Inside the writers' room with Seth Meyers: How to make late-night TV in the Trump era
NEW YORK - About 12:30 p.m., CNN flashes the news. "Ty Cobb's out!" rings out in the writers' room of "Late Night With Seth Meyers."
"The lawyer Ty Cobb?" another writer asks. "The mustache!"
Down the hall at 30 Rockefeller Center, showrunner Mike Shoemaker pops into Meyers' office to tell him about Cobb's departure from President Donald Trump's legal team. Meyers already knows.
How big of a deal is this? Meh, by 2018 standards. But Meyers and his writers have learned to be on alert. "If more than five people are looking at one TV, you know something's happening where we're going to have to tear up our script," Meyers later explained. He literally shredded a segment on the air last year after a particularly wild Trump news conference.
We're more than a year into the Trump presidency, and the dizzying headlines come and go so quickly that 9 a.m. reports feel irrelevant by 5 p.m. And late-night hosts, while duty-bound to entertain, have also become Anti-Trump America's Guide to What It All Means.
So, how do these shows navigate the avalanche of news and quickly turn the latest political plot twist into comedy?
To find out, we spent a day inside NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers," helmed by a host who's become one of the most incisive joke-slinging critics of the administration. We followed Meyers, writers and producers through rapid-fire script readings, last-minute sketches, breaking news alerts and a taping before a studio audience to see what it takes to make late-night TV in the unpredictable Trump era.
"We thought the campaign was the World Series," Meyers said in an interview, "but it turned out it was just spring training for this."
On a Wednesday earlier this month, Meyers arrives at work having already read the draft of the "Closer Look" segment that writer Sal Gentile emailed him overnight. This longer comedic deep-dive has become the show's trademark.
Today's first draft focuses on the Iran nuclear deal and Trump's colorful former physician, Harold Bornstein. Wearing a hoodie and sneakers, Meyers sits in his office as he adds jokes and asks Gentile if there's a way to mention Vice President Mike Pence praising former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio yesterday as a champion of "the rule of law" - the same Arpaio who was convicted of contempt of court.
Meyers is well-suited to this late-night TV moment. He spent 13 seasons down the hall at "Saturday Night Live," including a stint as "Weekend Update" anchor and writing powerhouse political sketches, including Tina Fey's famous turn as Sarah Palin. His 2011 White House correspondents' dinner jokes mocking Trump's presidential aspirations have since become folklore. (Did the disses motivate Trump to run?)
Meyers took over Jimmy Fallon's 12:30 a.m. time slot in 2014, but the show found its voice in the crowded late-night field during the 2016 campaign, as it doubled down on politics from an unapologetically liberal point of view.
Late-night shows "are as different as the people, so Seth's views are this way," Shoemaker said. "If he had different views, we would just do that."
Armed with Meyers' instructions, Gentile heads to the bright and airy writers' room, where 14 other writers sit at desks lined up around the perimeter. Some chat in pairs, speaking just above a murmur as they work on future sketches. Others scroll through headlines - Trump has proposed a sixth military branch, the space force - and send monologue jokes to head writer Alex Baze, who worked with Meyers on "SNL."
"So, then we'll fight in space?" writer Ally Hord asks aloud while reading from her computer. She laughs. "This is insane."
Trump gets made fun of a lot in this room, but it isn't ground zero for the Resistance: "We do want to just make jokes about what's happening on any given day," Meyers said. "And he just happens to be the thing that's happening on every given day."
By 10:30 a.m., Gentile has figured out how to connect Arpaio to Bornstein in the "Closer Look" script. Mixing comedy and news has been Gentile's life since college, and by 2014, he was performing improv and sketch comedy in New York while also producing for MSNBC's Chris Hayes when he heard about Meyers hiring for his new nightly show. "Man, that would be a dream job," Gentile thought to himself. A chance encounter with showrunner Shoemaker led to him now spending his days and nights watching the news and writing 30-page "Closer Look" scripts.
Today, he sets aside the Iran deal section - maybe it'll work for tomorrow's show - and he focuses the segment on Bornstein and others in Trump's orbit. With all this drama, Gentile writes, "it's worth checking in on America's Plan B, Vice President Mike Pence."
"There are so many disparate news events happening that are so head-spinning ... and you're trying to figure out like, 'How do these things relate to each other?' " said Gentile. "As much as possible we want to synthesize and contextualize, through comedy, the news for you."
All of the comedy that ends up on air goes through Meyers' office, where he and his head writer dissect what makes a gag work. Today, they're going over next week's "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," a recurring sketch in which Meyers recites the joke setups before writers Amber Ruffin, a black woman, and Jenny Hagel, a gay woman, deliver the punchlines.
