clock menu more-arrow no yes

Seth Meyers has some advice for the Democratic Party

“I don’t think [Trump is] an honest person — but I do think he’s an authentic person. I think that that’s what the Democratic Party needs.”

Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Seth Meyers is one of television’s best political comics.

As host of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, he is persuasive because as well as being very funny, he is sincere and empathetic. As critical as he is of Trumpism, he has tried hard to understand Trump voters’ perspectives, as on the night after Trump’s election.

“I felt a lot of emotions last night and into today,” Meyers said in an emotional speech that went viral.

He held back tears as he discussed his and his mother’s disappointment: “Some sadness, some anger, some fear. But I’m also aware that those are the same emotions a lot of Trump supporters felt, emotions that led them to make their choice, and it would be wrong for me to think my emotions are somehow more authentic than their emotions.”

He went on to say that he hoped Trump would drop his worst campaign trail policies, characteristically sharpening his point with humor. “Because when you’re courting someone, you’re always willing to pretend you’re something you’re not. For example, when you first start dating someone, you’ll agree to go apple picking.”

But Meyers, not naïve, finished with a steely promise. “Donald Trump made a lot of promises as to what he’s going to do in the next four years, and now we get to see if he can fulfill them. And so, I’d just like to make one promise to him: We here at Late Night will be watching you.”

Throughout the turbulent first 100 days of the Trump administration, Meyers has been a thorough, incisive critic of Trumpism, especially with his oft-trending A Closer Look feature. Meyers’s weeknight show hits the Trump administration hard across the board: from immigration to health care to corruption.

During a hectic mid-afternoon last week — as the Republicans in the House repealed Obamacare — the 43-year-old joined me over the phone from his office in Manhattan’s 30 Rock. Our discussion, which has been lightly edited and condensed, covered the impact of political news comedy, learnings from Tina Fey and Bernie Sanders, the role of big companies in opposing Trumpism, and his advice for liberals.

Alexander Bisley

My contention is that Trump is a Marxist, as in (Chico as) Groucho Marx’s line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?” As you’ve repeatedly covered on Late Night, Trump contradicts things millions of people saw him say, such as his lies about health care.

Seth Meyers

Yeah. It’s been fascinating for us how inexhaustible his contradictions are. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. I think one thing that’s really important and has been true throughout history is that 70-year-old men don’t tend to change or go through any sort of metamorphosis into a different kind of person. So I think it was a false hope that many had that somehow the presidency would change the man. But more often than not I think the man changes the presidency, and that’s certainly what we’ve seen thus far.

Alexander Bisley

“[Trump] believes truly insane, deranged, and delusional things,” Chris Hayes told me. “It’s very much an Infowars presidency in many ways. The president is a conspiracy theorist.” What do you think?

Seth Meyers

Well, I have a sense that for someone like [Infowars founder] Alex Jones, there’s a great amount of theater to it, and he probably has far more understanding of how insane the things he is saying are. His reason for saying that is not at its core insane, he’s saying insane things for the purpose of theater. There’s some craft behind it; there’s some thought behind it.

I don’t know if Donald Trump thinks to himself: “I’m gonna say something insane.” I think he doesn’t think much at all. But he’ll see something or read something, and without backing it up or reading a second source, he’ll tweet basically that he was surveilled by Barack Obama. Which then, because he’s the president, becomes this incredible story with this very long tail that we’re sort of still dealing with today. But it didn’t start because he thought, “Oh, this will be helpful for me if I say something that I know not to be true.” I think he just did it without thinking.

Alexander Bisley

Trumpism has been a boon for political comedians. What is something about a competitor that impresses you?

Seth Meyers

John Oliver laid out in a really wonderful way that audiences have an attention span for longer-form stuff. When we started this show we didn’t think 10, 12-minute pieces on current events would be what our show would be known for. But John was somebody who showed if you get out a lot of information, people have a better attention span for it. And then if you can get enough jokes in there to also make it funny, you have a pretty nice recipe.

Alexander Bisley

Any criticism you’d make of your competition?

Seth Meyers

Oh, God, no. I feel as though this is a really nice time for late night across the board and I’m happy to be one of the people that has the luxury of having one of these shows. I think for all of us, it’s a little strange when people say it’s a good time for you, because it doesn’t particularly feel like a good time. But there are certainly work advantages versus having a president, be they Democrat or Republican, who is conventional. When you have an unconventional president, it creates an incredible volume of material to go through on any given day.

Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Alexander Bisley

How do you see the role of political news comedy versus traditional media?

