TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We've got something very special today - an onstage interview that I recorded with NBC's "Late Night" host Seth Meyers Friday night in front of about 2,000 people in Verizon Hall on the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts cultural campus in Philadelphia. The event was part of the celebration of FRESH AIR's 30th anniversary as a daily national program. So let's go to Verizon Hall.
GROSS: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank all of you for coming this evening. You know, it's sometimes hard to sleep at night, and the political chaos isn't making it any easier. The old joke about late-night comedy shows is that they put you to sleep. The way I see it, late night comedy like Seth Meyers' show makes it safe to sleep by helping us laugh at the issues that otherwise would be keeping us awake.
Was I a little annoyed when you started to cross over into my territory and do interviews - nope. I like his interviews. I became his fan when he started co-anchoring Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live" back in 2006...
GROSS: ...After Tina Fey started her series "30 Rock." And by leaving, she did him a big favor because he took over both her jobs. He became the head writer and co-anchor with Amy Poehler of Weekend Update. And of course he returned the favor by later writing hilarious sketches for Tina Fey when she was playing Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. So to get started, let's watch Seth Meyers' opening monologue on "Late Night" from Monday of this week after returning from a week off. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")
SETH MEYERS: President Trump last week announced that he was pulling the country out of the Paris climate agreement. We're pulling out, so now our climate policy is the same as Mike Pence's birth control policy...
MEYERS: ...Hundred percent effective. White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today that President Trump will not block former FBI Director James Comey from testifying before Congress. That's a good call because if you block the testimony of the FBI director you praised for investigating Hillary Clinton and then fired for investigating your ties to Russia and then lied about why you fired them and later admitted why you fired him, you might look guilty.
MEYERS: White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today that President Trump doesn't care what you call his proposed travel ban - OK, racist.
GROSS: Please welcome Seth Meyers.
MEYERS: Thank you, everybody.
GROSS: It's so great to have you here. Thank you for doing this.
MEYERS: I am so honored to be here.
GROSS: Oh, it's so great to have you. So you thought probably when you were leaving Saturday Night Live and Weekend Update that you'd been taking a step away from political comedy, and you did for a bit.
GROSS: And now you're deep back in...
GROSS: ...With your opening monologue and then A Closer Look, in which you focus on a political subject. And it's usually Trump...
MEYERS: It has been Trump...
MEYERS: ...For a while now, yes.
GROSS: So comedy is going places that it's - political comedy is going places it's never gone before. I don't know if you've made jokes about Ivanka and Donald Trump, but people have been making...
GROSS: ...Kind of incest jokes.
GROSS: And then you've done jokes about him being cold to Melania and not caring about his son Eric, and you gave him the finger on tv the other night. And then there was the fake press conference where you were asking the questions, and you cut in his answers. And all of your questions were about his penis because when he talked about his hands, that seemed to open the door...
GROSS: ...To his penis, yes. So it - to sum up...
MEYERS: I'm so happy how quickly we have gotten to this, Terry.
GROSS: I did not want to waste any time.
GROSS: I did not want to waste any time.
MEYERS: Everybody said, you know, Terry in person is a lot saucier.
GROSS: So late-night comedy has changed. Has, like, an unprecedented president opened up the door to unprecedented comedy?
MEYERS: Sure. Well, when the standard of what a president says drops so low...
MEYERS: ...It seems silly...
GROSS: When he goes low, you go low (laughter).
MEYERS: Right, exactly. And I - you know, I always want to stress this because I think a lot of us that do shows like we do - that I do - my many colleagues who are really good at this, too. People say, oh, you're doing the job of journalists. I think it's very important to note that we can't do our job without journalists. Journalists can do their job without late-night comedians. They'd be just fine without us. But we of course use their work every day to build our pieces.
But I do think that comedians have this advantage that journalists don't have right now because thankfully - and I think we're all lucky as a society that journalists are trying to hold the standard and hold this line of what it means to be a journalist and the integrity that it means to be a journalist, whereas comedians are built for the Donald Trump era because we - comedians notoriously have very low levels of integrity.
GROSS: Now, Stephen Colbert recently got a lot of negative tweets and viral negative on social media and a lot of FCC complaints because - here's the setup. Trump was on "Face The Nation" with John Dickerson, and he called it "Disgrace The Nation."
And so Stephen Colbert said, when you insult one person from the CBS family, you insult all of us, and he basically did this, like - you want to hear what an insult really sounds like? And he just, like, let loose (laughter) with these actually very funny insults. But one of them was kind of obscene. And some people interpreted it as being homophobic because of an oral sex reference.
GROSS: Did that have a chilling effect on you - not that - I mean you...
