[11 March 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Oh, you could practically hear the trillions of fingers mashing keyboard letters at approximately 1:35 a.m EST on the 25th of February in the year 2014. The tone of the Double T Tribunal (Twitter and Tumblr) had set itself to overdrive before sunrise. Ghosts of Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman lingered prominently within the fabric of the countless words that eagerly floated into the blogosphere. Every major news outlet this side of Carson Daly devised attack plans, virtually all of them sounding the same: We know it’s your first try at this, but couldn’t you have simply seemed more… inspired?
Late Night with Seth Meyers debuted a few weeks ago and between the laughably predictable so-so reviews and the weirdly consistent (yet curiously cobbled) personal opinions on the guy—I’ve heard everything from he’s smug, to he’s not funny, to Saturday Night Live hasn’t been worth watching in years, to he seems “frat-boy-ish”—you didn’t have to be Jim Cantore to accurately forecast what the temperature of the water might be, come Tuesday morning: luke-warm at best.
“Seth Meyers’ opener was disappointing,” Newsday‘s Verne Gay opined. “Not massively disappointing (that would be ridiculous overstatement), but mildly so, and not for anything he did, but for what he seemed largely content to do: follow a charted path that was established deep in the last century without bringing anything particularly new or even mildly revolutionary to the format.” (“‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’: A review and some free advice”, 25 February 2014)
“Meyers’s nightly monologue style will apparently just be his Weekend Update routine, only delivered while standing up,” the Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever noted. “With his toothsome grin nervously plastered on his face (unchanged the entire hour), Meyers’s joke topics had a day-old donut stiffness… Meyers was the head writer at SNL for a long time. He and his staff should have known that their Venn diagram and Costas Vision bits needed a whole lot more work and that neither bit was a great way to demonstrate to Late Night viewers how they intend to fill the show’s first quarter hour.” (“5 quick thoughts on Seth Meyers’ ‘Late Night’ debut”, 25 February 2014)
“Seth Meyers, debuting his first episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers, had a few missions to accomplish when we ran into him on Monday night,” The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon offered. “He had to live up to the legacy of late night’s golden boy, Fallon, who hosted the time slot before he did. He had to prove that Fallon’s reign isn’t a fluke, that late night really can be a home for the affable and good-natured. And, most importantly, he had to show that the acute and observant brand of humor he displayed for 12 and a half years on Saturday Night Live, many of those years spent as head writer and host of Weekend Update, translates to the late-night talk show format. Mission only sort of accomplished.” (“Seth Meyers Gets Off to a Rocky Start on ‘Late Night’”, 25 February 2014)
The critiques all came with caveats, of course.
“Even though we know it was his first night…”
“It took Conan a while to find his footing, too.”
“It’s not all his fault.”
“It’s weird to see people we normally see on the weekend take over our TV set on weeknights.” (Still don’t quite understand that one.)
No matter how blah-ish the response was, and no matter how encouraging whatever advice writers wanted to give proved to be, it all added up to one, big version of, Well, That Was Kind Of Rough. And it was. To be fair, those first-night jitters were all too apparent during an exceptionally stiff monologue that felt contrived even when he tried to humanize himself by noting when a joke bombed. The chat with his bud Amy Poehler veered too far away from being an actual interview (even for late night talk show standards) while the sit-down with America’s vice-president simply felt like two old friends meeting the vice-president for the first time (even though it wasn’t).
Tuesday was better, though. Talking to Kanye West, Meyers appeared relaxed as he called upon an easy rapport with the opinionated and sometimes-cranky hip-hop star. It was impressive by anybody’s standards, let alone someone who was only two days into a job like that. As it stands now, there’s no real discernible reason to not think Meyers will get progressively better in time. Plus, it’s Late Night. The patience surrounding that chair is far more abundant than it is for the one appearing during the 11:35 time slot.
It’s fine, really. Nervous or not, Meyers would have been well within his right to let those emotions get the best of him throughout the first night. Hell, even the first week. Hosting a talk show is hard. Immediately doing it well, especially in today’s hypercritical culture, is damn near impossible.
Yet sitting behind those instant gripes about performance quality is one subliminal factor that has hardly been discussed anywhere within the chorus of opinions regarding NBC’s most recent after-hours reorganization. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley touched on it the day after Meyers’ show premiered in her review:
“First nights,” she wrote, “are often only a dress rehearsal for what a program is going to be like, but as Mr. Meyers began his show, it was pretty obvious that the era of late-night hate is over. Or at least, that the overt animosity between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien during NBC’s short-lived attempt to replace Mr. Leno with Mr. O’Brien had run its course. The bad feelings over The Tonight Show succession between David Letterman and Mr. Leno lasted long after Mr. Leno won, but even those have finally simmered down. Now it is almost blindingly sunny after dark.” (”‘Late Night’ Gets Sunny, and a Family Tree Grows”, 25 February 2014)
Indeed. The addition of Meyers to the late-night lexicon is far more than a mere fun way to grant Lorne Michaels autonomy over NBC’s World O’ Comedy. In fact, for the first time in decades, the late-night playground is something more than just a meeting place where bullies gather halfway through the day in order to try and work out an after-school fighting schedule. The backstabbing is over and the pissing matches have run dry.
Rejoice, dammit! Late Night Land isn’t the most contentious place on Earth anymore!
No, but really: The former SNL head writer’s arrival onto the weeknight after-hours scene immediately grants the entire medium a fresh and somewhat interesting disposition. Gone are the days when an air of contention looms over the talk-show structure’s nighttime offerings. No more Leno to blame. No more strained professional relationships to examine. No more pot-shots lobbed in the direction of same-network competitors. And, maybe most telling of all, no more inter-network rivalries that often plagued such a mindless platform for entertainment with an embarrassing amount of pettiness and some obnoxious form of entitlement tangled within a web of multi-million-dollar contracts and silly topical jokes.
