Seth Meyers' Prime-Time Political Parody

Seth Meyer and Amy Poehler

hide captionSeth Meyers shares SNL's "Weekend Update" anchor desk with cast-mate Amy Poehler.

Mat Szwajkos/Getty Images

Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers is making waves with a broader TV audience this election season as the show expands its political parodies to Thursday prime time.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Meyers joined the sketch comedy show in 2001 and became head writer in 2006. He has impersonated such figures as John Kerry, Michael Caine, Anderson Cooper, Prince Charles and Peyton Manning.

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TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. With Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin and special Thursday night campaign editions of "Weekend Update," it's been a big season for "Saturday Night Live." My guest, Seth Meyers, has been the show's head writer and the co-anchor of "Weekend Update" since the fall of the 2006, after Tina Fey left to develop her sitcom "30 Rock."

Meyers was the lead writer in all but one of the Sarah Palin's sketches. This is his eighth season with the show. As a regular player, his characters included John Kerry, Ryan Seacrest, Anderson Cooper, Prince Charles, and Sean Penn. Let's start with an excerpt of the SNL version of the vice presidential debate with Tina Fey as Governor Palin and Queen Latifah as the moderator, Gwen Ifill.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (As Gwen Ifill) Senator Palin, address your position on global warming and whether or not you think it's man-made or not.

TINA FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) Gwen, we don't know if this climate change hoozy what's this, is it man-made or if it's just a natural part of the end of days.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) But I'm not going to talk about that. I would like to talk about taxes because with Barack Obama, you're going to be paying higher taxes, but not with me and my fellow maverick. We are not afraid to get mavericky in there and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) And not got to allow that - and also to the great Ronald Reagan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Tina Fey as Sarah Palin in a sketch largely written by my guest, Seth Meyers. Seth Meyers, welcome to Fresh Air. That is just so funny. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing just the part that we just heard because you got so much in there?

SETH MEYERS: Well it was a - it was really exciting to write those debate pieces, particularly that one, because so many people watched it. And we realized you know, with 70 people - 70 million people who watched debate, you can make jokes about the minutia, and that is a lot fun when you are a comedy writer.

I believe now, hearing it, Tina Fey had the end of days line, which is, I think, maybe my favorite line in that sketch. But it was - it was really collective. Like, I'd wrote a basic draft of it and then all the writers on the show who would watch this as well, would write jokes, you know. Tina came in with some jokes as well. And then it was just sort of a cobbling together, and then it's just where, you know, for us, it's really fun because, you know, you get to - you know, we sort of block it on Saturday, and we rehearse it, and then we do it in front of address audience. And it just constantly just gets thinner and thinner and leaner and meaner. And then, it still ran about 12 and a half minutes, which is really long for a sketch, but I don't think people got bored with it.

GROSS: One of the verbal mannerisms that you picked up on was the - also too. You have, and not but to allow that, and also, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: Can you talk about that?

MEYERS: That was a, you know, obviously, she has a unique way of speaking, and we picked up on the rhythms of that. Tina also picked up on one of our favorite things with how she sometimes will just stop before the end of a sentence, which we used a couple of times. One of the things, I was most impressed with Tina through this whole process because I would say I knew she was an incredible writer, but she was constantly watching Palin, even between dress and air. She would have it sort of on her video iPod, watching her speak, and just, you know, she was very into the mannerisms of it, which, as a writer, it was a great because we would sort of work on the jokes, and then she would bring in the extra layer of the quirks of Palin speak.

GROSS: Was it difficult to convince Tina Fey to do Sarah Palin on the show, to come back and do it?

MEYERS: I think she was up for it. You know, the strange thing for Tina, which is what we know, she hadn't done a lot of sketches in all her years at SNL, and she certainly wasn't known as an impressionist. I had the benefit of seeing her perform in Chicago, coming up and seeing her at Second City. So, you know, for those of us who knew her, we knew she was a great performer. But I think she, you know, knew that the audience didn't know her as an impressionist.

But, you know, there's something - there is a very Midwestern twang to Sarah Palin, which anyone who comes up at Second City has like their Midwestern voice. So we knew she'd have that and yeah, but ultimately, there was a little bit of, like, I think, the main thing was, Tina just wanted to make sure it was a piece worth doing.

