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Seth Meyers is getting late-night right—and no one is watching

If a late-night host succeeds and no one is around to watch it, did it really happen?


Michelle Jaworski


Posted on Feb 18, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 5:03 am CDT

On a recent episode of Late Night, Seth Meyers had a new target in his sights: Martin Shkreli, the controversial pharmaceutical CEO and perennial Internet punching bag.

There are plenty of ways Meyers could mock him—and he did. But while some late-night hosts might just move onto the next joke, Meyers went on to make the bigger point that Shkreli is far from the only person in pharmaceuticals who is price-gouging drugs astronomically.

It’s the sort of politics-laced hot take that Meyers has become known for in the two years since he’s joined the exclusive (albeit not very diverse) late-night club. The hosts have changed seats more than a dozen times in a two-year span, affecting nearly every available spot with the exceptions of Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan, but sharp interviews and political know-how set Meyers apart. A political spin might rake in only a tenth the number of views as a game of musical beers with Ryan Reynolds and Katie Holmes, though. So where does that leave Late Night?

Late-night landscape

Now that everyone has settled into their respective shows for the most part—Trevor Noah is only a few months into The Daily Show, Samantha Bee only started her late-night reign with Full Frontal on Feb. 8, and Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show is coming later this year—they have to figure out how to bring in and keep that audience nightly or weekly. But the current crop of hosts have a bigger task on their hands that their predecessors never had to worry about. It’s not just about ratings anymore: You have to go viral the next day, too. They’re all playing the same game, and some are better at it than others.

Seth Meyers made a show that’s practically anti-late-night in every way.

Jimmy Fallon is largely known for his variety sketches and celebrity games, and he’s easily beating everyone else at it. Jimmy Kimmel does pranks and mean tweets. Stephen Colbert, free from the right-wing persona he embodied for a decade, is sharper and looser on a new show where he may still be trying to find himself. James Corden has combined variety and a Graham Norton-esque couch for all of the guests to sit and chat at once. Noah has tried to both embrace and shy away from Jon Stewart’s schtick with mixed results in his first few months behind the desk. Larry Wilmore brings a panel in to debate the topic at hand. Conan O’Brien is the same as always, but he’s at his best when he gets out of the studio. Bill Maher has been praised for Real Time for years, but oftentimes his achievements are overshadowed by his offensive and Islamophobic comments. Oliver has turned the explainer into an art, inspired real-life changes, and regularly got people to watch a 15-minute-plus informational video when the mere idea of it is an Onion punchline, which is a minor miracle in itself.

And Meyers? He’s a little harder to pin down. In the two years since he took over Late Night, he’s done something that nobody really expected: He turned it into a place people went to for their news, made a show that’s practically anti-late-night in every way, and become a terrific interviewer right under our nose and with the odds stacked against him. And with the 2016 election in full swing, it’s a hell of a time for him to to come into his own, too. But more people tune into Carpool Karaoke the morning after than will tune in for a thoughtful interview with a candidate.

Meyers is the late-night host we need right now, but not the one we deserve.

By the numbers

Just look at the stats.

The top 15 videos are a good indication of what every other hosts’ “thing” is. For Fallon you’ll find Lip Sync Battle (the segment, not the show) and Wheel of Musical Impressions; aside from a couple of buzzy interview clips and Kevin Hart riding a roller coaster, they all have a musical element or nostalgia. Same with Corden, whose top videos are almost exclusively Carpool Karaoke segments with the exception of two One Direction videos and a bit with Tom Hanks; his drive with Adele created the most viral video since 2013. Kimmel’s most successful videos are Mean Tweets, YouTube challenges, and the Captain America: Civil War trailer. Oliver has explainers, a majority dealing in American politics. O’Brien’s is a mix of remote segments and buzzy interview bits. (Both Noah and Wilmore’s clips are featured on Comedy Central’s YouTube channel, which is mixed with other shows like @midnight, Key and Peele, and Inside Amy Schumer.)

All of these hosts have dozens (some even hundreds) of videos with more than 1 million views. How many does Meyers have? Eighteen.

Michelle Jaworski

He’s got the fourth best ratings of late-night shows on broadcast channels behind Fallon, Colbert, and Kimmel (who all air an hour earlier than Meyers), according to the latest tally, but that’s not reflected at all in his online numbers. His show has the least amount of Facebook likes among the hosts in broadcast, even behind Corden; only The Nightly Show, which started nearly a year after Meyers’s Late Night, has lower numbers. He’s the only late-night host to have less than 500,000 YouTube subscribers.

