TERRY GROSS, HOST:
It's late-night week on FRESH AIR. One of the big late-night changes scheduled for early next year is Seth Meyers moving to NBC's "Late Night," replacing Jimmy Fallon when Fallon moves to "The Tonight Show." Seth Meyers has been the head writer and co-anchor or anchor of "Weekend Update" since the fall of 2006.
We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Seth Meyers in October 2008. It was the week after the "Saturday Night Live" broadcast in which he did a hysterical bit on "Weekend Update" about the financial meltdown.
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SETH MEYERS: On Thursday, your grandfather finally admitted that he screwed up the economy.
MEYERS: While speaking before Congress on Thursday, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said he was shocked his ideas led to the current economic crisis and said: I still do not understand exactly how it happened. Well, let me see if I can give it a shot. Banks bond on mortgages that have been given to people that wouldn't even qualify for jury duty and then sold those along with credit default swaps, which are basically insurance that the seller provides the buyer in case the entity loses value. However, unlike regular insurance, these swaps weren't regulated, so they failed to make any standards for responsible business. Then, when everything collapses, it spread like an infection because when people are making money, they don't ask how. They just say yay. But, again, you're the expert.
GROSS: That was excellent. I have to say, I thought that was a wonderful one-paragraph description of what happened...
MEYERS: Thank you.
GROSS: To the economy. So did you consult economists before writing that?
MEYERS: I would have to give my thanks to Steve Croft and "60 Minutes" because they did a piece on it about three weeks ago. And then I was very happy to see this Sunday, they did a follow-up piece to it, so I felt like I had gotten there a day early.
MEYERS: Talking about it in this cycle. But that was the piece that I sort of saw that explained it to me. So, I will give credit where credit's due.
GROSS: So what's the process like of writing for "Weekend Update"? Like how much time do you have to follow the news? What are your main news sources?
MEYERS: Well, I sort of spend my first half of the week focusing on the rest of the show, as sort of the head writer of the rest of the show, and we have three incredibly talented "Weekend Update" writers, Doug, Alex, and Jessica, who do all the joke writing. And then the rest of the staff will write jokes as well, sort of later in the week. And I will write some jokes as well, like I wrote that Greenspan joke. But I think that may have been the only joke that I had written this past Saturday.
But we get together on Friday night, and we read a bunch of jokes, and it's almost 800 jokes. And we cut that down to about 100 that we like, and then Doug, who produces it, cuts it down to about 30, and, you know, it ends up being around, you know, 18 to 20 jokes come Saturday night.
GROSS: Do you feel different doing "Weekend Update" than you felt when you were a cast member doing impressions of people, you know, Ryan Seacrest, John Kerry...
MEYERS: Oh, absolutely. Here's a thing about me, and I hate to let the secret out. I have very little range as a performer. So, for me to sit behind the desk and tell jokes, that is way closer to sort of what I was doing before I was on "Saturday Night Live," and I feel a lot more comfortable doing that. So - and I also, as a writer, you know, when I started on the show, you know, one of the jobs as a cast member is you sort of write for yourself, and, you know, I enjoyed that a great deal. But becoming head writer and getting to write for everybody else is way more liberating.
GROSS: What is the job of the head writer?
MEYERS: The best way to describe it is you're sort of the, all the writers are surgeons and you're the emergency room doctor. It's constantly - it's just triage. The thing that most needs attention, you sort of have to drop everything and sort of give a hand to.
So as head writer, you know, you just sort of, I run a rewrite table with all the writers where we sit around and pitch jokes based on what's already written. But each writer sort of gets to usher their piece through from, you know, the beginning stages to the final, you know, when it airs. Each individual writer casts their piece. They talk to set design. They talk to wardrobe. The most fun is between dress and air - if Lorne sort of needs a minute out of a piece, as a head writer, you sort of get to go sit down with the writer and try to find how you're going to take a minute out of something. It's when it moves the fastest is when it's the most fun.
GROSS: You're in the position of having to tell people no, also - to tell a writer, this isn't going to make the final cut.
MEYERS: I'm so glad that that's actually not true because it really is the greatest process where, between dress and air, everything is on a note card. And when Lorne calls the meeting between dress and air, you walk in, and it's like finding out if you made the high school play or not. Your note card is either on the air side or on the cut side. So, I actually very rarely have to give bad news. I'm just in the room when I see people's faces register the bad news.
GROSS: Do you remember the very first time you heard Don Pardo say your name?
MEYERS: I do. It was the craziest thing ever.
GROSS: I should say, Don Pardo is the announcer on "Saturday Night Live." Go ahead.
MEYERS: Yeah. Well, I started - my first show was the first show after 9/11.
GROSS: That was your first show?
MEYERS: So, that was my first show, which was a crazy time to be starting on the show, and I - the only sketch I was in, I played a fish's head, a floating fish's head, which meant I had to wear a green leotard because I was in front of a green screen. And my face had to be painted green. So I was in a green leotard with a face painted green wearing a bathrobe standing next to a bunch of police officers and firemen the first time I heard Don Pardo say my name. And I realize that, with everything that was happening in the world, it was the most insignificant part of the night. But it was, for me, incredible.
GROSS: Seth Meyers, it's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.
MEYERS: Thank you.
GROSS: Seth Meyers is "Saturday Night Live's" head writer and anchor of "Weekend Update." He'll become the new host of NBC's "Late Night" early next year after Jimmy Fallon leaves for the "The Tonight Show." Our interview was recorded in 2011.
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GROSS: You can download podcasts of our late-night series on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr @nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.