The Hippo


May 31, 2020








Seth Meyers

When: Saturday, Feb. 10, 7 & 9:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S. Main St., Concord
Tickets: $58 & up at
The shows will benefit CASA of New Hampshire and the Granite State Children’s Alliance.

From NH to Late Night
A conversation with Seth Meyers

By Michael Witthaus

An Emmy-winning career that includes 13 years as a cast member and head writer at Saturday Night Live, host of a buzzworthy late night talk show and, most recently, co-producer with Lorne Michaels of the new sitcom AP Bio, got its start at a Manchester High School West talent show. At least that’s what Seth Meyers said in a wide ranging interview that touched on his childhood in Bedford with his SNL and Monty Python-loving parents, his college best friend who shares a spot with him on the vanguard of Trumpocalypse humor and his feelings about occupying a space on New Hampshire’s three-faced comedy Mount Rushmore.

Meyers, who is coming to the Capital Center for the Arts on Saturday, Feb. 10, to do two benefit shows for CASA of New Hampshire and the Granite State Children’s Alliance, spoke by phone from the set of Late Night With Seth Meyers (which airs weeknights at 12:35 a.m. on NBC) on Thursday, Jan. 25.
Hi Seth, and thanks for taking time to talk; your hometown readers will be very pleased . 
My pleasure! Thanks for doing the thing.
It’s great that you’re coming back to town for two really worthy causes, CASA of New Hampshire and Granite States Children’s Alliance.
I can’t think of a better reason to come back.
Let’s start with your show, Late Night With Seth Meyers. First of all, an early congratulations for four years on the air. Looking back on your first term, as it were, what stands out for you? What was memorable, and was there anything that surprised you?
I guess it surprised me that … Lorne Michaels said it would take 18 months before we figured out what the show was. And my ego is such that I thought internally, “Oh, we’ll figure it out in six months.” And it took us almost exactly 18 months! But, you know, we were very aided by the election happening, and it being an election that was cartoonish to some degree, and it allowed the show to focus on politics and find a voice. Now we’re two and half years into that, and we know what the show is every night, and what we’re trying to accomplish.      
How was the transition from performing to hosting and doing interviews?
Well, that was the thing I had the least amount of background for when the show started. I will say ultimately that interviewing people is just being a good listener, and coming from improv comedy, listening is a skill of huge importance. So I just try and listen as much as I can when I have guests on. When it gets to that part of the show, it feels for me like the work is over; the hard part is done. We spend all day writing, so when it gets to people coming out and telling me stories, I try to enjoy it and think how lucky I am to be in the chair that I sit in.
Are any guests more of a challenge than others?
Politicians are the hardest guests, especially when they’re running for something. This is true for Republicans and Democrats. They will just answer the question they wish you had asked them [laughs]. They have no interest in going off a sort of poll-tested script, and it’s very hard to get them to loosen up and realize there’s a unique opportunity when you’re on at 12:30 at night on a comedy show to give a different message. Or at least give it in a different way, a more fun way than you would on, say, Meet the Press or Morning Joe. 
One of the interesting elements of the show is the guest drummer; you have guest musicians, but particularly a lot of guest drummers. How did that happen?
Well, it’s funny. We started with our band leader as our drummer — Fred Armisen. But we knew from the beginning that Fred would be limited in the amount of time he could do on the show, and we figured out that there are all of these talented drummers out there. It’s sort of a world that has an intense fan base but maybe isn’t as mainstream known as we thought it should be. And it’s been great. So many drummers love doing it. I have a whole new appreciation for drumming. Because I’m really hearing the same songs, but you realize how the DNA of a different drummer will change the entire week of music when you have him there. Right now, this week, we have a heavy metal drummer with Brann Dailor [Mastodon], so the beginning of the show is really different when you have someone like that.
I want to talk about Manchester, your growing up. Your mom, father and brother were on the show on Thanksgiving, and I got the impression that your household was a pretty funny one; you were laughing a lot. Is that the right impression? 
Yeah, that’s very accurate. My brother and I always say we realized my mother laughs at everything my father says and it’s always been the case. So in order to get any attention at a young age we kind of realized, I think, comedy is the key to getting heard in this household. So ... that became our currency as well. Not just because of how much fun it was to tell stories and laugh at one another, but our parents had really good comedy taste. They were the kind of people who introduced us to shows like SNL and Monty Python when we were probably way too young for them. That makes a big difference. When you’re watching those shows when you’re 10 or 11 years old, you realize ... that not only made me want to do comedy, but it made me want to do a kind of comedy that I would find intellectually challenging.
You really didn’t get into performing until you got to Northwestern. I wondered, did the bug bite you before that? You talked about doing an impression of your Constitutional Law teacher at a school talent show and crushing it. 
Yeah, we did a couple of comedy nights, which was great. I remember one of my friends had an idea and West High let us put on this comedy night. It was really well attended, and it is something I look back on as probably where I most caught the bug, which was going out and — by the way, it was impressions of teachers, and then it was our versions of SNL sketches with names of students dropped in — but it was a thrill. And by the time I got to Northwestern there was an improv troupe there, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. But for sure, the bug was in the auditorium at Manchester West. 
