TV JANUARY 30, 2014
This Saturday, Seth Meyers will host his last Weekend Update after more than a decade with SNL. He’s had the longest stint in the anchor chair in the history of the show, and his Weekend Update has been consistently funny and smart. His comic style has always been minimalist, involving a lot of cocked eyebrow and liberal use of the smirk. Other anchors have been sharper joke tellers: Meyers’s low-key, dimpled charms look somewhat duller next to Norm Macdonald’s deadpan absurdism or Dennis Miller’s erudite sarcasm or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s energetic mix of umbrage and sass. But in one key way, Meyers has been perhaps the greatest anchor in Weekend Update’s history: it’s hard to imagine a better straight man for the oddball guests who pass through the Update desk.
Some of the most memorable characters in recent SNL history rose to fame on Meyers’s Weekend Update. There was Bill Hader’s Stefon, culture correspondent to the urban underworld; Garth and Kat, musicians in twin sweater vests (played by Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig) prone to badly improvised duets; Taran Killam’s Jebidiah Atkinson, 1860s speech critic; Drunk Uncle, Bobby Moynihan boozily slinging racial and ethnic slurs. Cecily Strong’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party” was so good that it helped land Strong her own hosting seat at the Update desk. And Meyers deserves plenty of credit for all of these—because, of course, he helped write some of them, but also because his specific skill as a performer is in supporting the people on stage with him.
In Stefon’s very first appearance on Update in 2010, Hader riffed on dungeon nightclubs and human fire hydrants while Meyers egged him on. “What,” Meyers asked, “is a human fire hydrant?”, and Hader gleefully took the bait. (“It’s that thing where a midget wears red pants…”) Their rapport was so key to the success of the character that Stefon and Meyers were married in Stefon’s final sketch on SNL, before Hader left the show. Bobby Moynihan has said that, while playing Drunk Uncle for the first time, he looked to Meyers for signs that whatever he was doing was working. And as an audience member, too, part of the fun of watching Meyers is that he brings his role as head writer to his on-camera self; you can inevitably see on his face the moment when he realizes a character is gelling. And he knows how to drop exactly the right prompts to help his guests be funny. When Kate McKinnon’s Cecilia Gimenez, the Spanish woman who painted over an image of Jesus, commented on Jesus’s “dead, black eyes,” Meyers grinned. “He had black eyes?” Meyers said. “I know, I was surprised as you,” McKinnon replied, without skipping a beat. “I said Jesus, why you look like a shark?”
Playing the straight-faced foil to a wacky character isn’t as easy as it looks. For all Jane Curtin’s skill at the Update desk, when she sat opposite Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna she seemed less at ease than she did delivering her own zingers, interjecting a bit too intensely, as if compensating for the relative quietness of her own role in the scene. Meyers offers a contrast, too, to Jimmy Fallon, who—as the goofy sidekick to Fey’s sharp-tongued satirist on Update—tended to appear more interested in his own antics than in facilitating the antics of others. As a late-night host, too, he’s generally best when he’s doing a bit; his interviews are loose and fun but not particularly attentive. Meyers, though, is a great listener. And it bodes well for “Late Night” if interviewing guests far weirder than himself is Meyers’ greatest skill.