Seth Meyers Is THE Quarantine Late Night Host
Everything works, from the claustrophobic attic to getting rid of that pesky live audience.
I always liked Seth best, but the pandemic has made his superiority even more obvious. Stephen seems to need interaction with others. Seth doesn’t. Stephen clearly misses his live audience and finds substitutes as he can. In his opening monologue, Stephen talks with his crew, his band leader, and occasionally his dog.
Seth, by contrast, has settled into his own rhythm and he solos so well. Sure, he’s wonkier, but he doesn’t mug for the camera or laugh at his own jokes (which Stephen does regularly). Seth’s humor requires us to use our brains a little, such as when he evokes historical events or sustains a joke through a monologue. He also uses one of my favorite kinds of humor: self-deprecating. Recently he compared (at minute:second 6:06) his Mother’s Day gift to that of his brother, showing that the brother made a more personal and original gesture. Including his family in his quarantine experience has made him seem more like an Every-American: he’s going through a life-shattering pandemic while his same-old family dynamics bafflingly don’t adjust.
I will not comment on their personal lives, which I know nothing about, but Stephen reminds me of the good-looking high school boy who made goofy jokes and had a great time laughing at his own humor. Seth reminds me of the not-as-good-looking (but still hella appealing) high school boy who was quietly hilarious with a thinking person’s humor. He never laughed at his own jokes because he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was just expressing how he saw the world and those views just happened to make others laugh.
As a monologuist, Seth leaves no gaps where audience laughter would go. He overlaps himself, switching from the tone of one joke to the seriousness of the next topic like a master editor. In a recent monologue, he knows exactly when to re-use a punchline. He has turned the word Obamagate into a Stargate reference (at 12:46). And broadcasting from his attic is the perfect way to convey that he feels our cabin fever pain. Seth has made no attempt to recreate a set. He’s a man escaping from his family for a few precious minutes of chatting with us.
Stephen keeps a wide screen behind him that blazes A Late Show with Stephen Colbert and has tried to recreate his usual show complete with pauses for laughter. But now those pauses just make his monologues sound empty and awkward as if he’s hoping for someone — anyone — to fill the space where live laughter should be. I’ve seen him tell a joke, look off camera and say to one of his crew “Thank you for smiling.”
Stephen compensates by smiling too much and cultivating a relaxed appearance, as if he’s having a great time. He even began his show recently by ignoring the audience, chatting with someone off camera and then appearing to notice us and saying, “Oh, hi!” I’m sure it was tongue-in-cheek, but I didn’t appreciate it. It felt like like Stephen had become too comfortable and didn’t care when his show was supposed to start.
It’s ironic (in the true sense of “ironic,” okay?) because Stephen doesn’t look as comfortable performing without an audience as Seth. It doesn’t feel like he’s trying to connect with his current at-home audience as much as he’s re-living the memory of the people who used to be there.
But with Seth, expressing himself without waiting for audience response is ideal for his rhythm. And he has the loner-broadcasting-from-his-attic feel perfected. I believe the pandemic actually freed Seth from some of the constraints of the late night format. Years ago he made the change from doing his opening monologue while standing to doing it while sitting at his desk and that is definitely where he belongs.
In quarantine, I say Seth has gotten better. He riffs and impersonates and throws lines away and ad libs as if he’s been waiting for everyone to leave him alone with a camera. In self-isolation he’s found “the zone.” His monologues and A Closer Look segments work better without him having to worry about audience response. He’s in his element and his attention is 100% on us people watching from home. He looks like he couldn’t care less if he ever gets a live audience again.
Keep in mind: I don’t pretend to have insight into Seth’s mind. I’m just saying this is how Seth appears and it makes for an excellent late show.
And I haven’t even mentioned that I think Seth’s jokes are better than Stephen’s, but that’s more a matter of personal taste and the different styles of the shows. I happen to like wonky, geek humor better, especially when the person isn’t pausing for we-like-you laughter. Seth’s expert pacing and rhythm make his humor sound like urgent information he needs to share and less like the jokes-by-committee that usually come out of late-night writer rooms.
Seth Meyers is THE quarantine late night host. And because it’ll be Dog-knows-how-long before large groups can gather again, I predict that his show will thrive while Stephen’s languishes. If shows can’t go back to packing-them-in-without-masks live audiences for a couple of years (and that will be the case), Seth will be just fine, while Stephen might start cracking, and not in the good way.