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The Late Night host discusses how talkshows became a hotbed of political activism and the terrifying thought he might be to blame for Donald Trump

It is 6pm in New York and inside the NBC building known to those who work in it and those who watch the shows produced out of it as 30 Rock excitement is spreading in one of the green rooms. Blazered NBC pages officiously tidy away coffee cups left by messy guests, while Tracy Morgan, one of tonights guests, practises his lines for an upcoming sketch with his entourage (Im not Tracy Morgan look at my moustache!). The temptation to get up and look for Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon is great.

But this is not a fictional scene from Tina Feys legendary and, in this building, seemingly omnipresent sitcom. Rather, it is the runup to the talkshow Late Night, helmed since 2014 by Feys former Saturday Night Live colleague Seth Meyers, which goes out four nights a week at 12.35am.

In Britain, if a comedian were given a talkshow that airs at 12.35am, it would look as if they were barely clinging on to the Z list. But in the US, it is confirmation that their career is made. James Corden, over on the CBS network, has become (much to Britains bemusement) a bona fide US star hosting The Late Late Show, which airs at the same time, while the previous hosts of NBCs Late Night were David Letterman, Conan OBrien and Jimmy Fallon. As such, it is seen as the testing ground for arguably the highest-profile job on US TV: host of NBCs The Tonight Show, currently held by Fallon, another SNL alum. But Meyers is doing things a little differently from his predecessors.

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Meyers interviewing Kellyanne Conway on Late Night.

At about 6.30pm, the audience is ushered into the surprisingly small studio. Rule of thumb about US TV: all studios are smaller and all hosts are better looking than you expect, and Late Night with Seth Meyers ticks both of those boxes. Handsome in that unthreatening, clean-cut American way, Meyers sits behind a desk and launches almost immediately into jokes about DonaldTrump (He held a press conference hostage).

Late-night TV hosts, from Johnny Carson to Letterman to Corden, are known for their gentle wit, funny regular slots (Lettermans Top 10 lists, Cordens Carpool Karaoke) and soft-soaped interviews. Nothing to scare the most mainstream of horses, in other words. Meyers, however, is becoming increasingly celebrated for his political bent. Vanity Fair dubbed him the real heir to Jon Stewart, and last week the New York Times described him as the most potent of the late-night hosts. In January, he interviewed Kellyanne Conway, who would shortly become the White House counselor to the president and, in his amusing-but-not-snarky, clued-up-but-not-aggressive style, took her to task about reports that the Russian government has compromising information on Trump. In his regular segment, A Closer Look, he focuses in depth on an often-political issue. Unsurprisingly, for the past few months, and especially since the inauguration, it has been dominated by Trump, and tonight is no exception.

It is racist to assume all black people know each other, Meyers says, referring to Trump telling April Ryan, an African-American reporter, to set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus. We dont assume you know all orange people. Can you set up a meeting with the Lorax?

Morgan then enters stage left, signalling the switch to the celebrity part of the show.

About an hour later, I meet Meyers in his dressing room. There is a 1990s Nintendo game console hooked up to the TV, and on one wall hangs the cue card from his final SNL appearance, with shoutouts to him on it from Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and others. Meyers looks as if he has just had a massage, as opposed to just finishing a 12-hour working day, plus an early morning wakeup call from his wife, Alexi Ashe, courtesy of their 10-month-old son, Ashe. On top of the usual rigours of hosting a daily TV show, there has been, unusually, no comedown after the election; if anything, the political pace has stepped up a notch.

Even in 2008 which was probably the most exciting political cycle Iexperienced while at SNL there was a sense of a hangover afterwards. But this time, it has been relentless, and were only relentless in what were doing because [the Trump administration is] so relentless in what theyre doing. So this is all a reactive relentlessness, he says, gloving, as he often does, his political points with aneasygoinglaugh.

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Meyers during a Late Night White House press conference sketch. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

Late-night TV has, he agrees, certainly changed in the past decade. Instead of being the thing Americans fall asleep in front of, dominated by fluffy celebrity interviews, it has become the source of some of the most high-profile political activism in the US. Theres Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS and The Daily Show, now hosted by Trevor Noah, on Comedy Central. But these are all cable shows. It is far more unusual for a network host to seize the political mantle, as Meyers has done on NBC, and as Stephen Colbert has done to an initially much less certain extent on CBSs The Late Show. And, for many viewers, these shows have become their primary news source.

I feel like everyone you mentioned owes an enormous debt to Jon Stewarts Daily Show, because I think that started this trend of people having talkshows where they have a point of view that theyre not afraid to share, says Meyers.

But while Stewart may have provided the US TV template for combining entertainment and politics, the truth is that entertainment wouldnt have started to become more like the news if TV news hadnt already turned into entertainment. In a new book, The Daily Show: An Oral History, Lizz Winstead, the shows creator, says she got her inspiration from watching CNNs coverage of the Gulf war: CNN had replaced their fancy reporters with young people, and they were on roofs, and there was a theme song and all this shit. And I just thought: Are they reporting on the war or trying to sell me awar? Winstead recalls.

It is almost impossible to find actual news on US cable because the channels are dominated by hour-long talkshows hosted by people such as Bill OReilly (Fox News) and Chris Hayes (MSNBC) giving their spin on the news in a way that is pretty indistinguishable from Meyerss A Closer Look, but with fewer jokes. Surely this illustrates the dissolution of boundaries between TV journalism and entertainment, to journalisms detriment and entertainments gain?