MEYERS: Well, first of all, I do want to point out, the president calling "Face The Nation" "Disgrace The Nation" is pretty funny.
MEYERS: At the National Prayer Breakfast where he started by saying we should all pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger's failing ratings...
MEYERS: ...Because what is prayer if not a time to air petty grievances?
MEYERS: But that was funny, and I do think there are times where he's trying to be funny, where somebody tries to write a joke on it, and we point out, well, in his defense, he was making - there's plenty to make fun of what he says that he's trying to be serious and it comes out comic. But there are times - you know, I wasn't particularly chilled. I think comedians, you know - there are times where we risk being edgy, and I think that's very important. But you know, you can't just - you - ultimately your audience will decide what is OK and what is not OK. I do...
GROSS: Your audience and maybe standards and practices and...
GROSS: ....Network executives or - no?
MEYERS: Again, you know, we are - you know, for all that FCC stuff, we're a lot safer later at night than shows that are...
GROSS: Right, and you're...
MEYERS: ...In primetime.
GROSS: You're really late.
MEYERS: And yeah, I mean if there's an FCC person still awake at 12:30...
MEYERS: I'd be very, very, very surprised (laughter).
GROSS: OK, so your comedy is a kind of mix. I know what you said. You're not a journalist. But still, you have to follow the news.
GROSS: And then there is journalism embedded in the comedy that you do. To prove that point, we're going to play an excerpt of your interview with Kellyanne Conway.
GROSS: So first of all, just explain why she was your guest.
MEYERS: Yeah, well, we actually thought - and I think we were right - that Kellyanne would be willing to play ball. She had been on "Politically Incorrect." You know, she had done - before she was part of Trump, she had sort of just a Republican voice. And the other thing is, you know, we want to have Republican voices on our show. It's very hard to get them to come on a show.
GROSS: You just had Ben Sasse on.
MEYERS: Yeah, we had Ben Sasse. We had John McCain. Those are Republicans who have been very vocal against Donald Trump. Republicans who have supported Donald Trump do not want to come sit down and talk to me because they know - and they're right to think - they would - I would ask them to defend him.
And you know, we did a show - we did a week of shows in D.C. in October right before the election, and it was very important to us to try to have even mix of Democrats and Republicans. We could not get a single Republican to come on the show. But Kellyanne Conway is - you know, she's well-seasoned in doing it. And she responded right away that she would do it. And yeah - and then we had her on.
GROSS: And news broke just before you went out.
MEYERS: Yes, that was the news of the sort of...
GROSS: The Russian dossier.
MEYERS: ...The dossier.
GROSS: That story had just been broken by CNN.
GROSS: And you had to go out, and you were prepared to ask her about it. And let's see how you handled it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")
MEYERS: So I want to ask. This broke while we were getting ready for the show, while I was getting changed for the show. CNN had a report that the intelligence community briefed both the president and the president-elect with allegations that the Russian government has compromising information on President-elect Trump, both business information and personal information. I know this just happened. Can you confirm or comment on the fact that the intelligence community has presented this to Donald Trump?
KELLYANNE CONWAY: Well, guess what hasn't happened, Seth. Nobody has sourced it. They're all unnamed, unspoken sources in this story, and it says it was based on a Russian investigator to begin with. So where are we doing...
MEYERS: It was based on an MI6 British investigator.
CONWAY: Right, well, one of those, and then it said that it also may have originated with a Russian investigator. It also says that Hillary Clinton and groups that wanted Hillary Clinton to win may have been behind the investigations themselves. And most importantly, it says that the FBI is trying to confirm it. So nothing's been confirmed.
And I have to say, as an American citizen, regardless of your party or if you don't like politics at all - which are many Americans - we should be concerned that intelligence officials leaked to the press and won't go and tell the president-elect or the president of the United States himself now, Mr. Obama, what the information is. They would rather go tell the press...
MEYERS: But the report was that - the press report was...
CONWAY: Was an allegation.
MEYERS: ...About them going to the president.
CONWAY: And it says that they never briefed him on it, that they appended two pages to the bottom of his intelligence report.
MEYERS: I believe it said they did brief him on it.
CONWAY: Well, he has said that he is not aware of that.
MEYERS: OK, that concerns me.
CONWAY: No, no.
MEYERS: I'm concerned. But in general, I just want to - I understand...
CONWAY: That's not fair.
MEYERS: No, I understand that...
CONWAY: That's not fair, and it's not true.
MEYERS: What is not true, that I'm concerned?
CONWAY: No, that I see.
MEYERS: OK. I assure you I am.
GROSS: OK, when she was saying one thing and you were saying, no, I think they did brief him; I think you're wrong; I think this is what happened, were you confident that you were right - because when somebody is into spinning and it's your job to figure out if they're telling the truth or not and you're not an expert in that field...
