If you corner Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers (C96) at a party and ask him who his favorite host has been, he'd go with Peyton Manning. Meyers has a bit of an affinity for athletes. He thinks they're "stone-cold assassins" who just don't get nervous. Actors hear that they're good all the time, but athletes know they're good. For Meyers, that kind of confidence is contagious.
Plus, when you can get the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts to poke fun at himself and do a buffoonish dance (one that included square dance steps, no less) to the Casino Royale theme song on live television, that's when you know you're doing a good job.
Meyers, who served as an SNL cast member for seven seasons, took over the position of head writer in 2006 when former head writer Tina Fey left the show. Some people might have buckled under the media coverage that inevitably followed the change-up, but Meyers, who studied creative writing for the media at Northwestern, took it all in stride and has since presided over a new generation of recurring sketches for the 32-year-old NBC show.
Comedy has always been a part of Meyers' life. His parents had a good sense of humor, so he grew up in Bedford, N.H., on Monty Python and Steve Martin movies. (His brother, Josh Meyers [C98], a former MADtv and That '70s Show cast member, is also a sketch comedy actor.) One day in elementary school Meyers says he started making his classmates laugh, and he remembers not ever wanting to stop after that. At Northwestern he earned a spot in the Mee-Ow Show with his friends Peter Grosz (C96) and Rob Janas (Mu96). (Grosz now writes for The Colbert Report, and Janas is with Second City in Chicago.)
For Meyers the Mee-Ow Show was a crash course in everything he wanted to do for a living. He learned firsthand what it was like to write sketches and perform onstage, two experiences that come in handy for his current gig.
"I was a radio/TV/film major, but, due to no fault of my professors, my absentee-studentism kind of got in the way," Meyers says. "So I sort of felt that Mee-Ow was like majoring in comedy. When I graduated, my thoughts were kind of, 'Oh, I want to be a writer … a comedy writer.'"
Today Meyers is doing exactly that, writing satirical sketches about everything from politics to Peyton Manning being the wrong kind of mentor at a football charity camp for kids. And while the topics are varied, Meyers believes that to write for Saturday Night Live, you have to follow two basic principles.
"A great sketch on SNL has to be incredibly unique but at the same time remind people of the people they know," he says. "That's when it really lands."
SNL's writers and performers have had a long history of understanding that dynamic. Every time Meyers walks into work, he sees photos on the walls of those who came before him and made the show what it is. He sees those he admires for their sort of "toolbox qualities," like Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman, the kind of guys who could do everything well. And he sees photos of Adam Sandler and Mike Myers, "giant personalities" who he couldn't get enough of when he watched the show growing up. It's a lot to live up to, but Meyers doesn't get bogged down worrying that the show will become irrelevant.
"You have new people come in all the time," Meyers says. "We have three new writers and five or six cast members who have only been here for one or two years. And basically you're going to give funny people 4 and a half minutes to do whatever they can to make people laugh."
And Meyers is doing his part. Though he dabbles in all three live comedy mediums — stand-up, improv and sketch — he says the precision of sketch writing is his personal favorite. "There's no greater joy for me than writing a really tight sketch and having it land," Meyers says. "You have to make something that's actually hard to write look easy. That's still the biggest rush for me."
Things might have turned out differently had it not been for Mee-Ow.
"I remember standing on stage thinking, 'Well, I'm going to try this comedy thing until I'm asked to leave. This is absolutely too much fun.'"
Twelve years later nobody's asked him to get out yet.
— Scott Sode (J08)
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