Based on the headlines when Seth Meyers moved his monologue behind a desk for Monday’s episode of Late Night, you could be forgiven for wondering if a seismic shift in TV comedy had finally arrived. But Meyers was really just staying true to the ultimate spirit of late-night television: finding the most durable way to earn laughs on a five-nights-a-week, 150-episodes-a-year schedule. Since taking the reins in February 2014, Meyers has run the gauntlet of trying to keep his jokes topical and relevant while slowly inventing his show on the fly, meaning the last thing he wanted to do is overthink things.
“I feel like that's one of the luxuries of being the 12:30 show, you can try to be a little more specific,” he told me. “At the end of the day, though, you can only try and execute the best version of your sense of humor. You can get off the rails a little bit by aiming too much when you do comedy.”
Late Night was launched on the back of the persona Meyers had developed over 13 years at Saturday Night Live, but when starting out, all he wanted to do was avoid repeating himself. Hence, the delayed transition to moving behind the desk.
The stand-up monologue has been a fixture of every late-night show since Steve Allen’s, but at a certain point it became a strange cross to bear for the younger, more experimental comedians who’ve been taking the reins. Conan O’Brien has never seemed particularly comfortable with it; his comedy clearly thrives in the other segments of his show. Jimmy Kimmel tried sitting early in his run at Jimmy Kimmel Live!, but quickly reverted to the standing norm. When Meyers—best-known for his time as Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update anchor—became the host of Late Night in 2014, he followed tradition and stood to deliver his opening monologue. But the effect always seemed slightly off.
Meyers says he wanted to give the traditional look a try to at least to distinguish his new show from SNL, which he had left only a month before. “It struck me that [sitting] would look like a crutch,” he recalls. So at first, the priority was just making it through every episode. “Then you reach a point where you can just step back a little bit and make a choice like the one we just made.” The doldrums of August seemed like the right time to make the switch. Meyers notes that Late Night also has a new set, which hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention, even though that change actually required a bit more work than the desk change.
Like many a late-night host before him, Meyers has realized the value of the genre’s inbuilt formats. “I don't think these are traditions as much as they’re structures that have proved they can bear comedy weight. That’s the reason people keep using them,” he says. The stand-up monologue is a quick way to knock out gags about whatever’s happening in the world—vital for any hour-long show that needs to be funny every day. But even though he has plenty of experience in stand-up, he admitted the rapid-fire act could be stressful: “It’s sort of like jumping from log to log over rapids, with each joke representing dry land.”
Behind a desk, the jokes are similar, but can be slightly more evolved. “It's a tried-and-true, tested delivery system,” Meyers says, adding that the format allows him to punctuate his jokes visually, a long-time SNL gambit similarly employed by Comedy Central hosts like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This also makes it easier for the show’s writers to throw in an extra punchline and get more mileage out of a topic.
In the rocky and still-changing world of late-night comedy, Meyers’s show has quietly become a heavy hitter, mixing a solid monologue with great scripted and semi-improvised bits from its writers. For example, Connor O’Malley’s amateurish parody of NBC drama The Blacklist was one of the funniest sketches aired on any TV show this year. Its hastily assembled vibe was simply part of another, newer format in late night, recalling the Digital Shorts that SNL pioneered while Meyers was its head writer. Revolutionary for SNL when they first started airing, the surreal shorts became an integral, familiar part of the show after proving themselves durable vehicles for comedy.
Meyers is the first to acknowledge there’s more change on the horizon. When Colbert, taking over CBS’s Late Show in September, appeared in front of a Television Critics Association panel last week to discuss the move, he was mostly asked how much he planned on shaking things up (Colbert’s responses were vague, although he, too, seems cautiously disinterested in the stand-up monologue).
Meanwhile, more late-night shows are sprouting on the edges of the expanding TV world. Meyers himself appeared on Fusion’s The Chris Gethard Show in June for a more anarchic take on the same broadcasting traditions. In that episode, the show’s cast had been awake for 36 hours before hitting record, while Meyers had had the benefit of a good night’s sleep and was wearing a crisp suit. The results were hilarious, and different, but not unrecognizably so, from Late Night. “Whereas [Gethard’s show] plays with the conventions of the late-night model, it couldn’t if those conventions didn't exist,” Meyers said. Just like Late Night, and any other show of its kind that builds up a loyal audience, Meyers thinks Gethard’s work appeals to viewers because it’s doing something that’s familiar. “The people that consume Chris’s show are similar to people who consume any late-night show. It's a show you come to for comfort and consistency.”
The biggest advantage of the expanding world of TV comedy is that Meyers can offer that comfort on Late Night, and get truly weird somewhere else. He’s producing an upcoming IFC spoof series called Documentary Now! with SNL alums Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. Throughout the creative process, he said, he couldn’t believe they were getting money to do it, and with total creative freedom. That kind of risk-taking lets shows like Chris Gethard make it to air, and allows Netflix to fund a bizarre but wonderful prequel series to the cult film Wet Hot American Summer, which Meyers cited as an inspiration. “When you watch Wet Hot, you don't get any sense that anyone anywhere gave a note,” he said. “It’s nice right now that there are so many places that are letting you do comedy and just getting out of the way.”