GROSS: ...And you've just been briefed two minutes ago yourself or however recently it was, did you have that confidence that, like, you could challenge her and know that you were right?
MEYERS: I - again, it had just happened. A segment producer brought me the two-page - printed out the CNN story, so I had to put a lot of faith in the CNN reporting.
MEYERS: And - but it seemed like, you know, this is an organization that I trusted in this case.
GROSS: And you trusted your memory.
MEYERS: I trust my memory. Although, it was - you're right. It wasn't a subject I was good at. It was like I was ready for a chemistry test, and they said, pop quiz - it's on "Tale Of Two Cities."
MEYERS: You're like, oh.
GROSS: So it struck me that that's an awkward position for her to be in on your show because some - the audience is laughing at your jokes.
GROSS: And sometimes they were literally laughing at her.
GROSS: You could tell the audience thought that what she was saying wasn't true, or they heard her pivoting as you were calling her out. So that's a difference between journalism and comedy - is that when a guest is interviewed by you who's political, the audience might be laughing at them instead of with them. But what are some of the differences for you when you - when - you know, as the interviewer, when you're interviewing a political person and there's - you know, it's a live audience and it's a comedy show and they're laughing?
MEYERS: Well, one thing I'll say is before I interviewed Kellyanne Conway, I watched a lot of other people interview Kellyanne Conway - you know, Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper.
GROSS: She did a great interview.
MEYERS: Great - but what I realized was I had this great advantage of a live audience, which no one else ever does. You know, she doesn't do a lot of interviews in front of a live audience. And so, you know, I ran into Jake Tapper, and I was saying, you've got to get a live audience.
MEYERS: You've got to get a - the lead with a live studio audience. But you know, I will say interviewing politicians is very hard and a lot of times very uninteresting. And I think politicians by design try to be uninteresting, and they...
GROSS: I thought that, too. I asked - my theory used to be that some politicians - their goal of being interviewed was to kind of lull the interviewer to sleep so that the interviewer would be so distracted or just so kind of sleepy that they wouldn't notice that the politician wasn't answering the questions.
MEYERS: Yeah. Well, there's a few things. One - you have to interrupt politicians.
MEYERS: They will - you can say one thing to them, and they will go the whole time just basically going over their talking points. I remember a politician who looped back and...
MEYERS: ...It was as if they went to the end of the tape and just started going...
MEYERS: We had Bill Clinton on, and I had 12 minutes with Bill Clinton. I'd done all this research. Again, I tend to work harder on those because...
MEYERS: ...Out of a desperate fear of not looking stupid. And I just remember, he sat down, and I said, how are you? And he just paused and said, you know, that's a good question. I was like, oh, no.
MEYERS: That was filler. And by the way, I should make this very clear. A lot of Democrats, particularly after the election - you know, I will try to pin them down and - on mistakes that were made and how has anything changed. And the speed in which they say, you know, it's - you know, when you look at these people and these movements and - out there in the street - energy. I'm like, what is this answer?
MEYERS: What are you talking about?
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Seth Meyers last Friday at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last Friday night with Seth Meyers in Philadelphia's Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Meyers hosts NBC's "Late Night." And when we left off, we were talking about how he opens each edition of the show by satirizing the day's news, which is usually about President Trump.
OK, so since we've been talking a little bit about humor, about Donald Trump, I think it's only fair that we watch the 2004 sketch that you did with Donald Trump.
MEYERS: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: In 2004, Donald Trump was the guest host, and there was a sketch called Fathers and Sons. And as you'll see, Donald Trump was the father. Seth Meyers was the son.
MEYERS: This is so eerie and weird that this is a thing.
GROSS: OK. Let's roll the tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
MEYERS: (As Peter Fleck) Hi. Welcome to Fathers and Sons, the show that teaches and discusses how positive communication between fathers and sons can make this special relationship between two men even better. I'm Peter Fleck, and this is my dad, Gary. There's no reason why sensitivity and warmth can't be key ingredients between fathers and sons. That's why we're here today on Fathers and Sons. Isn't that right, Dad?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (As Gary Fleck) You could really cut that intro in half. Boy, it's way, way too long.
MEYERS: (As Peter Fleck) OK, here we go again. All right. It's a bit long, you're right.
TRUMP: (As Gary Fleck) You don't have to tell me when I'm right. I know when I'm right. Now, let's do it. Come on. This is just a miserable way to spend a Sunday.
MEYERS: (As Peter Fleck) Our first segment is called Father and Son Memories. We've each prepared a story. My story takes place at a little league game when I was 13. A ground ball went through my legs, and dad screamed, hey, fellas, anyone want to lend me their son for the day so I have something to cheer about?
