Nothing better expresses the differences between the new host of Late Night and his predecessor on the Tonight Show than how the two handled their first few moments at their new gigs. Jimmy Fallon, in his ever-present enthusiasm, optimism and geniality, introduced himself to his new vastly larger audience, with an aww-shucks-i-ness that borded on pure cheese, but it was Jimmy Fallon so we let it slide. Seth Meyers on the other hand, stole one of Jimmy’s Late Night/Tonight Show bits, “Thank You Notes,” thanking Jimmy for the show and stating how he would only use it for original comedy bits, “starting now.” It’s earnestness versus earnestness with a little snark.
Meyers has spent the past 12 years down the hall in 30 Rock on Saturday Night Live, much of that spent as head writer and behind the Weekend Update desk. There he delivered topical short jokes in succession, with a hard newsman way of hitting his punchlines that made him one of the best anchors the show ever had. And so it was not altogether shocking, though a little disappointing, that Meyers, once dispensed with his Thank You Note cold open, delivered a monologue that was really just a Weekend Update segment, but standing up and without the visuals:”Well the winter olympics in Sochi came to an end last night, so for the next four years if you go skiing with a rifle on your back, you’re just a crazy person.” “The brassiere turns 100 years old this week. So does the only person who still calls it a brassiere.” Funny? Sure. But not really anything new.
As soon as Meyers got behind his desk on his weird Jeopardy-like set that doesn’t have either a curtain or a couch, it was plain to see how much more comfortable he became. The vague nervous and jittery quality that pervaded throughout the monologue slipped away. One of the best moments occurred when we discovered that Meyers could be a storyteller, and not just a joke-teller, when he related an experience of having someone else change a flat tire for him. (“It was very hard to feel macho when you’re holding a tiny dog while another man changes your wife’s tire.”)
He also tried his hand at a few bits, as is the requirement of any late night host. They were mostly about the Olympics (please NBC, release Meyers and Fallon from this Olympic-centric leash you have them on now that the games are over). The “Venn Diagrams” one was okay, and it definitely has potential for growth. What was most notable about the bit was the sly Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow joke, a controversy that Jimmy Fallon wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. But Meyers isn’t afraid to go there.
Amy Poehler was, predictably, the perfect first guest. (Clearly he has better bookers than Fallon did at first, remember when someone stuck him with Robert DeNiro on his first night?) She and Meyers have history and genuine chemistry, plus Poehler is fun on any talk show she graces with her presence. And Meyers struck gold with his second guest as well. Joe Biden was as well suited to Meyers as Michelle Obama is to Fallon. (Meyers made fun of Biden’s State of the Union performance to his face, compared to Fallon’s silly bits about kale chips and shy faces with the First Lady.)
Poehler and Biden were easy guests, if only because they highlight what’s good about Meyers, his ability to take the conversation to a freewheeling place and his soft sarcasm. And the former host of the White House Correspondents dinner is not shying away from political jabs. The interviews were, surprisingly, the highlight of the episode. But as Poehler was quick to note, that all could change with a bad guest. Surely Kanye West will be a trial-by-fire tonight.
So far, and a little surprisingly, it seems that the monologue will be Meyers’ biggest challenge in the weeks and months to come. The monologue is a beast to be sure; Fallon has never really seemed totally at ease even five years in to his career as a talk show host. And there’s nothing really wrong with the jokes Meyers was telling, except that the content and delivery were so similar to what he did on Update, it’s hard to tell what makes Late Night its own thing, separate from SNL, or even, what makes it different than all the other options out there that air after 11pm? And that was the one issue with Meyers’ debut — we don’t know who he is yet. We’re still seeing Seth Meyers, Weekend Update Anchor. I want to meet Seth Meyers, Late Night Host.
People were asking these questions about Jimmy Fallon when he premiered too, for sure. And it took time for Fallon to carve out his own niche of viral, nostalgic positivity at Late Night and now at Tonight. The early clues about what direction Meyers will go were there last night, but really it’s so hard to tell anything about a late night show from one episode. It’s like reviewing a book one chapter in. And indeed, there’s a lot that needs to be figured out. What exactly to do with Fred Armisen is one big question. It seems right now that there’s a little too much star power in the band section. But that could change. Only time will tell what direction Meyers is going in, I just hope it’s generally away from Saturday Night Live.