In 2011, the comedian Seth Meyers, then the head writer for Saturday Night Live and host of the show’s “Weekend Update” news roundup, mocked Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican,” Meyers said, as Trump sat stone-faced in the audience, “which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” That same evening, President Barack Obama roasted Trump at length. The evening’s jokes—and the idea that they spurred Trump to run in 2016—have become Washington lore.
Meyers, who since 2014 has hosted Late Night on NBC, still refuses to pull any punches where Trump is concerned. In January, he hosted the Golden Globes and, in a clear callback to his 2011 mockery of Trump’s presidential ambitions, winkingly berated Oprah Winfrey, telling her that she doesn’t have what it takes to be president.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Julia Ioffe: Is Trump your fault?
Seth Meyers: No. I still think Trump is the fault of the people who voted for him. I would feel so bad had this happened and in 2011 I hadn’t made jokes about him. He was behaving terribly then. One of the most offensive things he’s done was this idea that Barack Obama wasn’t born here. Trump was asking for it. I look back on that night, despite everything that’s happened, very fondly.
JI: Do you think that night’s mockery goaded him into running?
SM: I don’t buy that it’s the main reason, but I certainly think he is driven by petty grievances. In the run-up to the election, a lot of the articles saying that evening caused him to run left my name out, and it really hurt my feelings. I wanted credit for tricking him into running. But then after he was elected I shifted my opinion to This was really Obama’s fault. Obama shouldn’t have told all those jokes.
JI: Okay, so it’s your, Obama’s, and Putin’s fault.
SM: Yeah, I would say in that order. When the three of us get together, it’s pretty much all we talk about.
JI: At the Golden Globes in January, when you joked about Oprah not having what it takes to be president, were you trying to repeat the trick? Were you trying to get her to run for president?
SM: It was just a joke. When people ask me about the next presidential election, I really stress how wrong I’ve been about everything for a long time.
JI: But right after that joke, she did give a very presidential speech, which started everyone talking about 2020. Do you think it’s a good idea for more celebrities to run?
SM: No. But again, I don’t know what is a good idea anymore. If Oprah fully wanted to commit herself to being president, I would be behind that. She’s a really intelligent person.
JI: Who do you think does the best Trump?
SM: [In a Trump voice] Look, I think everyone would agree, my Trump is excellent. [Normal voice] I think Alec Baldwin and Trump are a great match because you need a real big personality to fill a big personality.
JI: In an environment like this, do the jokes write themselves? Or is it actually harder to write jokes, because everything’s absurd?
SM: Writing jokes in general is hard. The day that Donald Trump announced and came down that escalator, we were giddy—we thought it would just be a month of insanity. I’ve worked in comedy-writing jobs where the big story is the debt ceiling. Now there’s no shortage of things to talk about.
JI: What made you such a political comedian?
SM: I grew up in New Hampshire, right next to Manchester. Everybody came through for all these election cycles. I was fascinated that people who were in my town would be impersonated on SNL that Saturday.
JI: What do you think happened to Jimmy Fallon? Why is he serving up such apolitical mush?
SM: I don’t think it’s fair to judge all shows through the prism of what a certain audience wants. There are people who still want to watch late-night shows, but don’t want cutting political opinion pieces. I respect that. When you’re watching television at 11:30 or 12:30 at night, it’s fair for people to want something relaxing as opposed to something that amps them up and puts them in a terrible mood. I don’t think that we are living in a permanent political moment, and when this comes to a close, people like Jimmy will be very well suited to go back to what they did before, which is just to be really entertaining.
JI: If David Letterman and Jay Leno were still doing late-night TV, how would they approach this moment?
SM: Leno felt very strongly that you make one joke about these guys, you make one joke about those guys. I think Dave was already drifting toward a place of outrage. We’ve all known Trump for a long time, but Dave knew him as a guest. There are people who have been guests on my show a handful of times that if they were president 20 years from now, it would be very hard for me to comprehend.
JI: With this news cycle, have you had days where you had to rip up your whole show at the last minute?