MEYERS: (As Peter Fleck) Do you remember that dad?
TRUMP: (As Gary Fleck) I don't remember you ever playing baseball.
MEYERS: (As Peter Fleck) I played for eight years.
TRUMP: (As Gary Fleck) Oh, I remember you were on a team. I just don't remember you playing baseball.
MEYERS: (As Peter Fleck) Surprising I wasn't a better player. I mean, we practiced once but then you left 'cause you were worried my sissy was contagious.
TRUMP: (As Gary Fleck) Everything's my fault, isn't it? Maybe I should blame my dad for not being a better parent or blame his dad or go back to blame the caveman for not playing enough dinosaur ball with his kid - or plan B, be responsible for yourself.
MEYERS: The scary thing is it's basically a campaign platform.
GROSS: So I only regret that our radio listeners won't get to see...
GROSS: ...You wearing the Donald Trump wig.
MEYERS: Donald Trump wig, yeah.
GROSS: As for our radio listeners, I want to say that Seth Meyers was wearing a Donald Trump wig to look more like Donald Trump's son.
GROSS: What was the occasion for him hosting then?
MEYERS: He used to be a very popular reality television host.
MEYERS: A lot of people don't remember that.
GROSS: So who wrote that sketch and why was it a father and son sketch? And I'm thinking of all the jokes you've made about his relationship or his lack of relationship, seemingly, with Eric. So why was this a father-son sketch?
MEYERS: Well, I clocked pretty fast that that was the kind of guy he was. And, you know, you spend a couple days at "SNL" or a day and a half, basically, before you have to start writing things. And I always found it was helpful to just sort of pay attention to the host and think, what could they believably do? And especially when they're not actors, you know, they don't come with a lot of different takes on things.
And I thought, well, I bet he could play a father who is pretty not into his kid. And...
MEYERS: And it wasn't bad. I will say, the other thing we did with him, which I have even fonder memories for, we did a sketch called "Donald Trump's House Of Wings" where he had his own hot wing store. And we sang - the theme song was to "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters. And it was (singing) Trump, you know his wings will fill you up.
Trump, you know these wings will make you happy. If you want blue cheese, it'll be a dollar extra. Donald Trump's House of Wings. And he - thank you.
MEYERS: He thought - and myself, Kenan, Maya and Amy Poehler were all dressed as chicks in eggshells.
MEYERS: And he was in a white suit with a yellow shirt and tie. And he always thought it was the dumbest sketch. And he never got why it was funny. And the audience went crazy for it. And you watch and it now - it's the same way when he was giving speeches, sometimes things would just work. And you'd watch him realize it worked - stuff like, I'm going to build a wall and people would go crazy.
And that was his reaction to that. It started working and he was like, OK, I'll do this now. And the other thing about that week that I remember was - and this is true. I'm not making this up. He carried around - he had cut out the ratings, the Nielsen ratings for that week. And he had them in his pocket.
And I remember he would basically ask everybody a couple questions and then just show it to them. Like, for example, I remember sitting there rehearsing that. He would say, (imitating Donald Trump) do you like this job? And I said, yeah, I do. And he said, (imitating Donald Trump) how long have you been here? I said, three years. And he said, (imitating Donald Trump) did you see the ratings?
MEYERS: That is a real thing.
GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night," recorded last Friday evening in Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall. After a break, we'll talk more about political satire, about his childhood and about why he was worried he'd be fired during his early days on "Saturday Night Live." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT AND SPECIAL GUESTS' "SACK O' WOE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of my interview with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night" and the former head writer of "Saturday Night Live" and anchor of "Weekend Update." On both shows, he's best-known for his political comedy satirizing the news. Our interview was recorded Friday evening at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. When we left off, we were talking about satirizing Donald Trump during and before his presidency.
OK, we have one more Trump place to go. And this was the White House Correspondents' Dinner from 2011.
MEYERS: (Laughter) Thank you.
GROSS: And this was a very famous evening because Seth Meyers and President Obama both roasted Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner that year. And nobody at the dinner knew, except President Obama, that the next day was the day of the bin Laden strike, of the successful strike against Osama bin Laden. You certainly didn't know that (laughter).
MEYERS: You don't have to...
GROSS: He told you, didn't he?
MEYERS: You don't have to say it like that.
GROSS: So let's watch a couple of minutes of you at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MEYERS: And then, of course, there's Donald Trump. Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.
MEYERS: Donald Trump often appears on Fox, which is ironic because a fox often appears on Donald Trump's head.
MEYERS: If you're at The Washington Post table with Trump and you can't finish your entree, don't worry, the fox will eat it.