Ruffin spent years performing improv full-time and at one point tried out for "Saturday Night Live." She didn't get cast. "I was devastated," she recalled. But a couple days later, Meyers, who had seen Ruffin perform at his former improv theater, called and asked her to join his new show. Two years after that, she recommended Hagel, a hard-working improv comic she met a decade ago in Denver.
Meyers, as he often does during script meetings, speed-reads aloud but rarely misses a word. Ruffin and Hagel deliver punchlines about Meghan Markle, lesbian characters in "Mulan" and Kanye West, who praised Trump and called slavery a choice.
As they discuss the script, Meyers keeps returning to the rapper. Have they seen his interview on TMZ? Have they heard his new song with T.I.?
"It's a crazy thing that Kanye is doing," says Meyers. "Where he's like, 'I'm going to say a lot of things that you hate, but I'm saying them from a place of love,' and I feel like it all ends with a hug."
Ruffin's explanation for his behavior: "You gotta have black friends!" Everyone laughs. "I know people say it to white people, but it's twice as important for black people! You can't just be running around repeating what you've heard white people say."
Ruffin clearly has a lot to say about Kanye, and the story could change any minute. As they leave the meeting, Baze asks her if she has any Kanye ideas for tonight's show.
It turns out that she thought of one last night. She and Hagel will have about an hour and a half to put something together.
"I think if I just - 'I rap about slavery, just, like this,'" Ruffin says in her best Kurtis Blow '80s rap voice. "They don't rhyme in any kind of way - uhhh!"
Hagel laughs. They're in the writers room improvising a purposefully bad rap, and writing the lines as they go. Hagel asks, "Can we reverse engineer, and tell me what you want to say without thinking of it as a rap?"
Ruffin refers to the duo as "little murderers" who can attack a project quickly: "Something black will happen and I'll be like, 'I got to talk about this today.' And then it happens with Jenny, and she'll be like, 'Something gay happened and I have to talk about this today.' "
The two keep writing as the Cobb news breaks and Gentile and others head to the 1 p.m. "Closer Look" meeting in Meyers' office. The host scrolls through Twitter on his phone, sharpens a pencil and says, "I figure - I don't know if we'll put in Ty Cobb."
The group discusses the departure like they're in a newsroom: Was this expected? How does this relate to previous Trump team departures?
Still, Meyers doesn't see his role as delivering the news.
"There's times where despite our best efforts we can't find a good enough joke to keep an important part of the news story in," Meyers explains. "Whereas journalists keep it in because it doesn't require a joke, we're apt to drop it because our ego doesn't want to live through silence. So that's why people should read the newspaper."
Maybe a Cobb joke works better for the monologue, they figure. Meyers then powers through the "Closer Look" script, using his Trump voice as needed. He pauses briefly to make tweaks and discuss a reference to DJ Qualls, that obscure, scrawny early-2000s actor. You'll know him if you saw him, maybe?
Head writer Baze brings up a clip of Trump in which he proposes the space force and then says, "Does that make sense?"
"I just like that even he - that idea is so stupid that even Trump is like, 'Does this make sense?' " Baze says. " 'Am I saying words right now?' "
That goes into the script.
A lot of people assumed Trump's election would be good for comedy. Meyers isn't so sure. Yes, "the years I worked on 'SNL' where the news in Washington was a debt ceiling, like, those things were death to write about," Meyers said. But, "you do like topics to change every now and then."
In some ways, they do. Meyers said the Trump era has also ushered in a cast of characters, like in a sitcom. "So it's not just Trump," Meyers explained. "All of a sudden you have two weeks where there's Scaramucci comedy" or "three months of Bannon comedy."
Today, it's Bornstein comedy. The eccentric figure is back in the news after claiming Trump associates raided his office. He also rocks shoulder-length hair and looks like a middle-aged stoner - at least according to "Late Night" writers.
"I have a feeling the last president Bornstein remembers is LBJ," Meyers reads from the script. "'All I remember is we were protesting LBJ, I lit up a joint, and then I was doing this interview.' "
Meyers pauses. "Sometimes the news is drier than this," he says.
The monologue writers pack into Meyers' office and listen to him run through jokes about everything from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's tweets to how it feels to step on Legos. Baze has managed to whittle down the mountain of jokes to 86. Twenty-five will make it to rehearsal.
Ruffin and Hagel stand by the window overlooking West 50th Street and hand Meyers a draft of the Kanye sketch, which will end the monologue. He reads the setup: "Now, commenting on a black man's opinion about slavery is not something I'm comfortable doing."
"But I am!" Ruffin interrupts. She wants to speak "directly to the hearts of young people" influenced by West's statements "using the most powerful art form known to man: rap. Hit it!"
Ruffin two-steps in the crowded room and does her best Sugarhill Gang impersonation as she raps about why Kanye needs black friends. It's an office a cappella performance - and she crushes it.
