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‘Late Night’ heir Seth Meyers: ‘I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Chicago’ (VIDEO)
Sandwiched between a trip to the West Coast for Sunday’s Golden Globes and a Tuesday plane ride back to New York, where he’ll burn the midnight oil writing this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” Seth Meyers swung through his old stomping ground, Chicago.
“I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Chicago,” said the soon-to-be “Late Night” host, who cut his comedic teeth while studying at Northwestern University and iO Theater (known then as ImprovOlympic), where co-founder Charna Halpern was his first teacher.
Meyers’ two-person show “Pick-Ups & Hiccups” with Homewood native Jill Benjamin put him on “SNL’s” radar in 2000. He joined the cast the following year. After 13 seasons of bringing the funny to Studio 8H, the “SNL” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor is moving to a new studio down the hall at 30 Rockefeller Plaza where he’ll take over the “Late Night” reins from Jimmy Fallon next month.
Meyers’ brief visit to Chicago included schmoozing and shooting promos at NBC Tower for his late-night talker, debuting Feb. 24. He also managed to squeeze in a Lou Malnati’s deep-dish delivery to his hotel late Monday, pick up lunch at Portillo’s drive thru on his way to Midway Airport Tuesday afternoon, and between all that, talk to The Sun-Times about his former sweet home, Chicago, and the influence the city’s comedy scene has had in shaping “Late Night.”
Q. You’re from Chicago — kind of?
A. I was born in Evanston. Both my parents went to Northwestern. We lived in Wilmette. Then we sort of moved our way east and I grew up in New England. When I started looking around at colleges, I wanted to go somewhere with a good film program, good TV program, so I ended up back at Northwestern. While I was there I started doing improv at school as well coming down to Chicago. I’d take the L down and take classes at iO. That was when I realized I was going to stick around Chicago after college and try to do that as opposed to actual work.
Q. How did you pay the bills?
A. I worked at a restaurant called Twisted Lizard that was on Armitage and Sheffield. [It closed in 2012.] I lived right there. Got a job there. I’ve never had a stress dream about ‘SNL’ and I still have stress dreams about having a table open at Twisted Lizard. There’s something about waiting tables that went deep into my psyche and it’s still the thing that haunts me — that table 15 is waiting for their margaritas.
Q. Jimmy Fallon remembers doing an improv set with you at Second City many years ago when he was visiting Chicago. Does that ring a bell?
A. It rings a really small bell. I would go to Second City and do sets sometimes because I had friends who were in mainstage, so you’d hang out and get pulled up to do the improv set. I would believe Jimmy more than I believe me. He has a better memory than I do.
I do remember this: It was at iO. You know the improv game, ‘the dream,’ where they bring somebody up from the audience and they ask them about their day? Then they improvise what their dream would look like? I got pulled on stage and got improvised by Amy Poehler. She asked me about my day and then improvised my dream.
Q. What else is on your Chicago comedy highlight reel?
A. At Second City, I was there the first night that Tina Fey was on mainstage. When I was in school, the first time my parents came out for parents’ weekend we went to Second City. I remember seeing a mainstage show with [Steve] Carell and [Stephen] Colbert. That was one of the most formative nights of my life.
Q. You’ve tapped into Chicago-trained talent to populate your ‘Late Night’ writers room?
A. We’ve done a lot of Chicago hiring with our writers, which is great. Pete Grosz [‘The Colbert Report’] and John Lutz [’30 Rock], who were sort of my generation out here, were some of the first people to join the writing staff. Alex Baze, our head writer, he’s from Chicago. [Baze, an iO and Second City alum who writes ‘Weekend Update,’ penned that Golden Globes’ zinger about George Clooney opting to float into space and die rather than spend one more minute with a woman his age.] Conner O’Malley [iO, Annoyance], Bryan Donaldson, Amber Ruffin [Second City, iO]. It’s very Chicago-y.
Q. Conner O’Malley is the boyfriend of another local, ‘SNL’ cast member Aidy Bryant?
A. Yeah, it’s great. Because of all the Chicago on ‘SNL’ now — it’s sort of been a new influx of that being the predominant voice on the show — Conner was somebody that everybody from Tim Robinson to Aidy, obviously, was talking about how great he is.
Q. Bryan Donaldson?
A. Bryan Donaldson is a great story. He’s not technically a Chicago writer, but he’s from Illinois. We found Bryan on Twitter [@TheNardvark]. He was just a guy that we thought was very funny. Twitter has completely democratized the writing search. You can just watch how much people generate and how funny they are.
Matthew McConaughey lost 40 lbs. for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. Maybe now he’ll be comfortable enough to take his shirt off in public.
— Bryan Donaldson (@TheNardvark) January 13, 2014
We brought Bryan in for a meeting. I asked him how long he’d lived in New York. He said he doesn’t live in New York; he just got into New York that day. What we didn’t realize is Bryan lived in Peoria, Illinois. I want to say he worked IT for an insurance company and had never had a job in television before. He drove a U-Haul truck out to New York City.
Q. You mentioned Amber Ruffin, reportedly the first black woman to write for a late-night talk show on a major network. Given the recent controversy over the lack of diversity at ‘SNL,’ were you mindful of that? Not wanting to hire all white guys as writers?
A. Well, no. We just wanted to hire a lot of writers who are performers, like that sort of early-Conan staff, which again was a very Chicago-centric writing staff. You want to have a lot of people who can come out and play different things. Amber is just somebody I’ve known for a long time and always had my eye on. [They met through Boom Chicago, a comedy show in Amsterdam whose cast included both Meyers and Ruffin at different times.] When she came out and auditioned for ‘SNL’ [during the show’s recent diversity push], I was really struck by how well written her audition was. That’s when we were like, ‘We should grab her.’
Q. What do you miss most about Chicago?
A. How excited people are when it’s summer. I’ve lived a lot of places, but I’ve never lived somewhere where people are so excited it’s summer.
Here’s a video of Meyers talking about what “Late Night” will look like and Chicago’s impact on his career: