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Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Looking at the Debut Week of 'Late Night with Seth Meyers'

Seth Meyers had his first week as the new host of Late Night last week, and after eight years as SNL's Weekend Update anchor, he came prepared for the new gig with plenty of experience delivering punchlines and riffing opposite wacky characters and real-life celebrities. It's too early to fairly judge Seth's version of Late Night before he and his staff get a chance to settle into their new roles, but here's a preliminary look at what the show already does well, what it can improve, and what its debut week indicates for its future.

Seth Meyers as host:
So far — monologue-wise, especially — there's little difference between Seth the Weekend Update anchor and Seth the Late Night host. Meyers radiates open-minded friendliness and never attempts to steal more of the spotlight than he needs from his guests, but his joke delivery still has the live cue card feel from SNL that doesn't quite fit into the relatively unrehearsed daily talk show mold. During his debut week he relied on mounted photographs and painstakingly rehearsed personal asides to inject some kind of trademark personality into the show, relax a bit, and find an attitude and rhythm.

While one of his biggest strengths on SNL was making others look good, Meyers will still need to prove unique and irreplaceable over on Late Night. That said, few people can not only cull a balanced interview out of Kanye West, but also make him laugh during a reveal of never-before-seen SNL sketch footage starring Kanye and a champagne-filled pumpkin from 2007. Those kinds of surprises are the strongest tools in Meyers's arsenal right now, and all he's missing is fearlessness in what he's doing and a willingness to access his inner emotions other than gratitude and bemusement. Meyers will get there with some time and experience.

Fred Armisen and the 8G Band:
While Meyers and Armisen shared some caustically weird banter throughout the week that included Fred talking about his attempt at a citizen's arrest and invention of a new Olympics sport called "Statue Sport," the role of Armisen and the 8G Band has so far been much more understated compared to how The Roots operate on The Tonight Show. Perhaps it will stay that way to make Fred's transition between Late Night and Portlandia a little less glaring come May, though in a recent interview with Vulture, Armisen seemed to hint that the bandleader gig is not necessarily a permanent thing:

I take any project on a month or two at a time. Meaning, I don’t think too far ahead … The way that they approached me to do this is sort of, Do you want to curate a band? My answer, always, is to always think, What would Wayne Coyne do? So yeah, right now mathematically it might not make sense, but do I want to go to New York and help my friend Seth Meyers out? Absolutely. This is a good opportunity: I like playing music. So I think it’s something where I’m going to start it off and curate it and sort of revisit it, and get it going.

This was definitely apparent during Late Night last week, as Fred and Seth connected on occasion but not in a way that took advantage of Armisen's talents as a chameleonic impersonator and lovable oddball. His SNL performances as a string of band members and talk show audience rousers à la Fericito seemed perfectly fit for Late Night carryover, but maybe Armisen's saving that kind of content for future Portlandia episodes. Still, there's a goldmine beneath the Fred/Seth pairing that I hope the show digs up soon. As it is, their rapport is a bit strained, almost like they didn't know each other prior to the show, which is strange considering their history together shows just the opposite.

Guests:
Late Night made the perfect choice by having Meyers's former Weekend Update co-anchor Amy Poehler as his very first guest. Poehler's exuberance quelled Seth and Fred's nervous vibes and stole the show at times, especially when she sat in on next guest V.P. Joe Biden's segment and essentially co-interviewed him with Seth. The rest of the week's guests ranged from a blend of pop culture darlings (Kelly Ripa, Lena Dunham), music superstars (Kanye West, Brad Paisley), athletes (Russell Wilson), and writers (Robyn Doolittle), and Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart rounded out the week by taking over the show during their interview. It's probably not an accurate example of the kinds of guests Meyers will have in a typical week, but he's already proving to be an adaptable interviewer with all types and schooled in opposite poles like sports and art. Meyers also featured Michael Che on Friday as Late Night's very first standup act, which will hopefully turn into a more regular thing too.

Show format and writers as characters:
While we already knew that Seth's Late Night didn't plan to stray too far from the traditional late night format — monologue, jokes and segments at the desk, and interviews — Meyers and crew still managed to suggest a unique flavor by bringing his writers and collaborators to the stage like John Lutz as Late Night's "money expert" Steven Strand, Tim Robinson as Seth's emergency sidekick Dale, and writers Seth Reiss, Amber Ruffin, and Peter Grosz in a Tuesday night segment called "Dissatisfied Audience Members" that was Late Night's first daring moment of laughworthy self-awareness. I liked the writer-driven segments much more than the bigger concepts like the "Fake or Florida" game show and hope the show follows the weirder humor traditions of O'Brien and Fallon rather than falling into more generic, mainstream-friendly, Leno-like concepts, which seem unnecessarily safe for the post-midnight time slot. Seth Reiss in particular gave a great performance as the jaded fan wearing a faded 20-year-old-looking Late Night with Seth Meyers t-shirt, lamenting over the days when Seth's show used to be fresh and real.

Ratings:
According to Variety, Seth's first week on Late Night brought in the show's biggest weekly audience in seven years (not counting Fallon's last week in February). He scored 3.4 million viewers on his first episode Monday night, making it the biggest Monday night Late Night audience in almost 10 years. The show did have some helpful bumps from the Olympics and having Fallon's high ratings magnet Tonight Show as a lead-in, and higher than average ratings are to be expected for a new late night host, so it'll be interesting to see if Meyers and crew can maintain decent numbers at the odd 12:37am time slot after the debut excitement fades away.

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