Last week, Seth Meyers sat down. It’s one of the greatest things he’s done in his career.
The Late Night With Seth Meyers host bucked decades of late-night TV tradition when he scrapped the usual opening monologue, delivered to the camera while standing, and instead sat behind his desk to deliver jokes in a manner more like his Weekend Update days on Saturday Night Live than any of his contemporaries’ monologue styles.
It’s a mundane distinction, sure, but it’s important, first of all, because of its slyly revolutionary nature but also because it showcased Meyers far better than any of his previous 250 or so monologues delivered while standing had ever managed to do.
Plus, these days Meyers could use a rest.
Not only is he hosting his nightly talk show, he co-created—with Fred Armisen and Bill Hader—and is executive-producing Documentary Now, a wonderfully weird new comedy premiering on IFC Thursday night. It’s a Masterpiece Theatre-style parody of iconic documentaries in which, for each episode, Helen Mirren introduces a fake documentary that keen-eyed cinephiles will notice are meticulous, spot-on comedy homages to very real films.
Thursday’s premiere, for example, sends up Grey Gardens with Armisen and Hader doing their own versions of Big and Little Edie, respectively, the result being a hilarious TV series that falls in the middle of the spectrum between extended SNL sketch and full-blown mockumentary.
And in addition to Late Night and Documentary Now, Meyers is also celebrating his fourth straight year of being bullied by Donald Trump, spurred by Meyers’s spectacular and spectacularly brutal takedown of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Another election cycle later, Meyers is still one of Trump’s favorite “losers.”
Ahead of Documentary Now’s premiere, we chatted with Meyers about his unabashed love for Grey Gardens, Trump, being called late-night’s next political kingmaker, and, of course, sitting down. Which he was at the time.
This past week you’ve been talking about Donald Trump. Does it get exhausting?
At first that was a concern. I remember the first Sarah Palin sketch we wrote in 2008, always the fear was, “Oh, we’re going to have to keep doing these.” That said, that was a much shorter cycle. That was just from September to an election. Now we’re talking about another 300-plus days to the election. In general, we certainly can see exhaustion being an issue. Not for us, but for the audience. Right now, based on the amount of people who tuned in to that debate, he’s still fascinating to people who care about that sort of thing. At some point, we’ll start having Democratic debates, which will give more material. It is amazing how important the debates are to remind people that this has started.
Four years ago you sort of already dropped the mic on Trump jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Now these years later you’re still making jokes about Donald Trump.
I think the nice thing is that Donald Trump never worries that calling people a loser will get old. When you look back two or three months ago on the show, I was very much taking the position that he wasn’t going to run and this was a cry for attention. I’d be lying if I pretended that I saw this coming. I did really think 2012 was the end of it. I think I wasn’t alone among comedians who had a fun time with him then. He’s back, and in an era where the most popular show is The Walking Dead, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Because you have the platform of your show, do you consider it a duty or an obligation to point out that things Trump says are ridiculous and shouldn’t be taken seriously, especially since there are people who are taking him seriously?
Again, I think the level of difficulty is always higher for people calling out other people who are being taken seriously. At the end of the day I think everybody only has to take seriously that Donald Trump is at the top of the polls without ever having to take Donald Trump seriously. The bigger challenge is when you’re looking at more conventional candidates who the media deems serious people. You can still be ridiculous without being Donald Trump-level ridiculous. I think that was why Jon Stewart got the level of send-off that he got. For so many years he wasn’t just taking on the Donald Trumps of the world. It was people who were more respected that he managed to take down.
A recent New York magazine article said that in the absence of The Daily Show you’re now the “political kingmaker” in late night.
I would never use that term about myself. While that article has given my writers a delightful term to tease me with, I think there are so many people from John Oliver to Larry Wilmore to I’m sure Trevor Noah, who I think is an excellent choice to replace Jon. It’s nice to be in this group of people who use politics as much as other stuff to tell jokes. I am very confident that no one person is going to replace what Jon Stewart did.
Documentary Now is super weird. How did this idea even come about?
When Fred and Bill were on SNL I wrote a sketch with Fred called “History of Punk” where he played a punk rocker from the ’70s and ’80s named Ian Rubbish and the joke was that Ian was the only punk rocker who loved Margaret Thatcher. Part of pulling the sketch together was that Fred wrote songs that were super accurate to the style and Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas, who direct Documentary Now, went above and beyond to make all the footage look hyper accurate to what archival footage from that era would look like. It wasn’t super jokey as much as it was trying very hard to look true to the era and true to that style of filmmaking. It was a sketch we were really happy with. Bill was in it and was wonderful in it, and I remember afterwards he brought up the idea that this would be a fun show to do. Like a show that went out to try to mimic documentary styles and aim for accuracy and try to find the humor in the performance and the style more than being the classical mockumentary, which would be a little more joke-based.
Something like Sandy Passage. It’s a parody of Grey Gardens so funny and spot-on that it can really only be made by someone with the love and appreciation for Grey Gardens of a 40-year-old gay man. How did you do this so perfectly?
I’ll put my 41-year-old straight man’s adoration of Grey Gardens against yours. With comedy you pick something that you want to take the air out of to write a sketch about. Our approach was very different for this. We wanted the subject matter to be things we really loved. When we talking about specific documentaries we liked and styles we liked, it was as easy as mentioning how much we love Grey Gardens. And then your second thought after that is the very idea of Bill and Fred playing those characters, which brings an immediate delight.
