Seth Meyers was trying to avoid being disappointed in front of his children on Emmy nomination morning, so he went for a run around New York City. He needn’t have worried. For the first time since he took the reins, Late Night with Seth Meyers earned a spot on Emmy’s Outstanding Variety Talk Series ballot.
Perversely, it was the pandemic that helped the former Saturday Night Live star find his groove. Forced to produce his show from the attic of his in-laws’ house for long stretches with only a painting of an old sea captain and worn copy of The Thorn Birds for company, Meyers ditched his suit and tie and took his show, which launched in 2014, to a more relaxed level. Audiences, and evidently Emmy voters, noticed.
Meyers returned to 30 Rock in September 2020, and a studio audience followed just over a year later in October 2021. But he has kept the more informal attire and a way of telling jokes that work in both an empty room and a packed space.
He says that the pandemic gave him and his staff, which includes executive producer Mike Shoemaker, a “window of opportunity” to make “massive creative changes”. It seems to have paid off. He will now compete with the likes of John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert for the top late-night prize in September.
However, Meyers is convinced that it nearly didn’t happen after it initially emerged that there would only be four nominations in the main late-night category.
Only 19 late-night shows were submitted in the category, which according to Television Academy rules, would have meant only four nominations, down from six in 2019. This led to some lobbying from the late-night community, which was able to get a rule change to keep it at five.
There’s no way of telling which spot Late Night with Seth Meyers was in, but Meyers jokes, “That’s not to say we were definitely the fifth one, but we were definitely the fifth one in.”
Ironically, a move that Meyers and Shoemaker made last year nearly meant that there were only four nominations this year. In 2021, they lobbied the Academy to submit Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show, which they exec produce, in the sketch category rather than in late-night, even though the organization believed it should be considered a late-night show. Had Ruffin’s weekly show been considered a late-night show, there would have been no need for a last-minute rule change, guaranteeing five spots.
Meyers believes Late Night is an underdog in the category, although given that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has won six years in a row, many of the other shows similarly believe that it’s HBO’s to lose. That said, with his first nomination, Meyers is incredibly pleased to be in the running.
The former Weekend Update anchor, in the middle of his latest bout of Covid, speaks to Deadline about this journey and his thoughts on the late-night landscape, which is currently in the middle of a new wave of changes.
DEADLINE: I noticed that your latest positive Covid case came just as we were entering Phase 2 of Emmy voting. Coincidence or a ploy to get you some attention from the Academy voters?
SETH MEYERS: Oh, absolutely. I went to my doctor. He’s not in show business, but he did say sympathy is as good a play as any.
DEADLINE: Congrats on getting nominated in the main late-night category. How did it feel?
MEYERS: It was a wonderful morning. I’ve certainly come to use most of those mornings, if you use history as a judge, to prepare ourselves for disappointment. It was a lot of [Mike] Shoemaker and I emailing back and forth about how lucky we are, no matter the outcome.
DEADLINE: Were you pessimistic?
MEYERS: I don’t think I’m a pessimist. I’m more someone who analyzes data well. It’s more that we get our hopes up, we’re optimistic. But then we wrap our heads around the fact that it hasn’t happened before.
The nicest moment is that when you don’t get it, you get about five to 10 texts. Very sweet, very necessary texts, telling you things along lines of “Go get them next year,” or, “You were robbed.” When you do get it, it’s a great number more texts. That was the nicest part of the day.
DEADLINE: Where were you when you found out?
MEYERS: I was on hiatus, so I was with my family. I actually didn’t want to have to be with my kids when I found out because, as we’ve established over a long and lengthy career, I’m a terrible actor. I didn’t want to be with my kids pretending like I wasn’t bummed out, so I went for a run, and I put my phone down so I could use that time to once again [think] none of this matters. Then when you find out you’re nominated, and you’re so happy, you realize that mostly what you’ve been doing is telling yourself lies about how little it matters, because it has such a positive effect. My wife literally threw up her hands, because she’s had to deal with me finding out in real time all these years, and then one time I finally get it, I’ve literally run away.
DEADLINE: This year’s late-night nominations were unusual because the TV Academy changed the rules. Do you think that helped?
MEYERS: It should be noted that that’s maybe one of the reasons we weren’t so bullish to begin with. For years, we weren’t getting the nom and there were six slots. Being realists, when it went down [to four] before, it was almost a relief. That’s not to say we were definitely the fifth one, but we were definitely the fifth one in. When it went down to four, we almost thought, “well, gosh, now we don’t even have to worry about it, we don’t even have to get our hopes up at all.” When it went back to five, I will admit that was when we thought maybe.
DEADLINE: Were you aware of the fact that by putting The Amber Ruffin Show in sketch, you might have been responsible for cutting the number of nominations?
MEYERS: Yes, we were hyper aware of that. When I found that it was 19 nominations, I really thought that was by our own hand.
