As the Covid-19 pandemic intensified on March 12, causing Late Night With Seth Meyers to cancel that evening’s show and begin at least a two-week hiatus, the host had no idea how much his world was about to change. “I didn’t think past those two weeks,” Meyers says now. “I thought, Oh, this is fortuitous that we have a scheduled week off and obviously a bummer that we’ll miss a week of shows, but I certainly didn’t think that this was going to be this long.”
Three months later, the Saturday Night Live alum has adjusted to his unexpected new normal: shooting Late Night remotely from his attic. But Meyers and his show haven’t missed a beat during Covid-19. His signature “A Closer Look” segments—offering a 10-minute-plus deep dive into the latest President Trump news—still routinely rake up 2 million viewers on YouTube, where they are released prior to the episode airing on NBC. And subscribers to Peacock, which rolls out nationally July 15, will get to see his entire Late Night episode three-and-a-half hours early, at 9 p.m. each night.
Despite the pandemic, Meyers—who will be speaking at Adweek’s Elevate: The Future of TV event on Tuesday, June 16—is busier than ever. In addition to Late Night, he produces several other TV shows (see sidebar), including A.P. Bio (which is moving from NBC to Peacock) and IFC’s Documentary Now! and had his own Netflix standup special last year. Sitting in his attic-turned-studio last month, Meyers chatted with Adweek about filming from home, how “A Closer Look” put his show on the map and his future in late night.
Adweek: When you left the studio on March 12, did the possibility of broadcasting from home even cross your mind?
Meyers: Not at all. I think we’re all beneficiaries of watching each other’s work and once you realized that other [late-night] people were figuring it out, that made us realize, OK, this is a good thing to do. But I had no gear that I needed to do the show, nor was I smart enough to know what the best room to do it in was. The first week of the pandemic feels longer ago to me than the first week of Late Night, which was six-and-a-half years ago [laughs], because from the first Late Night to the last one we did in the studio, it felt like there was less difference [in the shows] than the first show we did in the pandemic to tonight’s.
What has been the toughest adjustment to doing the show from home?
Writing jokes, telling jokes without an audience—all of that was fine. The hardest part has been having to focus so much on the technical side of it in a way that we realize when you’re surrounded by a talented staff, my only responsibilities on a show day [in the studio] are to write and perform comedy—which is the only skill set that I have of any value. So it’s the little things, like being halfway through “A Closer Look” and realizing I did not hit record on my microphone or, “Did I put on makeup today? I don’t think I did …”
Do you feel comfortable doing Late Night from home yet?
I feel as comfortable as I think you can. I know where to sit, I know which way to turn. If there’s one thing left to upgrade, it would maybe be a camera. But I know where the lights are now, I feel pretty good about the sound. Obviously, it’s not TV quality, but I think viewers understand what we’re all going through, so they have very kindly lowered their standards as far as the technical specifications go.
What is it like to wrap production at home two or three hours before you’d normally be taping an episode in the studio?
The upside is having dinner with my kids. They go to bed before I get home from a normal taping. So, that part has been lovely.
It’s going to be tough for them when you head back to work again.
Yeah. I think they’re going to start saying things like, “Wait, you did it from the attic, why do you have to go to 30 Rock?”
When you started doing “A Closer Look” a few years ago, whose idea was it to put the segment on YouTube a few hours before the episode aired?
When we first started doing it, we could tell it was something special and we were proud of it. I think it was the pure ego of wanting to get something you liked out there earlier for people to see. I don’t know if we fully understood that it would be a thing that we’d continue to do, but as long as people let us, we were happy to do it. It was never some grand strategy; it just sort of organically happened.
Was NBC OK with putting a big chunk of the show online ahead of time?
Yeah. And my understanding is one of the reasons they were OK with it was they didn’t see any massive drop-off in the linear viewing when we started doing that. I think the data showed that it was a different group of people who were watching it then, and to their credit, NBC appreciated that it was nice to have another platform where people were enjoying the show.
How soon after that did you realize that “A Closer Look” was taking off?
The first thing was less view counts and more it was the part of the show people always mention to us. The first couple years I was on Late Night, people would say, “I loved you on SNL,” [laughs] which was a wonderful thing to hear, but it definitely stuck in the back of my head that it wasn’t my current job. Then all of a sudden, I started hearing, “I really like ‘A Closer Look.’”
For us, it was so exciting because when we started the show, I think the conventional wisdom was the opposite of the idea that people were into long-form content, especially when they would watch it online. We were starting [two] months before [HBO’s Last Week Tonight With] John Oliver, so the sea change was coming, as his show proved right out of the gate. But it was nice to do something like that, and it’s also nice because when something is 15 minutes long, people are seeing a really high percentage of what you’ve put your work into [that episode] by only watching one piece.
You can draw a line between putting “A Closer Look” out early digitally and what NBCU is doing now with Peacock, when they’re making your entire show, and Jimmy Fallon’s show, available several hours early for subscribers. How did they present that idea to you?
There was no grand presentation with pie charts and whatnot. It was, “This is something we value, it’s something we think an audience values and now that we have this new product, we’d like to give it a shot.” We were certainly flattered by the idea that they saw it as something that might draw eyes to something new.
That’s one of a couple of projects you’re doing for Peacock, including Season 3 of A.P. Bio. Has there been any difference in how you’ve approached the show on Peacock versus making it for NBC during its first two years?
[Creator] Mike O’Brien was really excited about the fact that you could write the whole season before it aired, [as opposed to] that network model of, you start writing and then you’re filming while you’re writing. They were just so happy to write it all and then shoot it all. And on a streaming service, there’s less limits on things like language. There’s a really funny moment in this season where one of the kids notices that they’re swearing in class now, and that was something that obviously being on Peacock allowed.