They really are delightful.
I really feel like they’re both such wonderful actors, which I feel like for a lot of comedians gets sort of lost. For writing it, I had seen it multiple times before, but in the span of like two days I watched Grey Gardens four or five times—just to become very familiar with the rhythms with which they talked. As you can tell by watching it, Bill and Fred did the same to perform as them. There’s nothing camp about their performance in Sandy Passage, which I like. It’s done with a lot of love and care.
What was it like to see them transformed into those characters? I can’t imagine.
Because of the schedule, it was the first time in my life that I wrote something that I wasn’t on set for. All three of us are always sort of bouncing to what our other jobs and commitments were. So I couldn’t—as someone who just had written something—demand that they shoot it on an off week. So I would just see stills of them and it was so exciting to know that they looked that way. I think Fred had always, over the course of his time on SNL and Portlandia, played women in a completely different way than people have in the past. There’s nothing sort of Monty Python or arch about it. Mind you, Monty Python, the arch way they played women I love. Fred does it in a different way. He just plays women like that’s the character he’s asked to play. Bill does the same.
Helen Mirren doing the intro for each episode is spot-on for the Masterpiece Theater vibe. How did you get her for this? I imagine she’s a busy lady.
She is. She was doing a Broadway show for which she was nominated for a Tony [The Audience] when we grabbed her on a Monday. I wish you could see the incredibly long list of people we categorized as British Actors With Gravitas we were talking about for the part. All three of us were around when Helen hosted SNL so we all met her. I’m about as big of a Helen Mirren fan as you can possibly be because of Prime Suspect. I saw her at this event and we were talking about how much she loves Portlandia and how much she loves Fred in Portlandia and I saw that as a window of opportunity. I remember that night saying, “You are going to receive a phone call about another Fred Armisen project and I hope that you will remember the kind things you said about him tonight.”
It’s so perfect.
Again, it’s a very dumb idea for a TV show done with a lot of love and care. To get someone with such class and talent to recognize “oh this is dumb, I am on board” is all we could ask for.
You’re in the news a lot this past week because you sat down. Are you surprised by the reaction?
Yeah. I mean I thought people would notice, I didn’t think they’d care this much. I think what’s more important is that we had these two weeks that finished up our summer before we come back in September. I’ve always recognized it as a time when we could experiment and try new things. More important than the attention it’s gotten we feel like we’ve found something that’s very comfortable for me and we like. I think we’ll make it a permanent feature of the show.
From a TV reporter’s standpoint, it’s like, “Of course this works.” But it is still a “revolutionary” act.
I think this is a question more for you than me, but I wonder if I had started doing it right after, because again I had three weeks from my last update. One of the reasons we never considered it when I first started was a personal fear that it would look so much like a crutch. Like me saying, “Hey, I know that I got this new show, but this is what I’ve been doing and I’m going to continue to do it.” So maybe I didn’t need to wait the full 250 shows before we shifted over to it, but I do think it was important for me at least to not go from one to the other without trying it out.
Doing the monologue standing broke your own mold, but sitting down actually broke the traditional mold of late-night TV.
The second mold is far more interesting to people than my own personal journey. [Laughs]
I think it is.
You’ve talked about how when you sat down it was a move that separated you from your late-night contemporaries. So there’s an acknowledging of needing to stand out, but you’re also very kind about your competitors and in general there seems to be far less ruthless competition in late-night now than there used to be.
I think anybody who succeeds in late-night has to focus so much more on what they are doing than what anybody else is doing. I don’t think anybody succeeded by saying, “What’s open for me to take advantage of?” I think it’s far more important to say, “What is it that I’m good at?” In a weird way, doing these shows you can’t not have respect for other people who are doing them, because you have an understanding of what’s put in and what it takes out of you. I recently ran into Larry [Wilmore] and John [Oliver] and there’s nothing nicer than having the chance to talk to those people about putting together a show. Immediately we ask, “What time do you get in and what time do you go home?” [Laughs] I think we all want to make sure if somebody is working harder than us we want to know.
We’ve been talking a lot about the election. Who would you love to have on the show and maybe have a conversation with that ends up being meaningful?
It’s really interesting. Another thing I have so much respect for Jon Stewart for is that it’s really hard to interview politicians, because they are so good at staying on message. They more often than not will answer the question they want you to have asked rather than the question you really asked. They can move it there really seamlessly before you notice that it happened. Going forward, nothing would make me happier than having a Hillary or a Jeb on the show. It’s probably wishful thinking to think that Donald Trump will be sitting to my right. I think the reason people who say, “Yeah, I’d vote for him,” in polls is the same reason I’d be happy to have him on my talk show, because he would make a better talk show guest than anyone else running for president.
Maybe he’ll stop talking about your stuttering delivery, which he seems very concerned about on Twitter.
Yeah, marbles in my mouth. He also said that in his book. I know that because I had seven different friends send me that book for my birthday when he wrote it.
I’ve never noticed it!
Thank you. I feel like I’m not without flaws, but marbles in my mouth might not be one of them. It always tickles me because he so consistently says it and it sounds like something a 1950s bully would say.