Seth Meyers

One of the nice things about traditional media is that they do have a rule book. Now, I think looking back on the past couple of years, they’ve maybe stepped outside of the lines here or there. But at its core, there are journalistic ethics and journalism is better when people follow it. Comedians are not known for having ethics [laughs], and that’s what makes us better at being able to process information that comes from someone else who doesn’t have ethics. We don’t have to have gloves on and couch anything in the language of journalists. If we think someone’s telling a lie we’re just very happy to come out and say, “As of today, this person is a liar.”

I think I should stress, we can’t do our jobs without journalism; journalists who are doing the hard work and actually getting the information that we use for our comedy.

Alexander Bisley

Can comedy swing swing voters?

Seth Meyers

My takeaway from the last election would be we’re not great at it. And I should say in 2008 when I was at SNL, I feel like SNL got a lot of credit for its impact on that election. But I made sure never to puff my chest out about that either because I feel there are a lot of reasons that people vote. Even in all the data and all the people that have been doing the excellent data work as far as what happened in the most recent election, I think that they said, “Look, there were a lot of different reasons that people voted.” But certainly, nothing is showing up in the data that says “Late Night” on it.

Alexander Bisley

Do you hope for any kind of impact beyond entertaining?

Seth Meyers

Well, the impact is this. I feel as though our show feels a bit more vital and a show that you want to make sure you see, either the night of or the next morning, because it’s about what’s happening in the world. So that allows us to choose the things that we think are important. And hopefully the people who watch our show think they’re important, and that’s why they keep coming back. Ultimately, if you can start conversations or inform people about things that they maybe otherwise might miss over the course of their busy day, that’s about as high as we aim as far as effect, is just getting that information out there.

Alexander Bisley

When you first got into comedy, did you think you’d become a political public intellectual?

Seth Meyers

No I did not. I had no sense of that, and I think if you’d seen my early improv show work you would also have agreed with me [laughs]. I always had an interest in politics; I grew up in New Hampshire so every four years we would have that be a big part of where we lived. But it wasn’t really until I found my way to SNL and the long history of political comedy on that show, I got to be up close to that and I feel I had on the job training. Again it was very interesting for me to do, but it wasn’t where I started from.

Alexander Bisley

Your Documentary Now! and Late Night bandleader colleague Fred Armisen has criticized the humorless Portlandian left. Anything you’d add in that vein?

Seth Meyers

I think that both sides of the political spectrum have some humorless elements to them. But I think as far as criticizing them, it seems rather pointless, because it’s very humorless.

Alexander Bisley

“Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Stephen Colbert once said. It’s important to be fair, right?

Seth Meyers

Yeah, “fair” is a word we talk about. We talk about “fair” when we talk about “even.” I feel as though “even” can sometimes lead to false equivalents, whereas “fair” is, is this how you’d like to be treated if somebody disagreed with you? We all have bias, we all have a point of view. I think the best you can do is try to be aware of it and try to make sure that the bias doesn’t make you treat someone else unfairly.

Alexander Bisley

Bill Maher told me recently Trump is the Republicans’ “chickens coming home to roost.” Howard Dean added, “I think that’s very accurate. When you feed your base anger and lies, eventually it’ll catch up with the feeder.” What are your thoughts?

Seth Meyers

Certainly I don’t think that Republicans can say, “We could’ve never seen something like this coming.” There was always a bit of realization amongst Republicans — especially Republicans in Congress and other elected officials leading up to the election — of the thing they can’t say that they would like to.

I certainly believe that no matter how badly he behaved they prefer him to Hilary Clinton. And they probably don’t ultimately have any regrets. If they have any regrets it’s probably, “Aw man, it’d be easier to deal with Ted Cruz right now. He understands how the Senate works.” So I think they just hold their noses and try to get as much of their agenda done as possible and hope that he doesn’t press any of the buttons he’s not supposed to press.

Alexander Bisley

Is there a danger in avoiding wider Republican responsibility for Trump and Trumpism?

Seth Meyers

I certainly think there’s a danger in the left not examining the role they played in this election as far as maybe misunderstanding where the rest of America was, as far as what they wanted, come Election Day. I think that things like [now-former FBI Director James] Comey, and I think things like misogyny, I think those all played a role in the election. But ultimately in the next election for all you know something crazy’s going to happen 10 days out that’s not your fault. But how can you control and change the things that were your fault? How can you be better at the things within your control?

I just hope that the Democratic Party looks at that. Because again, some very insane things happened over the course of this election. And I get that when you’re upset about the outcome, it’s very easy to look at things that were unfair and wrong and try to pin it all on that. But if you don’t look again, this is just basic self-improvement, you have to control the things you can control.

Alexander Bisley

America’s a great, big, complicated country. As you have mentioned, there are all sorts of reasons why people might’ve voted for Trump, some of them legitimate. You’ve tried hard to make a distinction between Trump and his supporters. But if Trump supporters keep supporting him, given his disqualifying first 100 days, should you go after them?

