TV Debut

02.25.14

Seth Meyers Gets Off to a Rocky Start on 'Late Night'

Seth Meyers's first episode of 'Late Night' wasn't boring. Amy Poehler and Joe Biden were his first guests, after all. But he still has a long way to go before he fits in on late night.

Isn't it disorienting when you see someone from your "weekend life" during the week?

You know what I mean. Maybe the bartender from your Saturday night haunt is in line in front of you at Panera on Wednesday's lunch break. Perhaps your pastor is at the next table at Applebee's. The crazy club chick from that crazy club is at the bank—and completely sober. Or, maybe, your favorite Saturday Night Live Weekend Update host is now on your TV screen on a weeknight.

Seth Meyers, debuting his first episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers, had a few missions to accomplish when we ran into him on Monday night. He had to live up to the legacy of late night's golden boy, Jimmy Fallon, who hosted the time slot before he did. He had to prove that Fallon's reign isn't a fluke, that late night really can be a home for the affable and good-natured. And, most importantly, he had to show that the acute and observant brand of humor he displayed for 12 and a half years on Saturday Night Live, many of those years spent as head writer and host of Weekend Update, translates to the late-night talk show format.

Mission only sort of accomplished.

It's not entirely Meyers's fault that his first go wasn't a slam-dunk. We're partly to blame, too, what with our insistence on compartmentalizing the people in our lives. Meyers, for many of us, is still firmly in that "Saturday night and bummed because we don't have better plans than to watch SNL half-asleep while a half-eaten pint of Ben & Jerry's melts on the coffee table" compartment. Seeing him on Monday night was just plain weird.

You learn crazy things about people when seeing them at times you're not used to. Like, for example, you learn that Seth Meyers has legs. This is a thing!  Many people who said that Seth Meyers hosting Late Night would be just like Seth Meyers hosting Weekend Update did not account for the fact that it is actually quite jarring to see Seth Meyers walk out and deliver his Weekend Update-y like monologue standing up, not from behind a desk. With legs! Lots of things about Meyers's debut are going to take getting used to. Seeing his legs, as it turns out, is one of them.

You learn other things about a weekend friend when you run into them during the week, like maybe you and that friend were meant to just be weekend friends; that maybe you really weren't meant to hang out during the week at all, but were better off being just weekend buddies. For the first half of Late Night With Seth Meyers, that's what it seemed the fate of our relationship with Meyers would be.

Meyers's opening monologue, as we all suspected, was Weekend Update on a week night. Ostensibly, that should be fine. Weekend Update is mostly funny, and the one-liners Meyers delivered, with that same sly effortlessness he used on SNL, were mostly funny on Late Night. "Well the Winter olympics in Sochi came to an end last night, so for the next four years if you go skiing with a rifle on your back, you're just a crazy person," he opened with, garnering some solid yucks. "The brassiere turns 100 years old this week. So does the only person who still calls it a brassiere," also got a good response. Solid jokes.

But the thing about Weekend Update is that it's scrappy. SNL has this hectic vibe, forgiven by all of us because we know that it's been, implausibly, somehow, cobbled together in just a week. The jokes are just solid and not perfect because they didn't have time to be anything more. A weeknight talk show, however, is a different animal. We expect more than solid. We expect perfection, or at the very least polish. With all of the hype leading up to Meyers's debut on Late Night, it was disappointing that his opening monologue was scrappy. That it was just OK. That it lacked that polish.

Meyers still has a way to go if he wants to make his new weeknight gig must-see daily viewing.

His attempts at bits (every late night show must have bits, after all) stemmed from clever ideas, particularly one where sports like basketball and wrestling were narrated using figure skating's soft-spoken, muted color commentators. But all of the bits suffered from one fatal flaw, and it's a bad one. They all garnered, several jokes in, a "Oh, this segment is still going…" reaction—proof that they lacked the pizzazz and fun of those brilliant Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel bits that so frequently go viral.

On his own, Meyers was merely OK, especially considering that Fred Armisen, who leads Late Night's house band, was such a nonentity. Then Amy Poehler came on and everything was just splendid.

The two played off each other magnificently. Their conversation was effortless, funny. It was like two old friends talking—because it was two old friends talking—with the added benefit that the two old friends were funnier than everyone else in the world and boasted non-manufacturable chemistry. It proved another thing that many of us expected from Meyers as a late night host: that given a friendly face, particularly one who was game for fun and silliness, he would be a highly entertaining interviewer.

His second guest was Vice President Joe Biden, or, as Poehler calls him, "gorgeous charm monster Joe Biden." The charm monster was on a rampage. Meyers couldn't ask for two better first guests, something that Poehler was quick to remind him. They were easy, she said. "I"m worried how you're going to handle someone who's kind of a difficult guest."

It's an excellent point, as we still, really, have yet to see exactly what kind of late night host Meyers is going to be. Poehler and Biden? They were soft balls. Here's hoping that Meyers will go for something a bit harder. Because here's the thing: late night already has one ceaselessly enthusiastic host. Jimmy Fallon's uncontainable glee is a welcome respite from late night's usual smarm and snark, but that's Fallon's thing. It's the same way wryness and jadedness is Dave Letterman's thing, good-natured dickishness is Jimmy Kimmel's thing, and utter lunacy is Craig Ferguson's thing.

Seth Meyers still doesn't have a thing. But he has the potential for a good one. He has the potential to complicate the unfailing friendliness of Jimmy Fallon by peppering in a little bite. Wasn't that, after all, what made Meyers's work on SNL so great? The danger and naughtiness that the weekend allows for and that we all hoped he'd bring over to week nights?

It's fitting that Joe Biden was one of Meyers's first guests, too, because he highlighted the other thing that sets Meyers apart from his new contemporaries: his political comedy acumen. How often have we seen late night hosts eviscerate politicians with low-ball monologue jokes, only to pander and roll out the red carpet for fawning, easy interviews when they visit their shows? Meyers is in a unique position. He's lampooned all of these politicians—quite smartly, too—on SNL. He delivered a spectacular roast at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

He has a history of sending these guys up to their faces, for calling no bullshit in person. There were hints of that guy with that talent Monday night, when Meyers mocked Biden's histrionics at the State of the Union Address. How great would it be if he ramped it up?

The most concerning thing about Meyers's Late Night debut, however, was that its biggest asset was its biggest concern. Amy Poehler was just about the best first guest a new host could ask for. Knowing that, Meyers took full advantage of her. She pretty much co-hosted the second half of his show. Sitting next to Joe Biden, her interjections were the funniest parts of his interview. Her own segment might as well have been on her own show for the epic way she just started riffing and entertaining us all, Meyers not necessary.

Still, Meyers has that nice guy enthusiasm you can't resist; the kind that, even if you are alarmed to see him when or in a way you least expect to—like on weeknights, or with legs—you can't help but want to run into him again. For now, though, that's all we may want: occasional run-ins. Meyers still has a way to go if he wants to make his new weeknight gig must-see daily viewing.