(CNN) — Thus far, NBC’s late-night transition has been like butter.
Jay Leno hosted his final episode of “The Tonight Show” on February 6 with massive celebrity support and even bigger ratings, and Jimmy Fallon took over on February 17 with the same level of excitement.
But there’s still one more piece of the Peacock’s puzzle left to be added: Seth Meyers.
At 12:35 a.m., the 40-year-old “Saturday Night Live” star will step behind the desk of “Late Night” and occupy a chair once filled by David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and, directly before him, his pal and fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Fallon.
With that kind of history, it goes without saying that there’s pressure on Meyers not to screw up. Yet instead of marching in and tearing down “Late Night’s” past, Meyers is planning to keep tradition intact while playing to his strengths.
After 12 years on “SNL,” nine of which he served as head writer, Meyers is by all accounts more of a cerebral comedian than a performer. His colleagues give him credit for being the guy who’d rather set up the joke than steal the thunder, and some of his best work doesn’t even include his face. See: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin:
Or Louis C.K. as Abraham Lincoln:
Or Amy Poehler killing it as a rapping Sarah Palin:
“There’s the class clown, and then there’s the guy who sits in the back and says an aside about the class clown,” Meyers said to The Wall Street Journal. “That’s me.”
On the surface, that tendency to hang back would make Meyers appear to be an ill fit for “Late Night,” whose most recent host liked to slow jam the news, throw down in lip-sync battles and play beer hockey with guests. But as Fallon takes his eager energy over to “The Tonight Show,” there’s more room in NBC’s line-up for a more even, straight player — someone who can tackle politics with the same ease as a Kardashian scandal.
Meyers’ first week of guests sets the stage for that kind of high-low mix: the first two guests on “Late Night” will be his old “SNL” co-star Amy Poehler, along with Vice President Joe Biden.
“We want it to be not just creative people in the showbiz world, but we’d also love to have authors, politicians, athletes,” Meyers told reporters of his ideal guest list earlier this year. “We are open to everything and hopefully can get interesting people on not only that the audience knows, but the audience can get to know.”
Tweaking the type of guests “Late Night” viewers are used to seeing is the kind of risk that Meyers’ “Late Night” producer and champion, Lorne Michaels, wants to see.
“In my opinion, he has until next fall to find that show,” Michaels told New York Magazine. “He should be taking chances. It can’t spring full-blown from Zeus’ thigh on February 24. I don’t want Seth to put pressure on himself or think that his show has to have that level of polish. It should find its way. I do think he’s way better prepared than Conan (O’Brien) was when he began.”
Better prepared or not, there is one O’Brien trick that Meyers would like to incorporate.
The format of “Late Night” will still be pretty standard, with an opening monologue and an interview or two. But Meyers also wants to use his writing staff as a sort of communal sidekick that would allow him to do the kind of interviews with fictional characters fans remember from “SNL.” (So does this mean that we’ll get to see Bill Hader’s now-retired character Stefon at some point? “Bill and I spoke during my last ‘SNL,’ and we do think he’ll turn up eventually,” Meyers has said.)
“I want it to look and have the framework of the classic late-night model, but this is real estate where you can try out everything,” he told USA Today. “I liked how Conan used his writing staff to play different people. We have a writing staff that has a lot of that range. They’re great writers, but they’re also really funny performers. We are going to try to use them as often as we can. In a weird way, the closest thing I’ll have to a sidekick is my writing staff and the people they’ll play.”
As the hour approaches, Meyers, a known “worrier” with a tendency to decimate office furniture when he’s nervous, seems to have a zen approach to his late-night debut. He’s fully expecting to have low moments — “There’s no way I’m not going to spin out,” as he told The Hollywood Reporter — but he’s also taking this one episode at a time.
” ‘Weekend Update’ was a big thing to step into. ‘SNL’ was a big thing to step into,” he told the Boston Globe. “I think I’ve found over the years, if you get too hung up on the legacy of what you are taking over, it gets in the way a little bit of doing the work. So our goal is just to try to do the funniest thing we can every night and get better each time out.”