And that’s even counting when Meyers plays the viral game: The majority of his top videos feature fellow Saturday Night Live alumni, such as a Maya Rudolph impression, a revival of a “Really?!” bit from his and Amy Poehler’s Weekend Update days, a Bill Hader SNL impression, or the Game of Thrones trivia game with Poehler and George R.R. Martin. His most popular segment is an example in line with what other shows are doing: a sketch about bringing Jon Snow to a dinner party. The other main one among his top 15 videos is a trailer for Boston accents.

But unlike the other hosts, his most popular videos aren’t as great of a showcase of what he does best.

Strong suit

Late Night has always been weird. Letterman first had the show in 1982. The show’s had three more hosts since then, and each one brought something to the table that nobody else in late-night TV was doing. With less of an audience watching—it started at 12:37am, after some of the earlier shows’ audiences went to bed—the hosts have a little more creative freedom. Just look at what Craig Ferguson did on The Late Late Show, Late Night’s main television rival for more than 20 years.

On any given episode of Late Night, you never know what you might see.

Letterman, noted even back in the ’80s to be an “acquired taste” for audiences, brought out gags and wasn’t afraid to drop the politeness with a guest—making fans of pretty much everyone who came after him in the process. O’Brien had recurring sketches and guests such as the Masturbating Bear, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, insulting countries just to see where he aired, and putting Abe Vigoda through everything. Even back when Fallon played those variety games on Late Night just a few years ago, they felt fresh; now it’s become the late-night standard.

On any given episode of Late Night, you never know what you might see. Celebrities will always come on to promote their latest film or TV show, but in between that you could get pretty much anything. With Meyers, they’ve become conversational in a style that Ferguson excelled at—and with a lack of notecards full of talking points.

Meyers semi-regularly talks to authors about their books on the show—and not just household names. The Wall Street Journal noted back in July that Late Night has “morphed into something of an intellectual salon” with Meyers sitting behind that desk because he brings in authors as well as celebrities and politicians.

Just a few weeks ago, Meyers had on Sana Amanat, Marvel’s director of content & character development and the editor of Ms. Marvel. He geeked out about Secret Wars, the comic event that essentially rebooted the entire Marvel comic universe, but the interview also wove in his strongest points: a guest with something to say, his grasp on politics, and his skills as an interviewer.

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The interviews in particular help showcase the platform where Meyers’s show does really well. Late Night has its own Tumblr, and many of those posts, which feature out-of-context soundbites and highlights from the show, regularly receive notes (a mix of likes and reblogs) in the hundreds, sometimes thousands—sometimes getting more than 10,000 notes. Once you include the rest of Tumblr, where anyone from from your average user to publications can take a couple of screengrabs or GIF a segment of Meyers to make a captivating, out-of-context post, that number can go into the thousands or tens of thousands; a conversation with David Tennant got more than 100,000 notes. The notes demonstrate that people are interested enough in what he has to say, even those who aren’t just fans of a particular actor or politician. The numbers just aren’t translating to YouTube success.

Political leanings

Meyers’s strength with the interview didn’t come right away. Early reviews of Late Night with Seth Meyers were mixed, and critics complained that Meyers’s monologue sounded more like something from Weekend Update than an actual monologue. Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen offered similar criticisms on the monologue in his review a month later, but praised his chemistry with his guests. “A talk-show host good at talking?” Jensen wrote. “Fancy that.”

Prior to getting Late Night, Meyers didn’t have experience in the genre. He hosted the Webby Awards twice, the ESPY Awards twice, and he was the keynote speaker at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But like many of the other hosts, he soon got into his groove. As Jensen posited, Meyers became a great interviewer, but while we weren’t watching, something else happened: He became a political force to be reckoned with.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Before hosting Late Night, Meyers was the head writer of SNL and anchored Weekend Update, where he often had to be on top of his political game. He’s a veteran of the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles, and he helped write one of SNL’s most iconic cold opens in the show’s modern era with Tina Fey and Poehler.

And his keynote at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner may not be as well-known or controversial as Colbert’s remarks made in-character back in 2006, but it still had plenty of bite to it. He spent a good chunk of his nearly 21-minute speech taking aim at Trump for his role in the birther movement.

Even his earlier days as host of Late Night indicated that politics were among the strongest weapons in his arsenal.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) came on the show last March, and for part of it Meyers let him defend himself against headlines claiming he scared a 3-year-old girl in New Hampshire. But Meyers didn’t let him off easy either, later challenging Cruz’s views on global warming and gay marriage.

