NBC has long been a leader in late night television. After some very public drama a few years ago, their current lineup took shape in 2014. “Saturday Night Live” alumni moved into hosting jobs. Jimmy Fallon accepted the reins of the long-running “The Tonight Show,” while Seth Meyers assumed the job of hosting “Late Night.”
Katie Hockmeyer is a producer of “The Tonight Show,” and actually began working with Fallon when he was the host of “Late Night.” Mike Shoemaker, Executive Producer of the show, brought her in along with a new crew. Shoemaker still runs the show, and now works closely with Seth Meyers.
The other day, I sat down with Mike Shoemaker and Seth Meyers to talk about why “Late Night” resonates so well with today’s audience.
“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking to interview someone who interviews people for a living,” I confess to Meyers. His smile is genuine and welcoming, and he admits, “Yes! That was the burden of interviewing [David] Letterman!”
One of the most popular features of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” is a segment called A Closer Look. The feature explores a lot of important topics, mostly in the political world, in a way that is both funny and informative. I ask how the segment evolved into what it is today.
“It was originally something that I would write but very rarely, once a month maybe?” he explains. Mike Shoemaker confirms that yes, it started as a monthly bit. Meyers goes on to say, “And they were things I was paying attention to for a while so I didn’t have to start from scratch, you know, research place.” One of those pieces was on the Greek financial crisis, as an example. “But, he continues, “we never thought of it as something that was sustainable.
“Then Sal Gentile was a segment producer on our show and he was someone we hired because he had a background in cable news. We thought he’d be good producing some of our segments with political guests. He also had a background in improv comedy. So I started bringing him in just to ask him for advice in writing Closer Looks. And he was really good at knowing, had sort of an encyclopedic ability to pull ideas or tell you where a clip was or articles or things like that. And he was just by nature—or I should say he naturally just started to pitch them and write them and then we made him a writer and then he was head writer of A Closer Look and he works harder than anyone on staff. He’s great.
“And you know, once we realized they were something…we had to sit him down and say, ‘You need to do this three times a week and you tell us if that’s okay.’ And as a point of pride, it has been.”
“It’s a great segment,” I say. Meyers adds, “And it’s so satisfying that people have an appetite for something that’s 10, 12 minutes long. Because that was something we didn’t know would be the case when we started doing it.”
We laugh about the short attention spans of audiences, and joke about how often we don’t even want to commit two minutes to a video. That transitions into a discussion about how the audience tends to consume so many things in segments now.
“They’re not necessarily sitting down and watching the whole show start to finish,” I say. He agrees, “I think that’s accurate, yeah.”
Meyers recognizes that some watch the show in its entirety on a nightly basis, while others take it apart and watch certain pieces. “And both audiences matter to us,” he says. “It’s nice that we don’t have to angle for one over the other.”
We talk about the daily routine and how the show is similar to SNL. He says it’s that there is a deadline for content and Shoemaker adds that the show always has to go on time.
He says one of his dream guests is Rihanna, and I point out that she has a movie out right now. “I think I missed the window,” he says with a hint of amused disappointment.
And yes, there is one person he doesn’t really want to welcome to Late Night.
“I’m relieved we don’t ever have to have a conversation about having Donald Trump on the show. And I say that not that we’re taking some high road. Like, he wouldn’t consider it. It’s not like we’ve turned him down, but I don’t feel like that’s something that would have an outcome that would be pleasurable.”
Some of his favorite moments on the show involve his recent interview with David Letterman, and getting to talk about the births of his two sons. He also shared his feelings about having the show to turn to the day after Election Day 2016. “Without the show I would have had the same feelings and would have just been muttering to myself on the street. It was really cathartic to be able to talk about it with an audience.”
We talk a bit about how rapidly people are changing and how the show keeps up with that pace. Shoemaker credits part of the shift with the emerging voices of some of their newer writers. He says, “Our second big change was when Jenny [Hagel] and Amber [Ruffin] emerged as a voice.” Jenny and Amber write a segment called Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.
Meyers credits his SNL days with learning how to share the spotlight. “Scoring is great. Being next to someone that’s scoring is also really great… Especially when you’re trying to give an audience an experience that’s just an enjoyable hour. And, you know, when you have a writing staff that has a diverse set of opinions, there’s two ways to handle it. One, they can tell you their opinion and then you can go tell everybody else what there opinions were. Or you can go, ‘You know what? You go tell them. I feel like it might have more resonance if it comes from you.'”
And giving his writers room to share their opinions is something very important to the Emmy winner. “Late Night” is committed to diversity. He values the relationship he has with his team, and acknowledges that sometimes they bring things to his attention that he hadn’t thought about.
Jenny Hagel, for example, discusses LGBT issues. He talks about that dynamic. “That’s when you realize how lucky you are to have somebody who knows you that can just be like, ‘Hi, I would like to speak for a group of people that are going to consume this later and just tell you what they might think.'”
He goes on to say, “And the other nice thing about the way we have conversations on the show is it’s never ‘You can’t.’ It’s just like, ‘I just want you to have as much information as possible before you go out there.’ And as conversations go, it’s really great to be able to have people that you can talk about these things with.”
We all agree that diversity is good, and Shoemaker adds, “I don’t know why anyone doesn’t think so!”
We wrap up our discussion and says our farewells. It’s been such a pleasant conversation that it feels like we could keep talking for hours.
