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So What Do You Do, Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live Head Writer?

Seven years into his job at one of the "last bastions" of live TV, this funny guy talks business

By Steve Krakauer - May 14, 2008
Born and raised in New England and a hardcore Boston Red Sox fan, Seth Meyers has immersed himself firmly within New York's media scene. As a cast member on Saturday Night Live for seven seasons, Meyers wraps up his second as the show's head writer this weekend. He spoke at the Time 100 Gala, and next month he'll host the 12th annual Webby Awards Celebration -- the culmination of Internet Week New York. Meyers was also one of the most visible stars on the picket line in New York during the two-month writer's strike last winter. On Saturday, Meyers will grace the "Weekend Update" set for the last time during SNL's 33rd season, as the strike-shortened season comes to a close. We spoke with Meyers earlier this week about the show, the strike and the Jimmy Fallon late-night news.

Name: Seth Meyers
Position: Head writer and cast member, Saturday Night Live
Resume: Joined the SNL cast in 2001 and became co-head writer with Tina Fey in January 2006. Became head writer in September 2006.
Birthdate: December 28, 1973
Hometown: Bedford, NH
Education: Northwestern University
Marital Status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports
Favorite TV show: The Wire or Battlestar Galactica
Last book read: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
Guilty Pleasure: FIFA 2008 on Xbox

SNL has become part of the history of the 2008 presidential primary season, as the show was credited with originally helping Hillary Clinton by pointing out the media's favoritism of Barack Obama. Then this week, SNL had a biting portrayal of Clinton that's already being called an Obama booster. What do you think about how SNL has become part of the political process this year?
We do a show a week and there is this sense to parse it a little thin and be like, "Oh my god, they're supporting Hillary," when of course we just go with the flow of what's happening that week. We did feel that there was comedy to come from the fact that the media was being really hard on her early on, and we do think there's comedy now from the fact that she's staying in the race. So we were always confident throughout the whole process that we would go where we thought the story was. You know, media parses this election so thinly it's like bowling scores. So I'm not surprised that they threw us [SNL] in as well.

It seems like there's certainly a lot of material for you guys.
Well I think that's why. The microscope is so uncaring these days. In every given week, there's just a totally new story that we poke fun at, so it's been great.

The season finale is on Saturday, and it will be the last time SNL can go on record on the Democratic race. At the very least there'll be a candidate chosen by the time the next show is aired in September. Is there any idea of wanting to leave one final mark on the primary election?
Unfortunately, just because it's our season finale doesn't mean that there's anything else final about what's happening right now. So you more want to do the show like you do every other week, which is what happens from Monday through Saturday of this week. So I think that will be what we'll do. I don't think there will be any resolution by next Saturday.

One of the things I read was about this term "clapter" that Tina Fey said you coined, where the audience is applauding rather than laughing, and the fact that you want to avoid that. How do you avoid that when you're performing and writing political comedy?
You know, sometimes you can't. Sometimes you write a really good joke and unfortunately -- well, not unfortunately -- but sometimes you write a really good joke and it hits to the bone of the way people feel, and they will applaud. I think the goal is, you also hope it's funny enough that they laugh as well. That refers to the times when we would write something that only hits that part of people where they agree, and misses the funny bone. You try to hit both at the same time, both people's passion for it and also the part of the brain that makes them laugh.

When you're sitting around the "Weekend Update" table, are you able to get the feeling of what will get the "clapter" and what will just be laughter?
Sure. Well to begin, we all have certain points of view, too. Sometimes you'll look at a joke and you'll feel so strongly about the point it's making that you'll go, "Well I'd really like to do this one." And someone will point out, "Well you won't get a response, it might just seem like playing to the audience." And obviously we try to play to the audience as far as making them laugh, but you try to avoid that if you can. It's unavoidable, by the way. The worst time is when you say something negative about someone and the audience gets on board with applause. If it's not equally funny, sometimes it feels a little mean-spirited. But you just try to stay vigilant towards it and I think we do a pretty decent job.

