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How Late Night With Seth Meyers became the calm in a political comedy storm

“I thought the campaign was the World Series, and it turned out it was spring training.”

Seth Meyers has carved a place for himself with commentary as sharp as it is steady.
Javier Zarracina / Vox

Just a couple of hours before taping another episode of Late Night, Seth Meyers glanced at the TV muted on his wall, with its endless breaking news scrawl that might as well have been screaming, “DOOM,” and sighed.

“I thought the campaign was the World Series, and it turned out it was spring training,” he said. “[On Election Day], it was like, ‘Ohh, no, the season’s starting now.”

When I sat down to talk with Meyers in his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza — just one floor above his previous gig at Saturday Night Live, where he was the head writer for nine years — it was the last week of July. Waves of health care votes were crashing around Washington, with millions of lives hanging in the partisan balance as Republicans scrambled to repeal and replace Obamacare. (That whole catastrophe was, in fact, less than a month ago.)

“The White House has the best writers’ room in comedy,” Meyers said, his simmering laugh approaching a disbelieving boil. “Every day, they come up with plot turns that you didn’t see coming.”

While Meyers and his team had already transformed Late Night into one of TV’s most politically pointed late-night shows long before Election Day, their efforts redoubled the instant Donald Trump won the presidency. On November 9, Meyers even tried to imagine a better future than the one he clearly feared would come to pass. His face fell as he abandoned his usual sideways grin to express his hope that poorer Trump supporters would not be forgotten by the man they had voted for, and that Americans who were genuinely afraid of what Trump might do would find reprieve.

That hope didn’t last long — but Meyers’s candid, considerate, and slyly sharp approach to dissecting the news did.

Ever since Trump was elected, the Late Night team has homed in on how best to crack jokes about increasingly disturbing political events. Crucially, they’ve focused their efforts on highlighting the true injustices coming out of the Trump administration rather than getting caught up in some of its more ridiculous sideshows (though not even Meyers could resist Anthony Scaramucci’s bada bing! approach to working in the White House).

Instead, as the gnarled mess of politics and the news cycle continues to rage on, Late Night has remained steadfast in its mission to deliver the news with biting accuracy, compassion for those living outside Meyers’s own experience, and a determinedly level head. That combination is what sharpens Meyers’s jokes to a lethal point and, when a horrific occasion like Charlottesville calls for it, infuses them with sincere gravity.

As we talked about Election Day and the almost instant mayhem it inspired, Meyers paused, his eyes crinkling. “Looking back,” he said, “it was not even a full day before you realized what kind of a president he was going to be.”

Likewise, it was not even a full day after the election before I realized what kind of a show Late Night would be under President Trump — and how grateful I was to have it.

To break down what has kept Late Night so steady during unprecedented political turbulence, Meyers and I talked out what had to change once Trump became president, and what sets his show apart during a time when politics and comedy alike are at their most hyperbolic in ages.

Meyers’s signature segment has become “A Closer Look,” a meticulous, searing dissection of the day’s top stories

Before and (especially) after the election, the sharpest tool in Late Night’s arsenal — much to Meyers’s own surprise — has proved to be “A Closer Look.”

When Late Night first premiered in 2014, Meyers says, “the conventional wisdom was to do small, viral things that people can watch on their phones and don’t take much of their time.” Accordingly, “A Closer Look” debuted in 2015 as a shorter, wackier sketch featuring Meyers bantering with some of Late Night’s writers, who tapped in as Daily Show-style correspondents. But it has since evolved into a close read of current events, typically running for at least 10 minutes of dense news commentary laced with jokes that Meyers — who writes “A Closer Look” with Late Night writer Sal Gentile, formerly of MSNBC — delivers solo from his desk.

Now the lengthier version is considered a show highlight, with each edition amassing an average of 2 million views on YouTube. “What we’ve been so pleasantly surprised by is, if you have a strong enough thesis, and you put enough information in something … people have a longer attention span than I think we gave them credit for,” Meyers says. (He also throws kudos John Oliver’s way, noting that Late Night managed to find such a patient audience after premiering in the same year as Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which counts on keeping viewers entertained for 20 minutes at a time with topics that can be so dry they might as well be flaking off the wall.)

Viewers’ high tolerance for wonkier political commentary was especially strong during the 2016 presidential election, which gave Late Night’s writers — and late-night comedy writers in general — more material than they knew what to do with. But as Meyers and his staff began to look ahead to 2017, they assumed, like so many others, that they’d be working with a more staid President Hillary Clinton soon enough, and that “A Closer Look” would “shrink down” accordingly.

“We were bracing for trying to figure out what to do with the time we got back from our ‘Closer Looks,’” Meyers says, his voice thick with irony, “and it turned out that was not forthcoming.”