"Amber, when was the last time you listened to a rap song?" Meyers reads.
She finishes, and Meyers softly says, "We should just try it, right?"
Ruffin and Hagel rush off. They still need to finalize the script, the outfit and the instrumental track.
"I wanted to do the rap, and so they let us," Ruffin said. "This place is ridiculous."
Meyers, still in his hoodie, stands on the Studio 8G set before a crowd of roughly 40 people recruited from the halls of Rockefeller Center to watch the rehearsal. He explains that they are his test audience - their laughter will shape the show.
Unlike other network late-night hosts, Meyers sits at his desk for the monologue. Baze listens to the audience reactions and writes a question mark next to jokes that work. He then turns to the writers and asks them to come up with more about smaller news stories, to balance out the political material. He aims for 50-50.
The rehearsal tests some complex camera movements for Ruffin's rap, which now has a throwback beat and more dancing. It can also inspire new jokes: Meyers riffs that Bornstein looks like a guy who's late for a puppet show. That goes in the script.
As soon as the rehearsal ends, Meyers and his writers huddle on set and race through "Closer Look" edits, marking what to keep and what to cut. There's no time for debate or chewing over punchlines.
Gentile pitches a way to mention Cobb after all, when they bring up the president's legal woes.
And that obscure '90s actor? The crowd didn't get it.
Meyers says, "Bye DJ Qualls."
As Meyers gets dressed down the hall, Wally Feresten and his cue card team sit in what looks like a wood shop. Feresten has 99 "Closer Look" cards to change, and the final monologue script is running a little late. "Someone's computer wasn't working, I think," he says.
It's that kind of technical glitch that the cue cards protect against, especially with Feresten at the helm. He's done the cards at "SNL" for 27 years. On "Late Night," "if we're running late or we get stuff late, then they can hold the show for five or 10 minutes. With 'SNL' you can't. So we're used to doing things fast."
The final script arrives and Feresten flips through pages, sticks white tape over deleted lines on the cards and writes new lines with a fat marker. By 6 p.m., he's in Meyers' dressing room, holding up cards. The host, now in a navy suit, reads them rapidly to catch any errant words.
No big last-minute additions today; mercifully, there are no early-evening news alerts.
"I have had so many days where I'm literally sprinting down the hallway from our office at one end of the floor down here to run into Seth's dressing room and discuss possibly adding some news that just broke at 6 o'clock," says Gentile. "You have to be less precious and just come up with a joke as quickly as you can."
By 6:15 p.m., Meyers greets tonight's guests - Lord Huron, Priyanka Chopra and Mike O'Brien. He then stands just behind the door to the stage as three wardrobe and makeup people touch him up. "I feel like a car in a NASCAR race," Meyers jokes.
Feresten carries the stack of cards onto set. The cameras roll. The 8G Band plays and as the announcer declares "From 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, it's 'Late Night With Seth Meyers,'" Meyers dashes over to his desk.
And off he goes, delivering seven monologue jokes - including a lone nonpolitical one about ham-flavored ice cream.
Ruffin pops into view, as the audience cheers. She's a fan favorite. They also clap to the beat, which didn't happen during rehearsal and could drown her out. "Please stop clapping," she asks quickly, and then goes back to her enthusiastic performance with a smile.
"African-Americans' history should be a great source of pride!" she raps. "To imply that slaves had a choice minimizes slavery, and undercuts the strength of the black community! Something, that Kanye, used to be a part of. Uhh!"
"How crazy that she knew to say, 'stop clapping,' " Shoemaker remarks backstage afterward.
"So few people," Meyers says. "Nobody would be that smart."
After she finishes, Ruffin reviews the tape to see if the timing with the cameras needs to be changed before the show airs. But she's not mulling over the performance.
"Because it's every day, you never feel like it just hangs over you," she says. "You always have tomorrow."
The taping finishes about 7:30 p.m. Ruffin sits alone in the writers' room, working on a sketch for tomorrow. And Gentile goes home to flesh out the "Closer Look" draft about the Iran nuclear deal. Today's 10-minute Bornstein rant is in the books, and Gentile has already moved on. "Even if I wanted to go home and sort of dwell on today's news, the news would not allow me," he says. "Like, something would happen."
It's past 9 p.m. when Gentile starts to close his laptop. And at that moment he hears Rudy Giuliani on Fox News say the president repaid his personal lawyer for hush money to a porn star.
Gentile reopens his laptop and starts an all-new Giuliani "Closer Look" segment. He emails the draft to Meyers at 4 a.m., just hours before he's back at Studio 8G to help make another hour of late-night TV.
Author information: Elahe Izadi is a pop culture writer for The Washington Post. Prior to joining The Post in 2014 as a general assignment reporter, she covered Congress, race and local news. She has worked for National Journal, WAMU, TBD.com and The Gazette community newspapers.