For Seth Meyers, comedy is a family affair.
It’s not just because his younger brother, Josh, is a performer in his own right. It’s because when you ask the host of Late Night with Seth Meyers what first drew him to mirth-making as a profession, he’s got a ready answer.
“It was my father. Dad is the funniest person I’ve ever known. Really. At the dinner table he would just tell stories and we’d sit there in hysterics. He could spin a really good yarn,” he says.
“Then he’d look at my mother and say, ‘You know, you can marry a beautiful woman as long as you can make her laugh.’”
You can practically see Meyers, who’s headlining at Toronto’s JFL42 comedy festival on Sept. 27, grin at the other end of the phone from his office at NBC in New York.
“My mom was a real looker, so that was good enough for me. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well for me. I didn’t really start to get successful with girls until I lived overseas after college. I needed a language barrier. That helped me.”
But Meyers is getting ahead of himself, because even more of his comedy roots came from his early days in New Hampshire, where he grew up.
“My parents would also introduce me and my brother to the best of the comedy that was out there then when we were at a very young age. But it wasn’t age-appropriate material at all. Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, Mel Brooks. Stuff like that.
“If something came up that was way over our heads, my mom had a way of grinning and saying, ‘We’ll talk about that later.’”
But if his mother grinned, Meyers’ father definitely smirked, a genetic trait that Seth displayed during his years on “Weekend Update,” when a curl of the lip would let you know he was about to deliver a doozy.
“I get that from my dad, too. The Meyers family are all dimpled smirkers.”
He went on to do some comedy nights at Manchester High School West, but it wasn’t until he returned to Evanston, Ill., (where he was born in 1973) to go to school at Northwestern University that the bug really bit him.
“It was during frosh week that I went to the first improv show I’d ever been to. I saw eight students just kill! I thought, ‘I’d love to do that.’ But, more important, I thought, ‘I could do that.’
“You see, I was never the kind of guy in the front of the class telling jokes. I was in the back of the room making wry comments. I was never inflating my own balloon. I was more interested in deflating others’. That’s why I like improv so much. You’re not flying solo; it’s just really fast sketch writing with a partner.”
He worked with a variety of improv groups around Northwestern during his college years because Chicago was then, as now, a great comedy town. But after graduation, Meyers went to Amsterdam and worked for an English-language improv troupe there called Boom Chicago.
“People know you did comedy in Amsterdam and they all go, ‘Amsterdam, ooh, stoned audiences, ooh, totally cool.’ Well actually it wasn’t. People assume a stoned audience is a good audience. Not really. Somebody will walk onstage and they’ll start laughing hysterically at a hat he’s wearing and never listen to a word he’s saying.
“But that’s mostly the American tourists. The Dutch themselves are big beer drinkers and were excellent audiences.”
So excellent, in fact, that the show he created with partner Jill Benjamin, called Pick-Ups & Hiccups, brought them back to Chicago. They didn’t get into Second City, every Windy City comic’s dream venue, but wound up with an even better consolation prize. An audition for Saturday Night Live.
“OK, that was something I’d been dreaming of for years, And when one of those hoped-for events happens the secret is not to get too nervous,” Meyers says.
What was his secret for avoiding the jitters?
“You have to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. I can’t really sing or dance or do impressions. I’ve worked with so many people who have a much deeper talent pool than me. It’s what thousands of baseball players in Triple-A suddenly realize: Hey, I don’t have major league skills.
“I’m a performer who’s almost entirely dependent on my material. And when I walked into that room to audition for Lorne (Michaels) I knew I had a well-written audition and that gave me the confidence to deliver the goods. I discovered later that Lorne likes self-starters, so I made the right choice.”
Meyers joined the legendary program in 2001 and, despite his insistence that he can’t do impressions, he gradually built up a gallery of portraits that were pretty dazzling, nailing everyone from Anderson Cooper and Ryan Seacrest to John Kerry and Tom Cruise.
But, like everyone who works on the show, Meyers had his eye on the prize: anchoring Weekend Update.
“I auditioned to share the desk with Tina (Fey) in 2004 but lost out to Amy (Poehler). Then when Tina left in 2006, I finally got to sit there next to Amy.”
He sighs. “Doing Weekend Update was something I wanted so much. And to get it and find out it was better than I ever thought it would be? Wow.
“I think the reason I liked it so much is that it was built on jokes. Not on a premise. When you’re doing a premise sketch and it doesn’t work, you’re stuck with four more minutes. With Weekend Update, you don’t like that joke? Relax, there’s another one coming in five seconds.”
So the best part of Meyers’ 13 years on the program was sitting behind the news desk, but what was the worst?
“That was the writers’ strike of 2007. To have a wonderful job like I did and to be forced to take 100 days off was sheer hell. To be surrounded by all of these funny people and to not be able to be funny with them? Misery.”
It was Michaels who tapped him on the shoulder to take over Late Night from Jimmy Fallon, and the transition has been fairly smooth.
He also stepped into some elite company when he was asked to host this year’s Emmy Awards. Although the media reaction to his performance was mixed, Meyers felt good about it.
“I was really happy with how it went. I told myself if the monologue was all set, I was fine. And that’s just what happened.”
Meyers takes other things in stride, too, like his 40th birthday last December marrying Alexi Ashe after living with her for five years.
“I’d known for a very long time she was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”
As long as he can make her laugh.