very close to the top of them,” he says, laughing. “Trump has realized that being showbiz-famous is way more fun than being politics-famous. Because politics-famous is a grind.”
Late-night programs are unique in that the hosts are both stars and showrunners. Their imprint is everywhere, from the selection of guests to the happiness of the staff. When it comes to the latter part, Meyers has learned a bit over the years. “Writers don’t like it when you pitch a joke that’s just as good but a little different,” he says. “They’re going to be happiest when it’s their vision that makes it out there.” Nonetheless, in its absurdist, bookish sensibility, its political bent, its embrace of diverse perspectives—the show is a perfect reflection of its host. Which is just basic talk-show math. Meyers’s mentor, Lorne Michaels, once told me a story about the only conversation he ever had with Johnny Carson. When asked about the secret to good late-night television, Carson said, “It just comes down to whoever is behind the desk.”