DEADLINE: Somewhere in LA, The Late Late Show with James Corden team is cursing your name.
MEYERS: I would say that would be true, except that I can attest for the record that [Corden and exec producer Ben Winston] both reached out, and it certainly seems like sincere congratulations.
DEADLINE: It feels like there’s a changing landscape in late-night. James Corden is leaving, Desus and Mero have split up, Samantha Bee’s show was canceled, and there are rumors about Jimmy Kimmel leaving. What’s your take on the current situation?
MEYERS: It’s notable that when we started, around eight and-a-half years ago, it seemed like there was this massive wave of new shows, and that seemed like the last inflection point. What was really exciting about that wave is you have someone like me, who looks a lot like people who’ve had these shows in the past, but then there was a group of people who hadn’t had shows like this in the past. That was really fun. That’s one of the heartbreaking parts about Samantha Bee and Desus & Mero coming to a close, because they represented a really new, exciting chapter in late-night. I would just hope that it’s not as negative a bellwether as it seems. But it was sad to read about.
DEADLINE: It seems like a blow for diversity. It also feels like the last wave of traditional, linear late-night shows and streaming hasn’t quite figured out how to handle this genre.
MEYERS: I think that’s right. One thing I should really stress is how bad I am at predicting the future based on the present. I would have told you five years ago, certainly, late-night is back and better than ever. I’m so obviously grateful for the people that do watch the show when it airs. But I think that becomes a smaller percentage every year.
DEADLINE: It still feels odd to me that any show would start at 12:30 a.m.
MEYERS: It’s even weirder because it’s 12:37 a.m. You and I both know that 12:30 a.m. is wrong. I would still say 12:30 a.m. When you tell someone you have a show on at 12:37 a.m., I’m bending over backwards trying to explain why you’ve never seen it.
DEADLINE: Some shows struggled during Covid while others, I believe, like Late Night with Seth Meyers, actually prospered during the pandemic. Why do you think that is?
MEYERS: Our initial approach to it was just figuring out a way to keep producing our show. But then we did see this window of opportunity to make the kind of massive creative changes that you wouldn’t have made independent of a pandemic. It wasn’t staff changes or anything. But without an audience there for almost 20 months, we really did just get to drill down and do the show that was the most authentic to us. That just gave us more confidence to continue down that path. If there was no pandemic, and I went to NBC in March 2020 and said, “I think we need three months in an attic,” I don’t think they would have responded well. But it turned out, we did need three months in an attic. If you lose one of your senses, the other ones get a little stronger, and that kind of felt like what the pandemic was. We lost the suit and the studio and good cameras. But we managed to figure out how to do a show that we’re proud of. We’re doing things the way we used to, but with this new philosophy about the way we want to tell jokes.
DEADLINE: Do you think you were able to take more risks than perhaps shows like The Tonight Show or The Late Show?
MEYERS: When you look back and see what the three [Late Night] hosts before me did with it, you realize that there was always a little bit more space to do your own thing. It only works if you’re lucky enough to follow somebody like Jimmy [Fallon] at 11:30 p.m.
DEADLINE: Late Night was created by David Letterman. Were you a Letterman guy growing up?
MEYERS: I was. I have sort of grown into having a far larger appreciation for Johnny Carson as I’ve gotten older and seen more of the stuff he did. But when I was a kid, and first turning myself on to the late-night shows, Letterman was the one that appealed to me. Having him on the show in February was a real trip, especially for the anniversary. That Letterman era didn’t just influence the late-night shows that followed, but comedy in general.
DEADLINE: I hope when you eventually leave Late Night, you’ll grow a beard as big as his.
MEYERS: That’s what they promised me. That was part of the deal.
DEADLINE: How are you feeling about your timeslot rival James Corden leaving? Have you considered who you might come up against next year?
MEYERS: I’m most curious for what it means [for] what direction late-night is going. The turnover happens so rarely so it will be fascinating to see what the data point on the axis is. I’m glad it’s not happening this summer and that we get another year of James. It’s truly stunning what someone who was so little known when he got the job has done with that franchise in the last seven or eight years.
The craziest thing they could try to do is try to hire the next James Corden. I’m obviously hyper aware of the fact that that Jimmy left Late Night and they gave it to the next guy who hosted Weekend Update. I would think that James’s path would be a far harder thing to replicate, and they’re probably smart enough to know not to look for someone who is Tony-nominated and not well known in America. It just strikes me that he might have been a one in a million.
DEADLINE: I would take a guess that when you eventually leave, they won’t bring in Colin Jost and Michael Che.
MEYERS: They’re probably looking at their watches. Hey, it’s my time.
DEADLINE: Do you remember when you won the Emmy in 2011?
MEYERS: Yes, for music and lyrics for Justin Timberlake [on SNL]. I think that we were helped a great deal that three of the other nominees in our category were Lonely Island songs. All three are more memorable than what we won for, but I think it might have been a case of classic votes winning. I was with [John] Mulaney. Justin Timberlake for some reason didn’t show up. I feel like it might not have been the most important award for him, which is why I have not written a song with him since.
