There are nearly as many late-night talk-show hosts as there are presidential candidates these days, so players in both arenas need to do whatever they can to distinguish themselves from the pack. Over at NBC’s Late Night, Seth Meyers may have found his hook: politics. With Late Show’s David Letterman off the stage and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart soon to follow, the genre’s two highest-profile political voices are going silent. Before Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah can try to fill the power vacuum, Meyers is stepping up his game, most notably by booking presidential candidates in the run-up to 2016.
“This was always sort of the plan,” says Meyers. “The only way any of us can approach this is by playing to our strengths.” And unlike, say, the Jimmys, Meyers “has always been a political guy,” says executive producer Mike Shoemaker. “He’s so knowledgeable — I watch him and go, ‘How can he remember the name of that bill?’”
Perhaps it’s because Meyers was born and raised in the home of the nation’s first presidential primary. “In New Hampshire, we’ve fully bought into the idea that we’re special people who have been given the right to tell the rest of the country who the front-runner is,” says Meyers, who introduced Democratic candidate Jerry Brown before a speech at his Manchester West High School in 1992.
Late Night unofficially kicked off its campaign coverage with Ted Cruz’s guest spot in March, one day after the Republican senator from Texas terrified a 3-year-old girl at a campaign rally by telling her, “Your world is on fire.” (“At first I got excited, because I thought maybe you were coming around on global warming,” Meyers quipped, burning the climate-change denier.)
“We started out with a high degree of difficulty, because Cruz is a polarizing guy,” says Shoemaker. “But it was a genial conversation — two guys discussing real politics, not just talk-show stories. When we got through that, it was like, ‘Okay, great, now we can have anybody on.’”
Next came fellow GOP contender Carly Fiorina, who defended her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and her campaign’s inability to secure the domain name carlyfiorina.org. (She announced that she’d registered the URL sethmeyers.org.) “I thought Ted Cruz was more fun than Carly Fiorina,” Meyers says. “And I never thought I would ever say the words, ‘Ted Cruz was more fun.’”
Most recently, Meyers sat down with Vermont Democratic Socialist senator Bernie Sanders and let him crack wise about his controversial 1972 rape-fantasy essay as well as his tone-deaf 1987 folk album. (“Now we have learned that I do bad fiction and bad music,” Sanders said, “but I do have some other attributes.") On Sanders’s sit-down, Meyers says: “The Bernie one turned out pretty well, balance-wise, in terms of getting him to talk about both real issues and ridiculous ones.”
Meyers plans to chat up more candidates soon, but he does issue a warning: “We’re nearing a tipping point on the Republican side — if you haven’t declared yet, we might not get to you. Throw your hat in soon, because we’re really booking up.”
He does have a wish list: “I would love Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, [Hillary] Clinton, and [Jeb] Bush — it doesn’t even have to be these Clintons or those Bushes.” And he’s not worried about a possible Clinton-Bush election feeling like a rerun. “We’ll be fine, joke-wise, but I don’t know if it’s good for all those kindergarteners who we tell anyone can grow up to be president. I’m more worried about what it says about the state of dynasties in American politics than how it’ll work out for our show.”
Meyers is also hoping to land President Obama before he leaves office, and gives the comedian-in-chief high marks. “The Earth will be around for a long time before you have a funnier president than Obama,” he says. “He has a stand-up’s cadence, and the awareness and ability to make jokes about himself before comedians can. That’s a page almost every politician should try to take from his book.”
And you don’t have to be running for president to land a spot on Meyers’s couch: He interviewed Elizabeth Warren and John McCain recently. “Politicians don’t say no to cameras very often,” Meyers cracks. “And we’re very happy to say we have five of them here every night at Late Night, and they’re all working.” Ex-pols are welcome to stop by, too. “The real fun is retired politicians like Barney Frank,” says Meyers of the former Massachusetts congressman. “He didn’t censor himself much when he was in office, but now that he’s out, there’s nothing holding him back at all.”
Meyers says he’ll restrain himself in one way: He pledges not to reprise his 2004 John Kerry impersonation from SNL in light of the secretary of state’s recent bicycle mishap in Europe. “I’m going to wait until his leg’s fully healed,” deadpans Meyers. “With everything he’s going through right now, the last thing he needs is me to break out my C+ impression of him.”