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SNL's Head Writer and Anchor of WEEKEND UPDATE is leading a new generation of comedy legends. His keynote at the 2011 White House Correspondant's Dinner attracted worldwide attention and was a favorite on YouTube.
As one of the most recognizable faces of the current generation of "Saturday Night Live," Seth Meyers, host of "Weekend Update," has worked his way from the foot of the ladder to the top of the field. Seth recently made headlines when he absolutely crushed the keynote address at this year's White House Correspondent's Dinner essentially roasting an audience that wasn't exactly B-list. A few notables include Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington, Shaun White, Joan Rivers, Cee-Lo Green, Mr. Donald Trump (who received an especially heavy dose of the satire) and, oh yeah, The President Of The United States. The various YouTube links are currently counting toward 4 million views.
We speak with Seth in an exclusive CAM interview about working his way up at NBC and learning to perform stand-up, especially in the campus market.
Seth is not just a pretty face in front of the camera, perhaps even more impressive is that he's the head writer for the show as well, personally responsible for vetting everything you see on the show. For perspective, the last individual to hold this position was Tina Fey.
"I think the most interesting thing about working on this show is the fact that you only have a week to write it. Being the Head Writer, more than anything I am like an ER doc. I triage which ideas for the show from various staff writers need the most help the fastest. More often than not, with such a talented staff, we have a meeting on Tuesday and they all go off and do their own thing without any instruction. On Wednesday we read everything and by Thursday, as the Head Writer, I look out over that landscape and see if there's anything missing, or something that there is too much of."
It's pretty well known that "SNL" is a revolving door, employing at one point or another a huge portion of the comedic talent we know and love today. While some tenures are longer than others, few could match the longevity of Seth Meyers, now in his tenth year with the show. Joining as a cast member in 2001 he was promoted to writing supervisor in 2005, oo-head writer in 2006 (with Fey and Andrew Steele) and head writer with Fey's departure to "30 Rock". He co-hosted "Weekend Update" with Amy Poehler for two seasons when he became the host.
With this much time spent in the machine, Seth has become proficient at engineering the parts. "Some of the things we look out for are making sure the host has fun stuff to do; some of the last things we do are the monologues or the cold open. This is the first skit in the show and is often about politics. If you write something on Monday it goes stale by Saturday and we keep a close eye on that but that ties back in to the appeal; the thrill is doing a lot of writing in a really short period of time, that is where the rush comes from for many us."
Seth has hardly become an egomaniac in his rise to the top of the writing food chain at "SNL." On the contrary, I was hard pressed to get him to actually take the credit; he was much more apt to defer to his staff of "incredibly talented writers."
Despite this humility, one can still hear the pride in his voice when he talks about the show and, after all, troops are often only as good as their leader. "The funny thing is of course on Tuesday night, I am just a 'regular' writer as well. I still write for the show on my own just like everybody else. In that sense, I think the task can be as hard and frustrating as it ever was. The best part of being the head writer is that I am judged on how good the rest of the writing staff is. I am just very lucky to be head writer at a time when the rest of the staff is so talented."
Seth's entry into stand-up was unconventional, because he was never a conventional stand-up comic. Training and performing in Chicago at iO (formerly improvOlympic, a sort of bullpen for the Second City and "SNL"), Seth was prepared for "SNL" by the best. Unlike many comics who work their way up through the clubs into the better paying gigs of the college market on their way to the "big time," Seth had already found some success and formed his solo live show as a result of demand...and in this very market. "It's funny because I first started getting into stand-up doing colleges; those were the first venues where I performed. When I got on "SNL" I had a sketch/improv background in Chicago and was performing a two-person live show. It was hard to book at colleges...I just think it was harder to market and explain the concept, whereas stand-up is very direct and relatable. The opportunity came up for me to do a couple of dates and I had previously done a few odd spots here and there back in Chicago. I thought it would be a really fun challenge."
Seth describes the evolution of this process as something just coming to fruition. Mitch Hedberg complained that the public often views comics as a sort of an industry utility belt. You can tell jokes? Okay, write us a script. Hedberg relates this as being akin to asking an excellent cook if they can farm. This analogy holds true with someone trained in sketch and improv trying to convert to a forum where they are alone; everything, to a certain extent, is prepared. "My stand-up started developing 10 years ago with the colleges and I think now it has come to the point where I can do ticketed shows as well."
Remarking that despite his ability to sell out theater performances nationally, there is still a special charm for him in the campus market. "I have always loved doing shows for college students. They are such a fun and enthusiastic audience."
If you're expecting a desk with a map of the world behind it when you see Seth perform, you should head to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and see an "SNL" taping. When he comes to campus its the man and a mic and the content of the show is as varied from "Weekend Update" as the staging. "Its really a mix. There is political commentary, but there are also stories about my life and the more 'college' an audience is, the more I talk about my life while in college." Seth attended Northwestern University. "Even with 'SNL' the most fun I ever had was at school."
