“Late Night” Legacy

The naming of Seth Meyers to replace Jimmy Fallon solidifies the dual role of “SNL” and David Letterman’s old show in reshaping late night comedy.

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, May 14, 2013  |  Updated 1:21 PM EDT
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The long list of “Saturday Night Live” players who went on to big screen stardom stretches nearly four decades, from Chevy Chase to Kristen Wiig. But the bigger impact of “SNL” alumni ultimately might be seen on the small screen.

That’s one takeaway from the welcome news that “SNL” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers will take over NBC’s “Late Night” from former cast mate – and “Tonight Show” host-in-waiting – Jimmy Fallon next year. The move also solidifies the places of “SNL” and “Late Night" as the most influential shapers of the current late night comedy landscape that Johnny Carson long ago made fertile ground.

In 1982, “Late Night” launched the career of its first host, David Letterman, who lost out on his dream of replacing Carson and has spent the last 20 years working to prove naysayers wrong. Letterman was followed by Conan O’Brien, an unknown former “SNL” writer who went on to head “Late Night” a record-long 16 years – and remains a late night TV comedy fixture even after his record-short stint on “The Tonight Show.” Fallon, meanwhile, is set to succeed the resilient Jay Leno next year.

Leno, blessed with great comedic timing and widespread appeal, leaves as the ratings king of the crowded post-Carson era. But the Letterman style, honed on “Late Night,” permeates after-hours TV, from “Conan” to “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to “Chelsea Lately.” At least as influential is Lorne Michaels, who created “SNL” and is responsible for the evolving TV careers of O’Brien, Fallon and Meyers.

The Michaels touch goes beyond the late night TV and movie comedy arenas: his protégés include Tina Fey, who brought the “SNL” spirit to primetime with the recently ended gem “30 Rock,” and Amy Poehler, whose “Parks and Recreation” is coming off its strongest season. The very different kinds of triumphs for Fey, Poehler and Fallon – all former “Weekend Update” anchors – owe to a willingness to stretch their talents beyond the “SNL” mold.

The Michaels/”SNL”/”Late Night” track record, of course, is no guarantee of victory for Meyers, who joined “Saturday Night Live” a dozen years ago. Still, his rare ventures outside the manic confines of Studio 8H – including his smooth handling of the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner and his snarky helming of ESPN’s ESPY Awards – suggest he’s ready for a bigger stage. Meyers comes armed with a quick wit and a sardonic, Letterman-like grows-on-you charm, though he’s yet to prove himself as an effective interviewer.

A lack of ease with guests helped sink the short-lived 1993 talk show hosted by Chase, who was Michaels’ first “Weekend Update” anchor and breakout movie star. It took Chase years to make a TV comeback, which ended last week with what’s likely to be his last appearance on “Community.” Meanwhile, the soaring Wiig, is coming off a fine guest-hosting stint on “SNL.”

Timing is everything in comedy and success. Meyers has timing – along with history – on his side as he gets ready to move from “Saturday Night” to “Late Night.” But only time will tell if the laughs will follow.

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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