One of the things I remember is, it was like one of those robotic microphones where they raise it to where you are, and nobody could figure out that the mic would find you when you talked.
I was cracking jokes about people’s inability to figure out the mic, and then I won and went up and immediately leaned down to the mic, which was rising up anyway. I just avoided getting a concussion.
DEADLINE: Where do you keep the Emmy?
MEYERS: The Emmy is on a bookshelf in our apartment. The Emmy is a beautiful award, but the more children you have, the more you just start picturing the injury. I just feel like one day I’m going to come home and the Emmy’s going to be in bubble wrap. One of my kids is going be wearing an eyepatch and it’s going to be very clear that its future is in storage.
DEADLINE: You also hosted in 2014, what do you remember of that?
MEYERS: It was very early days of my own show. I think when we left to do the Emmys, they rebuilt our set because [someone] said it looked like the side of a sushi restaurant in Burbank. I had hosted events in that room before, like the ESPYs, so I knew the room. Yet it was it was one thing to walk out and see all the athletes you know and love and tell jokes to them. It was another to see comedians. It immediately felt like higher stakes and less chance of reward.
DEADLINE: Do you think that was the last time you’ll do it?
MEYERS: I feel as though just in general, that might be how I feel. The last big thing I hosted was the Golden Globes, and that felt like a nice final thing to host. I would certainly like to think so.
DEADLINE: Lorne Michaels is an exec producer of the show. How much involvement does he have?
MEYERS: Lorne’s great. Mike and I worked so closely with him at SNL, so he’s seen and trusts how we make decisions. There’s not a lot of handholding. But as far as when you step back and ask the bigger questions about the show and which way it’s headed, that’s where Lorne has an eye like nobody else. It’s a quarterly check-in and then you’re lucky enough to get to go have dinner with Lorne, who remains one of the best anecdotalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to sit down with.
The only tricky thing is when you realize that maybe somewhere within the story he told you about Lenny Bruce was a note he was giving you on the show and you can’t quite figure it out.
DEADLINE: We’re heading into summer. Many of your peers have negotiated quite a generous summer holiday. Have you?
MEYERS: We’re going to have a fair amount of time off in August. History has shown time and time again, people watch a little bit less network TV in the summer. I’m going to try and hustle back [from Covid] and do [shows] because otherwise this would have been a really long break. We’d like to get back and see everybody’s faces one more time before we push off.
DEADLINE: John Oliver has won six years in a row for Last Week Tonight. As a Liverpool fan, I’m sure John would have preferred his team to beat your West Ham last year to win the English Premier League over another Emmy win. Have you discussed that with him?
MEYERS: I think he would have taken that, and I think he also would have taken West Ham holding on to a two-nil halftime lead over Man City, which we had. However, I would say West Ham holding on against Man City has about the same outcome of success as anyone other than John Oliver.
DEADLINE: Last year, there was a groundswell for Conan to win as he was exiting late-night. If anyone could topple John Oliver, it was probably him.
MEYERS: I think John was feeling very cinematic about it. Not that he would be felled by the future, but by the past.
DEADLINE: You still perform stand-up regularly, right?
MEYERS: I do it as much as I can, which isn’t a great deal. It’s like a Gift of the Magi situation where the more you have kids, the more jokes you have to tell. In order to tell them, you have to abandon those children.
DEADLINE: Does it help you keep the show fresh?
MEYERS: I think the show helps the stand-up. Getting an hour every night, telling jokes and interviewing guests, you get more comfortable with your own voice. If you have a writer’s mind, you’re always going to come up with things, and a lot of them don’t fit neatly into late-night bits.
DEADLINE: Things like your wife having a baby in the lobby of your apartment building, that’s good stand-up fodder.
MEYERS: That’s just capitalism, a gift like that. When a baby is born and you don’t monetize it, that’s just fiscal irresponsibility on your part. I will explain that to Axel. He doesn’t have to pay for his own college. I’ll tell the other two, “Neither of you got born in a way that was interesting to Netflix.”
DEADLINE: You’ve also been nominated for your YouTube series Corrections.
MEYERS: Last year when I was nominated, I’ll admit that I was probably more disappointed that the show didn’t get nominated than I was excited that Corrections did. This year, without that disappointment, it’s sunk in how surprised I am that Corrections was nominated. But now I realize that this was a funnier way for it to happen and I should embrace it.
DEADLINE: James Corden got his own back by winning for Carpool Karaoke.
MEYERS: James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke might be the John Oliver of shortform.
DEADLINE: There’s also I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
MEYERS: I will say right now that I think that should win.
DEADLINE: Are you going to take your whole team to the Emmys in September?
MEYERS: The only thing we’re waiting on is to see what sort of restrictions there are. But certainly, the plan is we’re going to roll in.