In the world of professional comedy, Seth Meyers is kind of like that overachieving friend you had in college. He can do it all, and he’s good at everything — writing jokes, telling jokes, setting up others for jokes, hosting, interviewing … whatever it takes.
After more than a decade at “Saturday Night Live,” where he eventually rose to head writer and Weekend Update anchor, Meyers inherited his own comedy corner office. “Late Night with Seth Meyers” is the fourth iteration of NBC’s fabled franchise established by David Letterman in 1982 and later hosted by Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon. He’s also in demand as an awards show host and all-around ace emcee, having hosted the Emmys, the Golden Globe Awards and the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Meyers will perform two shows March 23 at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. Calling from his offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Meyer spoke with The News & Observer about standup sequencing, comedy catharsis and the enduring genius of British humorist P.G. Wodehouse.
Q: You seem kind of impossibly busy – why do you still like to do the live shows?
A: Well, mostly it’s just nice to get out from behind the desk of doing “Late Night” and getting away from that particular rhythm. Doing standup gives you the luxury of being able to talk about things that aren’t in the news and political grind. So hopefully the audience finds that to be as much of a release as I do. And also I’ve just always enjoyed that intimacy of being up on stage in front of a group of people, spending an hour or so with them.
Q: A lot of the comics that have come through town recently have talked about the general mood of anxiety in the country right now – that the energy in the clubs and theaters is different. Have you felt that?
A: Certainly in the studio it’s changed for us at “Late Night” and ours isn’t the only show that’s adjusted to the current climate we’re living in. I do think that we as comedians are more agents of catharsis than agents of change. Hopefully it’s cathartic for the audience, but certainly it’s cathartic for me to be able to go in front of an audience and talk through the way that I’m feeling.
When you have an hour onstage, you can sort of put aside five or 10 minutes to talk about what’s in the news, then let the audience know that you’re moving on from that. So if you really don’t want to hear about the politics, the good news is that it really isn’t the lion’s share of what I’m going to talk about on stage.
Q: Do you have a particular ratio of material or a way to sequence that?
A: I do, yeah. That’s something I’ve been messing around with. So, the way you do “Weekend Update” or the monologue in “Late Night,” the idea is always to start with the big story then work your way down. You treat it like a newspaper, start with the big headlines then move into arts and culture. I’ve been fiddling around with that to see if maybe there’s a better way to do that.
Q: You recently had a great bit on “Late Night” concerning the recent college admissions scandal. It was like eight straight minutes of material, with all these video clips and onscreen graphics, all put together on the same day the news broke. How do you turn around something like that so quickly?
A: Well, it’s not the kind of thing we were doing when we started this show. The reality is we’ve learned on the fly. The biggest change we’ve made with the staff since the election is hiring more researchers and more people who pull together video clips and more people on the graphics team. So we’ve learned on the job how to write to those and adjust to them.
We have this young and enthusiastic staff, so when, say, Beto O’Rourke announces that he’s going to be running, the staff is already pulling video clips with the expectation that we’re going to need them. It’s cool to watch them get ahead of stuff like that.
Q: The college admissions thing was part of your recurring segment “A Closer Look,” which really drills down into an issue and has a structure to it. Don’t you need to do a run-through for something at that length?
A: Yeah, so at four in the afternoon we go down to the studio and we gather around 30 or 40 people that we can find in the building. We’re lucky that our studio is also a tourist attraction, so there are always people wandering around. So we’ll get everyone together and just read monologue jokes off paper, you know, in a sweatshirt or whatever.
Then we also do a version of “A Closer Look” for them. We go in with a lot of material because it’s much easier to cut than to add. We try to throw basically throw everything against the wall and see what they go for. So when you see a 10- or 12-minute piece, the awful reality is 40 poor tourists had to sit through much more than that.
We’ve also learned to check the nationality of the tour group we bring in. Because sometimes the jokes will really die, but then we’ll find out afterward they were all Danish and maybe less up to speed on who Paul Manafort is. So yeah, with “A Closer Look” especially, it would be really hard for us to do that without some kind of run-through process first.
Q: You spent some time at the Boom Chicago sketch and improv club in Amsterdam. What’s it like doing comedy in another country? Would you do jokes on, like, local Netherlands politics?
A: I would say we did more European politics – stuff on the European Union, stuff like that. And also I would say local nuisances rather than local politics. It’s the comedian’s job, really. It’s a new culture for those of us who are American and working there, but hang around long enough and you start observing things, and more often than not those observations line up with what the audience is thinking. That’s really the success of that theater. The people doing the show see the same weird problems in Amsterdam as the people who live there.
Q: You’ve cited the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse as an influence, who was writing in the 1910s. How did you come to appreciate those old Wodehouse books?
A: Yeah, I was lucky in that my parents were both real voracious readers. When we took long road trips we would always listen to books on tape. Those Wodehouse books always read really well. The characters are all so richly drawn. It’s so tightly written, too. It’s not just the flourishes of the language, but they’re all really well plotted with these farcical elements of exits and entrances. Everything is timed out perfectly. You can feel the energy of any Wodehouse book as you read it.
Q: You’re a notorious “Game of Thrones” fan. Are you psyched for the final season?
A: Yes, I am. I’m also psyched that it will soon be over so we can finally move on.
Who: Seth Meyers
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23
Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Details: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org