“There’s nothing like an iPad and a slow internet connection to make TV sparkle,” laughs Seth Meyers, recalling the initial rough-around-the-edges technology that his talk show “Late Night with Seth Meyers” employed in the early days of the pandemic to ensure the show aired on its regular schedule.
But working collectively with producer Mike Shoemaker — Meyers’ longtime behind-the-scenes partner since their “Saturday Night Live” days together — and the staff ultimately proved a boon to the show, which swiftly found a fast, loose, improvisational on-air footing that carried over when production resumed safely in-studio last fall.
“It was necessity being the mother of invention, just having to figure out how we were going to do the show,” says Meyers. “Looking back, it was a terrifying time, but I admit it was also pretty exciting figuring out how to get it done.”
Shoemaker adds, “We really had to take it down to the studs, as it were.” He credits Meyers with holding the essence of the show together, honing his hosting skills to their most razor-sharp incarnation as technical kinks were ironed out. Meyers, he said, brought his most unfiltered persona to signature segments, such as the monologue, “A Closer Look,” and guest interviews; the on-the-fly production “allowed Seth enough time and no one to stop him, so he could indulge his craziest instincts, all which turned out to have been good.”
Meyers recalls, “I used to be in an improv group where there was a chest backstage that was full of wigs. And if an improv scene was happening, you’d run back and try to find the closest wig to who you wanted to play. And that’s kind of what it felt like: Everything had to be on hand.”
Meyers made use of whatever loopy ingredients he could find, such as the vintage sea captain painting in his in-laws’ home, which became a talking, singing sidekick. “If I had suggested it during a studio show, it would’ve correctly been shot down as being a waste of time,” he says. “But I think the audience is willing to go along with certain indulgences, because — due to the fact that everyone was living through this pandemic at the same time — they understood what we were up against.”
Despite successfully staging shows from his own home and during a stay at his in-laws’ house, “Late Night” really clicked into a higher gear once they returned to the studio: The stress of jury-rigged production ended and Meyers was able to further tap his comedic resources with a greater sense of ease. “You can see it in Seth’s shoulders when he’s just doing what he wants, and in the hands of professionals,” says Shoemaker.
Further creative challenges loomed as the writing staff — typically more biting in their political and social commentary than most late-night shows — mined humor from the incendiary landscape of the past several months. “It was a fraught year for a lot of reasons,” says Meyers. “During the George Floyd protests and that moment in history, we were really lucky to have Amber Ruffin on staff. We basically gave her the keys for a week and it paid off in a really nice fashion — not just for us, but hopefully for everyone. Then, we all felt like we were hurtling toward the election, and then there was a really long tail, as I guess we should have predicted. And now it’s just as lovely to be on the other side of it as I had always hoped it would be.”
The show also made an instant TV star out of its latest hire, writer-performer Jeff Wright, who’d found online fame for his hilariously insightful, cleverly assembled web videos in which Wright plays all the roles. “It’s so rare for someone to show up as fully formed as Jeff,” says Meyers.
For Wright — who, despite being summoned to the late-night big leagues, continues to work largely from home and still hasn’t met his colleagues on the writing staff in person — the gig was a stamp of approval from a show he calls “so pristine.”
“It validated all the hours I spent making videos with myself, writing the sketches and scripts, and doing the standup,” says Wright. “It felt like, ‘OK, this is actually going somewhere besides social media.’ Because social media gives you positive reinforcement, too, but then when Seth Meyers does? That’s different. That’s another level of positive reinforcement.”
Meyers and the writers, says Wright, understood how his comedic voice fit into and enhanced the show’s humor, opening up the possibilities of his ideas with broadcast TV-level production. “They took the top off of my creativity,” he says. “I presented a sketch and Seth paused, and I’d be, ‘Oh no, this is not good.’ And then he’d tag it up with three more [jokes] and I’m like, ‘Damn, I didn’t even think of that!’ In my mind, if you’re around really talented people, even if you were the worst one, you’re going to be pretty damn good.”
While recognizing that delivering a nightly show with an even sharper comedic edge may have granted viewers a greater sense of normalcy, continuity and laughter during a deeply weird, often anxious time, Meyers insists he was the real beneficiary.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like for me this year to not have the show as an outlet,” says Meyers. “It continues to be this incredible gift, to have a talk show like this, and to work with my friend.” Without missing a beat, Meyers takes sly aim at Shoemaker, confiding, “This is the part that he insists I put in at the end of interviews.”
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