A CLOSER LOOK
How President Donald Trump Made Seth Meyers Great Again
The host of ‘Late Night’ tells The Daily Beast how Donald Trump’s presidency has transformed his show and reveals his dream guest from the administration.
When people started calling Seth Meyers the “real heir” to Jon Stewart after he had been on the air for little more than a year, it felt like a bit of a stretch. Not anymore.
Day after day, the host of NBC’s Late Night has been delivering in-depth, up-to-the-minute coverage of the Trump presidency, managing to be both incisive and hilarious at the same time. In the same way Stewart became George W. Bush’s main comedic foil during the 43rd president’s tenure, Meyers has taken the reins to become 45’s most tenacious critic, starting with the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech that may have spurred Trump to run in the first place.
Meyers’ transition from long-serving Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live to the fourth Late Night host, in an impressive chain of succession that went from David Letterman to Conan O’Brien to Jimmy Fallon before him, wasn’t exactly smooth. Never quite comfortable delivering a traditional stand-up monologue, he drew headlines by making the controversial decision to sit down. From that confident position behind his desk, he was free to start regularly delivering longform segments that take “A Closer Look” at the day’s biggest political stories. Those pieces have quickly evolved into late-night television’s most damning commentaries on the Trump White House.
They have also helped him achieve much-needed online relevance. In his first two and a half years on the air, Meyers rarely had a segment top 2 million views on YouTube. Since Trump took office, his “A Closer Look” segments are consistently breaking the 3 million-view mark, and the sobering monologue he delivered the night after Trump’s victory has been seen more than 7 million times. Those numbers dwarf the approximately 1.5 million people who tune in to see his show live at 12:35 a.m. every night.
“It is crazy to me that I started doing this in 2014 and now I’m one of the people who’s been doing it the longest,” Meyers tells The Daily Beast by phone from his office at 30 Rock, on the same floor where he has worked for the past 16 years straight. “I did not get to be the new guy for very long at all.”
When we speak, the deadline for Emmy voting is just days away, and soon the nominees for the increasingly competitive Outstanding Variety Talk Series—an award for which his show has never been nominated—will be announced. From Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to Samantha Bee and John Oliver, there is no shortage of late-night comedy that takes aim at Trump. But by focusing his energy almost entirely on the most objectively entertaining president in American history, he has often managed to rise above the rest.
We’re talking at 3 p.m. on a Thursday. At this point in the day, how much of tonight’s show is set in stone?
Ideally all of it. You know, we have more than we need right now. We bring in a test audience of people in the building and we’ll read some of the jokes and we’ll do a long version of “A Closer Look” for them. At this point, in a perfect world what we’ll be doing is trimming as opposed to adding. But these days so much happens that I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few things that end up going in based on stuff that happens in the next couple of hours.
Yeah, I mean just a couple of hours ago, Trump was tweeting about how he didn’t make tapes of James Comey, so is that something that you’re watching and trying to get into tonight’s show?
I imagine that that is something that will fall into the monologue, whereas we’ve been trying to make an effort, especially in the last week or so, to really drill down on health care. Because that will have more real world effects on people than the Trump white noise that comes out every day. And sometimes I think we’re as guilty as anybody else of focusing on the insanity of the minutiae of the Trump world. So on a night like tonight, I’m sure we’ll have it—we want to cover that tapes comment as well, but our biggest thing is going to be health care tonight.
Five months into the Trump presidency you are doing at least three if not four “A Closer Look” segments a week, each more than 10 minutes long. How do you decide which topics deserve that level of attention?
You know, what we’ve found now is that Monday is sort of just here’s what happened over the course of the weekend. We’ve found it’s silly to try to plan for Monday because so much more happens in the course of a weekend than historically has happened before in an administration. We had a sense that health care was coming, so that will both our Wednesday and Thursday. So you try to prepare for things that you think are important but the reality is we kind of end up chasing—not unlike everybody else who’s doing this these days—we chase the Trump administration wherever they lead us.
Those segments in particular are now regularly being seen by millions more people on YouTube than watch your show live on NBC. Why do you think they have connected so strongly online?
I’m more delighted than in a position to say this is exactly what we knew would happen. From the very beginning, we’ve been so happy that people have this attention span to stick with these 10, 12-minute pieces that we do pretty much every night. Even after the election, we thought people now are maybe going to want more escapism and aren’t going to want to hear about what’s going on in the world. Because it’s all a little bit depressing, particularly to our audience. And yet the engagement, which you see not just in what people are watching on YouTube the next day, but what people are doing with their lives post-Trump’s election, is inspiring—that people are engaging with the world politically at a time where I think it’s important that they do so. And I think what we found and what we really like doing is, if you have enough information in a piece, people will stick around for all of it. I don’t think there are many 12-minute comedy pieces out there that people would stick with. I certainly remember my time at SNL, even something that was crushing, you could feel the audience fading out after five or six minutes. So again, if you actually put some calories in there, then people will give you their attention.
