Late-night talk shows usually take months, even years, to find their creative voice. In retrospect, Seth Meyers discovered his in 2011, three years before he took the hosting chair at NBC’s Late Night. That was the year he roasted Donald Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, flexing a skill for sharp political satire that he’s only continued to hone since then. Last year, Meyers moved his Late Night monologue behind a desk and started focusing more on current events with a segment called “A Closer Look,” a longer-form piece that deconstructs a major issue of the day. Initially the show, which airs four times a week, featured “A Closer Look” once or twice a month. Now it’s an almost-daily staple.
In 2008, Meyers was at the helm of Saturday Night Live (serving as head writer and Weekend Update anchor) during the Obama/McCain election, and he saw the vice presidential nomination of Sarah Palin, and Tina Fey’s regular impersonation of her, drive new viewers to the show. In 2016, Meyers hasn’t been shy about going after Trump’s presidential candidacy, using “A Closer Look” to dive into controversy and becoming particularly incensed at Trump’s ban of The Washington Post’s press coverage. In response, he issued a ban of his own, barring Trump from appearing on the show (while jokily admitting Trump had no stated interest in appearing). In these troubled times, many comedians have struggled with just how to satirize the slog of political news. Meyers’s approach has been among the most aggressive—and it’s paying dividends.
“I’ve had to do comedy now through a bunch of different elections, and I will say, it’s not better for the country, but the more colorful the characters, the easier the comedy is,” Meyers says. “2008 was more fun than 2012, and 2000 was more fun than 2004. And this year is fun. Obviously there’s a lot of conversation about how everybody [in comedy] has handled Donald Trump, but if your job is to poke fun at people every day, he’s a delight.”
Trump has seemingly posed an unusual problem for many late-night comedy shows with his outsized, cartoonish candidacy. Saturday Night Live never quite settled on the right impression (unlike Fey’s Palin, who resonated the second she appeared on air), and the show had Trump host a deflated-feeling episode early in its most recent season. The candidate has appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, where both hosts struggled to pin him down on his more controversial opinions. Meyers has had no such qualms, going after his Trump University scandal, his record on guns, his flip-flopping on the Iraq War, and many other false claims in several segments of “A Closer Look.”
Meyers dismisses the common complaint that it’s hard to make fun of someone who’s already so outlandish: “Hard is Mitt Romney. Hard is Barack Obama.” He recalled that as a cast member on SNL in 2004, he was assigned to play Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a fairly thankless role in a much more subdued election. “Nobody ever got excited about a John Kerry sketch,” he says. “John Kerry was the ‘Reverse Palin,’ as we call it in comedy.”
With Trump, the opposite is true: Audiences can’t get enough. “The biggest challenge has been trying to resist this fear that we’re piling on. Because we are talking about it so much,” he says. But he added that the show stands by its frequent Trump coverage. “Look, Donald Trump’s on the cover of The New York Times every day, so it makes sense that he can be in our monologue every night.”
“A Closer Look” will skewer other topics in the news, like the Senate’s inaction on gun control or the skirmishes between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but Trump has certainly been the dominant topic for Meyers. “I think for some people, hearing about Donald Trump is like reading their Peanuts strip, like, something happened to their favorite cartoon character,” he says.
Since the departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, pundits have cast around for a successor and found the obvious candidates wanting in some way. The new Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s style of comedy is broader and more punchline-focused, while Stewart’s former colleague Stephen Colbert has struggled with the broader demands of hosting CBS’s 11:35 p.m. Late Show, particularly the onus of celebrity news and interviews. Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal is an exciting new entrant, but it airs just once a week. Late Night isn’t just political humor—Meyers employs some of the best sketch writers in New York, and the latter half of his show will often feature some truly strange segments—but it found its comfort zone by leading with, and lampooning, hard news.
“There’s that great freedom of talking about the news without being the news,” Meyers says, adding that with journalism, there’s more consideration over what can or can’t be said in a piece. “Whereas for us, it’s kinda like, ‘Fuck it, this is how we feel’ … So we can just have our point of view and get it out there.” Though he predicts there’ll be further focus on Clinton as the presidential race narrows in focus over the summer, he admitted it’s been tough to mine comedy from her more conventional campaign: “She’s like someone who got pulled over by a cop going 45 in a 35 [zone], and while he pulls her over someone goes by at 110 miles per hour throwing coke out of the windows.”
He also predicts that Trump will continue his pattern of wild political news-making. “We’re dealing with a candidate who constantly outdoes himself and surprises me with his ability to keep the narrative focused on him,” he said. “He’s just a camel with a thousand straws on his back. That back will not break!” If Late Night’s pattern thus far holds, Meyers is only going to keep piling on more straws.