It's not that Seth's show is completely irrelevant or unrelated to "SNL", one just shouldn't expect a clone. Having said that, seeing Seth live is actually a way to access an extended look at the "Weekend Update" that can't be seen on broadcast network television. "I also do stuff that we tried to do on 'Weekend Update' but they wouldn't let us, which is a lot of fun and something folks can't see anywhere else."
While Seth is more than ten years out of college, there certainly isn't any concern for him being out of touch with today's youth. If there's anything his professional experience has taught him, it's how to stay current. "I aways try to adjust to what's happening. "SNL" teaches you the more you can talk about what's going on right now, the more impact you'll have. I am always changing my act depending on what's in the news at the time."
The impression for the casual observer might be that Seth, as someone trained in comedy and experienced in making people laugh, would have an automatic and smooth transition unconditionally from sketch and improv to stand-up simply because he knows how to be funny. Funny is funny right? Well, certainly his stage presence and comfort with an audience was more attuned when Seth started stand-up versus the average Joe who's never held a mic, but Seth explains the uniqueness of comedy as an animal doesn't cater easily to such predictability.
"I just sat on a comedy panel with Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller, Aziz Ansari and Colin Quinn. We were speaking about the fact that as a comedian, knowing what will make people laugh is an incredibly difficult thing even when you have been doing it for a really long time. That is why I think stand-up is still the most dangerous non-contact sport (laughs). You are up there by yourself with nothing to hide behind or protect you except your material the thoughts you've woven together for your audience out of nothing. What makes it thrilling is that when creating new material, you will never know how good it is until you get up in front of an audience and give it a go."
Seth explains this holds true even in studio 8H. "We certainly do that at 'SNL' because we have a dress rehearsal and get to hear it at least once in front of people before the live show. The nice thing about having an improv background is that it taught me to work in an ensemble as opposed to exclusively solo; that meshes to the core of 'SNL.' With that in mind, it's kind of a weird thing because I still feel like there is no true comedy training other than just getting a ton of reps. The more experience you have the more comfortable and expansive you'll become. I learn something new everyday and I believe comedy is an infinite medium; no one can ever learn it all."
So essentially, what we just learned is that Mitch Hedberg was right and all the experience in the world in one subset or style of comedy offers no real correlation or advantage to another. "Exactly. I think they are totally different skills, which is why you see some but not a ton of crossover between the two genres. When improv comedy is at it's very best there is a collective mind of everyone on stage thinking the same thing and acting as one vehicle for the laughs. Stand-up is much more introspective The material can be much more personal and specific. Each form has it's benefits but for a comedy fan it's very easy to like all kinds."
For an experimental and adventurous fellow like Seth, who had found himself in the "SNL" dreamland of all sketch, breaking into new territory to explore his talents was inevitable. The campus market proved to be the perfectly flexible mold for Seth to shape his act in. In addition, it is one of the best places for a comedy event to draw a large crowd. "The great thing about the college market is you can go and do a show for like 1000 people. There aren't many places you can do that. Also, they aren't getting served drinks and it's usually in a nice theater; it's very similar to what everyone aspires to in the performing arts ticketed sales side after years of stand-up.
"The audience is incredible. They are at the age where we as comedians are all want to appeal. I think it's hard to be good at comedy if you aren't focusing at least to some degree on that age group. They are the people paying attention to pop culture and what is going on in the world. How well someone can do at a college venue is a very good bellwether for where their voice is as a comic."
Ten years ago this was Seth's perspective and reason for pursuing the market, but is it still the same view he maintains? "It is. For me I know I have a really strong act that is always changing but always works very well at colleges. Still there is something fun about the openness of those crowds. When I do a show on campus, I can try 20 minutes of new material. I find that they are a very patient audience and if you can win them over by making them laugh for an hour, that 20 minutes of new stuff is greeted pretty warmly. I think that's an aspect unique to this market."
Seth contrasts this to the comedy club, where the atmosphere is much less relaxed. "As people get older, there is more pressure to a night out (laughs), you know" You have kids and responsibilities; when you decide to finally escape to a comedy club, that is a bigger event and more pressure to have a good time. When college students come out, it's usually pretty easy for them to get to the show with all of their friends. They are pretty much what you wish an audience always would be as far as enthusiasm."
If it hadn't become apparent yet, Seth has the number one trick for successful entertainers down pat; know your audience. "I think a lot about who the show is for. I put a lot of thought into trying to let the audience know off the top of a show that I have put some time and attention into who they are. It might be talking about the city or venue we're in or why they are there. I feel like that is a very important thing to do with an audience and I also feel there are comedians who are so famous that it doesn't matter where they are or who they're performing for, people are just excited to see them. I have always found I feel more comfortable going out if I let them know this is a unique night for me as well as for them."
BOOK IT! Bring a unique night to your campus and check into Seth Meyers For more information, contact Nick Nuciforo at Creative Artists Agency at (424) 288-2000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.