MEYERS: And if I can for a moment talk about the birther issue. When did we get so suspicious about where people were born? A USA TODAY poll last week said 38 percent of Americans think the president was definitely born in the U.S.
In the same poll, in the very same poll, only 5 percent more said Donald Trump was definitely born in the U.S. Has it reached the point where Americans only think someone was born here if they saw it? I know I was born here. And I know my younger brother was born here. But when it comes to my older brother, I can only take him at his word.
MEYERS: Gary Busey said recently that Donald Trump would make a great president. Of course, he said the same thing about an old, rusty bird cage he found.
MEYERS: Donald Trump owns the Miss USA Pageant, which is great for Republicans because it will streamline their search for a vice president.
MEYERS: Donald Trump said recently he has a great relationship with the blacks. Though unless the blacks are a family of white people, I bet he's mistaken.
GROSS: As we could see in the video, there were cutaways to Donald Trump...
GROSS: ...As you were saying that. He did not appear to be laughing.
GROSS: Some people say that the reason why he decided to make a serious run for president was 'cause he was so offended by the jokes that you and President Obama told that night. Do you think there's any truth to that?
MEYERS: Well, it was funny. In the lead up to the election, there were some pieces that were written that said as much. And many of those pieces left me out of it and just talked about President Obama's jokes. And I was very confident, at the time, that Donald Trump was going to lose. And it hurt my feelings that I was left out of being one of the people that tricked this man into running for president.
And then as soon as he won, I realized it was Obama's fault.
MEYERS: But I don't know. I really don't know. It's very hard to get inside Donald Trump's brain, and I don't want to try. So I don't know the answer to that. But I will say, I don't have any regrets about it or anything I did in the lead up to the election. I think the regrets I would have would be if I had done less, if I had pointed out less. And it was a really fun night.
GROSS: Have you seen him subsequent to that?
MEYERS: I did. I saw him three days after. And we were at an event in New York. And I should point out that the reason that I found him to be such a fair target that night was the birther issue. That was what he was loudly championing at the time, which I still, to this day, find to be one of his more disgraceful - one of the more disgraceful things he's ever done. And - yeah.
MEYERS: So, you know, I wasn't just bullying for the sake of bullying. I thought he was and continue to think he's a bully. And Lorne Michaels, one of the things he would always say to you is, like, don't tell a joke about somebody where if you saw them, you would feel you had to leave the room. You know, be decent enough, if it's fair enough and you believe in it, you know, you shouldn't have to leave the room.
And so I saw him, and I walked over. And I said, hey, I just wanted to thank you for being a good sport the other night. Even though he hadn't been and he had already criticized me, I wanted to give him the chance to have some revisionist history with me. And he did not. And he said, you were very rude. It was too far. The president was funny. You were too rude. And I said, well, it's good seeing you. And then...
MEYERS: But then we ran into each other at the "SNL 40th," which was, I would say, maybe only about four months before he announced. And it was this very awkward thing. The "SNL 40th" was very crowded. And that studio is very small. And I realized - I was with my wife, and I realized, oh, we are going to cross in an aisle getting to our seats.
And not to go too far into the details, but he and I actually had a very lovely bygones-be-bygones interaction then. And I think we would be in a perfectly fine place had he not decided to run and win president, yeah.
MEYERS: So there was a cost for him.
GROSS: OK, let's talk about you.
GROSS: How did you get deep into comedy and how did you get the confidence that you could actually go on stage and tell jokes?
MEYERS: My father, to this day, is the funniest person I know. And he was the funniest person anybody who knew him knew. And when I could make him laugh, I had this sense of, oh, I might be good at this. And also, my parents, at a very inappropriate age, introduced us to things like "SNL" and "Monty Python." And it was stuff that I just loved and was delighted by.
And I went off to college. And I hadn't really done much comedy stuff. But I went to Northwestern University, and there was a really good - are there some Wildcats in the house? And they had a really good improv troupe. And I saw it new student week of my freshman year. And I had a real sense of I don't know if I could do standup. That seems really terrifying.
But I think I could get up on stage with other really funny people and come up with things off the top of my head.
GROSS: So your mother once said, and this is online, that you cut school a lot in high school.
GROSS: What were you doing when you were cutting school?
MEYERS: All right, by the way, what my mom is leaving out of that quote...
MEYERS: ...Is she was so complicit in this. My mom, who was a schoolteacher, would also cut school. I cannot tell you - again, I have an equally fantastic relationship with my mom. I would say, I've got a sore throat. And she would say, oh, should we call it a day? And then...
MEYERS: Yeah. And we'd have to wait - we'd have to wait for my dad to leave because my dad wouldn't - was not in on that. I would say, I have a sore throat. He would say, go downstairs, and have a piece of toast and some tea, and you'll feel better. And it was - I wanted to say, look, here's how this is going to go.
