Seth Meyers On 'SNL' And Campaign Comedy Comedian and writer Seth Meyers discusses Saturday Night Live's treatment of the recent presidential election. Meyers has been with SNL since 2001, and currently serves as co-anchor of the show's "Weekend Update" segment.
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Seth Meyers On 'SNL' And Campaign Comedy

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Seth Meyers On 'SNL' And Campaign Comedy

Seth Meyers On 'SNL' And Campaign Comedy

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the year with a series of entertaining interviews from 2008. Today, political satire. It was a big year for "Saturday Night Live." A little later, Tina Fey will describe how she did her Sarah Palin impression. First, we hear from Seth Meyers. He's been "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and the co-anchor of "Weekend Update" since the fall of 2006, after Tina Fey left to develop her sitcom, "30 Rock." Meyers was the lead writer in all but one of the Sarah Palin sketches. This is his eighth season with the show. Let's start with a "Saturday Night Live" sketch which featured appearances by both Tina Fey and the real Sarah Palin. In this part of the sketch, Palin is backstage, talking with producer Lorne Michaels. Alec Baldwin comes by, but thinks Lorne is talking with Tina Fey dressed as Palin.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. ALEC BALDWIN (Host): Hey, Lorne. Hey, Tina.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. 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. Good Lord, Lorne.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. BALDWIN: They call her - what's that name? They call her Cara(ph), Cara - what do they call her again, Tina?

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): That would be Caribou Barbie.

Mr. BALDWIN: Caribou Barbie.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

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

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. LORNE MICHAELS (Producer, "Saturday Night Live"): Alec, this is Governor Palin.

Gov. PALIN: Hi, there.

Mr. BALDWIN: I see. Forgive me, but I feel I must say this. You are way hotter in person.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Gov. PALIN: Oh, I thank you.

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

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

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

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. 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?

Mr. MICHAELS: A hundred and seventy-five times.

Mr. BALDWIN: A hundred and seventy-five.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

GROSS: I spoke with Seth Meyers two weeks after that sketch aired and asked him about making arrangements with the Palin campaign for her appearance.

Mr. SETH MEYERS (Comedian and Head Writer, "Saturday Night Live"): I have to say, dealing with her 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 it is always that way, that the campaign has final approval of anything that their candidate is going to be in?

Mr. 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, a campaign gives you a day of their time. You're out there, obviously they're 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 with 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?

Mr. MEYERS: They did not, and we - you know, we asked because obviously, it makes it easier for us if we know there are 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 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?

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

GROSS: 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?

Mr. MEYERS: You know, we - from the very beginning, the idea was going to be that there was going to be a backstage piece where 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 a perfect...

GROSS: This is Alec Baldwin, yeah.

Mr. MEYERS: Yes, Alec Baldwin, who's the perfect person both because he's, 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 of fun of himself in that scene, as well, which is why it worked, I feel like, on the balance part of it.

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 narrator for campaign commercials. And Darrell Hammond plays John McCain. So, here's Kristen Wigg, kicking off the sketch.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Ms. KRISTEN WIIG: (As the Consultant) You ready to go?

Mr. 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 and the political discourse. My friends, that was my promise to America.

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

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BILL HADER: (As the Narrator) Barack Obama says he wants universal health care. Is that so? Health care for the entire universe?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) Including Osama bin Laden?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) I think we'll pass. No way, no how, Nobama.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

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

Ms. WIIG: (As the Consultant) Of course.

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

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

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

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

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HADER: (As the Narrator) Barack Obama plays basketball. Charles Barkley plays basketball. Is Charles Barkley qualified to lead our economy? 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 audience laughter)

Mr. HAMMOND: (As Senator John McCain) Excuse me.

Ms. WIIG: (As the Consultant) Yes?

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

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

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

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Ms. WIIG: (As the Consultant) You're doing great, Senator.

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

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah. I wanted to do a sketch about, like, as you said, I think John 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 in 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.

Mr. 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, you know, it was hard not to sort of stay away from that.

GROSS: Now there was another sketch in which - and 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 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?

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah. That was always the idea was that she would say no. We were doing - we do a "Weekend Update" joke read on Friday night, and it was around ten o'clock at night, and for some reason, Amy started free styling - free-style rapping as if she was Sarah Palin, and we sort of instantly - we were like, we should write it 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 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...

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

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

Mr. MEYERS: Yes.

GROSS: And you know, her backup rappers are two, like, Eskimos in, like, Eskimo garb. You know, Todd Palin - you know, 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?

Mr. 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 there 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?

Mr. 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: Uh huh. OK. All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: My guest is Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded in October with Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and co-anchor of "Weekend Update." Let's hear you on "Weekend Update," and this has to do with the financial meltdown. Here we go.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of audience applause)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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 bundled mortgages that had 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 the seller provides to the buyer in case the entity loses value. However, unlike regular insurance, these swaps weren't regulated, so they failed to meet any standards of responsible business. Then, when everything collapsed, 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 audience laughter)

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

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

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

Mr. MEYERS: I would have to give my thanks to Steve Kroft on "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 followup piece to it, so I felt like I had gotten there a day early.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYERS: I'm talking about it in this cycle. But that was the piece that I sort of saw that explained it to me, and so I will give credit where credit's due.

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

Mr. 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've - when you were a cast member or doing impressions of people - you know, Ryan Seacrest, John Kerry?

Mr. MEYERS: Oh, absolutely. Here's the thing about me, and I hate to let this secret out. I have very little range as a performer, so for me to sit behind a 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 is 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: 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"?

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

GROSS: Right. I see your point.

Mr. MEYERS: Yeah, it was a very - for us, it was this real, like, snake-eating-its-tail moment. And then, you know - again, as I was pointing 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're 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 and what the political point of view should be of sketches?

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 this 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 is 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: What is the job of the head writer?

Mr. 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 of have to drop everything and sort of give a hand to. But most of the stuff 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's going to go work on. Tuesday night sort of everybody goes off on their own. They write what they think is funny. 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, 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've 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 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, uh-uh, this isn't going to make the final cut.

Mr. MEYERS: I'm so glad that that's actually not true because it really is the greatest process where between dress and air, everything's 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?

Mr. MEYERS: I do. It was the craziest thing ever.

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

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

GROSS: That was your first show.

Mr. MEYERS: 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 means 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 green leotard with my 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 realized 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: Seth Meyers, it's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. MEYERS: Thank you.

GROSS: Seth Meyers is "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and the co- anchor of "Weekend Update." Our interview was recorded in October. We'll hear from Tina Fey in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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