There are a couple important things to keep in mind when watching Late Night With Seth Meyers. The most important is how dramatically the late-night TV landscape has changed since the last time there was a new host of Late Night, Jimmy Fallon in March 2009. Fallon’s entry felt like a breath of fresh air almost by default, considering that the previous host, Conan O’Brien, had held the timeslot for 16 years. O’Brien’s (extremely) slow start on The Tonight Show was forgivable, and no matter what, in comparison to Jay Leno, he always seemed incredibly cutting-edge.
Meyers is entering a much more crowded arena that is hardly chomping at the bit for the show he’s providing: another SNL alum, another white guy, another Lorne Michaels-produced swing at the decades-old talk-show format. With Fallon doing his well-versed shtick at 11:30, is there really much need for Late Night With Seth Meyers? Especially with Conan O’Brien and Pete Holmes staking out their ground at TBS, Chris Hardwick’s @midnight expanding Comedy Central’s late-night imprint, and Arsenio Hall plugging away in syndication. None of that was happening in 2009, but with the expansion of the competition and opportunity for catching up on clips the next day online, Meyers will have to shout a lot louder to have his voice heard.
The deck is stacked against him pretty heavily; at the same time, it’s always been hard to feel much sympathy for Seth Meyers. On Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, his delivery was pointed and a little aloof, in a good way—reminiscent of Dennis Miller or Chevy Chase on his best weeks. For ongoing bits, like Stefon holding a torch for him, he was always an impeccable straight man, nothing more. Meyers is working to get rid of some of that bulletproof sheen on Late Night, sharing winning personal anecdotes every day from behind the desk that have a definite stand-up comedy feel to them.
It’s a slightly odd choice, considering the behind-the-desk anecdotes are always preceded by, essentially, a carbon copy of Meyers’ Weekend Update/ “what’s in the news” jokes, presented as a stand-up monologue to open the show. Now, it’s hardly surprising that Late Night begins with a topical monologue. So many of Meyers’ new peers, like Conan and Fallon, have been locked into that formula their whole late-night careers. But, as many other reviewers have also pointed out, it’s time for the monologue to go, or at least get radically transformed.
More than anything, Meyers was arguably hired because he’s such a pro at delivering quippy one-liners about dumb people in Florida. But it’s amazing what a difference a desk makes. The producers should get him behind that desk right away if they want to start the show with a monologue. Meyers could come out and do more personal, relatable stand-up—Pete Holmes is trying that approach right now on his TBS show—but it’s hard to know how that would look, especially since it’s just the first week and Meyers is still shaking off obvious nerves.
That’s fully understandable and forgivable. Fallon looked like he was having a cardiac event his first month on Late Night, and tales of Conan’s shakiness in his opening weeks are practically inscribed on stone tablets at this point. Meyers will settle in to the formulaic parts of this job quickly enough—he’s a pro, and it shows. But it’s doubtful that will make his show something that’s worth watching every night.
There are other features, however, that offer more than a glimmer of hope. Fred Armisen is a surprising choice as bandleader, but he brings unequaled improv chops to the table, and his little banter with Seth every night has already proven one of the more reliably funny bits. Integrating him as much as possible is certainly a smart idea. Meyers, like Fallon, is also a more-than-capable interviewer who drew a surprising amount from the guarded Kanye West on the Tuesday night show. Much like Holmes, Meyers should be allowed to pick his guests as much as possible—the better he knows them, the more fun he has, and he clearly knows a lot of people from his years on SNL.
Late Night With Seth Meyers is also promising to feature panel segments with fictional characters, something that’s less prominent on late-night TV these days and definitely needs to come back in force. A segment with writer John Lutz on Thursday was the best thing the show had done so far; tapping other members of the show’s amazing writing staff (Conner O’Malley, Alison Agosti, Alex Baze, Seth Reiss, and Chioke Nassor) will surely pay dividends.
Luckily for Meyers, like his predecessor, he will be given a long grace period to figure things out. The somewhat staid set (which probably needs a window) can get some tweaks. Maybe spend a little less time on the monologue and a little more on sketches and other character work. The strike against Late Night With Seth Meyers right now is not that it’s a trainwreck—far from it. Everyone on board here is a total pro. The challenge is for this show to distinguish itself from the pack. It has the resources, now it just needs a little fearlessness.