You mentioned that your audience might be more depressed than usual these days. But I have noticed you’ve been taking aim at Democrats a bit more recently, especially around Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia. Is that an attempt at balance or do you have real frustrations in that direction as well?
Well, look, I think the Democratic Party is not doing much that’s particularly inspiring. But at the same time, Democrats being bad at winning elections right now is not really having the same kind of effect on our lives as the party that is in power—not just in the White House but in both houses of Congress. So when we’re trying to write about what’s important, it’s just naturally going to be about the party that’s in power. With that said, we don’t think the Democratic Party is particularly strong right now as far as not just results but also messaging, and if there’s a plan as far as what they’re going to do moving forward, it’s not particularly clear to us. And if there’s ever a time to take a breath from what’s coming out of the White House every day, that’s something we’d love to talk about.
Over the past year, you’ve been doing a segment called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” in which writers from your staff who aren’t straight, white men say things you wouldn’t be comfortable saying. Can you talk about why it was important for you to give them a voice in this way?
The one thing I’ll say is it only came out of being lucky enough to have a diverse staff. And so the idea was pitched by Amber [Ruffin] and Jenny [Hagel] during one of our sketch meetings and I was mostly drawn to it because I knew right away that it would be really funny. It was a really interesting way to talk about how the messenger sometimes has as much to do with the message [as the message itself]. For us, it’s just really fun to be out there and do a piece that we wouldn’t in any way, shape or form be able to do if we were just a bunch of white guys at this show. We’re stuck with a white guy as a host—obviously, there’s nothing we can do about that.
Yeah, I think it’s possible that segments like that one have helped you avoid the type of controversy that someone like Stephen Colbert had to deal with not too long ago. What did you think when you saw the right calling for him to be fired for a joke he made about the president?
You know, look, I think there’s so much hypocrisy. I think it probably goes both ways. I don’t want to just throw half the country under the bus. Things that we would let people we agree with get away with, we have no interest in letting the other side get away with. So I found it pretty disingenuous that anyone was asking for someone to be fired over that comment. It wasn’t something that I took particularly seriously, the idea that Stephen Colbert’s job was at risk over that comment. And I’m glad I didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about it, because obviously that turned out to be the case.
But did it make you think at all about the types of jokes that you tell about the president? Because Trump spoke out against Colbert, he’s spoken out against SNL. Is that something you’re worried about?
We take this job seriously. And I know it’s weird to be serious about comedy, but we do talk about taste all the time. Now, we probably reach a place as far as where our taste lies that is distasteful to others, but we don’t approach those decisions cheaply. And again, we have a staff of people that can feel free to speak up and say if they think something’s over the line or offensive in a way that would not have occurred to me based on who I am. So we have conversations like that all the time. But as for making fun of the president, we’re obviously dealing with a person who has so lowered the bar of what is considered presidential discourse that the idea that we all have to be unimpeachable in the way that we treat him is a joke.
You’ve been saying a lot recently that the guest you most want to have on is Sean Spicer. What makes you want to interview him so badly?
Just the level of difficulty in what he has to do. I feel like every day they say, Sean, you have to go put out that fire. And they hand him a grapefruit. To be sent out for a job where the one thing you’re guaranteed to get in his position is questions, and to go out every day without answers is—I don’t know, it feels like some sort of Greek myth about a man who is tasked with this impossible thing to try to accomplish. We had Nicolle Wallace on last night—certainly a Republican who is easier to talk to and has more reasonable positions than a lot who are currently serving in office. And she made the point, which is true, that you don’t have sympathy for people who take jobs where they knew what the job was going to be. But at the same time, I don’t say, “I have no sympathy for you, that job is easy.” It’s more, “I have no sympathy for you because you took an impossible job.” With that said, I have so many questions about the logistics of it. So much has been written this year about how comedy shows have to scramble at the last minute. He has to do that to such a larger degree than we do.
Do you think he was scared off by your interview with Kellyanne Conway?
I don’t know. You know, we try really hard to get Republicans on our show. And it’s really hard. The ones you can get on your show are the ones who have been vocally anti-Trump. So you can get Senator John McCain and you can get Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Ben Sasse, but it’s really hard to get Republicans who want to talk about themselves, but know that ultimately I’m going to ask them to defend the actions of Donald Trump. Kellyanne Conway, that’s her job. I feel like she was willing to do it. And maybe Sean Spicer would because it’s his job as well. I hope that Kellyanne Conway feels that she was treated decently when she was here. I don’t feel like there was any sense of trying to trick her or have her here under false pretenses. So, you know, maybe Sean Spicer would come, but I really doubt it.
