Click through ABC, NBC, or CBS between the hours of 11:35 PM ET and 1:35 AM ET and you’ll find something similar on each network: some white guy in a suit and tie talking to one of a handful of the same celebrities making the rounds that week, cheesing toward the camera with a pasted-on full-toothed smile. They’ll all play a game or introduce some other one-off segment in an attempt to go viral the next day, and then disappear as viewers doze off. The one exception? Seth Meyers.
When Late Night With Seth Meyers premiered on NBC in February 2014, Meyers was joining a slate of well-established hosts. His former Saturday Night Live cast mate Jimmy Fallon moved up to take over Jay Leno’s post as host of The Tonight Show on the same network. Over at ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live! was really in the swing of things 11 years into its run. And on CBS, Craig Ferguson was at the helm of The Late Late Show and David Letterman was the one with the blueprint everyone else was following.
When Letterman first started as host of Late Night in 1982, his show went on right after The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which had become a roadmap for how to structure a late-night talk show. When Letterman first aired, however, his hosting style was seen as more edgy, appealing to comedians of a certain age who in 20 years would go on to host shows of their own. Still, like Carson, Letterman would wear a suit and tie for every episode, start the show with a traditional standing monologue, banter with his band leader, do a bit at his desk (like his famous Top Ten Lists), two interviews, and a musical guest or comedian to close the show. There would be a rare appearance by a writer on the show or someone else not as well known, but by 2014 Letterman’s guest roster was typically filled with only the most famous people, people who were reverent of the legendary host.
Fallon, Kimmel, Stephen Colbert (who took over Letterman's Late Show in 2015), and James Corden all seemed to strive to exemplify that formula and energy, albeit with their own slight twists. Kimmel remained the most closely aligned to Letterman’s style, which he’s maintained to this day. Fallon leaned into his goofy persona, Colbert kept his Colbert Report political bent, and Corden swapped out the couch and desk for two chairs (though that may have been inspired by another talk show set). But now even those distinctions feel like part of an act rather than an authentic attempt to do something different. And they have still proven to be literally interchangeable, as when Kimmel and Fallon swapped spots as a joke last April. After so many years, the repetition and lack of diversity has gotten stale, and the devotion to the formula just makes these hosts appear too rehearsed and simply not connected to their guests. Each show is a copy of a copy airing in the same slots across all the networks that acts better as white (very white) noise than entertaining television.
When Meyers first started, he stuck to these rules as well. He wore the suit and tie, gave a stand-up style monologue, bantered with band leader Fred Armisen, and went for the most famous guests — Joe Biden was on the very first episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers. At the start, Meyers received reviews that could best be described as “meh.” He was called out for playing it too safe, being awkward when standing, and not being himself. He took that last note to heart.
By August 2015, Meyers moved to the desk to deliver his Weekend Update-style monologues, a much more natural state for him. When COVID first hit in March 2020, he traded in his suit and tie for button-ups and chunky sweaters and never looked back (well, almost never). And while sitting at the desk, Meyers started to talk about himself, sharing personal yet hilarious stories about his son being born in his apartment lobby and inviting his family on the show to share childhood stories. They’re all moves that make Meyers’s show ooze an authenticity that the other late-night shows lack.
That authenticity informs how he talks with guests. Unlike Corden, Colbert, Kimmel, and Fallon, who are always hyper-aware of where the camera is and what angle it’s capturing, often turning to it head-on for comedic effect, Meyers makes sure all the focus is on the guest. He turns his body to completely face them, he makes eye contact, he leans in and repeats things back to make sure he understands. Every night on Late Night, he’s giving a master class in active listening, and the result is an even more engaged guest. Many of these performers have been jumping from talk show to talk show, telling the same stories over and over again, but with Meyers asking the questions, they sound brand new. Meyers sometimes gives them room to talk about or do something a little different — on a recent episode Meyers prompted Paul Rudd to tell him a completely made-up story to break the monotony of his Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania press tour.
Other late-night hosts are primarily concerned with this idea that it’s their show and they’re the ones in charge. And, of course, that’s true. But what Meyers often does with that power is center other voices as much as possible. The greatest example of that is the recurring segment “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” At the beginning of each segment he acknowledges that, as a straight white man, there are some jokes he shouldn’t deliver, but that doesn’t mean the jokes shouldn’t be heard. So he invites writers Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel to sit at the desk and tell jokes that only they as a Black woman and a queer Puerto Rican woman, respectively, can tell — jokes that are often the best of the night. The segment contributed to the creation of Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show, proving that these departures from tradition can have a lasting impact on the future of late night shows.
What Meyers understands about his role, above all the other network late night hosts, is that it’s just that — late at night. The kids have gone to bed, the news anchors are off the clock, and it’s time to get weird, or, in the case of his popular segment “Day Drinking with Seth,” at least wildly irresponsible. It’s another way that he has shed any pretenses that he’s not just being fully himself. The Meyers we see after 10 shots of tequila with Lizzo is the same Meyers who sits behind the Late Night desk.
That sense of freedom allows his guests and writers to let loose, as well. Last January, during an episode in which Aidy Bryant and John Early appeared to promote Saturday Night Live and Search Party respectively, the pair decided they wanted to do a bit together in the show’s final interview slot. Meyers was more than willing to play with the seasoned improvisers, even as Bryant dramatically laid herself across his desk, leading to a hilarious and completely unexpected moment on late night. Through recurring segments like “Late Night Casserole” and “Popsicle Schtick,” the show’s writers are able to put their silliest ideas on display, leading to clips that would be just as at home on Adult Swim as they would on NBC.
At the end of a recent Popsicle Shtick segment, Meyers is found sitting in the guest chair shaking his head, saying, “I’m not the host of this show, I’m just some guy.” He hangs his head in comedic shame as he says it, but his words ring true. Among far too many people trying to be hosts with a capital H, he stands out by being just some guy who just so happens to get a mix of some of the biggest celebrities and his funniest friends to talk with him on camera five days a week. By just being some guy, he’s become the new blueprint for what a late night host should be.
Late Night With Seth Meyers airs weeknights at 12:35 PM ET on NBC and streams on Peacock. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.
TOPICS: Late Night with Seth Meyers, NBC, Peacock, The Amber Ruffin Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Late Show with James Corden, Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Amber Ruffin, Jenny Hagel, Seth Meyers