The Internet seems to have had an impact on SNL starting a couple years ago, with digital shorts added as a regular fixture. Then SNL moved out of YouTube and into embeddable clips this year, and last week it introduced the SNL Politics Web site. What do you think of SNL's involvement with the Internet?
Well in a lot of ways, some of it happened naturally. We hired three funny guys who made their hay making Internet videos, and that sort of happened for us, which is really nice. But also -- as the Internet developed -- I think SNL pieces are the perfect size for the Internet. So I think there's a marriage that was meant to happen, and it was just a matter of having the technology kept up. I have to tip my cap to Hulu -- I think it's a great site. The nice thing about working for a place like NBC is that they put the effort behind us to make the show as well-set for the future as possible.

I listen to NPR in the morning because it's a news source you can listen to while you play video games. So I can merge two of my worlds in one awesome newsgathering and entertainment-playing moment.

It seems, with the embeddable videos, that SNL's almost asking for blogs to pick up these videos and post them on their sites.
It's great, and embeddable clips with ads are kind of genius.

During the writer's strike, you were one of the most visible stars on the picket line from start to finish -- you were even handed the "perfect attendance award." Looking back, what are your thoughts on the outcome?
You know, unfortunately the outcome with all strikes is nobody wins. Anybody who looks at the final tally would see it's a really hard time for everybody. There were a lot of innocent victims on either side -- our crews and whatnot -- that got hurt by our time on the picket lines. So it's an unfortunate time. I hope that the agreement is at least a move in the right direction for the future of online content. The nice thing for us was, if you ever needed a reason to appreciate our jobs more than we did, the strike certainly was it. Coming back was an incredible relief, and it's just nice to be with the show again.

An effect of the strike was that this season was shortened to 12 episodes, eight fewer than usual. Were there any talks to add more episodes?
Once the schedule is set, it's hard to mess around with it. The good news for us is we're coming back earlier in the fall. And we'll hopefully do some more shows next year, so I think we'll make it up that way. But it does feel like an antiquated season. It's been unfortunate. On the upside, I was really happy with the eight weeks we had after the strike.

It seems like you really jumped right into the fray as far as getting involved in what's being talked about.
Yeah, well I think across television now, you're seeing now what people wrote after the strike. And I feel like everyone was really ready to get back to work.

Can you tell me a little about the process behind "Weekend Update"? What sort of resources does the "Weekend Update" staff employ in gathering the stories and jokes for the show? Where do you go for your media consumption?
Different people do it different places. I listen to NPR in the morning because it's a news source you can listen to while you play video games. So I can merge two of my worlds in one awesome newsgathering and entertainment-playing moment. I certainly search on the Web. I'm a New York Times guy, Salon, Slate, are Web sites I read pretty regularly.

There's a separate staff of writers specifically for Weekend Update that work on the show. How does the process evolve during the week, as it gets closer to the show on Saturday?
Well, again, we have part of the Weekend Update team that's constantly working on what are the stories of the week, both the big ones and the small minutiae ones. And they're writing jokes for everyday news. Then, on Friday night, Amy [Poehler] and I will sit around with the Update writers and read about 800 jokes, and we'll probably like 100. Then, our Update producer Charlie Grandy goes off and picks the 30 we're going to do at dress rehearsal. But there are also the 70 we didn't pick, and if Amy and I feel strongly about those, we can sometimes try to slide one of those in. And the number of jokes that get in by air is about 16 to 20. But sometimes they'll be one big story that we haven't hit or something that happens Friday night. The joke writers for "Update" are so talented, it's rare that we're going to miss anything.

I consider myself competition with Anderson Cooper. He's a fellow anchor. I know he might think I'm some fake news guy, but I do consider us now competing for market share.

What if something breaks Saturday at 9:30 p.m.? Is there a push to try to get that into the live show?
The one thing about it is, there's a push to alert people. I'll say what happens more than anything else is with like Game 7's of World Series: Those are the things that happen late at night, and sometimes we try to find a way to put it in. And it's weird to make a joke about something that usually the audience would not know, depending on where they'd been during the night. But it is fun sometimes to tell people, "the Yankees won" and make a joke about it. Although, delightfully for me, the Yankees have not won a World Series since I've been at Saturday Night Live.

