Late Night With Seth Meyers Feels a Lot Like “Weekend Update.” But It Has Room to Grow.

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 25 2014 10:56 AM

Seth Meyers’ Late-Night Debut: Not Embarrassing!

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Late Night With Seth Meyers feels a lot like “Weekend Update,” but it has room to grow.

Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC

At the very end of his very first night as the host of Late Night, Seth Meyers thanked his guests (Joe Biden, Amy Poehler, and the band A Great Big World), thanked his house band (headed up by Fred Armisen), and then said jokingly to the audience, “If everyone could stick around, I’d like to do five hours of notes!” A brand new late-night host is like a baby, it takes some time for him or her (mostly him) to learn to walk, and no one walks right out of the womb. The first episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers will probably not be much like all the hundreds or even thousands of episodes that come after it, which in Meyers’ case is good news: His first episode was pretty bland.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

When NBC announced that, at Lorne Michaels’ suggestion, Meyers would be replacing Jimmy Fallon at Late Night, he seemed like a familiar, solid, not particularly exciting choice: another affable white guy. Meyers has been working on Saturday Night Live since 2001 and as a head-writer since 2006, but he appeared on camera almost exclusively on “Weekend Update,” and it was unclear how exactly his SNL skills would get deployed in a new format. One way is for Meyers to just transfer his skills directly, and do “Weekend Update” from the set of Late Night, which is what he did last night.

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“I’m going to shake things up and start this thing with a monologue,” Meyers said, before launching into what amounted to a very long “Weekend Update,” without the cameos by absurd guests to break it up. Most late-night monologues follow the “Weekend Update” form—setup, punch line—but Meyers’ delivery is so Update-ian at this point, so faux-newscaster stentorian, that his rhythm is uniform to the point of being numbing. He could use some jokes with longer set ups, just to change up the beat.

Timing was a general issue: The monologue was too long, as was a bit riffing on Venn diagrams (not exactly the freshest comedic conceit). There were scads of Olympics jokes, which is what the writers had to work with these past two weeks, but that, already a day after the closing ceremony, felt a little old. Some bits had promise—Costas Vision, what MMA would sound like with figure-skating-style announcers—but stumbled in execution: The figure skating announcers weren’t precise enough, and why would Costas’ atrocious pinkeye have caused him to see Olympic sports as old-fashioned or remedial (a luge course turns into a hot dog sliding down a kid’s toy slide) instead of dripping, goopy, or otherwise horrifying?

Meyers was much better when he gave himself some time to relax. He has a nice, not overpowering self-awareness: He doesn’t make many meta-jokes, but he’s always reading the audience, paying attention to the technical things happening around him, and happy to laugh at himself. After the monologue he sat at his desk to thank Fallon, his parents, his brother, and his wife, launching into a not that funny but very appealing, self-deprecating story about how he recently let another man change his tire, that just let some air into the room. His rapport with Armisen, who leads the band—whose drummer, awesomely, is a woman (Kim Thompson, a long-time member of Beyoncé’s touring band)—was as good as expected. And their deadpan exchange about Armisen’s “new show,” a History Channel series called Recent History—which looks back on the events of the past hour—suggests there will be lots of fun and potentially weird ways for the two to play off each other.

Meyers’ first guest was Amy Poehler, with whom he is close friends. The two have an obvious and deep connection, just building and building jokes off the silly things they said to each other. She was a great, lively first guest—she even helped out with Joe Biden, the other guest, who she has worked with on Parks and Recreation—but an almost completely nonpredictive one. On SNL, Meyers had honed a light skepticism (think, “Really? With Seth and Amy”), a pleasant eyebrow raise that might work well in interviews, but it wasn’t on display with Poehler or Biden. Meyers won’t be best friends with everyone who comes on his show, as Poehler pointed out, while she pretended to be a very bored actress.

Judging a late night show on its very first episode is almost cruel. Late Night with Seth Meyers felt totally professional and not at all embarrassing—which means it also felt standard and boilerplate. If Meyers really wants those notes, my big one is: I still don’t know what distinguishes Seth Meyers, a competent and likeable guy, from anyone else. He’s only got hundreds and hundreds of episodes to figure it out.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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