SM: Yeah, Trump’s press conference over a year ago was a crazy day. I was a fill-in host in the afternoon at the Charlie Rose show, so we had written everything early. I was waiting to interview George Saunders for Charlie Rose and watching the press conference with the sound off. You could tell it was so crazy, even without words, that everything was going to get ripped up. And Comey’s firing. And the Christopher Steele dossier. You never are upset on those days; you’re excited by the thrill of pulling it all together.
JI: You got your start on SNL. What was it like to land that gig?
SM: I started August 20, 2001, so my first month had 9/11. After 9/11, a lot of people who lived in New York, myself included, were just so happy to be alive. I felt very lucky. I’d always wanted to live in the city, and now I lived in it at this really vital time where it was showing the world exactly what it was. It was my second year—second through fourth—where I had huge waves of depression and feeling like an impostor.
The strange thing about being at SNL is—at least for me—you get the job, and you assume that getting it means you’re great. How could you get hired at SNL if you weren’t great? But then you’re surrounded by the funniest people—my first year, my sketch would be at a table read either before or after Will Ferrell’s sketch. It felt very unfair, like watching a child have to go into the Octagon. It was like, Shouldn’t we have different weight classes?
When you’re the new guy, you think, Well, I’m not getting a lot of sketches on, but I’m the new guy! And then there are other new guys, people like Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson and Will Forte and then Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg and Bill Hader, and they’re newer than you, and they’re doing better than you—at times, a lot better. And now you can’t hide behind the idea that you’re new. You realize, Oh, they just might be better.
JI: How did you feel when Lorne Michaels made you head writer?
SM: Lorne always teased me that I was the only person in the cast who desperately wanted to be a writer. It always goes in the other direction. But once I had that job, I felt like I could do as well as anyone. That cast, which I would put up against any SNL cast ever, elevated the writing so much. I’m proud of things I wrote, but I know if they had switched out the cast, if it had been different people—
JI: For example?
SM: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Those performances elevated the words. The writing could have been a lot worse, and the sketches still would have been great.
JI: So, you have these established female comedians—Tina, Amy, Samantha Bee—as well as a new crop of female comedians—Leslie Jones, Michelle Wolf, Amber Ruffin. If you were to be replaced, would you want to be replaced by any of them?
SM: Oh my god, I would love to be replaced by Amber.
JI: Going back to this political moment, do you have any sense of whether the more political style of comedy has drawn people in? Readership and viewership are way up for newspapers and cable news networks because of Trump. Is it the same for you, or is there an outflow of people who don’t want politics late at night?
SM: It feels like our audience is more engaged. I had the sense when we first started doing the show that a lot of the people who watched it were watching The Tonight Show and then stayed on the same channel. Once the 2016 campaign started, people seemed to enjoy our show more. We certainly haven’t had any talks about making it less political. The conversation we were having leading up to the election was “How are we going to keep this momentum when things get less crazy?” Obviously, they didn’t get less crazy, but I hope one day we will have that conversation again.
JI: Do you worry at all about playing into the role of a mainstream-media elite, sitting in New York, making fun of everyone?
SM: I reflected on this after the election, the way a lot of news organizations did. Oh, we weren’t paying attention. We missed a large swath of people. But while there are some genuine cases of missing something, in other cases maybe we have swung too far toward being empathetic to people who might not have that much empathy.
JI: Would you want to have Trump on the show?
SM: No. There’s this idea that if only people asked Trump X, Y, and Z, we’d get to the bottom of something. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that he’s the constant; he’s resolute in his belief that he’s right, that he’s a victim, and that the last thing he heard is the truth, provided it’s something positive about him. No variable is going to change what he is.
JI: Who is on your wish list?
SM: It’s hard to find conservatives to come on who support Trump. I wish Paul Ryan would come on. My question would be, “Do you really care about deficits, or is it safe now to say that you never did?” But they’re all really good at talking. That’s the disappointment about politicians, and it’s true about all of them, both Democrats and Republicans. More often than not, they answer the questions that they wish you had asked and offer poll-tested sound bites. They miss the opportunity to speak to a different audience. This is where you’re supposed to show you’re fun, or different, or who you are when you’re not in Washington.
And then there are people like Lindsey Graham who come loaded with three dud jokes. He’s going to say them no matter what—I think he tests them. But a night of drinking with Lindsey Graham would be real fun.