The segment has since proved its staying power during the Trump administration. As the news cycle has maintained a breakneck pace, Meyers has remained determined to keep track of each new development as best he can — and to help his viewers do the same. Late Night now produces two or three “Closer Look” segments a week, versus the weekly edition that was more typical in 2016.

Giving more time to “A Closer Look” also gives Meyers more frequent opportunities to excoriate the president’s policies, cavalier tendency to twist the truth, and astonishing lack of attention to detail when handling the nation’s most sensitive matters.

But Meyers has been quick to point out — during both our interview and the segments themselves — that even as “A Closer Look” tries to tie together all the more ridiculous “nonsense” to come out of the news, the more soap operatic elements of the Trump White House are not at all what he cares about or thinks people should be focusing on. “The important thing for us is to never drop out of things like health care,” Meyers said. “The health care vote will historically have more weight than anything that happens with Sarah Huckabee Sanders or [Anthony] Scaramucci ... [even if] they’re fun comic foils.”

In practice, that means each “Closer Look” segment tends to open with the splashier, more ridiculous news of the day — like Scaramucci calling in to CNN or Sean Spicer disappearing into the bushes — before pivoting to whatever more serious issue Meyers and Gentile have decided is worthy of deeper analysis.

Take Meyers’s recent 14-minute examination of Trump’s conflicting responses to the recent deadly white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia:

The segment begins with some jokes about the fact that white supremacists marching through Charlottesville carried tiki torches, and that the Tiki company came out against them (Meyers: “You know it’s bad when the thing you’re angrily waving denounces you”). Soon enough, though, Meyers is lacing his punchlines about torches with firm assertions that the marchers are “vile bigots” and that President Trump “failed” to provide any kind of “moral clarity.”

Late Night has found so much success with the “deep dive” nature of “A Closer Look” that the show is also experimenting with a new segment, “The Check In,” to keep tabs on more ongoing stories and issues that may not be dominating the headlines but that Meyers finds no less important for his audience to be aware of, like the opioid crisis.

Throughout both segments, Meyers displays an attention to detail that has become vital in comedy and political commentary alike, especially now that the line between the two is blurrier than ever. And in the process, he sets himself apart by taking special care to highlight how the news of the day is affecting people who are different from him — which, for a straight white guy late-night host, is still a pathetically rare instinct.

Meyers knows something that more white guy comedians like him could stand to learn: His experience isn’t universal

When I attended a taping of Late Night in April, I brought a friend who is both a huge fan of Meyers dating back to his early SNL days and hugely wary in general of late-night comedy’s willingness to speak beyond the straight white guy perspective. But to her delight (and my relief), the entire show — from Meyers’s opening monologue to a dry standup routine from queer SNL writer Julio Torres — made a tangible effort to present other perspectives, peaking with an appearance from one of Late Night’s best recurring segments, “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.”

“Here at Late Night, every night, I deliver a monologue comprised of jokes written by a diverse team of writers,” Meyers began, “and as a result, a lot of jokes come across my desk that, due to my being a straight white male, would be difficult for me to deliver. But we don’t think that should stop you from enjoying them.”

With that, the segment cut to its traditional opening, in which Meyers sits between Late Night writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel while all three parties introduce themselves as follows:

Ruffin: “I’m black!”

Hagel: “I’m gay!”

Ruffin: “And we’re both women.”

Meyers: “And I’m not.”

From there, Meyers sets up jokes for Ruffin and Hagel to spike with punchlines that, had they come from him, might come across more like they were written with disdain rather than affection.

When I spoke with Ruffin and Hagel how the segment first came about, Hagel — who was previously the head writer for Fuse’s ironically titled White Guy Talk Show — recalled pitching it because the Late Night writers’ room had a file of “excellent jokes” that everyone agreed “Seth can't get away with.” Frequent subjects of their mockery include the Catholic Church (Hagel), the police (Ruffin), and Meyers’s haircut (both).

“I can tell you I was not the only straight white guy in the room who immediately knew [the segment] would make for good television,” Meyers says. But the fact that straight white guys weren’t the only people in the room speaks to a key factor in the way Meyers runs his show: Had he not found people like Hagel and Ruffin to round out his staff in the first place, Meyers points out, “it just wouldn’t have come up otherwise.”

“I didn’t know the kinds of things a non-straight white man might bring to the table,” he continued. “The only way to find out was to bring them to the table.”

It sounds simple enough, but one of the most exhausting and predictable cycles in comedy centers on how overwhelmingly white, straight, and male writers’ rooms can be. Showrunners tend to hire writers they already know, and since the framework of TV comedy has been so dominantly white and male for decades, it inevitably yields more of the same until someone makes a conscious decision to change it.

