PEOPLE's TV Critic: Seth Meyers's 'Late Night' Debut Was 'Puzzling'

The whole thing seemed to be pitched at a calculatedly low level of energy

Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC

As the television day wore on from Monday night into Tuesday morning, a second shoe was heard to drop, very softly. That was Seth Meyers moving into NBC’s Late Night a week after its previous host, Jimmy Fallon, took over what had been Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

Arguably, that’s three shoes. In which case Leno is a boot, Fallon a dress shoe and writer-comedian Meyers, coming off a fine run as the "Weekend Update" anchor on Saturday Night Live, maybe a loafer. Each with its own weight, significance and function in the world of comedy.

Meyers has a dry sense of humor, and his delivery is casual without flattening into smooth glibness, disarmingly self-conscious without trailing off into frittering neurosis. He wears his intelligence lightly. All of that is very good.

Unlike Fallon, he doesn’t generate the excitement of a born performer, nor does he appear to require it like oxygen to breathe. He probably isn’t too far off from the ideal type of a new journalistic personality who could take over from Piers Morgan and make executives at CNN very, very happy. He could be Jon Stewart, only without shouting.

His Late Night debut, though, was both puzzling and disappointing. The whole thing seemed to be pitched at a calculatedly low level of energy, with no bells or whistles. That might make strategic sense – Meyers has to establish his own platform and find a balance with Fallon’s show, which precedes his – and that may reflect Meyers’s basic sensibility. But the result seemed to be waffling between modesty and caution, with a tilt to the latter.

Meyers is talented and interesting enough that I shouldn’t be watching his premiere and wishing that Stefon had shown up instead of Joe Biden.

Although, as a matter of taste, I would always prefer that Stefon show up instead of Joe Biden.

The monologue was nothing much. Meyers at least seemed instantly comfortable, at home, once he finished a string of so-so punchlines and sat down behind the desk – probably his brain is hardwired from all those “Weekend Update” segments.

He told an amusing, self-deprecating anecdote about having a flat tire. He imagined how the Olympics looked through Bob Costas’s pink eyes. With guests Amy Poehler and the vice president both onstage and sitting in their chairs beside Meyers’s desk, everyone was having what seemed to be a nice enough time without ever raising the expectation that future historians might find an entry in Biden’s diary: “Feb. 24, 2014. Let us remember always – Late Night With Seth Meyers!

Biden, in fact, made a joking allusion to announcing on the show his plans for 2016. That would have given Meyers a headline and viral moment to launch his Late Night. And yet it isn’t clear that he cares whether his show delivers that kind of jolt or not.

He’ll probably figure out precisely how he needs and wants Late Night to work soon enough. Talk shows are oceans into which hosts are thrown and made to learn to swim. And there’s always CNN.

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