Q: When is a sitdown a standup?
A: When Seth Meyers premieres as host of Late Night and takes his act out from behind the “Weekend Update” desk and moves it to center stage.
It was a much less of an auspicious debut for Late Night with Seth Meyers than Jimmy Fallon’s maiden Tonight Show voyage, even with a visit from Vice President “Crazy” Joe Biden (indeed, maybe the most notable part of the evening came from Amy Poehler, who utilized the opportunity to announce a second season renewal for Comedy Central’s Broad City). However, that it was a low-key evening was not a surprise, it was probably by design. In fact, whereas Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night distinguished itself for being the late night show for millennials, the first one crafted with YouTube and Twitter in mind, this iteration of Late Night might stand out for being something quite the opposite. And if it’s balance that Lorne Michaels’ late night lineup is after, then Meyers’ hour might bring it.
It’s foolhardy to judge the long-term success of a program based off of one show, or the first week of shows, or even the first moth, maybe even the first year. Conan O’Brien famously took some time to adjust, and Meyer’s predecessor Fallon slowly settled into his groove, and even after his promotion he still struggles mightily as an interviewer. So it was both no surprise and no cause for alarm that Meyers’ first outing left much room for improvement. His monologue, something that likewise remains a weak spot in Fallon’s arsenal, felt awkward, unnatural, and Meyers seemed uncomfortable finding his mark on the studio floor instead of behind a newsdesk. Indeed, leading up the premiere, we wondered if Meyers should dispense with the traditional stand-up monologue all together and just do it all from the desk, Daily Show style. However, after seeing what we feel is a beautiful, vibrant studio with distinctive sliding doors in place of curtains, we’re rethinking that sentiment; the setting is right, it’s just the style, subject and delivery that needs some work. More topical, pop-culture and current event setups, less obscure, strange-but-true stories. Similarly, his first desk piece, “Venn Diagrams,” had promise, but quickly lost momentum, and had little to separate itself from a Buzzfeed slideshow. We applaud the concept, but it needs more. Or less, like some cheap, low-concept Late Show segments. But, unfortunately, it was caught between a throwaway sight gag and entertaining, clever wordplay. What it maybe missed most was more of Meyers himself.
Which is where the show might need to go to find its sweet-spot. Meyers’ strength, as opposed to Fallon, is interviewing, is engaging with his guests in a way that’s neither fanboy nor sycophant. It was for precisely that skill that he was considered as a replacement for Regis Philbin on Live!, and it’s that ability he needs to exploit, even if, in the current talk show landscape, traditional interviewing is something that seems to be reserved for Charlie Rose. Perhaps, then, it is not any of Meyers’ Late Night forebears that he should strive to emulate, but Tom Snyder, whose Tomorrow Show was the precursor to Late Night with David Letterman. While we’re far from suggesting that Meyers dispense with the live audience, only interview one guest per show and take up smoking, emphasizing a more straightforward format – interesting, revealing interviews that allow for both Meyers’ and his guest’s personalities to shine through – might make the most sense, might allow Late Night with Seth Meyers to find its own voice. In fact, the new Late Night set itself – a sparse, almost teacher-like desk, and 70s style chairs instead of a plush couch – evokes the feeling of The Dick Cavett Show, another early talker that stressed insightful interviews over bits and punchlines. If Jimmy Fallon is the cutting-edge, high-energy, internet-savvy model at 11:30pm, then Meyers can be the more relaxed, subtler throwback at 12:30pm. He might need to go back, if he wants to stay late.
And, if Meyers focuses on those things, then he can leave the fun stuff to Fred Armisen.