But then I get to talk with Katie Hockmeyer about working her way through the NBC ranks to one of the biggest staples in broadcast television.
The room we’re in overlooks Los Angeles. It’s a slightly breezy, but typically sunny California afternoon. She leaves the windows open and comments on how jealous she is of the weather.
But as much fun as it is to watch east coasters bask in our sunshine, we dive right in to talking about Hockmeyer and how she worked her way to where she is today.
She has worked her entire career at 30 Rockefeller Center. She got her start as an intern at “The Today Show,” “Dateline,” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” From there, she went on to become a page for a few months where she got to be the PA announcer for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “That was quite an experience!” she says. And then she worked as a page at SNL, eventually applying for a job as Lorne Michaels’ assistant.
She spent a few years working closely with the cast and crew at SNL, learning the business from one of the best teachers around. But after a few years, she took another job, working for Jeff Zucker on the corporate side of the house. Zucker was, after all, the CEO of NBC Universal. After earning a Master’s Degree and learning the ins and outs of one of the biggest companies in the world, she found herself wanting to get out of the corporate life.
Hockmeyer tells me, “And after four years of that I decided I wanted to go back to comedy television. It’s much more my speed than corporate life. And I knew Jimmy [Fallon] was up for the gig in taking over [“Late Night”] in March of 2009. So I believe it was in 2008 I went to an SNL after-party because Mike Shoemaker was going to be the showrunner. And I pitched myself to him at the party. I was like I will literally do anything. I will do audience giveaways, I will cast actors, I will be the receptionist. Whatever it is, please just consider me.”
She continues, “And Mike was like, ‘Well, you know, I’ve never been a showrunner and Jimmy’s never been a host. We’re hiring everyone that’s green and never worked on a late night show before because we think it’s better energy and we’re all in this together and we’ll all learn.'”
She concludes, “And that’s kind of how it all came about. I was there from day one.”
“That’s so…cool,” I say. Everyone knows it’s usually not that easy to land a job in entertainment.
“It is cool,” she agrees. “And I did a little bit of everything on that show. I did do the audience giveaways and I did cast the extras and helped with the audience coordinating and I helped with hiring the interns and you name it I did a little bit of everything. Which I think helped me, at the end of the day to where I am.”
Hockmeyer says that knowing the ins and outs of how the show operates really helps her do the job. She also credits Lorne Michaels and Jeff Zucker for helping teach her how to manage a production of 220 staff and crew. I ask what she learned from each of them, specifically.
She describes Zucker as a very personable boss. “He always had nicknames for everybody in the company. It was very endearing and it makes you feel like you have a nice rapport… So I tried to incorporate that by making sure I establish an inside joke or something like that with everybody.”
She goes on to say that long-time SNL producer Lorne Michaels is, “Amazing.” Lorne is very detail oriented and very on top of his game and I think he really instilled that in me. Making sure I have all my ducks in a row.”
When I ask if there’s anything she learned not to do from either of them she says, “I don’t think so.”
We talk about the daily routine, which tends to run from 9 in the morning to 8 at night, every day of the week. But she loves what she does, which leads her to express what is so gratifying about working on “The Tonight Show.”
“[It’s] the team I work with. A lot of us have been together since Day 1. I really love the people, I love working with Jimmy. I love his energy. He is so much fun, and so funny, and he’s a family guy. We’ve kind of all grown up together on the show and we have kids that are around the same age. It’s not just a work relationship. We talk about our kids. He invites us to his kids’ birthday parties, it’s really nice.
“Also, I love being part of a product that makes people happy. It’s really fun when people find out where you work and they’re like, ‘Oh I love that sketch!’ or ‘I can’t believe he thought of that game!’ It’s really fun to work on a show that touches so many people.”
Jimmy Fallon does play a lot of games on his show, incorporating his own blend of comedy and music. But as other late night shows have taken a marked turn into the realm of politics, he often does not. This has led to criticisms that Fallon purposely avoids taking sides.
Hockmeyer says, “I feel like Jimmy kind of addresses [politics] in his own way. Overall, we’re a variety show, so there’s something there for everybody. So if we are going to do politics, it’s at the top of the show in the monologue. Whether we have on a correspondent that interacts with Jimmy talking about whatever the topic is, or we do a sketch about it, he addresses it in his own way. We talk about it, but true to our brand.”
I refer back to the earlier conversation I had with Seth Meyers, and ask if there are ever times when she or any of the women on staff talk to Jimmy about some of the jokes he plans to tell.
She says she sometimes will say something, adding, “But I think Jimmy also has a lot of women on the staff. Like Jamie Granet, another producer. She’s the head of the talent department. Our head writer is female. He’s surrounded by a lot of women, so we’ll kind of let him know the temperature read on things.” She adds that he is very aware and very supportive and understanding of women.
She goes on to say that Fallon is a genuinely nice person that cares about the staff and crew. They have parties, theme nights, even a bowling league. “We do a lot of fun things. You know, it should be fun. We work so hard and we should all enjoy each other’s company.”
As for the future of “The Tonight Show,” Hockmeyer is very excited for what’s in store. Their main goal is to find new ways to connect with viewers. “We’re always trying to think of where to take the show that no one else has done. What can we do to engage the audience so that they feel like they’re part of it.”