You went to Northwestern. Your brother did too, and your mom and dad met there. Was it always understood that you’d go to the same college as mom and dad? 
Not at all. We really didn’t talk about it much, and back then you didn’t even see Northwestern anywhere. It wasn’t like they had a football team that was on television. It’s not like anyone in our family owned any Northwestern hats or sweatshirts or anything. But it was a funny thing — my mom went there, and she was a theater major. My dad was an engineering major. The fact that my brother Josh and I both wanted to do theater — or, in my case, radio, television and film — you know, we were lucky that NU had a Top 5 program, and it just made sense. But it was more coincidence than anything else. It was never predetermined. [Ed. note: Among other gigs, Josh Meyers was a cast member of MADtv and starred in the final season of That 70’s Show. He most recently starred in Red Oaks, an Amazon Studios comedy series.]
Interesting the way it turned out. You started in film, not a performing major. Was there a spark that made you move away from that and in the direction you eventually went?
Well, there were a couple of things. One, the kids who were theater majors at Northwestern were really great in a way — they had done more than two comedy nights at Manchester West High by the time they got to Northwestern. So that was the first thing, I was a little intimidated to try and get into performing. Then the thing about filmmaking, which I have so much respect for to this day — I realized early on you have to be incredibly patient, and it’s incredibly time-consuming. And that is not my best skill; I’m kind of a guy who works well on deadline. I don’t ever want to take on a task that one all-nighter can’t fix. So I was drawn to the improv comedy troupe, which is basically no preparation ahead of time. And then I was really lucky that later in my career I ended up on shows like SNL and Late Night that are really about doing high-intensity work in a very short envelope of time.
Who were your role models at that point, inspirations, guiding lights?
It’s really hard to think past those shows. I didn’t just watch SNL and Monty Python. I bought the books, and read through old scripts and would watch SNL not only when it aired, which was mid-’90s when I was in high school, but I would also watch the reruns of the ’70s shows that aired at 11 o’clock every night. Those were the shows I was obsessed with, and sort of at the end of my time in high school we all got very into David Letterman. He was a real inspiration to me as well. And as far as standup comedy albums we used to listen to a lot were people like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Nichols & May; those were voices that were really important to me as well. 
Working in Boom Chicago [an American improv comedy troupe based in Amsterdam that has several famous alumni, including Oscar-nominated director Jordan Peele] was foundational for you; it literally sent you around the world. Was ambition on your mind when you began with them, or did the desire to make it big happen because of and during the experience?
Interesting question. I was in Chicago at the time, waiting tables, so that I could have time to do improv shows. My goal, my dream at that point, was to do Second City in Chicago. And I was really lucky to have friends who were really risk-taking, and the kind of people you just hitched your ambition to. One of my friends said these guys that have a comedy troupe in Amsterdam are having auditions and we kind of started by doing it as a lark and we got hired. ... The thing that drew me to it more than ambitious sort of thinking — it would be what catapulted me to the next thing, which in the end it did. ... I was just drawn to the idea of living in Europe and doing comedy. I’d never been; I didn’t have a passport before that. And I went for a year, and then ended up staying for two and met people who were important in regards to how everything went after that.  
Let’s talk about the Golden Globes; congratulations on surviving that, you did a great job.
Thank you.
When you got the call to host, had the Hollywood harassment story begun? Did you know what you might be walking into?
Yeah, I got asked fairly late. It was around mid-November, and I think the Weinstein stuff was sort of October. So we knew what we were getting into, and our first instinct was, this is a terrible year to do this. Then once that wave of reaction passed, I think we all realized that it would be a really special year to try and do it … and it turned out to be true. I think the audience was looking for it, and I think wanted to talk about it for some catharsis. There was a high level of difficulty, but to be fair, there always is when you host stuff like that. So I’m glad we did it this year. Also, you know, the reality is I always wanted to do it, and you don’t really get to choose which year you get asked. I couldn’t really say, “No, but I would love to wait for 2021 when everything dies down [laughs].” So you do it when you do it, and part of doing these kind of shows and taking on challenges like that is you’re kind of a junkie for the risk of walking in and not knowing what you’re going to get until you start. 
Likening yourself to a monkey being shot into space was great.
The “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” segment borrowed from Late Night for the show — did you know right away that would be part of the Globes?
Yeah, you know … we also were aware that probably wasn’t ideal — having a white guy host the Globes this year didn’t sound like it made perfect sense right off the bat. So we realized we had this way — we addressed it on our show, and we could bring it to the Globes. Then we had to go out and find people willing to do it. It was great to find people in the audience who were good sports, and we were lucky that we had a director at the Golden Globes who figured out really quickly on the fly how to shoot it, and it was fun. I’m really glad we did it.