GROSS: Let me play another excerpt of a sketch that you largely wrote for Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, and this was your version of her interview - Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric. So here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

AMY POEHLER: Senator McCain shut down his campaign this week in order to deal with the economic crisis. What's your opinion of this potential $700 billion bailout?

FEY: (As Governor Sarah Palin) Like every American I'm speaking with, we are ill about this. We're saying, hey, why bail out Fannie and Freddie and not me. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those that are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, to help - it's got to be all about job creation, too.

Also to shoring up our economy and putting Fannie and Freddie back on the right track, and so healthcare reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending because Barack Obama, you know, you know we've got to accompany tax reduction and tax relief for Americans, also having a dollar value meal at restaurants, that's going to help. But one in five jobs being created today under the umbrella of job creation, that you know also...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Wasn't some of that basically verbatim from the interview with Katie Couric?

MEYERS: Yeah, you know, we hear that a lot. Some of it certainly was, but not all of it and you...

GROSS: Well, not the happy meal.

MEYERS: Right. Well, that - and you notice, like, that is a nice thing to put in there because then, everybody sort of laughs. The other thing about that which we found fascinating is, early in the week, we didn't think that Katie Couric interview was a story because - and this has happened with the Charlie Gibson interview, I think it's happening this week with the Brian Williams interview with Sarah Palin. They, like, break it up over a series of nights, so it's less of a TV event, and it's more that it takes a couple of days to sort of gain momentum on the Internet.

So, when we first wrote the piece on Tuesday, it was a, you know, sort of Sarah Palin talks about being in New York, and it was straight to camera. And then, by the time Tina came in to rehearse, you know, we had realized that the Katie Couric thing was the story.

GROSS: Two weeks ago, Sarah Palin played herself on "Saturday Night Live." How did that come to be? Did you approach the campaign? Did they approach you?

MEYERS: They contacted us after the season premiere, which was the Hillary and Sarah Palin straight-to-camera sketch with Amy Poehler and Tina. And they called, and Lorne and I got on the phone with them, and they were very enthusiastic and made it clear that they'd love to come on the show at some point, and we just told them the dates of the shows we have before the election, and we sort of circled that one on the calendar.

It was interesting because later, we would hear that she had watched the sketch but with the volume down. That was not what the initial reports seemed to be. But yes, they said they wanted to come, and I have to say, dealing with their campaign was really easy. We sent that sketch pretty close to the form that ended up on TV to them, and they approved it on Thursday, and we added the Amy Poehler-Sarah Palin rap that we did on Saturday. But the cold open was - they were very good with it from the beginning.

GROSS: So, is it always that way, that the campaign has final approval of anything that their candidate is going to be in?

MEYERS: Yes, but to be fair, like, so does every host, you know? I think it's, you know, people forget on the show that every, you know, people give you a week of their time or, you know, campaign gives you a day of their time. You're out there - they're obviously not going to just show up and see a cue card when they're on camera. And so it's always a process with everyone who is, you know, kind enough to sacrifice their time for our show. But yeah, some campaigns are trickier to deal with than others, but hers was very - they were very - they were game from the start. And she was a very good sport.

GROSS: Did they give you any ground rules in advance about what she might not be willing to do?

MEYERS: They did not, and we had asked. You know, we asked because, obviously, it makes it easier for us if we know their ground rules. Again, we do know that they're running for president or, in this case, vice president. So we try to make sure our first draft is not so unpalatable that they'll reject it out of hand. So we start from a position of trying to be reasonable. But yeah, they were - they were very easy to deal with. Historically, I found the Republicans are more game with sketches than Democrats.

GROSS: Really? Why do you think that is?

MEYERS: I think that Democrats are worried that, if they do a sketch, Republicans will use it against them, and Republicans know that Democrats won't.

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and co-anchor of "Weekend Update." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and the co-anchor of "Weekend Update." He was the lead writer on all but one of the Sarah Palin sketches.

Let's get back to Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live." And once you agreed on the date and the date was almost there, what was the process like of figuring out, so now, what are we going to do with her?

MEYERS: You know, we - from the very beginning, the idea was going to be that it was going to be a backstage piece, for Lorne was wishing she had agreed to do it. And then, we sort of spun it out from there. Obviously, we have the benefit of being able to get someone like Alec to come by and do us a favor, and Alec was sort of perfect...

GROSS: This is Alec Baldwin. Yeah.

