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Smart guy in the wiseguy seat



NEW YORK » Seth Meyers is the oldest, most experienced and most hostlike comedian to take the reins of NBC’s three-decade-old "Late Night."

But starting Monday night, when he walks out into his shiny new studio at 30 Rockefeller Center, about 20 yards down the hall from where he has worked for the past 13 years on "Saturday Night Live," the only thing that will matter is whether Meyers will be as funny as the three men who preceded him: David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon.

"You can’t worry about it until it’s time to worry about it," Meyers said, sitting in his unprepossessing office at 30 Rock. He acknowledged the daunting track record he will be following: Each of the previous three hosts graduated from successful runs in the 12:35 a.m. slot of "Late Night" to the big time of 11:35 p.m. shows on a network.

"I’m really looking forward to mid-March," Meyers said. "When we’ve been on three weeks, it will be like looking at an ultrasound: Oh, I see its hand! Whereas right now we’ve got a heartbeat, but that’s all we’ve got."

Worrying is locked deep into Meyers’ DNA, but few around him on the new show share the condition. In his years as head writer for "SNL" and anchor of its "Weekend Update" segment, Meyers earned a reputation for reliability and intellect.

"Seth is a very stable guy," said Michael Shoemaker, his producer and longtime friend. (And mature, of course. Meyers is 40. David Letterman was 34 when he started "Late Night" in 1982. When O’Brien took over in 1993, he was 30. And Fallon was 34 when he became host in 2009.)

Lorne Michaels, the executive producer for both shows, who first hired Meyers for "SNL" and then installed him in "Late Night," said: "Seth is ready for this. He has the poise and the breadth."

Most people who have worked with Meyers quickly cite his intelligence and his wide range of interests – from politics to sports to literature – as the qualities most likely to set him apart as a late-night host.

"There is nothing he can’t talk about," Michaels said. "I would use the word ‘intellectual.’ But he’s somebody who thinks things through and finds a take on it. He is incredibly disciplined and has a brilliant mind."

That may mean this version of "Late Night" will represent a tilt back toward the talk in talk show, Michaels acknowledged, but not at the expense of the comedy.

Meyers said, "People will recognize that we’re doing a late-night show, because many of the conventions will be in place: desk, band, monologue."

The monologue should be one of Meyers’ strengths. He has honed a stand-up act in recent years, including a performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011 that Shoemaker said "in many ways set him up for this." But he has also been, in his writing and anchoring chores on "SNL," a pure practitioner in the art of the joke.

"If this job could be anything like ‘Update,’ where I got to tell jokes and facilitate other jokes, that would be really fun," Meyers said. "In the monologue itself, I would love to tell 15 jokes a night."

What distinguishes Meyers from most previous late-night hosts (with one exception, O’Brien) is that he largely forged his early career as a writer. Though he had extensive improv training after college at Northwestern, and made it to "SNL" as a performer, Meyers said he quickly realized his path to survival on a show stocked with talent like Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler was as a writer.

"I would write sketches with the intention of pitching myself in them, and even I would know that if I really wanted the sketch to get on, I would be the fourth or fifth best choice. At that point, you can’t really complain to the rest of the writing staff that they’re not putting you in anything."

"Weekend Update" changed his career path. When Tina Fey left the show in 2006, he won the co-anchor job next to Poehler. "Amy is fearless," he said. "I will never be as fearless as Amy, but I am more fearless for having known her."

"Update" also allowed Meyers to display another underappreciated comedy skill: the straight man. Paired with characters like Bill Hader’s Stefon, Meyers found himself enjoying the role of joke facilitator.

His fans from "SNL" are surely going to expect a smarter show under Meyers, Shoemaker said. "There’s no way to define smarter," he said. "It’s the subject matter. This show will book differently because of Seth’s interests. He wants politicians and authors and sports figures and comedians."

That will play out in the first two nights. Monday’s guests include Poehler and Vice President Joe Biden; Tuesday’s will include Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and the author of a book on Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto.

For the first few weeks, "Late Night" will air five nights a week, then it will shift to four, skipping Fridays. That is in the show’s tradition, though Fallon filled all five nights. The last big decision, whether to have a band, was resolved when Michaels suggested Meyers’ old "SNL" castmate Fred Armisen, who is also a skilled musician, as bandleader.

What is now in place is a show that will share a building for the first time with "The Tonight Show," though there are few other similarities, said Michaels, who is now in charge of both of them. "They will have distinct cultures. I will keep a wall between them – and between them and ‘SNL,’" he said.

Meyers has had eight months to prepare for his debut as a late-night host, almost too long, he said. Even with all the preparation, he said that he expects his nerves to jangle Monday night.

"But this is not a job where you have eight months to get ready," Meyers said. "It’s a job where you have 23 hours to get ready for the next one."

Bill Carter, New York Times

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