MEYERS: I'm going to come down. We're going to do the whole toast, tea thing. You're going to leave, and I'm going to come right back to bed. So ideally, I wouldn't get up now.
MEYERS: But I mean that was my - so much of my childhood when I cut school was - and I am, you know - my mom would go to the video store and, you know, rent movies. And we would just hang out all day and watch movies.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Seth Meyers last Friday night at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last Friday night with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night." Our interview was recorded at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.
Now, a lot of people in comedy are driven by demons of one sort or another. They're depressed, nearly suicidal, or they have a lot of rage or resentment or neurosis, jealousy. I could go on.
GROSS: And that's a fortunate thing because we all have some of that, and they can get us to laugh at our own demons. You don't seem to be that guy. You don't seem to be doing comedy because you're driven by, like, anger or rage or despair or depression.
MEYERS: No, I'm not.
MEYERS: I, you know - by the way, I think my wife would point out, he's more of a bummer than you think he is, but...
MEYERS: She would also agree with that thesis. I got into it because it looked like the most fun job in the world. I really did. And it has not led me astray. It was a chance to work with people who were really funny, which has been the greatest gift of this life. And I loved sports and was terrible at sports and could never - I never once in my life did anything on any field of play that gave me that adrenaline rush of success.
But I do feel that, you know, when you write something or when you tell a joke that works really well, it's the greatest feeling on Earth, that I'm chasing it because, you know, it makes me feel good as opposed to, I'm trying to get rid of something. I'm not trying to cloak anything that feels bad.
GROSS: Some people who are obsessive, as I imagine you must be about comedy - you have to be kind of obsessive to get to where you are. And some people who are obsessive kind of channel it outwards on an outward passion. Some people who are obsessive channel it inwards and obsess on themselves and on the things that they are insecure about or that they hate about themselves. Do you have obsessions, and have you been able to channel them mostly outward?
MEYERS: I've tried very hard, and I think I'm really lucky, particularly with this show and, again, the amount of time I was at "SNL," which is - there was - I got a lot of reps to do this. And especially now, I have all this real estate to fill it out every week. And so I try to just follow my own instincts as opposed to really drill down on things that I think are wrong about it. You know, we made this decision after our show every night not to do, like, sort of a post-op where...
MEYERS: Yeah. We took the position instead - sleep on it, and if it's still bothering you in the morning, let's talk then. And then the reality is, you then are just focused on the next show. And so it's nice to be in this place where you can be very forward-focused and constantly moving as opposed to - and it happened at "SNL."
You know, when you had a bad "SNL," it stayed with you all week, particularly if it was before a hiatus week. It just drove you crazy. As a writer, I am probably a little bit more obsessive than as a performer. And, like, if I write something - if I have a joke in A Closer Look and it bombs, I feel like it ruins the rest of my show because I blame myself, whereas if another writer wrote it, I don't like them.
GROSS: You fire them.
MEYERS: Yeah, I just fire them and then move on.
MEYERS: Never have to see them again. It's the best...
MEYERS: ...Because I don't do it. I have someone else do it. I would never...
GROSS: Of course.
MEYERS: I don't like seeing other people be sad either, so...
GROSS: Well, let's get to your audition at "Saturday Night Live." How can you be funny in a five-minute tape that you're making where...
MEYERS: It's really awful. And again, the...
GROSS: You make it at home or something?
MEYERS: You make it at home. And this is in 2000.
GROSS: So you have no audience.
MEYERS: No audience.
GROSS: You have no context.
MEYERS: Cameras are so much worse than they are now. You had to find a friend with a video camera and then go to his house and, like, stand in front of his bureau.
GROSS: How could you possibly be good under circumstances like that?
MEYERS: It was...
GROSS: And what did you do?
MEYERS: I did - again, this is 2000, so these were all really fresh impressions. I did Russell Crowe. I did Hugh Grant. I did David Arquette. I did a guy who had been arrested running the Boston marathon, like a Boston guy. I did a one-time fashion photographer who was working at Sears now taking pictures of children.
MEYERS: And - but the nice thing and the great thing about the way "SNL" auditions work is, any other show you audition for, they give you a script. You learn the script. You perform the script. Here, you got to write the script. And so, you know - and that is what people continue to look for at "SNL" - is not just someone who can perform but also people who make choices in their writing. And I'm sure looking back that my writing got me hired more than my performing. I will say that was...
GROSS: But you weren't hired as a writer.
MEYERS: I wasn't. I was hired as a performer, and then they course corrected.
GROSS: How many years did that take?
MEYERS: That took about five years. And those were my hardest five years on the show.
GROSS: Why were they so hard?