MEYERS: Yes, Alec Baldwin. Who is the perfect person both because he is, you know, Tina's co-star and a very vocal liberal. And again, you know, I want to point out that also Alec was willing to make fun of himself in that scene as well, which is why it worked. I feel like on the balance part of it. But we've never had more people say, you can't have this person on the show.

GROSS: Really?

MEYERS: It was really interesting. Like how many friends...

GROSS: What reasons did they give?

MEYERS: They're just like, you can't help her. Because I think they were worried that we were going to do something that would, you know, be positive for her in a way that would endorse her or anything like that. And it's really funny because we - I don't think I've ever done that.

Yet, the other thing that's funny for me is, when she was on, you felt like - I felt like liberal people thought, you did a great job. You took her down a peg. She didn't even know you're making fun of her. And conservative people are like, she was great. She looked great in front of the camera. She showed she's a good sport. So people will see what they want to see with pieces like that if you do them right.

GROSS: Actually, I was really surprised by how you satirized her with her there. And it was a really funny sketch. It starts with Tina Fey at the podium at, you know, a co-press conference fielding some questions from reporters. And then it goes backstage with Lorne Michaels talking to the real Sarah Palin. And as they're talking, Alec Baldwin comes up thinking that the person talking to Lorne Michaels, the producer of the show, is actually Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin. He doesn't realize it's the real Sarah Palin. So, let's pick it up with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: Hey, Lorne. Hey, Tina.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE CHEERING)

BALDWIN: Lorne, I need to talk to you. You can't let Tina go out there with that woman. She goes against everything we stand for. I mean, good Lord, Lorne. They call her - what's that name they call her? Cara, Cara - what did they call her again, Tina?

SARAH PALIN: Oh, that'd be Caribou Barbie.

BALDWIN: Caribou Barbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: Thank you, Tina. I mean, this is the most important...

LORNE MICHAELS: Alec.

BALDWIN: Election in our nation's history, and you want her, our Tina, to go out there and stand there with that horrible woman? What do you have to say for yourself?

MICHAELS: Alec, this is Governor Palin.

PALIN: Hi there.

BALDWIN: I see. Ah, forgive me. But I feel I must say this, you are way hotter in person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PALIN: Oh, I thank you.

BALDWIN: I mean, seriously. I mean, I can't believe they let her, you know, play you. You know?

PALIN: Oh, thank you, and I must say, your brother Steven is my favorite Baldwin brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BALDWIN: You are a delight. Now, come, let me take you for a tour of the studio. You know, I've hosted the show - how many times, Lorne?

MICHAELS: 157 times.

BALDWIN: 155.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, there was another sketch in which - this was a "Weekend Update" sketch, in which Sarah Palin is at the "Weekend Update" desk with you and Amy Poehler, and she says, you know, I'm not going to do that sketch that you wrote for me. I'm not going to do that rap because I think it would be bad for the campaign. And so, instead, Amy Poehler does it. Had you actually written that rap expecting Governor Palin to do it, or was it part of the joke the whole time that you would write it, and she would say, I can't do it, and then Amy Poehler would be the one to do it?

MEYERS: Yeah, that was always the idea, was that she would say no. We were doing - we do a "Weekend Update" show joke greet on Friday night, and it was around 10 o'clock at night, and for some reason, Amy started free styling - freestyle rapping as if she was Sarah Palin. And we sort of instantly - we're like, we should write it, a hardcore rap, and the joke should be that she won't do it, and then, you'll do it.

We, at that time, did not think it would ever be on television. But Lorne had asked us to come up with something to use her, to use Sarah Palin in on "Weekend Update." And we were having a hard time trying to come up with what we would do. So we came up with that idea, and then Amy wrote that Friday night, and I'm going to say, it's one of the greatest performance moments in the history of "Saturday Night Live."

GROSS: One of the things that's really funny about it - I mean, it's like you're sitting next to the real Governor Palin.

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: As this really funny rap about her is being done by Amy Poehler, and as Amy Poehler's rapping, there's like a moose that comes out and gets shot down gangster style and...

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: You know, her backup rappers are two, like, Eskimos in like Eskimo garb, you know, Todd Palin, you know, the persona Todd Palin comes out and starts rapping, too. And it's just like really funny, and, I mean, the joke is in part on Sarah Palin, and she's sitting next to you. How awkward was that?

