'Late Night with Seth Meyers' premiere review: 'Saturday Night Live' brand extension or analog holdout in a digital era?

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Image Credit: Rodolfo Martinez/NBC

So here’s Seth Meyers, former Weekend Update anchor, hosting his first-ever episode of Late Night. He’s following in the footsteps of Jimmy Fallon, another former Weekend Update anchor. The two men are different, kind of. Fallon on Update was adorable and Meyers on Update was adorably rude. (Fallon is to Meyers as Michelangelo is to Raphael.) But they’re also not that different — not when you consider the whole great ecosystem of comedy that has grown lush in this era of cable and internet and podcasts and books based on Tumblrs getting turned into TV shows. On Monday, Fallon’s monologue had Olympics jokes and a Rob Ford joke; one hour later, Meyers’ first-ever monologue started with an Olympics joke and a Rob Ford joke.

This is the Seth Meyers problem, for now. He’s basically the same age as Jimmy Fallon — actually a year older. You could argue that their pre-Late Night careers were radically different. Fallon spent six years at Saturday Night Live before trying, mostly failing at a movie career. Meyers spent thirteen years at SNL, many of them as the show’s head writer. And, as my colleague Hillary Busis pointed out, he had a distinctive writing voice: Weird, unusual, breaking away from the staid rhythms of SNL‘s live sketches. Though you could argue that Meyers presided over those staid rhythms, too.

And Meyers’ SNL longevity is part of the problem. Fallon on Late Night had a built-in comeback narrative: Nobody thought he could do it, but it turned out everyone was secretly ready to be impressed. Meyers just said farewell to Weekend Update a few weeks ago. At times, the premiere of Late Night felt dangerously like the TV equivalent of It’s Pat or A Night at the Roxbury, an SNL sketch decontextualized into some awkward uncanny valley between What It Was and What It Wants To Be.

Meyers was still yelling like a fake newscaster, not talking like a real host. He favored snappy bits that cut to the chase like his Update jokes. The segment “Venn Diagram” found the middle ground in two apparently unlikely things: Russia and the NBA (“Places That Are More Gay-Friendly Than Arizona”), Nicki Minaj and Hoarders (“Lots of Junk in the Trunk”), Snow and Toilet Paper (“Things You Won’t Find in Sochi.”) He looked a bit nervous. His left hand kept jittering. (It recalled that old Jack Donaghy line: “What do I do with my arms?”)

Fellow SNL veteran Fred Armisen was there, leading the 8G Band, which is a “rock” “band,” quotations mine, question mark implied? Meyers’ first guest was Amy Poehler, his former Weekend Update co-anchor. Yeesh, even the Late Night opening credits basically looked like the SNL opening credits: Same glamour-gritty shots of New York. Five years ago, Fallon surprised everyone with a Late Night that was funkier than it had any right to be: The Roots, the laptop on the desk. The premiere of Late Night felt, at worst, like an SNL brand extension: Less a distinctive new voice in the late-night landscape than a demonstration of the further colonization of wee-hours programming by Lorne Michaels.

So here’s the thing. I laughed at the premiere of Late Night with Seth Meyers less than I laughed at The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. But I laughed more at Seth Meyers than I did at Jimmy Fallon. When he first sat down at his desk, Meyers thanked his parents (like Fallon last week) and his wife (ditto.) But thanking his wife led Meyers down a hilarious tangent about a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend, a flat tire, and the manly man who fixed the flat tire while Meyers held the couple’s 7-pound Italian greyhound. The tale started off funny and then became uproarious. Something you never knew from Update: Meyers is a great storyteller. (“It was very hard to feel macho when you’re holding a tiny dog while another man changes your wife’s tire.”)

In late-night TV terms, that story had nothing in common with Fallon, who quite savvily seems to view his show as a viral-baiting content farm. It felt more like the conversational chatter of the Letterman/Ferguson school. And although it’s wrong to judge a host’s interview skills from his BFF first guest, I loved how freewheeling Meyers’ conversation with Poehler got, hopscotching between improvvy humor and career talk and Clooney jokes. That extended when Vice President Joe Biden came onstage. The three of them conceived a running joke about Poehler and Biden starring in a movie called Snakes on a Train, and when Biden asked who he was playing, Meyers (apparently off-the-cuff) said, “The conductor who’s just dangerous enough to pull it off!”

Late Night as a franchise has always encouraged a rollicking atmosphere, because the college-student demographic is (pick your own explanation) smarter or weirder or younger or on something. So it’s only natural that there are things (Fred Armisen) about Meyers’ show (Fred Armisen) that don’t quite seem to fit yet (Fred Armisen.) And it’s worth pointing out that tomorrow night could see Meyers’ first trial-by-fire: his lead guest is the always-volcanic Kanye West.

But in his first outing, what struck me most of all about Meyers was the old-fashioned tone. He constantly held up pictures — real pictures, printed out. I don’t think he said the words “Twitter” or “Facebook” once in the whole hour. His segments had low-production-value intros, which he made fun of. One segment focused on “Costas Vision,” or what the Olympics looked like through Bob Costas’ pink-eye-afflicted retinas. This was, like, the funniest idea of two weeks ago. Until the final gag, which showed the “Costas Vision” version of Luge: A hot dog sliding down a toy track. It was so cheap and so dumb, and I laughed harder at that than anything that happened on The Tonight Show last night.

For a long time now, Fallon has looked like the future of late night: Plugged in, hyper-digital, shareable. Kimmel is a different kind of host, but he arguably invented that model with the “I’m F—ing [Star of Good Will Hunting]” duology. Could it be that Meyers wants to find a different way: That he will be proudly analog in late night’s digital era? The good bits of his Late Night premiere offer some hope: The flat-tire story, the Poehler interview, the fact that he managed to wring some funny blood-from-the-stone jokes out of NBC’s mandate that all late-night hosts must make a million jokes about the Olympics. Late Night with Seth Meyers feels like a work in progress. But at times, it also feels like progress.

Premiere Grade: B

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