When assembling the writers’ room for Late Night, Meyers says, he looked outside other writers’ rooms to the wider comedy world of improv, standup, and the internet. (Ruffin, for instance, was hired at Late Night after writing and performing at the Second City theater in Chicago; the show is her first TV writing job.) “By the time I left SNL, it was a really diverse place, and I realized how valuable [having several different perspectives] had been,” Meyers says. “I was educated there and tried to bring it along.”

I realize all of this might sound like a particularly savvy PR strategy in an age where “diversity” can be a go-to buzzword for networks angling for brownie points. But in all my time working in and covering late-night comedy, I have never heard a white male host acknowledge his inherent limitations like Meyers does, both during “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” and beyond. For his powerful post-Election Day monologue, for example, Meyers was the only white guy host to remind his audience that “any emotions I’m feeling are likely a fraction of those being felt by the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, and any number of the immigrant communities so vital to our country.”

What convinced me he means it is just how often Meyers underlines this point — and how much fun he has while performing something like “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” beaming and giggling as his writers take the spotlight and land jokes he never could.

“You're really encouraged to bring your whole self to work," Hagel says of getting to write and perform the segment. "What is valued in our writers’ room is what is unique about each person."

Ruffin, who frequently appears on Late Night to share her perspective on the news, attributes this approach to Meyers being genuinely “interested in other points of view.” So when I asked her if she was as shocked as I was when Meyers first issued his “I can’t tell these jokes as a straight white man” caveat, she was firm when she said no.

“If you know Seth,” Ruffin says, “that's not a surprising thing to hear him say."

In the wake of something like Charlottesville, Meyers’s willingness to take a step back and let those with more at stake stand front and center isn’t just unusual; it’s also necessary.

But if you’ve been watching Late Night long and closely enough, it likely won’t come as a surprise that it’s an intrinsic part of Meyers’s repertoire, which relies on even-handed consideration above all else.

As the overall tone of late night has grown more gobsmacked, Meyers’s level head makes his most dire warnings stand out

In the months since Donald Trump has been president, late-night comedians have been among the loudest voices on television to call out Trump without any equivocation whatsoever.

This norm-shattering administration has confused traditional media so much that my Vox colleague Carlos Maza — who’s taken it upon himself to watch all the cable news so you don’t have to — has even concluded that late-night comedians are simply better equipped to cut down Trump’s reliance on twisting facts than newscasters, whose default state is usually to give politicians the benefit of the doubt.

But many late-night hosts are grappling with this new reality by getting louder and angrier with each passing week. Some of them, especially Daily Show alums Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver, have even honed their fire-spitting skills so sharply they could hit a bull’s-eye mid-vent.

Meyers, by contrast, gets quieter when he gets more serious.

“The number of times we could’ve said, ‘It’s official, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened,’ it would’ve been foolhardy,” Meyers says. This isn’t to say that Late Night doesn’t call out injustice where it sees it; if anything, the show does so with such straightforward candor that it’s almost more startling than hearing the same sentiment sputtered in outrage. (In this respect, Meyers’s closest present-day analogue in late night is The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, who has also delivered some of his best commentary in the lulls between outrage.)

Meyers is blunt and matter-of-fact about just how fucked he feels things are, all while calmly clasping his hands instead of clenching his fists. When Meyers calls a lie a lie, he does so like a parent telling you he’s not angry, he’s disappointed — but you know he’s both.

When Trump’s first week in office ended with the president issuing a broad travel ban against Muslim-majority countries, Meyers didn’t raise his voice, but he didn’t mince his words either.

“It’s only been a week,” he said, “but the Trump administration has already revealed itself to be a government of incompetent authoritarians with nothing but contempt for any of the basic constitutional principles this country has cherished since its founding.”

That sentence radiates so much heat and outright disgust that I could almost feel it burning off my screen when I first heard it. But in the context of the entire piece, it’s practically an aside.

“We’re aware that the packaging of our show is a comedy show — that’s where our backgrounds are, that’s where we want to be, is funny first,” Meyers told me. “But at the same time, calling these the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime, I think there is some power to just saying it matter of fact without shaking my fist and whatnot.”

When you tune in to Late Night, you’ll certainly hear your fair share of jokes about President Trump’s struggles with logic or his son Eric living in the White House cupboards like a DC-based Quasimodo. But you’ll also hear Meyers flatly calling policies like the immigration ban “cruel and unnecessary,” insisting that the GOP is treating health care “as a commodity rather than a right,” and reiterating that Trump’s birther conspiracy about Barack Obama was always “racist and insane.”

“There’s something about trying to stay even-keeled about it that might give it more strength,” Meyers mused, before taking a moment to look up at the TV in case something changed even in the last 30 seconds of our conversation. “At least,” he added wryly, “that’s our plan.”