MEYERS: It was more surreal than awkward. I have to say, like the whole - again, especially since we started writing it on Friday night, you know, so the first time it was on its feet was Saturday afternoon. You know, every time we did it, Sarah Palin was with us, and again, she never seemed to have any doubt about it and thought it was all in good fun, and it was in good fun, you know?

I mean, it was a heightened reality of things that are true about her, and also, we sort of sold it to her as, the joke here is that you have really good judgment because this would be a bad thing for you to do. The initial version had a few lines that we had to take out because they were a little too hardcore. Each one of them, I would say, they were absolutely right to ask us to take out.

GROSS: Can you give us an example?

MEYERS: I'm trying to think. I probably shouldn't. Yeah, I can - I mean, well, like, I think there was a line, when I'm in Alaska, it's drill, baby, drill. That might have had a more sexual connotation in an earlier version.

GROSS: Ah huh. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right.

MEYERS: And they - again, like I would like to say, they showed excellent judgment.

GROSS: Right. If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers. He's the head writer of "Saturday Night Live" and the co-anchor of "Weekend Update." And when I say co-anchor, is that still the right word now that Amy Poehler has left because she just had a baby?

MEYERS: She did just have a baby, Archibald, Archibald Arnette, which is pretty adorable. Yes, so we don't quite know what we were doing. I had to do it alone on Saturday because she had her baby at around six in the evening, so we didn't really have time to replace her. So, I think we're going to sort of play it by ear and see what happens. But I will miss her greatly.

GROSS: So it's possible you'll be solo.

MEYERS: It's possible. I guess, you know, Lorne Michaels plays pretty close to the vest.

GROSS: Oh, right. So it's more his decision than yours.

MEYERS: It is kind of. I'm going to be honest with you. They're all kind of all more his decisions than mine.

GROSS: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So let's hear you on "Weekend Update." And this is from this past Saturday night. And this has to do with the financial meltdown. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MEYERS: On Thursday, your grandfather finally admitted that he screwed up the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: While speaking before Congress on Thursday, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said he was shocked his ideas led to the current economic crisis and said, I still do not understand exactly how it happened. Well, let me see if I can give it a shot. Banks bond on mortgages that have been given to people that wouldn't even qualify for jury duty and then sold those along with credit default swaps, which are basically insurance that the seller provides the buyer in case the entity loses its value. However, unlike regular insurance, these swaps weren't regulated, so they failed to make any standards for responsible business. Then, when everything collapses, it spread like an infection because when people are making money, they don't ask how. They just say yay. But again, you're the expert.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That was excellent. I have to say, I thought that was a wonderful one-paragraph description of what happened...

MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: To the economy. So did you consult economists before writing that?

MEYERS: I would have to give my thanks to Steve Croft and "60 Minutes" because they did a piece on it about three weeks ago. And then I was very happy to see this Sunday, they did a follow-up piece to it, so I felt like I had gotten there a day early.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: Talking about it in this cycle. But that was the piece that I sort of saw - that explained it to me. So, I will give credit where credit is due.

GROSS: So what's the process like of writing for "Weekend Update?" Like how much time do you have to follow the news? What are your main news sources?

MEYERS: Well, I sort of spend my first half of the week focusing on the rest of the show as sort of the head writer of the rest of the show, and we have three incredibly talented "Weekend Update" writers, Doug, Alex, and Jessica, who do all the joke writing. And then, the rest of the staff will write jokes as well sort of later in the week. And I will write some jokes as well, like I wrote that Greenspan joke. But I think that may have been the only joke that I had written this past Saturday.

But we get together on Friday night, and we read a bunch of jokes, and it's almost 800 jokes. And we cut that down to about 100 that we like, and then Doug, who produces it, cuts it down to about 30, and, you know, it ends up being around, you know, 18 to 20 jokes come Saturday night.

GROSS: Do you feel different doing "Weekend Update" than you felt when you were a cast member or doing impressions of people, you know, Ryan Seacrest, John Kerry...

MEYERS: Oh, absolutely. Here's a thing about me, and I hate to let the secret out. I have very little range as a performer. So, for me to sit behind the desk and tell jokes, that is way closer to sort of what I was doing before I was on "Saturday Night Live," and I feel a lot more comfortable doing that. So - and I also, as a writer, you know, when I started on the show, you know, one of the jobs as a cast member, you sort of write for yourself, and, you know, I enjoyed that a great deal. But becoming head writer and getting to write for everybody else is way more liberating.