Well, I speak for my show only when I say were in debt to journalists because were just pulling clips all day long which they made in the first place. We know that a lot of people watching our show havent been watching the news as closely as we have they havent been following hundreds of reporters on Twitter all day. So I guess our goal is to say: Hey, heres what happened today in 10 minutes, and hopefully well tell you in a way that wont make you throw your remote at the television, he says.

According to Meyers, NBC has been totally supportive of the show having a [political] point of view, but as Feys 30 Rock gleefully illustrated, TV networks dont do anything out of a sense of moral obligation; they are guided purely by the financials. NBC clearly saw which way the wind was blowing for US talkshows. Fallon has notably resisted giving his show a political spin, a tricky stance during this particular election and one that nearly undid him: the photo of him chummily ruffling Trumps hair during an interview before the election became the visual symbol of the medias toothlessness with the GOP candidate.

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Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton in Meyerss SNL sketch. Photograph: Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU/Getty)

Meyers, inevitably, defends his old friend: Jimmy had always presented himself as an apolitical entertainer. It would have been different if the interview had taken place on a show that had presented itself as being political, but I understood when it happened.

But Fallon himself seems to feel regret. The week before I met with Meyers, he appeared on Fallons show.

Your interview with Kellyanne Conway was fantastic I had Trump on the show and, er, it had a pretty big reaction, Fallon said, sounding uncharacteristically deflated. Colberts more politically leaning show is currently beating Fallons in the ratings, and Meyers show is ahead of Cordens apolitical talkshow.

I ask Meyers if he thinks its a problem that all these late-night political comedians lean left. Doesnt that play into the Trump narrative of a mainstream media bias?

I dont know what else to do other than tell people what I think to be untruths. I mean, theres that idea of Oh well meet them halfway, but I dont know where halfway is any more. Its like asking someone to meet halfway on a bridge thats already collapsed, he says. But we dont come in saying: How are we going to get Trump today? We come in saying: Whats in the news today? And were now on a 26-day streak of it being Trump-related, but thats not because were out looking for it.

Anyway, he says, their influence shouldnt be overstated, and hes right. After all, these shows all mocked Trump throughout the election and we all know how that turned out.

Except, I respond, doesnt the 2011 White House correspondents dinner disprove his theory? He visibly winces.

In 2011, Meyers hosted the dinner, an annual DC shindig for the media, but this one has gone down in infamy because it was almost certainly the night Trump decided to run for office. Fresh from his birther pursuit of President Obama, Trump attended and was mocked ruthlessly by both Meyers and Obama, to Trumps visible fury.

Someday someone may well write a kind of micro-history of that night, as historians now are wont to do, as a pivot in American life, Adam Gopnik later wrote in the New Yorker.

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Meyers with his wife Alexi Ashe. Photograph: WireImage/Mike Pont

Yeah, that is pretty terrifying, says Meyers with an easy laugh.

One of Meyerss lines was: Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke. Did he ever think it might be risky to goad Trump like that?

No! Not at all! I mean, you have to remember back in 2011 he was really drilling into this birth certificate thing, saying all these things that seem like misdemeanours now compared to all the other [things he has since said]. So I couldnt have asked for a better target, because the best target is someone no one can defend, and he was doing indefensible things.

Could he see how angry Trump was?

No, but when I walked off stage, I had never received so many texts so quickly, most in a congratulatory vein, but also a lot of people warning me to stay away from him, he laughs again.

Meyers, 43, grew up in suburban Illinois and New Hampshire, the son of a financier and French teacher. It was, Meyers says, a super loving and supportive family, which I know is not where comedians are supposed to come from. But Meyers and his younger brother, Josh, who is an actor (Red Oaks, That 70s Show), compensated for their happy childhood by watching Monty Python and SNL with their parents. I think the greatest gift your parents can give you if you want to be a comedian is good taste. Once youve watched Monty Python, you cant watch Full House, he says, referring to the awful 1980s sitcom that launched the Olsen twins.

Meyerss career path has looked almost stunningly effortless. In 2001, he was cast in SNL, a blessing from the comedy gods. But he soon had a collapse of self-confidence, or something close to it.

I was very much aiming to go into movies eventually, like a lot of SNL people. But, soon after I arrived, all these really good actors started, like Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg, and Ithought: If I were casting a movie, Iwould put all of them in it over me. I thought I was an excellent writer, but I knew they were better at acting than me, he says.

To his relief, SNLs founder and producer, Lorne Michaels, made him writing supervisor and gave him the plum job of hosting SNLs regular satirical news slot, Weekend Update. This, almost certainly, is what eventually got him the Late Night gig. Weekend Update taught him how to combine politics and comedy, and so did writing the famous SNL skits in which Tina Fey played Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler played Hillary Clinton. Healso helped write one of SNLs greatest moments, when in 2007 a massively pregnant Poehler rapped about Sarah Palin (In Wasilla, we just chill, baby, chill-a/But when I see oil its drill, baby, drill-a), while Palin herself gamely danced along.

That was my favourite moment in the show, and I always say that would not have worked if Palin had not been such a good sport, says Meyers.

Doesnt he worry that the current administration wont be like that, and he wont even get them to appear on his show?

Well, hopefully we treated Kellyanne Conway well enough so the word gets out that were to be trusted. Id love to have Sean Spicer on, that would be interesting, he says.

Interesting, if unlikely.

Maybe, maybe, he concedes. The truth is, although he would never say it, that with the growing strength of Meyerss monologues and political slots, the guests on his show are almost by the by. I have to assume that [the administration] would be happier if we all gave up doing what were doing and thats why you cant give up.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/feb/26/seth-meyers-i-couldnt-have-asked-for-a-better-target-than-trump