A couple months later, he had on Carly Fiorina, who showed off some of her keenness by revealing she purchased (which still leads to Fiorina’s campaign site to this day); he’s also spoken to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The remaining presidential candidates in the race and politics are already late-night fodder, between the frequent monologue punches and the occasional guest appearances, and the hosts have gotten through it with varying degrees of success with an election that’s becoming nearly impossible to parody.

It’s in the 2016 presidential election cycle where Meyers has succeeded in ways that other shows with the experienced political-junkie host (Colbert’s The Late Show) or the shows geared toward political satire (Noah’s The Daily Show, The Nightly Show) have yet to achieve. And the best thing Meyers could’ve done to stand out from the rest was to sit down.

Taking a stand

As far as late-night news goes, it was pretty minor; it’s not like someone else announced a departure. But Seth Meyers doing a sit-down monologue, really?

On Aug. 10, Meyers opened his show with a monologue sitting down at his desk. He addressed the day’s headlines, like he did every night, but there were a couple of key differences. He wasn’t standing anymore—and the show used graphics to illustrate some of the stories he made jokes about.

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For longtime fans and observers of the format, it was practically unheard of; most late-night hosts have done standing monologues since Johnny Carson made it a staple on his Tonight Show. Aside from Noah, Wilmore, and Oliver (whose shows are satire more than specifically late-night), all of the other hosts do a standing monologue.

Meyers, who was going back to what he knew, certainly didn’t anticipate all of the reaction or think pieces that accompanied it.

“I’ve always felt comfortable at the desk,” Meyers told Grantland at the time. “I still do a lot of the show at the desk after the monologue, and it’s always been nice after the monologue to get back to the desk and sort of sit down and settle. In a weird way, we’re just moving that up five or six minutes.”

Six months later he’s still at that desk, and it’s been for the better.

From there, Meyers could launch into other segments like the one that finally put him on the map, A Closer Look. He’s done a few segments on the Dress, the Clintons’ finances, and the Patriot Act, but the recurring segment went largely unnoticed until he attacked Congress’s Planned Parenthood hearing with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.

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Collider already claimed that Meyers was the late-night successor to Letterman and Stewart back in June, but the comparisons became more pronounced as Vanity Fair called Meyers “the real heir to Jon Stewart” following the segment.

The Stewart claim resonated with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who brought up the comparison to Meyers when he interviewed him a week later, noting that he loved the political bits Late Night had started doing on a more regular basis. Meyers, for his part, doesn’t think that “anyone will be an heir to Stewart” but admitted his show did take inspiration from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

“I do think that Jon and Stephen did, in a way, present this idea that audiences will consume this kind of, sort of political news as comedy—to which I think a lot of people have picked up on and it’s really fun to do. But, I think when we started the show we had this idea, we’ll do a lot of politics, and the reality was we were a new show and we didn’t quite know the best way to pull it together. So we were doing one a month, and then we got into one every two weeks, and now we’re at a place where … we’re getting kinda adept at doing that. So hopefully, 3-4 days a week we can pull that off.”

Meyers covers the election—and especially Trump—in his politically driven segments, which is practically a requirement for late-night humor. But he’s also doing what Oliver told Colbert that everyone should be doing: discussing the issues instead of the personalities driving the headlines.

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Five more years

In most cases, if you have a show that’s great with only so-so or terrible ratings, it’s probably going to get canceled. While late-night TV is on a lower curve than the primetime lineup in terms of expectations, it still matters. It’s what got Arsenio Hall and Pete Holmes’s respective talk shows canceled in recent years, after all.

Late Night With Seth Meyers isn’t tailor-made to go viral and doesn’t always have a snappy title, like pretty much anything The Tonight Show puts out. Just watch the previews that appear on NBC in the morning: They’ll list the guests and games that Fallon plays, but Meyers’ guests sometimes don’t even get a full mention. And Meyers certainly doesn’t have a two-year anniversary special coming up, whereas NBC just put a two-hour special full of Tonight Show highlights out for Fallon on Valentine’s Day.

Meyers wasn’t exactly in danger of getting canceled, but it was still a bit of a surprise when NBC announced that it had extended his contract for five years, which is about on par with Fallon’s contract extension from August. Even if it doesn’t do well in every regard, it’s still good enough for NBC to invest in for the foreseeable future. It even led SiriusXM’s Ron Bennington to predict that Meyers will one day take over Lorne Michaels’s entertainment empire.

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Meyers is finally settling into his show that goes against the current grain of late-night TV, and he’s succeeding despite everything against him. It’s too early to determine whether his success will last beyond the 2016 election, which put him into the spotlight, but if the late-night hosts before him have proven, there will always be somebody’s fuck-up to mock and rip apart.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Feb 18, 2016, 9:00 am CST