Seth Meyers made news last week doing one of the most mundane things a person can do: sit down. The thing that made it special was that it was during the monologue portion of his late-night show, a place in which people have been standing and telling jokes for over a half-century. It’s a subtle change, but ultimately a significant one for a genre that is used to no change whatsoever. We caught up with Seth Meyers to talk about what made him decide to change it up, how this might position him in a post–Jon Stewart world, and how it actually differs as a joke-telling mechanism.
I heard that you have always considered doing a sit-down monologue. What was the catalyst to make you say, “We’re going to do it now”?
We have these two weeks in August, then we have a two-week break and then fall starts. As much as it felt like when SNL started, September is the new beginning of the TV season. And more people are certainly tuning in in September. So we figured we’d use these two weeks for sort of a spring-training time, to try out new things, and see how it felt.
You’re not the first person ever to sit down. Jimmy Kimmel tried it at first and then eventually gave up because people expect certain traditions. Still, years have passed since then. Do you feel like the audience is more savvy now?
There are so many different shows out there right now. You have to do a lot to really seem unconventional. Again, we’re talking about two different positions. (I guess if someone did it crouching that would be a person who would really take the cake.) I had such a short gap between SNL and doing this, and I did want to try something new. I didn’t want people to think that I was just going to do the exact same thing I’ve been doing for so long at SNL, so that’s sort of what pulled me to do the classic monologue. The other difference is when you’re a 12:30 show and your 11:30 show does a monologue and does it really well, obviously a large amount of your audience has watched that. I don’t know why it took so long to come to the conclusion that doing something different might be a smarter way of going about it.
The timing is interesting because it’s right after Jon Stewart leftThe Daily Show, a job in which he sat down. Do you feel like this move could also position your show a little bit differently?
The longer we’ve done this show, the more we’ve tried to focus on politics. Certainly, as we enter an election year, politics is going to provide more for us to talk about. The timing is more coincidence than anything else, because it was very specific to the fact that we’re coming up on September. But again, I sat for a long time at my last job. It’s not like this is something I’m doing for the first time. It was nice yesterday. When you do something new you feel some nerves, but once I started doing it, it was muscle memory reminding me that it had been my delivery system of choice for a very long time.
Something about sitting down makes it feel a little less late-night-y, and a little more like a comedy show. Especially with politics, it demands a little more of a point of view than a normal late-night show tends to have. Are you excited or are you kind of nervous to try to bring a more specific perspective than what would traditionally be expected in a talk-show setting?
If you looked back at the politics that we’ve done, the stuff that does best for us always has a point of view. That’s where audiences are very savvy these days: They respect knowing what hosts believe. They’re not looking for someone who’s inscrutable or a puzzle, so we’re happy to let people know when we’re upset or angry about something or feel passionately one way or the other. That always seems to play better, and that is one of the many legacies of The Daily Show. One thing you worry about is if somebody who’s in line with your politics makes you angry—you don’t ignore it because it’s in line with your politics. You also talk about it. You just don’t want to let anybody off scot-free.
Do you expect to keep on doing the more headlinelike version, followed by a longer news piece, which just seems demanding, writing-wise?
That’s the hardest thing. The last couple weeks, our Mondays have had the longer form thing after the monologue, which almost requires three days leading up to it. In a weird way, a Monday and a Thursday works out pretty well, but we would like to try to do it more often than not. We’re always happiest when we write something day of. That always has a nice bit of crackle to it, when you do it. Audiences appreciate it, because when they do the math, they realize, “Oh, that happened last night.” Or, “That happened today, so this wasn’t something that’s sort of been in the bank, waiting.”
Ultimately, you’re doing jokes that are not incredibly different, but something about the rhythm is different. Can you speak to how a topical joke that is told sitting down with a picture over your shoulder is written or phrased differently?
To some degree, the rhythm is a little different when you’re sitting at a desk, but it’s pretty much the same material with a slightly different delivery system. Still, there’s something about it that I like. It makes it seem a little more serious. When you’re telling jokes about politics, it probably helps to be sitting down.
Now, thinking about it, the setup is a little more serious because you’re pretending to be a newscaster for the first half of your sentence, instead of just like, “Have you heard about this?”
The thing that I liked about the monologue was you could have those moments where you could comment about the joke in a way you never did in “Weekend Update.” ”Weekend Update,” especially when you have a co-anchor, part of it is keeping it moving. And the same amount of jokes sitting down probably will tend to go by a little bit faster than when you’re standing up, because you don’t have that burden of needing to have transitions between one idea and another. In a way, the picture changing is taking the place of “Hey, did you guys hear about this?” That one way, it’s a little bit different.
How do you feel you did last night? I don’t know if you watched yourself, but do you feel like you noticed something different?
Oh, I definitely didn’t watch. I watched it with the volume off just to see what I thought about the framing, but, no, I have no interest in watching the first time back. I’ll give myself a few days to get back into it before I actually look at it.
How did it feel, though?
Oh, I really liked it. It felt natural and it felt like home, so that was good.
You said you’re going to give yourself these two weeks. How are you going to measure the success of it?
To some degree how it feels is the most important thing. Right now, I’m excited about making a change like this that I feel like also has the staff excited. But, obviously, when you do this for as long as I have, you have a lot of people in comedy that you trust, and certainly I’ll be doing some informal polling in the days that follow.
Can you mention anyone specifically you’re going to ask about how they thought it went?
I would say anyone who was on SNL from like 2006 to 2009 will probably hear from me. That’s kind of the core. I’ll try to ask Fred [Armisen], although he’s very busy with his drumming during the show, so I’ll have to find someone who’s not doing that.
In a world where people are making jokes about what’s happening all day on Twitter, do you think the monologue is still important?
I do, because I still feel like, whereas people like yourself and I spend the whole day on Twitter looking at people making jokes, there are a lot of people who don’t. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, they’re doing very modern monologues. For people who don’t have time, it’s a way to sit down and look at a Twitter feed being performed for six to eight minutes, which is like a nice collection of jokes about what’s happened during the day. In no way, shape, or form am I abandoning a standing monologue because I think there’s anything stale about it. I really like doing it, and for those who do it well, I’m really, really impressed.
I probably should let you go. I feel like you have to talk to about a million more people about sitting down.
It’s amazing. Who would have thought sitting down would draw so much attention?
Well, it’s a format that people have been doing for decades. So, if you do anything different, it’s a big deal.
And it was so funny because, for me in the beginning, the reason I chose to do the conventional thing was to do something different.
And it’s not like no one is sitting. The Daily Show and The Nightly Show already exist, but the fact that you sat down on one of the networks.
Yeah, it wasn’t even a new desk or a new chair, but I’m hoping it will be at least two chapters in Bill Carter’s next book.
That’s the new war for late night: standers versus sitters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.