Seth Meyers

That’s something we’re keeping our eye on. I think we wanted to give it at least 100 days to see what kind of president he was and see if it had any effect on his supporters. I will say, I think health care will be the most interesting because this now starts to have an effect on Trump voters. I can understand how Trump voters whose lives didn’t improve under Barack Obama could consider voting for Trump.

Hillary Clinton was in a difficult position because she couldn’t really criticize Barack Obama. It was tricky for her to argue how she was going to be different than Barack Obama. It was a very hard thing to do because he was pretty popular when he left. So she was in a tricky box there. I guess my question is for those Trump people — 100 days, 200 days, 300 days in — is if Trump’s not doing anything to help them, will they change their mind?

Alexander Bisley

In 2008, you led the writing of those hilarious and iconic Tina Fey as Sarah Palin SNL segments. What did you learn from working with her?

Seth Meyers

In the very beginning of my time at SNL in 2001, Tina was a head writer. I had been a fan of hers even before then. Tina’s the kind of writer that is never satisfied with the current draft. Always believes that if there’s another 10 minutes before we have to have the final script in, that you can find a better joke. I never saw her without a script in her hand. I think that taught me that writing is not easy and that it’s never really done and you should always be fine-tuning it until the last possible second.

Alexander Bisley

You’re a very savvy interviewer too, unlike some brilliant comedians. Anyone else you’d love to interview?

Seth Meyers

I’ve been saying this recently, that I would really like to talk to Sean Spicer. I think he has the most interesting job in the world right now and I can’t imagine what the approach to it is every day. I can’t imagine that he will ever find the time to come on my show. But I would really like to — at the very least not even for TV — sit down and have a drink with Sean Spicer and ask him a million questions about how his day works from when he wakes up to when he has to go stand in front of the press.

Alexander Bisley

You did well with Kellyanne Conway. She’s one of the most slippery interviewees, isn’t she?

Seth Meyers

Oh yeah, she is. That was a case where I certainly watched a lot of tape leading up to it to try and prepare myself for her many, almost MMA-type escape moves that she has. But I was glad she came, and I really respect that. Because there aren’t a lot of people in the Trump administration who are willing to go somewhere that they know will be — not enemy territory — but let’s just say an away game. So I was glad she showed up.

Alexander Bisley

Does anything spring to mind that you’d like to ask the commander in chief?

Seth Meyers

I don’t think that there’s a good interview to be had with President Trump. I’m glad people interview him because every time they do, he says things that are outlandish and that’s good for business for us. But as far as a Late Night talk show interview, I can’t imagine one ever being satisfying. It’s not as though you’re going to say anything to him that’s going to make him reassess where he stands on the world or admit fault.

One of the things I would like to ask him is about why he thought it would be easier than what he was doing before this. What led him to think this? No one in history has ever said it was an easy job.

Alexander Bisley

“I think the moral leadership in the business community has fallen apart for the most part,” Howard Dean said, during my last Vox interview. “We need large corporations to use their influence.” Should big companies play more of a role in opposing Trumpism?

Seth Meyers

Absolutely. You certainly look at what happened in North Carolina, where I feel a lot of companies have stood by their morals in doing business there. It’s always nice to see companies take a stand. I think that companies have a real appreciation for the people that work there, and they could always do better, but look it’s a tricky business when you also have shareholders. The problem with business is it’s not built to be ethical; I think we’re lucky anytime we end up with a business leader who decides to make that a priority.

Alexander Bisley

Is there any further advice you’d give to Democrats or progressives?

Seth Meyers

Here’s what I think. This is also true for comedians these days — there’s an audience of people, and maybe it’s because of the way we’ve all lived on social media or the way that we have less and less of us that’s in private — people are very aware, both audiences and voters, they have a real strong sense of authenticity and they can immediately tell when something is inauthentic.

I think moving forward, the Democratic Party would just be really wise, and hopefully those people exist in their ranks, to have the kind of candidates who both represent the people who are more likely to vote for them and feel authentic. Because that is the one thing about Donald Trump. I know it’s a contradiction — because I don’t think he’s an honest person — but I do think he’s an authentic person. I think that that’s what the Democratic Party needs.

Alexander Bisley

Bernie Sanders, a repeat interviewee on your show, is both honest and authentic.

Seth Meyers

Yeah. Also, Bernie Sanders is likable just by being a grump [laughs]. To me, the magic trick every time Bernie Sanders comes on, people are so happy to see him, but he pretty much just talks about things he’s upset about. Even when he talks about the things he’s optimistic about, he seems really cranky.

Alexander Bisley is a regular Vox contributor and self-employed journalist. His favorite comedian is Chris Rock.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.