GROSS: Seth Meyers will be back in the second half of the show. He's "Saturday Night Live's" head writer. Here he is co-anchoring "Weekend Update" with Amy Poehler, who just left the show to have her baby. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MEYERS: You know, we can be a little bit negative in "Weekend Update." So, in effort to be positive about the debate that happened last night, we'd like to introduce a new segment we call, We Liked It.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEYERS: You know, I liked that debate. I liked how the candidates didn't answer certain questions and stuck to their talking points.

POEHLER: I liked about how they talked about education because I think teachers are underpaid. But you know who's not underpaid? Plumbers. Plumbers are doing just fine. They are recession-proof. You might not buy a new car when the economy is down, but if your toilet is backed up, you're calling a plumber. America will put up with a lot, but we will not settle for being ankle deep in our own poop.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: You know what I like? I like how, in two debates, John McCain has compared Obama to Herbert Hoover. Aw snap.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: Way to connect with the youth of the country with a Hoover rapper. You done good.

MEYERS: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

POEHLER: And you know what? Why stop there? Hey, hey, young people, what about William Ayers? That guy's a regular Emma Goldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: You know, the anarchist who incited violence in the early 1900s? Oh, you don't know? That's because your teacher is getting paid worse than plumbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: And John McCain, I like how you keep saying you wished there had been more town hall debates, even though you were not good at your town hall debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: I mean, you were lurching at people and walking around like you should have been wearing a hospital gown.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and the co-anchor of "Weekend Update." He was the lead writer in all but one of the Sarah Palin sketches. This is his eighth season with the show. Before becoming head writer in the fall of 2006, he was a regular player whose characters included John Kerry, Ryan Seacrest, Anderson Cooper, and Sean Penn.

Some people have said it's very difficult to satirize Obama. I'll quote you something from Newsweek. This is written by Joshua Alston, who's talking about the difficulty comics seem to have in satirizing Obama because he is, quote, "good-looking, cool, eloquent, and well-educated," and then also, it's hard for a lot of people to satirize anything that has race involved with it. So a lot of people think you can't really satirize any racial aspects of Obama's, you know, life or campaign. So has it been difficult to figure out what's funny about Obama?

MEYERS: Yeah. I think of all those things that he listed, I think the thing that's trickiest about Obama is he's aware - he's very aware of not putting himself in the line of fire, and he's incredibly, you know, smooth and charismatic. And when he came in and did our show, you just got the sense that he is - it's going to be very hard to make a joke that he's not in on.

So, you know, he just sort of hasn't stumbled much during this campaign. And, you know, we've mentioned Ayers, and we've mentioned Wright on our show, but other than sort of the associations, there hasn't been much he's done in this campaign that's been easy to poke fun of.

GROSS: So, what do you do then? Do you try to do less about him, or do you try to find - oh, what am I trying to say here...

MEYERS: You know, I will - I will say this. Like, it was nice to have the debate sketches, you know. We did all three of those.

GROSS: Because you had material to work with.

MEYERS: We had material to work with. Yeah. But outside the debates, you know, we did a sketch last week about the fact that he's bought half an hour of airtime, but rather than talk about politics, he would do a variety show. I mean, that's a silly sort of conceptual idea, but we did more about the Obama campaign than the McCain campaign last week. I think one of the reasons it looked maybe uneven this fall is, you know, McCain chose Sarah Palin, comedy goldmine. And if he'd picked Mitt Romney, I think that you probably would have seen more in Joe Biden VP sketches than the other.

GROSS: Let's talk about another sketch that you wrote, or largely wrote. And this was a sketch about John McCain's political ads, the campaign ads, and we always hear his voice at the end of those ads saying, I'm John McCain, and I approve these ads. And, of course, there's been a lot of discussion about how John McCain, who promised, you know, to run a really kind of civil, respectful campaign has ended up having all these really negative ads. So in this sketch, Kristen Wiig plays the consultant who's overseeing the ads, and Bill Hader does the voice of like the most - like cynical - cynical narrator for campaign commercials. And Darrell Hammond plays John McCain. So here's Kristen Wiig kicking off the sketch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KRISTEN WIIG: (As the Consultant) Are you ready to go?

DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) I'm ready to go. Yes, but let me stress the goal of these ads are not only to support my campaign but also to raise the level of the integrity in the political discourse. My friends, that was my promise to America.