It’s absurd, how dramatic such a minimal subset of popular culture had become. Introduced by Steve Allen. Popularized by Jack Paar. Immortalized by Johnny Carson. This is late-night television, we are talking about here. You know—stuff designed to wind the day down with a few laughs, some musical performances and an overall sense that tomorrow will be OK. But as its popularity grew and its reach expanded, shit got personal. Leno screwed Letterman out of a promotion and Letterman never really got over it. NBC executives chewed up and spit out the once-promising career of O’Brien. Leno was the villain. Letterman and Conan were spurned geniuses, one exiled to CBS, the other to… cable. (Ew!)
Here’s the thing, though: Nobody really lost. Each character in this play was paid handsomely, yes, but even if you take that away, you can’t dispute the increase in profile that everybody gained as part of merely being in the script, merely being associated with the institution of late-night TV. There must be millions of comedians on this planet and to think only five of them will land jobs doing that kind of work (Daly doesn’t count) on those kinds of networks. I don’t care what channel you’re on; you pretty much reach the highest plateau such a career could offer.
Conan and Letterman—it worked out for them both, and even if landing on TBS doesn’t seem like a victory at first glance, those tens of millions of dollars and the type of credibility-laden sacrificial status that Conan received as a result of his misfortune should all help soften whatever blow any wrongdoing brought forth. It’s show business, for Arsenio’s sake. It’s not medical research.
And that’s why the aww-shucks demeanor of not only Meyers, but also Fallon (and even, to some degree, Daly) isn’t just a welcome change of pace during those nighttime hours; it also opens up countless possibilities for evolution in such a widely connected facet of entertainment. Think about it: Contemporary Talk Show Land has yet to see a happy family thrive. Leno officially took over The Tonight Show in 1992. That’s approximately 22 years ago in real time and about 1,039 decades in the show-biz metric. For more than two decades now, the niche has operated under the guise of jealousy, anger and resentment, however mild or intense those feelings may have been at times. Those issues are gone now with Meyers and Fallon assuming their new roles on their respective programs.
Such is why the former is essential to the current late-night equation. He helps usher in a new era of acceptance in that time slot. NBC heads could have picked anybody they wanted to lead that 12:35 charge, but the decision to hire someone who already had an affable history with its 11:30 host was a mild stroke of genius if only for the new friendly perspective such programming now promotes (and in this context, at least, tapping Fred Armisen for the Late Night band was a pretty brilliant idea in and of itself as well).
There has forever been somewhat of an aesthetic disconnect between all television hosts to the common eye. Even when compliments are publicly offered, they seem hollow or forced. Yes, we see everybody play nice here and there by appearing on other stars’ shows, but oftentimes, those exchanges are more awkward than entertaining (see: Letterman visiting Kimmel for proof). The enormity in ego is far too prevalent to ignore from both ends. Whomever is answering the questions appears to want to ask them, and whomever is asking them appears uncomfortable warming up to a figure who some might consider a competitor.
That’s not going to happen with Fallon and Meyers. Or, well, at least it shouldn’t happen with Fallon and Meyers. Having worked together before, it’s hard not to imagine a steady flow of collaborations between the hosts, which would be a first for the modern era of the late-night lexicon. Working in the same town, in the same building—another new wrinkle to the current slate—it seems inevitable that some joint bits may occur. Plus, if Meyers begins to regularly falter, there won’t be vultures ready to pounce on his dying carcass. If anything, you have to think both Fallon and Michaels would do all they could to help pick their friend up off the 30 Rock floor.
Which, in reality, is all any host needs to thrive: Time. Meyers isn’t going to be great as a host for weeks, months, and maybe even years. He might be good in spots, but it takes a ton of patience to find consistent footing for both tone and humor, and only when that footing is established can mere “good” status begin to tilt upward. This edition of Late Night, as it stands now, will seemingly have all the patience and time in the world. In short, it’s as close to a can’t-lose-situation as show business can get.
“It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when comic genius almost always meant crazy, and even the most popular television comedians were often insecure, angry loners — or addicts — offstage, and sometimes on it,” Stanley wrote later in her article. “Partly, the times and mores (sic) changed. The old Harvard Lampoon the-joke-is-that-it’s-not-funny ethos grew stale; women and minorities made their way into the writers’ room. And comedy as a profession became much more accessible and democratic: There are so many late-night shows, comedy clubs, comedy cable channels and even Internet series and social media sites where young talent can prove itself. It’s no longer a job requirement to be monomaniacal; sometimes, you don’t even have to be all that witty.”
You also don’t have to abide by some unwritten-rule book that suggests it wouldn’t be wise to actually embrace the late-night community surrounding you. Everything is different now. As a culture, we’ve grown obsessed with cynicism, impressing ourselves with our own interpretations of irony. Fallon and Meyers, for better or for worse, have no desire to play off the notion of The Tortured Soul or the ideal that has become The Dark Comedian. They are just two dudes who are thankful to be in the positions they are in.
It’s with that specific mindset that a bit of fun has been brought back to Late Night Land. You can label them too bright or too happy or too normal or too fun or too humble or too adjusted or too kind, but the one thing you can’t deny is the one label that both Fallon and Meyers embody at this point in the medium’s history: A breath of fresh air.
And at least as far as NBC is concerned, it’s been an awfully long time since stepping outside for some has felt this darn promising.