David Zurawik

Seth Meyers on best SNL memories and making it in latenight

The conventional wisdom says everything on network TV is in decline.

Network news is a dinosaur crawling to the boneyard. The networks don't have one drama that can start to compete with cable or Netflix. And I dare you to name six sitcoms that you would admit watching.

But then there's late night as it's been reinvigorated on NBC this year, with Jimmy Fallon replacing Jay Leno and "Saturday Night Live's" Seth Meyers taking over the 12:35 a.m. slot. Both are in first place in the ratings, and the last thing either can be accused of is getting there by dumbing it down.

While undoubtedly benefiting from Fallon's strong ratings lead-in, Meyers has on his own taken control of the late-late time period with a show that is smart, funny, topical and politically engaged. Meyers is the smartest guy to sit behind a desk on late-night TV since Dick Cavett or Jack Paar.

Meyers was in Baltimore on Friday to do some promotions at NBC affiliate WBAL, and there is a lot to talk about when it comes to "Late Night with Seth Meyers."

But I have been waiting for years to talk to him about his work as a performer on "SNL's" Weekend Update and the words he wrote for some of the show's most memorable creations, from Tina Fey's Sarah Palin to Fred Armisen's Ian Rubbish.

Meyers was the guy sitting between Amy Poehler and the real Sarah Palin at the "Weekend Update" desk in 2008 in one of the most daring, surreal and greatest live skits in the history of network television: Poehler rapping as Palin.

The premise has the real Palin telling Meyers she has decided not to do the rap they had rehearsed because it "crosses the line" of appropriate behavior for a vice presidential candidate. He then asks his co-anchor if she could possibly fill in, and Poehler, who was nine months' pregnant, reluctantly says she'll give it a try.

"That is the most memorable moment of all my time at the show," Meyers said Friday. "I should stress that Amy wrote that rap on her own. And just the fact that here's this nine-month-pregnant woman performing — and she wasn't pretend rapping, she was rapping. It was rap without artifice.

"And I was sitting next to this vice presidential candidate, possibly the most famous person in the country at that moment, and I remember thinking, 'This is the only show on Earth where something like this can happen, and I'm so happy to be here on the night when it's happening.' "

The moment was so intense, Meyers says, that even though he was on-camera in the skit, he wasn't performing.

"I felt like I was at a concert," he says. "At some point, you have to be in that moment, and that moment I was watching my friend do something people will be watching for years. … It is truly one of the greatest performances by a comedian that I've ever seen."

Moving from the "Update" desk, where you are on-camera for 10 minutes a week, to host of a late-night show where you're doing an hour five nights a week, is a huge change. And Meyers brought some of the "SNL" tribe with him to make the transition as smooth as possible. He has Armisen as his bandleader and Alex Baze, former head writer for "Weekend Update," in charge of the team creating his monologues.

"I'm really happy that I was only off TV for three weeks," the 40-year-old performer says of the break between "SNL" and the February launch of the new show. "I think that ended up being a really nice part of this, because I'm an overthinker. If I'd have given myself months to work on this, I think I would have spun out and spiraled."

But with only three weeks, he says, "We had to very quickly put together a show to what we thought were our strengths. Monologue was one of them. And we did think there was a reason that people liked Jay Leno for as long and as much as they did. And I think one of those things was the monologue."

Indicative of the political and pop culture topicality of a Meyers monologue, Thursday's show included references to Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Bill O'Reilly and Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the serviceman released by the Taliban.

"This is sort of a bummer," one joke began. "Bill O'Reilly asked his viewers if they think Bowe Bergdahl's father, Robert, is an Islamist sympathizer because he looks like a Muslim. That's ridiculous. That's like asking if Bill O'Reilly is a gluten sympathizer because he looks like dough."

Leno's monologues were political mostly in the gentle yuk-yuk tradition of Bob Hope. They rarely bit like that in the punchline.

Meyers acknowledges that there is some risk in being political in an entertainment venue. But he says that's who he is and what he does.

"If all you told were jokes about a guy falling out of tree while he was trying to get his cat, you'd probably do better," he says. "But it's really important for us to have those [political] jokes in there."

Meyers attributes his interest in politics to growing up in New Hampshire, a key state in the presidential primaries.

"So, every candidate from basically the '84 to '92 elections, I had a chance to see speak," he says of his early years. "And my parents were the kind of people who always thought it was important to bring us to things like that.

"Like if Jesse Jackson was speaking, they'd take us. I introduced Jerry Brown in 1992 at my high school."

Meyers says one his most pleasant surprises as a late-night host has been the enjoyment he finds in interviewing guests.

"The part we knew the least about was interviewing, because I didn't have any background in that," Meyers says. "But I like being a straight man to people, so from the beginning, we wanted to have a world where there were people who could be out there next to me who could be funny."

It turns out that Meyers is an engaging interviewer, who does play to his guests, letting them have the spotlight, listening intently and cuing the audience with his laughter. His trademark is repeating the guest's best or strangest lines, regularly amplifying the laughter as he seemingly chews them over. He was at his finest last week drawing 21-year-old singer Demi Lovato out on her belief in the reality of aliens and mermaids.

"Because of our age differences, I was very unfamiliar with her," Meyers says. "I had no expectations of what our interview was going to be. And I so enjoyed it. It was like you wound up next to somebody at a dinner party and realized you hit the jackpot."

NBC is the outfit that hit that jackpot with Meyers. In May, he attracted almost as many viewers 18 to 49 years of age as Jimmy Kimmel and more than David Letterman  — and they air an hour before him, when the available pool of viewers is significantly larger.

While he says he's happy with the ratings, Meyers attributes a lot of it to Fallon's lead-in, and says you can get lost playing to the Nielsen meters.

"I remember in baseball, the coach would always say, 'Throw it; don't aim it,' " Meyers says. "Comedy's very much the same way. If you start thinking about who your audience is and you try to only direct it specifically to them, that's a mistake. We try to write what makes us laugh, what's funny for us."