There’s nothing any critic can tell Seth Meyers that he doesn’t already know. At the end of his first Late Night, he even joked that he’d like the audience to stick around for “like, five hours of notes.” After eight years as a head writer for Saturday Night Live, Meyers has plenty of experience with punching up, fine-tuning and generally making things better. He’ll need to put those skills to good use over the next few months as Late Night with Seth Meyers finds its way.
Given that he just signed off from SNL three weeks ago, it’s no surprise Meyers still has a lot of his old job to shake off as he makes this transition. From the familiar New York street-scene opening credits that easily could have had Don Pardo’s voice bellowing over them to a monologue delivered in a measured tone straight from “Weekend Update,” nothing about Meyers’ first show jumped out as screamingly original. In fact, it was pretty by-the-book, like an A student delivering an oral report on “How to Do a Late Night Talk Show.”
Meyers certainly looks the part, crisp and bright with a charming smile. But his practiced politician stance and tractor-beam focus on the prompter came off as stiff, like he was telling jokes while modeling for a men’s clothing catalog. He seemed visibly relieved when he could move behind the desk and start bantering with bandleader Fred Armisen, who quickly picked up the improv volley with a deadpan description of his fictional new show on the History Channel. It was the first naturally funny moment of the episode, and I couldn’t help thinking Armisen will be the show’s secret weapon—the Albert Brooks to Meyers’ William Hurt in a late night version of Broadcast News.
The stifled atmosphere didn’t get any help from the sterile set design, which drew questions on Twitter about whether Meyers was the new host of Jeopardy!. For me, the bright blue boxes and wood paneling looked more like the set of an SNL talk show parody. Most puzzling, though, are the large amounts of dead space. Meyers’ desk is isolated on a small, sparse platform that looks like it’s been pushed upstage so the janitor has room to vacuum behind it. Guests Amy Poehler and Vice President Joe Biden were cramped together in chairs that seemed pulled in from the lobby.
Because she can do no wrong, Poehler made for an ebullient first guest, cracking up Armisen with a line about being former “turbulent lovers” and putting Meyers further at ease in the company of an old friend. In fact, Meyers seemed to cling to Poehler a little too much, as she stuck around for the Biden segment and helped introduced the show’s first musical guest, A Great Big World. (They performed their hit ballad “Say Something,” because nothing infuses energy into a new show like a melancholy song about a break-up.)
Nothing glaringly bad happened during last night’s inaugural episode, and that may be part of the problem. At 40, Meyers is the oldest host to take over Late Night and his maturity comes through. Everything feels very safe and risk-averse. But then again, you have to know the rules before you break them, and it will be more fun to watch Late Night when Meyers feels like he’s passed the formal exam and can finally start having a little fun himself.