And your Red Sox have won a couple.
They have. Two, technically.

I'm curious about the mood of writing for SNL. You've been a member of the cast and the writing team for seven years now. There are a lot of different places where your sketch could be cut from the show -- if it goes well in rehearsals, then at dress gets no response and is cut; or , if it killed at dress, but was cut during the live show because of a time issue. Can you describe what that process is like?
Sure. We do the table read on Wednesday with about 45 pieces, and pick about 12 to produce. And then we perform them at dress rehearsal, at eight o'clock [p.m.] on Saturday. And I'd say of those 12, we probably have to cut it down to about eight elements for the show. And I will say, the longer I've been on the show there's this relief when something gets cut. Like when you say something killed at dress and doesn't make it to the show -- that doesn't happen that frequently. The best stuff does make it. Every now and then, on a super-hot show, you might lose a piece that you really liked. But it can live again. If it was that good, it usually finds a way to come back. But the other thing is, when you get a piece in the show that you're worried about, that played soft at dress but for some reason made it to the live show -- I realize when I first started on the show, [I was] just so desperate to get on air. But now, in my seventh season, I'd rather see it not get on than get on if I don't think it's going to play.

As head writer now, your screen time has gone way down. Do you ever secretly wish Anderson Cooper[whom Meyers impersonates on SNL] gets in some scandal so you can get on the air more in sketches?
No, I have to say I've found of my acting style [that] it works very well behind a desk. I guess for Anderson Cooper, that works as well. Now I consider myself competition with Anderson Cooper. He's a fellow anchor. I know he might think I'm some fake news guy, but I do consider us now competing for market share.

How do you think your career would be different if John Kerry [whom Meyers also plays on SNL] had become president?
I don't think about it that often, just like an hour in the morning when I wake up and for an hour before bed. The main thing is, I really think I would have had a shot to go to the White House, and that really would have been pretty awesome. But it just wasn't meant to be. I will say that outside of the Kerry family, I'm probably the most disappointed at the way it turned out. I did recently run into Senator Kerry at a Red Sox-Cleveland ALCS game. And the Red Sox took it in Cleveland. And we were saying it was nice to be standing there watching someone from Massachusetts beat a team from Ohio.

I guess he couldn't be doing that if he was President.
That's true. At least he got to go to a game.

You are working for SNL at the end of its 33rd season. Is the history intimidating, or is it exciting? What is it like being at a show with such a rich history?
It's really all those things at once. You're constantly competing with people's memories of the show, but at the same time it's the excitement of being surrounded by so much history. It's also one of the last bastions of what live television used to be. So it's not just the history of the show, but its nice to sort of be at the beginning of television and that thrill of running around at the last minute-type TV thing. But ultimately, you just don't have time for it because of how intense the schedule is. Maybe in the long summer months, you sort of think every now and then about how you measure up to the past, but while you're doing the show, there's just not enough time.

When you took over "Weekend Update" two seasons ago, the cast underwent a major makeover, being trimmed down for the first time in a while. What do you think of the idea of having a trimmer cast and -- I'm not sure how much you're allowed to say -- with the finale approaching is there anyone you'd like to say might be cleaning out their dressing room for the last time?
[Laughs] I think everybody we have this year is going to be back next year. But I will say that the upside of a leaner cast is that there's more responsibility that everybody shares. When you have 15, 16 people, you can disappear for a week, and it would not be a big deal. But now there really is this sense that we're going to need everybody, every week, and I think that has brought the best out of everybody.

Last thing to settle an IMDB/Wikipedia question -- the movie Key Party which you're writing and starring in, apparently… is that happening? What's the status with that?
I just submitted another draft. So that's sort of where it's at right now.

And it's based on the sketch with you and Amy Poehler, right?
It's inspired by: I don't want people to think I'm trying to turn a four-minute sketch into a feature-length movie. I didn't have stage directions -- basically it's a lot more stage directions.

Steve Krakauer is associate editor of TVNewser.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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