WIIG: (As the Consultant) Well, that's so great to hear. Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD)

BILL HADER: (As Announcer) Barack Obama says he wants universal healthcare. Is that so? Healthcare for the entire universe?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Announcer) Including Osama bin Laden?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Announcer) I think we'll pass. No way. No how. No-bama.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: (As Senator McCain) My friends, can I ask a question?

WIIG: (As The Consultant) Of course.

HAMMOND: (As Senator McCain) Is this ad true?

WIIG: (As The Consultant) Well, universal has more than one meaning. We take it to mean the entire universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) It works for me. I'm John McCain. I approve this message.

HADER: (As Announcer) Great. Let's do the next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD)

HADER: (As Announcer) Barack Obama plays basketball. Charles Barkley plays basketball. Is Charles Barkley qualified to lead our economy?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Announcer) He gambled millions away in Las Vegas. Don't let Barack Obama gamble with our economy. No way. No how. No Charack Obarkley.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Excuse me.

WIIG: (As The Consultant) Yes?

HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Are those facts accurate?

WIIG: (As The Consultant) Yes. The senator does play basketball. Charles Barkley also plays. Charles Barkley lost money in Vegas.

HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) I can't argue fact. I'm John McCain, and I approve this message.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WIIG: (As The Consultant) Doing great, senator.

GROSS: Oh, Seth Meyers, can you talk about generating the idea for that sketch?

MEYERS: Yeah. Well, I wanted to do a sketch about like, as you've said, I think McCain made a big point of keeping the discourse high and the integrity of his campaign high, and particularly, it was the ad about the sex education bill that they were running that seemed so lascivious that I think put that idea on our heads...

GROSS: The one that made it seem like Barack Obama was behind a bill in Illinois that taught sex education to kindergarten kids.

MEYERS: Yes. And it was an ad that you saw John McCain asked about a lot, and he sort of stood behind it still. And also, you know, when McCain sort of was using people that had worked on the 2000 campaign, Bush's 2000 campaign, that, we know, just, it was hard not to sort of stay away from that.

GROSS: Now, during the primary campaign, there was a sketch of one of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that made it seem like the media was really kind of pampering and catering to Obama. And Hillary kind of referred to that sketch in complaining that the press was in favor of Obama and treating him differently than her. What was the reaction to her comment about that behind the scenes at "Saturday Night Live?"

MEYERS: Well, we were all watching the debate, and it was like the craziest place to get a shout out, was during a debate you were watching so that you could watch and write a sketch about it, you know, after it was over.

GROSS: Oh, I see your point.

MEYERS: Yeah, for us, it was really like a snake eating its tail moment and then, you know, again, as I was pointing out earlier, like people, when you say something on the show that people have been saying to their friends and families, sort of something, for instance, like, I don't feel like she's being treated fairly. When we say it, they just assume that we are 100 percent in support of them, when, in fact, you know, there were things in that sketch that were critical of Hillary Clinton as well. But, you know, they picked out the part they wanted to hear and were huge fans of it.

GROSS: Is there any political disagreements between the writers on "Saturday Night Live"? Are there Democrats and Republicans on the staff, or do you basically agree politically on what the political point of view should be of sketches?

MEYERS: There are both. There are disagreements. I mean, I'll be honest with you. There are more Democrats than Republicans, but certainly, with Hillary and Barack, it was a more even split.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

MEYERS: So that was a really interesting time on the show. But as much as people would sort of make their points, in the end, and I should say that's about sort of everything we've been talking about today. Like, if it's not funny, it will never end up on the show. And when you try too hard to make a point, that's when it tends to get a little less funny. So as long as you made the argument that, like, look, I think this was pulled from reality. It's working. We're going to have to do it, and more often than not, that works with people, whether they agree with the politics of it or not.

GROSS: Do you want to feel like you're playing some small part in convincing voters who to vote for in the presidential election?

MEYERS: I don't feel particularly comfortable with that responsibility, but - because where, you know, we are trying to entertain people and - but it is when you write about politics, you know, obviously, you have to start with an emotional position on what you're seeing, and you write about that and hope it's funny. I don't believe we're quite as influential as people give us credit for. It is nice to walk down on the street and have people, you know, they say, you know, you're changing the face of the election. But I would rather have them say that and have it not be true.

