The difference between Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers in the days before their first talk shows began is evident in what they spent the most time on, said the man who guided both programs to birth. With Fallon, who took over “Late Night” in 2009, it was the performance. Meyers worries about the writing.
Producer Mike Shoemaker's observation is worth remembering as NBC's new late-night lineup settles in.
Fallon, the new “Tonight” host, and Meyers, who takes over in the 12:30 a.m. “Late Night” slot starting Monday, are known more for their similarities. Both are in Lorne Michaels' orbit, came to be known through “Saturday Night Live” and hosted that show's topical “Weekend Update” before moving to weeknights. They work in the same building.
Their success moving forward will hinge on shaping their own personalities — and identities — for shows that NBC hopes will run back-to-back in late-night for years to come.
“They're actually rather complementary of each other,” said Paul Telegdy, NBC West Coast executive in charge of late-night. “People say, 'Aren't they two versions of the same thing?' They couldn't be more different.”
Fallon's persona is energetic and goofy, with a gift for music and mimicry and an ability to guide celebrities into poking fun at themselves. Meyers, 40, is more cerebral and topical, and he enjoys playing the straight man.
He knows his strengths. “I mean, I'd like to be up there with Bruce Springsteen,” Meyers said of Fallon's occasional duet partner, “but no one else would enjoy it.”
Like most comics of his generation, Meyers worships at the altar of David Letterman, but a more enduring influence is Conan O'Brien. O'Brien was a writer before going in front of the camera. Meyers attended Northwestern University and worked in improvisational theater in Chicago, but always saw himself creating jokes more than telling them. He joined “Saturday Night Live” as a performer in 2001 and took a unique career trajectory, becoming the show's head writer in 2006.
“Seth is the most brilliant writer to come out of 'SNL' in my time,” said Shoemaker, a trusted Michaels lieutenant.
An important step in Meyers' transition to a daily show was hiring “Weekend Update” writer Alex Baze as head writer for “Late Night.” Meyers has been putting his writing staff through drills for weeks, preparing pitches as if the show were up and running.
“It's not so much to have things to use, but for the writing staff to learn the things that I like or don't like,” Meyers said. “The pitches have been an education in my taste.”
Until it got to be too much, he enjoyed being able to continue on “Weekend Update” while prepping the new show. There are only so many jokes you can write and toss aside — it keeps you sharper to have an on-the-air outlet.
In broad strokes, his show is taking shape. Former “SNL” colleague Fred Armisen will lead the band. Meyers will have no sidekick, but regular foils taken from the writing staff and New York's comedy community. Amy Poehler, Vice President Joe Biden, Kanye West and Lena Dunham are among his first week's guests.
Meyers can't decide whether the second show or second week will be the most fun, when the pressure of a premiere is off and the machinery is up and running. That's where an experienced hand like Shoemaker is important; to remind him of the fluid nature of these programs.
“All of the bits that became big on Jimmy, even right away, were not planned,” Shoemaker said. “They happen and you do more of them. Our show next year, and I'm not being coy, I can't even imagine how it is going to go. It will be fun getting there, but there is no way to guess.”
Unlike those who moved on fairly quickly from the show, Meyers wasn't necessarily in a hurry to leave.
“I was on my third generation of people at 'SNL' but it felt like a perfect fit for me,” he said. “Other than the fact that people don't stay there forever, there was no downside. I had never gotten bored with it. You always creatively get refreshed by the new casts. But this came up and all of a sudden you realize you're the resident gray hair at 'SNL' and it makes sense to move on.”
He was instantly identified in media reports as the leading candidate to replace Fallon, but Meyers didn't quite know how to take that. He remembered media reports that he was the leading candidate to be Kelly Ripa's partner in the job that went to Michael Strahan.
Then one day, when Meyers was staying at a Red Roof Inn in Iowa, there came a phone call from Michaels' office saying the ever-inscrutable late-night impresario wanted to speak to him.
“It was one of those great cryptic Lorne calls where he was saying, 'I think this will be good for you and you'll be good at it,'” Meyers recalled. “And I'm thinking, 'What? Is he offering me this job?' ”