You’ll also be executive producing a Peacock show starring [Late Night writer and performer] Amber Ruffin. What should we expect from that?
Amber and [Late Night collaborator] Jenny Hagel are almost running a show within a show at Late Night, and they’ll be working on the show together. It’s incredible how many ideas they come up with that are specific and unique to their voices. It’s been such a benefit to our show to make space for those voices, but it also makes a ton of sense that they would have their own place to do it. We hope they’ll still be incredibly valuable parts of our staff, but they just come up with so many ideas that they could, on any given night, do a show without me. So in order to keep them from poisoning my food, I’m very happy that they have their own show.
Season 3 of Documentary Now! was your most ambitious yet. Were you trying to actively challenge yourself?
Part of why I still love writing actual episodes of that show is I loved sketch writing at SNL. I love writing at Late Night as well, but so much of what we write at Late Night goes bad in a day or two because it’s so much about the day’s news. So it’s really nice to have this complementary show where you’re writing hyper-specific art documentary parodies that will be exactly as timely 10 years from now—and probably as watched. If Late Night is like loading boats at a dockyard, this is like a ship in a bottle: It’s very precise.
Where do things stand with Season 4?
I’m writing a script right now for Season 4; [John] Mulaney is working on something. We’re way far behind. Unfortunately, I think because we sketch-write the way we did at SNL, it’s that oft-repeated Lorne Michaels quote of, “We do the show because it’s 11:30, not because it’s ready.” We could use an 11:30 to get our scripts in! If there’s any stress to that show, it’s that we’ve managed to keep the quality at something we’re really proud of for three seasons, so the last thing we want to do is mail it in.
SNL now puts “cut for time” sketches online. Do you think if they’d done that when you were there, it would have hurt a little less when your sketches didn’t make it to air?
No. If anything, I wish five of my sketches that aired had been cut. I am far too hard [on myself]. If my sketch couldn’t make it into the show, I didn’t want anybody to see it. When I started the show, I was desperate for everything we wrote to make it, and then it hit this peak where I only wanted my really good things to be on TV.
You had your Lobby Baby stand-up special on Netflix last fall. What was the response to that compared to Late Night?
It was nice to do a show that is mostly apolitical. There was reference to politics, but I think it’s very hard in a stand-up special to do anything about the moment you’re living in because as a comedian, if you try to heighten where it’s going, you might still end up short by the time they turn around your special. For me, it was doing something that was far more personal than a normal episode of Late Night would be. People then responded to it in a way that was more personal, which was a lovely way to have fans interact. It has a great deal to do with family and childbearing, so a lot of people have gone through that. I felt like all walks of life responded to it in a way that was really rewarding.
What prompted you to put the “skip politics” option in there, where audiences could skip past the political content just like they can skip the opening credits on Netflix shows?
It won’t surprise you that “skip politics” was advice some people have given me on Twitter, so it was a tongue-in-cheek way to address that criticism. What I liked about it was figuring out a structure where you could have people leave at one moment and come back for a joke that the people who stayed were in on, and the people who skipped were not. I was very happy when I came up with it. Netflix, God love them, they did it, but they definitely let me know it was not easy. Yet, then I see [the new interactive] Kimmy Schmidt [special] has got a fucking million different options. I just wanted to skip ahead! [laughs] The amount of times that I had to say, “It’s like skipping an intro. I didn’t come up with this on my own!”
How long would you like to continue to do Late Night for—and is that answer different now than it would have been pre-pandemic?
If anything, I have even more appreciation for how much I love doing this show. I was worried in that first week, that second week: How long are we going to be away from it? I still desperately miss being around my staff, but I feel such peace getting to produce a show every day and feel so lucky to have a platform.
I always thought that I would look at the show in five-year chunks. I think the first five years is the way I felt about SNL, which is just make it five years, and then the second five years it’s like, make the most of it. The crazy thing for me is, I think August will be 20 years in the building, uninterrupted. I shouldn’t say uninterrupted—I’ve been in an attic for two-and-a-half months! [Laughs] So if you’re wondering how long I’m going to stay there, just know that it took a worldwide pandemic to get me out of 30 Rock.
Meyers’ multiplatform mindset
In addition to hosting Late Night, Meyers also executive produces an eclectic slate of comedy TV shows, most of which are on streaming platforms. He’s got two shows in the works for NBCU’s new streamer, Peacock: sitcom A.P. Bio, which moves from NBC for Season 3, and a new late-night talk show starring his Late Night writer and frequent performer Amber Ruffin. Plus, his documentary satire Documentary Now! has been renewed for a fourth season at IFC, his standup special Lobby Baby aired on Netflix last fall and a Murder, She Wrote satire, Mapleworth Murders, is coming to Quibi. (Meyers also co-created the adult animated series The Awesomes, which ran for three seasons on Hulu.)
Given his busy Late Night schedule, Meyers says he and producing partner Mike Shoemaker are most interested in collaborating with “the people we work with and getting their ideas on the air. If you produce shows with creative people who have strong voices, ultimately your job is just to get other people away from them so they don’t meddle, and that’s easier than having to actually do the hard work.”
But Meyers says he doesn’t purposely seek out niche cable or streaming services for his projects. “In each case, whether it was IFC or Hulu or Netflix, there was always somebody who believed in the project more than anywhere else,” he says. “It wasn’t like, let’s appeal to someone younger. It was maybe that there were younger people working at places like that, that had different tastes that were a little more open to something like The Awesomes or Documentary Now! It’s not that I’m dying to have a show on a different service, but when Quibi loves Mapleworth in the way that you think it deserves to be loved, that’s more important than ultimately how people watch it or anything like that.” —J.L.