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and co-anchor of "Weekend Update." We'll talk more after a break, this is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers. He's the head writer of "Saturday Night Live" and also the co-anchor of "Weekend Update." I say co-anchor, but his co-anchor, Amy Poehler, just had a baby, so we don't really know who, if anyone, will be in the chair next to him in the time to come. What is the job of the head writer?

MEYERS: The best way to describe it is, you're sort of the- all the writers are surgeons, and you're the emergency room doctor. It's constantly - it's just triage. The thing that most needs attention you sort to have to drop everything and sort of give a hand to. But most of the staff on our show, you know, unlike other sort of shows, be them, you know, other comedy shows or dramas, we don't have like a staff meeting where we lay out what everybody is going to go work on.

Tuesday nights, sort of everybody goes off on their own. They write what they think is funny, and we have a lot of different talented people with a lot of different tastes. And so, because of that, our show doesn't really have a consistent tone, which I think is one of the great things about our show. Some people, I think, don't like that because they'll see it like a couple of things they like and a couple of things they hate. I've always thought the best SNL is three things you love and one thing you hate.

So, as head writer, you know, you just sort of, I run a rewrite table with all the writers where we sit around and pitch jokes based on what's already written. But each writer sort of gets to usher their piece through from, you know, the beginning stages to the final, you know, when it airs. Each individual writer casts their piece. They talk to set design. They talk to wardrobe.

The most fun is between dress and air. If Lorne sort of needs a minute out of a piece, as a head writer, you sort of get to go and sit down with the writer and try to find how you're going to take a minute out of something. It's when it moves the fastest. It's when it's the most fun.

GROSS: You're in the position of having to tell people no, also - to tell a writer, this isn't going to make the final cut.

MEYERS: I'm so glad that that's actually not true because it really is the greatest process, where between dress and air, everything is on a note card. And when Lorne calls the meeting between dress and air, you walk in, and it's like finding out if you made the high school play or not. Your note card is either on the air side or on the cut side. So, I actually very rarely have to give bad news. I'm just in the room when I see people's faces register the bad news.

GROSS: Do you remember the very first time you heard Don Pardo say your name?

MEYRS: I do. It was the craziest thing ever.

GROSS: I should say, Don Pardo is the announcer on "Saturday Night Live." Go ahead.

MEYERS: Yeah. Well, I started - my first show was the first show after 9/11.

GROSS: That was your first show?

MEYERS: So, that was my first show, which was a crazy time to be starting on the show, and I - the only sketch I was in, I played a fish's head, a floating fish's head, which meant I had to wear a green leotard because I was in front of a green screen. And my face had to be painted green. So I was in a green leotard with a face painted green wearing a bathrobe standing next to a bunch of police officers and firemen the first time I heard Don Pardo say my name. And I realize that, with everything that was happening in the world, it was the most insignificant part of the night. But it was, for me, incredible.

GROSS: What is the worst nightmare moment you've had on "Saturday Night Live" as a performer or head writer?

MEYERS: Oh, that's a really good question. I mean, you know, you - basically, I would say, around my third season, I sort of had this like terrifying observation that I was a very - I thought I was a good sketch performer at a place where you had to be great. And I do still kind of think that's true. You know, I had had a success as an improviser sort of coming up, but, you know, even when I was an improviser, the joke was that I would only play people within a three-year range of my actual age. And so I, you know, there's just that haunting thing of just not feeling like you deserve to be there. And I feel - I feel I'm much more like I'm earning my keep as head writer than I did as a sketch performer.

GROSS: Well, I have to say, when you're doing "Weekend Update," you look like you're having so much fun doing it, and it makes it even more fun to watch.

MEYERS: That's very - I am having a blast. And that is a very accurate observation.

GROSS: So the rumor is Barack Obama is going to be on this weekend. You want to say anything about that?

MEYERS: I don't know if it's going to happen. That we really don't know. We - he was supposed to be on last weekend, and then he had - the grandmother, unfortunately, that grandmother illness. But he was slated to be on the 25th, and then that fell through. And to be honest, this close to election day, we don't know if he'll come by or not. I can tell you, we have an open invitation to him and Senator McCain, but we don't know if either will take us up on it.

GROSS: So you have an open invitation to both?

MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: Well, we'll tune in and see what happens. Seth Meyers, it's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: Seth Meyers is "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and co-anchor of "Weekend Update."

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