MEYERS: I just realized - I thought when you showed up at "SNL," that meant you were as good as everybody at "SNL." Like, how could Lorne be wrong? And you know, there's a - you walk down the hallway on 17, and there's headshots of everybody - everybody's first headshot. And your first few weeks there, you just see all the people that are super famous, and you realize that's your next chapter. You're, like, oh, Eddie Murphy, Mike Meyers, Will Ferrell. I'm on that path. And then about three months in, you start looking at the people who were only there a year, and you're, like, oh, no, maybe I'm going to be that person.
GROSS: Were you afraid you'd be fired?
MEYERS: I was. I was really afraid I'd be fired. I was - there was a - I think two years in - and this happens. You basically get a call where they're like, we're supposed to pick up your contract this day; we're going to wait another month, basically saying, you know, we're going to see what else is out there before we make a decision.
GROSS: You got that call.
MEYERS: I did get that call. And so that's a really awful way to spend a month in the summer.
GROSS: So - but then you went back, thinking, like, well, you guys really have no confidence in me.
GROSS: You don't really want me, and yet here I am. That's an awkward way to return to work.
MEYERS: It was really bad. And the other thing that was really bad mostly - and this is something that - it was my own shame and something that I did not find attractive in myself - is, I was also there - the people that came after me were some of the great performers I think of this generation. You know, Fred Armisen came and then Will Forte and then Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg.
And these were the people that I was in competition with. And they were my friends, and I felt great jealousy towards them and their successes, which was an awful thing to feel. And so I was kind of saved by the fact that Lorne offered me this - first he offered me this position on the writing staff. And then I felt at home. It was the first time I felt like I was adding value as opposed to just keeping, you know, a space warm.
GROSS: Well, suddenly the thing you were jealous of was your - like, your - to your benefit because...
GROSS: ...You were writing the material for them. So you could use those gifts to your benefit.
MEYERS: Absolutely. And I felt exactly - some of the happiest I ever was at "SNL" would be underneath the bleachers while one of those people was murdering in something I wrote.
GROSS: Underneath the bleachers - the ones that people are sitting on?
MEYERS: Yeah, so that's where...
GROSS: Oh, like in - like, in the wings kind of, yeah, yeah.
MEYERS: That's a little area where Lorne watches the show with a...
MEYERS: ...Glass of chardonnay and headphones.
GROSS: Would you watch them with - you'd watch it with Lorne?
MEYERS: You watch dress rehearsal with Lorne and get notes. And then if you have a really good sketch that you think is going to kill, you try to find your way next to him so he remembers you wrote it.
GROSS: What's it like to stand next to Lorne while "Saturday Night Live" is live?
MEYERS: It's - you know, the longer I was on the show, the closer we got. And it was really fun to be next to him on a good show. And...
GROSS: And on a bad show?
MEYERS: And a bad show, you just would try to find your way to not be next to him, yeah.
MEYERS: It's a big studio. There's a lot of places to hide.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Seth Meyers last Friday night at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the onstage interview I recorded Friday with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night" and former head writer for "Saturday Night Live," where he hosted Weekend Update. Lorne Michaels is the executive producer of both shows.
So Lorne was, like, your boss on "Saturday Night Live." He tapped you to host "Late Night"...
GROSS: ...After Jimmy Fallon was tapped by him to host "The Tonight Show." Were you surprised that he asked you?
MEYERS: I was. And I had not done any exit strategy planning as to what I would do post-"SNL." I was very content there. And part of me thought, maybe I'll just stay here. I like this building, and I like New York. And I like the people I work with. And I don't have to get a new ID badge. And actually, it was originally - I think in the New York Post, they printed Seth Meyers is rumored to be the replacement. And Lorne and I had never spoke of it, and I just took it to be a rumor. And then Lorne called me that day. And there's this thing with Lorne where often when you have a conversation with him, it's a follow-up conversation to a conversation that you never had.
MEYERS: So he's acting like you've already talked about it. And so I just remember he called up and said, look; you'll be fine. I think it'll take some time, but you'll be good at it. And you know, we'll miss you, but...
MEYERS: I think it's good. And I just remember thinking, wait a second.
MEYERS: Did he just offer me "Late Night"? I had no idea what was happening. And - but sure enough, that was what had happened.
GROSS: How has it changed your life?
MEYERS: I mean it is strange because I do walk into the same building. It is on the same floor as "Saturday Night Live." So there are parts of my life that are very similar, you know, that I did not have to move to a new place or a new, you know, elevator bank.
MEYERS: But it is - there's this lovely consistency to a job that is the same hours every day and the same schedule every day. And also, you know, at "SNL," they call the guests hosts for a reason because they completely take over the DNA of that week, whereas at your own show, you're the host because the guests ultimately don't change the show that much. And so - and as someone who is obviously every day older, it's nice to be in a place that is a little bit more consistent. That is the part I enjoy the most.