You’ve also talked about how the fact that you have a live audience worked to your benefit with somebody like Kellyanne in way that isn’t there on many of the news shows she’s been on. Why do you think that is?
This is why I have an appreciation that Kellyanne Conway came here. It was an away game for her. She had to know that coming in. And I made a point before the show to talk to our audience about the importance of treating all of our guests with respect—even the ones we don’t agree with—because it’s really nice to have conversations with people you don’t agree with. I think that’s the kind of discourse you don’t see on television enough. You see people who disagree with each other yelling at each other on TV all the time, but we try really hard to just have a conversation. And the thing about having an audience, though, is there are things that Kellyanne Conway says that just feel like punchlines. Because to defend Donald Trump is to say things that are as good as any joke in a stand-up’s act. So the audience appreciates the skill of that in a way that makes them vocally laugh and that of course takes away the weight of whatever point she’s trying to make.
I know you’ve talked about Trump’s Tonight Show appearance a bit and probably aren’t eager to criticize Jimmy Fallon. But I’m curious how you would have approached that interview differently had you been given the opportunity just a couple of months before the election.
I think it’s very unfair to people who did interview him to say how I would have done it, being able to look back with hindsight, knowing now that he is president and not just a joke candidate that was going to get crushed when the election came. That was an opinion that a lot of people shared. The only thing I’d say is that we have some history. I think I would have wanted to go back and talk about that. I certainly would have wanted to ask him if it was true that—maybe not mine—but if President Obama’s jokes were one of the reasons he wanted to run for president. And the thing is, there is something about Donald Trump that does represent what is good about America to a lot of people. He presents himself as this self-made man. And I think that when we think about people who come here from other countries, one of the reasons why they come here is that people like Donald Trump can exist. They want that kind of life and they want the kinds of things that he has. And I would have wanted to just ask him why he is going so out of his way to demonize people that actually probably look up to him. And look up to the idea of what he means.
Yeah, I mean, there’s a scenario in which he could have run a much nicer campaign and still won.
Sure. Because at the end of the day, I think a lot of the people who voted for him were just Republicans who were holding their nose. And they would have had to hold their nose less if he had been a little more decent.
Can you imagine a scenario in which Trump comes on your show? And would you have him at this point?
Our “ban” on Donald Trump was always tongue-in-cheek. I wouldn’t want to pass up the opportunity to get the chance to talk to him. With that said, I think this idea that there’s this great interview with Donald Trump out there that hasn’t happened yet, where someone pins him down and he has a moment of introspection and all of a sudden you see in his eyes that “this isn’t the man that I wanted to be, and I was led astray by my own desperate need for positive reinforcement”… But I don’t imagine a scenario where he comes on the show. I think he probably thinks that a show that’s on at 12:30 is beneath him. [Laughs] And I bet he would have a lot of things that he would want me to agree to that we wouldn’t agree to. You know, “I’ll come if he apologizes” sort of stuff.
Do you ever think about what your show would look like right now if Donald Trump had lost the election?
We had so many conversations leading up to the election, mostly because we thought Hillary would win and no matter what you think about her, it’s hard to imagine that her administration wouldn’t be more conventional than this one. If Hillary had won, it was going to be a conventional presidency. And so much of the material we’re getting right now is due to the unconventional nature of the Trump presidency. So we had conversations about how we’re probably going to have to shift away from the lunacy of this election, which was basically 18 months leading up to November. And then that all went out the window. I think we still were going to try to do “Closer Looks,” but we assumed they’d be a little bit more about policy and things that were happening that weren’t day-to-day things coming out of the White House. But fortunately, our show, as many episodes as we’ve done, there’s an agility we have in being able to shift to what’s happening. And the other thing is, I don’t think the moment we’re having right now—I certainly am hoping this is not the permanent state of American politics, so at some point our show will have to shift as well, when this comes to a close.
Despite all of the last-minute changes that you’ve probably had to make over the last few months, do you feel like Trump’s presidency has made your job easier as a late-night comedian?
It’s weird when people say “this must be great for you” about the Trump presidency. I feel it’s like being a gravedigger in the Middle Ages and people saying, “God this plague must be so good for business.” You want to make sure that you’re not pumping your fist at everything that’s going on, because it’s obviously having such negative consequences for so many people. With that said, your fear of doing a show every day, one of the nagging fears is that you just won’t have enough content. That has been replaced with so many other fears for me, presently, but that is not something I come in every day worrying about now.