SNL really launched you [and] your first show was the one right after 9/11. Was starting that night a heavy task?
I think that night was so much harder for people who were in charge of the show then, people like Lorne and Tina [Fey], who had done the show without that burden, and it was hard enough as it was, and then had to figure out how to address all that stuff. Being new, I think my first show as a new cast member was just as stressful and terrifying as anyone’s, because I really didn’t have that much to do, and I wouldn’t have had that much to do no matter the circumstances. So when I look back at that night I’m actually just in awe. Especially the more I did the show, I was in awe of the people who kept their heads on straight and were the ones who called the shots in regards to how to deal with that tricky night.
You ultimately became head writer. The other night [current SNL head writers] Michael Che and Colin Jost talked about skits they didn’t do. What are some of yours?
Ha-ha. The thing — and Colin and I were talking about this as well — when you first start at the show, you’re so upset when your skits don’t get in. But when you’re head writer, you’re kind of thrilled when they don’t get picked. Because nothing’s worse than bombing. Anything on the fence, you kind of lean toward not doing it. But I will tell you that I made a lot more fun of Jost for his terrible sketches when we worked together than he could ever make fun of me for mine.
You did a skit with Donald Trump in 2004, way before he even hinted at being a candidate — what was that like?
Looking back on it now is insane. I remember — and I should point out that I forget a lot of the sketches in my 12 and a half years there just because of the volume — but I remember a sketch we did called “Donald Trump’s House of Wings” because I really loved it, and he was a really good sport in it.  And I forgot that there was another one where I played his son. I watched that recently and I thought, “Oh man, we are fully through the looking glass.” But he was … I could say, and hopefully people won’t be too offended about this, but he did not have a lot of take on what was funny and wasn’t. If the audience laughed, he agreed, and if they didn’t, he agreed with the audience. He far more reacted to that than what people close to him were telling him. 
Sounds very familiar. 
Yeah, it turns out he was trying some stuff out.
Your show starts out every night with “let’s get to the news” and I wondered what you thought about comedians as information deliverers. “Weekend Update” was a snarky take on the news but what you’re doing is real information. What do you think about having that role?
Well, I think with the news the way it is now — and again, I never think we’re a good first news source — but it can be fairly distressing, so it’s not the worst thing to watch it with a ton of jokes alongside the news. I think it maybe makes it go down a little bit easier. The other thing is, whatever you think about Donald Trump, I think you would have to admit he has eroded the standards for how a president is supposed to act and talk. He’s certainly lowered the discourse as well. So journalists are sometimes hamstrung because they’re still living by their journalistic standards, and I’m glad they are. But there are times I feel that comedians are so much better served to talk about the day-to-day of the Trump administration, because we also don’t have any standards [laughs].  
Your old friend Peter Grosz plays Vice President Pence on The President Show, another Trump-themed parody. Do the two of you talk  about your personal roles in the current national narrative?
We just talk about how lucky we are. Pete and I were freshmen best friends at Northwestern. We’ve been doing this for a really long time; he was the one who convinced me to go to Amsterdam, and he was one of the first hires I made on this show. And so as surreal as it is to have done a sketch with Donald Trump and see where we are now, it’s more surreal to think about where Pete Grosz and I were in 1993 when we met and where we are now. So it’s not a day goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars for everything that’s turned out.
You have a new show called A.P. Bio premiering on Feb. 1. What’s your involvement in that show? Are you writing, coaching Patton Oswalt and Glenn Howerton?
Well, it’s really the brainchild of this wonderful writer and performer named Mike O’Brien, who was at SNL when I was there. He just wrote this really funny script and I’m lucky to be one of the producers on it. I can only say that my role is just watching episodes after they shoot them, reading scripts … I add so very little, only because it’s so good when it comes in. And Glenn and Patton are just perfect, and really fun to watch. 
Final question – you are one of the big three names of New Hampshire comedy along with —
Sarah and Sandler...
Sarah Silverman and Adam Sandler, yes. How does it feel to be in the pantheon of the state, and what are your thoughts on New Hampshire comedy?
I’m sure there are a lot of really great and exciting things happening in New Hampshire right now that I sadly don’t know about because I’m not part of the scene. But I can only tell you that when both Sarah and Sandler had made SNL I really thought that meant there was no way a third person from the greater Manchester area was going to find his way on to the show. So people say, “Are they the ones that made you think you could do it?” and I say no, they were the ones who made me think I couldn’t [laughs]! Lightning isn’t supposed to strike three times. The great gift of Adam and Sarah is the first time I met them both, all I had to say was where I was from and they immediately gave me an hour of their time, and they were so kind. I think being from New Hampshire means as much to them as it does to me. 


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