Seth Meyers took the “Late Night” stage Monday night like a man who didn’t have anything to prove.
His approach to his hosting debut was suggestive not of a much-hyped beginning, but of a Tuesday night show a couple of years into a long run: calm, confident and steady bordering on slack. A gentleman’s B, — or, to borrow a term from pharmaceutical marketing, a low-T talk show.
And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Viewers certainly tuned in to check out the new guy. In overnight ratings that came out Tuesday, “Late Night” scored its highest Monday number since 2005, walloped its season average and bested the rating for predecessor Jimmy Fallon’s 2009 “Late Night” premiere by about 25 percent, according to Variety.
Even as the comedy he delivered was hit-and-miss, and the show’s energy was, shall we say, modulated, the longtime “Saturday Night Live” “Weekend Update” anchor projected an ease and affability that should wear well with viewers approaching or fighting off sleep.
Meyers, 40, is flat out likable, closer to the smoothness of Johnny Carson than the jagged edges of “Late Night” precursors David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.
And the show’s strategy, judging from Night One, seems to be to ride that likability until it either delivers him to the next destination (“The Tonight Show”?) or peters out somewhere along the trail.
Meyers was winningly self-deprecating, making fun of a costly graphic and noting a monologue joke as “our first sort-of bomb. I’ll take it.”
And in introducing himself to viewers, he told a good story about the flat tire he and his wife had endured during a Connecticut getaway, ending with this life lesson: “It’s very hard to feel macho when you’re holding a tiny dog while another man changes your wife’s tire.”
There really aren’t a lot of new ideas in TV-talk-show comedy. Letterman, in his brilliant first 15 or so years, cast an ironic eye on the whole enterprise from the perspective of the best seat in the house. Fallon does a digital-age update on some of original “Tonight” host Steve Allen’s stunts, mixed with a whole lot of celebrity chumminess.
Jay Leno, as “Tonight” host, sublimated his best stand-up instincts to try to be broadly popular. Craig Ferguson, Meyers’ time-slot competitor on CBS, delivers an almost free-form monologue that is an often exciting tightrope walk. And Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central set standards for political humor that make traditional monologues sound like something just down from the Catskills..
Meyers’ choice in this crowded field was, really, just to do a talk show the way talk shows have mostly been done. Never mind that the show begins at 11:30 p.m. which in theory gives it room to play.
Coming right out of the gate, he made fun of his new show’s old trappings: “I’m going to shake stuff up and open this thing with a monologue,” he said, and then delivered a passel of jokes that sounded, in their crisp, unadorned and sometimes offbeat wording, as if they could have been delivered in his old gig, at the “SNL” newsdesk.
The new Taco Bell breakfast items, Meyers said, are “perfect for those occasions when you wake up drunk.” And now that the Olympics are over, he said, “for the next four years, if you go skiing with a rifle on your back, you’re just a crazy person.”
There was a lot of scripted humor. Before bringing out guests Amy Poehler and Vice President Joe Biden, a Venn Ddiagrams comedy bit didn’t work so well — it’s hard to find a great punch/ /line in the intersection of two groups, but the show tried, over and over again. A better one showed what NBC Olympics host Bob Costas saw through his infected eyes: A bobsled run looked like two guys pushing a car, etc.
But didn’t Meyers just point out that the Olympics were, you know, over?
He made an awful lot of references to Fallon, who also preceded him at “Weekend Update” and has moved up an hour from “Late Night” to the “Tonight Show.” The cold open with Meyers copping Fallon’s signature thank-you notes segment was funny, but it would have been acknowledgment enough.
And the new studio seems awfully big for Meyers, whose style is more intimate and conversational. Unlike on “Tonight,” the first night of “Late Night” offered no host-led song and dance, no bids for YouTube hits. The show did begin to answer some questions. While Fallon brought much of what he developed at “Late Night” to the “Tonight” hosting chair a week earlier, Meyers was an unknown in this role.
We’ve seen him sell jokes, from corny to quirky to razor sharp, as “Weekend Update” anchor, as comfortable when they fail as when they kill. We know he guided much of “SNL’s” writing for half a dozen years. But we’ve never seen him carry a show with his own personality, an hour a night, five nights a week.
So it was encouraging Monday to see the show flow nicely through the Poehler and Biden interviews. He paid enough attention, and is quick enough in the moment, to make you think he could become very good at this part of the job.
Meyers poked at Biden, trying to get something un-political (calling the vice president, for instance, on his finger pointing mannerism). And Meyers laughed as Poehler told him, “I have watched you for 13 years pretend to listen to people.”
What viewers could not yet find was the hint of an edge that he managed to show — friendly, but a definite edge — at “Weekend Update.”
In other ways, though, Meyers did not work to distance himself from his “Saturday Night Live” roots. Beyond “SNL” impresario Lorne Michaels running “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” there was the opening-night presence of Poehler, Meyers’ former cast mate and “Weekend Update” co-anchor.
And in early February, just a couple of weeks before showtime, Meyers announced Fred Armisen, another ex-cast mate, as his bandleader. (Chicagoans may remember Armisen from his pre-“SNL” incarnation as drummer in the band Trenchmouth.) Armisen seemed just right on Night One, delivering quick banter with Meyers about his (fake) “recent history” show on The History Channel.
The rest of his first-week guest list branched out a bit, including Kanye West, Kelly Ripa and Lena Dunham.
Meyers was born in Evanston and raised, like Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman, in Manchester, N.H. He returned to Evanston to get a degree from Northwestern University.
He joined the Chicago improv scene, performing, for instance, at ImprovOlympic and with the Boom Chicago troupe in Amsterdam. He started at “SNL” in 2001 and didn’t leave until it came time to start this job.
Meyers becomes the fourth host of “Late Night,” which Letterman originated on NBC in 1982. Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon followed Letterman.
Meyers surely has more tricks up his sleeve. He has said he wants his writers — a high percentage of them with Chicago ties — to also be performers.
But for the first “Late Night With Seth Meyers” hour, he delivered a sort of old-school, comfortable late-night talk show that relied, mostly, on the audience finding the host charming. We did, but if we’re going to keep tuning in, we’re going to want something email@example.com | Twitter: @StevenKJohnson