GROSS: Your life has changed so much. You've gone from "Saturday Night Live" to hosting a daily show. And you had your baby about 14 months ago...
GROSS: ...you and your wife.
MEYERS: Yeah, a little boy.
GROSS: So, like, you're a father and a relatively new host. It's been - what? - three years.
MEYERS: Yeah. Thank you, everybody.
GROSS: And you're - what? - 42 now.
GROSS: You're 43. So you were about 42 when your son was born.
GROSS: Did you expect to be a father?
MEYERS: I did. I always thought I'd be a father. And then I was just, one, way too interested and busy with what I was doing for a living and, two, you know, I hadn't found the right person to have them with. And I did.
GROSS: So, OK, this sounds like a strange question. Why did you want to be a father? - 'cause not everybody does.
MEYERS: Yeah. I don't know. I guess - I really don't. The weirdest thing about being a father is how - because I think, you know, mothers, like, their body for nine months tells them it's coming. And then you just, you aren't a dad and then you just are...
MEYERS: ...Like, the very next day.
MEYERS: I was - this is a true story. I was filling out paperwork after our baby was born. And it said, mother's name. And I wrote my wife's name. And it said, father's name. And I wrote my wife's father's name.
MEYERS: And then it said, father's phone number. And I thought, who knows their father-in-law's phone number? And then I realized, oh, I'm the father.
GROSS: OK, so one more question. You have to have a lot of adrenaline every night...
GROSS: ...To do the show. And it's - adrenaline's great when you need it. But it's bad as a chronic thing for your body. You know, bodies don't like to have constant adrenaline.
GROSS: Lots of side effects of that. So what do you do...
MEYERS: I had no idea. This is heartbreaking to me.
MEYERS: So I'm sorry to end with this, but you are slowly dying.
GROSS: That was my point.
GROSS: No, so what do you do to kind of calm yourself down after getting, you know, worked up, like, you know, like just getting so into it for the show?
MEYERS: You know, you - I basically...
GROSS: Drugs, I know, right.
MEYERS: Just a little, yeah.
GROSS: Lots of drugs.
MEYERS: Handful of pills.
GROSS: Handful of pills.
MEYERS: And - no, I mean, you know, it's nice. I see - I get home about 8:30, 8-8:30. I get to have dinner with my wife, which, again, you know, we've been together - we were together through "SNL" as well. And there were - at "SNL," we never saw each other. And this is so much nicer.
And just to spend time with her is the perfect - I love it, I'm like, nothing kills adrenaline like a night with my wife.
MEYERS: I mean - tell you, it just leaves the body.
GROSS: OK, well...
MEYERS: (Laughter) I love you, darling.
GROSS: I want to thank you, Seth Meyers. I think you are so great. And I really enjoy your show. It's been wonderful to watch you over the years. You know, all the changes you've gone through, I feel like I've been there in front of my TV (laughter) seeing it. And you're so wonderful in person. Thank you so much. It's just been such an honor to have you...
MEYERS: Thank you.
GROSS: ...Doing this event with us.
MEYERS: And may I say, thank you all very much - so kind.
MEYERS: There were three moments in my career where I thought I had made it - the first time I did David Letterman, the first time I was an answer in a New York Times crossword puzzle...
MEYERS: ...And the first time I did FRESH AIR. And to do it with you live and in person is such a great honor. Every night when I interview people, I am thinking, I wish I could be as good at this as Terry Gross. So thank you so much.
GROSS: Oh, thank you. God, thank you, Seth.
GROSS: Seth Meyers is the host of NBC's "Late Night." We're so grateful that he was willing to come to Philadelphia for this event and help us celebrate our 30th anniversary as a daily national program. After working with him, we're even bigger fans now than we were before. Our thanks to NBC's Lauren Roseman. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we have another onstage interview with Joe Biden.
We talked about his years as vice president, his impressions of the Trump presidency and the state of American politics today, what he thinks of the president tweeting and we talk more personally about how family deaths have changed his life. I hope you'll join us. Our interview with Seth Meyers was recorded at Verizon Hall on the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts Cultural Campus.
(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS")
GROSS: Our thanks to the Kimmel's Nicole Thornton, Frances Egler, Marita Taglialatela, Joe Hannigan (ph) and Clark Connor (ph). Thanks to WHYY's Brittany Smith, Art Ellis, Adrienne Webb, Caitlin Weigel and WHYY's CEO Bill Marrazzo. Our interview was produced and edited by Lauren Krenzel and Ann Marie Baldonado with Therese Madden.
Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.