Maybe the most unusual thing about Seth Meyers‘ debut as Late Night host, which taped at 30 Rock in New York Monday evening, was how un-unusual it was. David Letterman began the show as a new thing under the sun (or rather the moon). Conan O’Brien took over as a complete unknown. Jimmy Fallon was known from Saturday Night Live but took the show in a new direction–more joyous, less acerbic.
And Meyers–Meyers is making the same transition as Fallon did, something he nodded at by opening his first show with a riff on Fallon’s “Thank You Notes” bit, thanking Fallon for turning over the show and promising to use it “only for completely original comedy pieces… starting now.” Nor was he radically changing the format of the talk show, a fact he also joked about: “I’m gonna shake stuff up and open this thing with a monologue!”
The monologue was the sharpest part of Meyers’ first hour on the air (a departure from Fallon, whose monologue has never been his strength)–brisk, punctuated with self-deprecation (“Our first sorta bomb!,” he said, mock-delightedly, after one flat landing), and wide-rangingly topical. He riffed off Taco Bell’s new plan to serve breakfast (“perfect for those occasions when you wake up drunk”) and a proposed Georgia law to allow guns in church (“I believe it was Jesus who said: Everybody on the floor, put your wallets in this bag!”).
You’d expect that from Meyers, given that Weekend Update is essentially a monologue in tag-team form. But he also told a charming personal story about being stuck on a weekend getaway with his wife, their small dog, and a car whose flat tire he was unable to fix, a story that played off his bookish nerd image: “It’s hard to feel macho holding a tiny dog while another man changes your wife’s tire.” And his banter with the deadpan Fred Armisen, leading Meyers’ band, suggested his former SNL castmate could have a substantial comedy role in the show going ahead.
Beyond that, if Meyers is planning some departures for the show–he’s talked, for instance, about doing sketch bits with characters–we’ll have to wait for them. (Also: no Stefon yet, sorry.) He introduced a desk bit, “Venn Diagrams”; he had on his old SNL pal Amy Poehler on, as promised, for an easy chat as his first guest. (“I have watched you for 13 years pretend to listen to people,” she told him.)
Meyers’ big booking coup was Vice President Joe Biden, a choice of celebrity that may suggest a Late Night a little newsier than its older versions–though Meyers kept the interview largely on trains, airports, and Biden’s jovial pointing at the State of the Union (“If there were an NRA for finger guns, you’d be the president”).
The distinguishing thing about the first night of Seth Meyers, in other words, was Seth Meyers, and the hour dropped little hints about how his personality and interests might shape the show. If Jimmy Fallon was (and is) your guitar-playing camp counselor, Seth Meyers is a little more like your wisecracking grad-student T.A. But the important caveat applies: no one’s talk show is, on its first night, what it will become. Fallon’s first outing in 2009 debuted “Slow Jamming the News,” but barely hinted at the celebrity stunts and musical productions that would become its hallmark.
But for now, Meyers’ show is, well, a talk show, focused on the basics of jokes, personality, and banter. If we’ve entered an era when Late Night at 12:35 might be a more traditional talk show than Tonight at 11:35, that will be the biggest change of all.