Too scared or not scared enough? Seth Meyers explores our relationship with fear
The host of NBC's Late Night host is used to facing fear with humor. And that's why, after his wife gave birth to their second son in the lobby of their apartment building, Meyers appeared on TV the next day to tell the story.
Other segments from the episode on March 14, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night." Many of us first got to know him when he anchored Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live," a position he held from 2006 to 2013. He was also a head writer on the show. He's written a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." The story is about a bear and his best friend, a rabbit. The bear is afraid of everything, even his own face in the mirror. The rabbit loves risky adventures. By the end of the story, the bear has shown that when he's called on to have courage to rescue his rabbit friend, he can do what needs to be done. It seems like a very timely children's book. Seth Meyers' main job is as a comic. He opens each episode of "Late Night" with a monologue about the day's news and then does his segment A Closer Look, which is a comic deep dive on one issue in the news. Let's start with a segment from last Wednesday's Closer Look. He was talking about the Biden administration's new ban on all Russian energy imports.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")
SETH MEYERS: Living in a world where we derive our energy from clean, renewable sources would be so much better for so many obvious reasons, including the fact that it would take power away from repressive oil-based dictatorships. Right now, they have far too much power over both global and domestic politics because, as you've probably noticed, gas prices hit a record high this week. The numbers are so shocking, I drove by a station that had viewer discretion advised on the sign.
MEYERS: Both Republicans and Democrats had called on Biden to ban Russian energy, both parties. And yet you probably won't be shocked to learn that Republicans also attacked him for high gas prices, like Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, who tweeted under President Trump, gas was about $2.17 in 2020. That's true. And famously, that was the only thing happening in 2020.
MEYERS: The low gas year, as we called it.
MEYERS: I'm just spitballing here, but maybe low gas prices had something to do with the fact that we're all trapped in our homes and no one was going anywhere. Price goes down when demand goes down. That's why you can get a DVD player for, like, $11 now or a Walmart card for free.
MEYERS: Not now. It's easy to lower gas prices when no one is using gas to commute or travel or fly on airplanes. That's like presiding over a zombie apocalypse and bragging that rents are lower than ever. But yeah, now that you do mention it, I do remember when I was fleeing the city to avoid a highly contagious respiratory virus that decimated the U.S. economy and trapped everyone in their homes without toilet paper, not knowing if their jobs would ever come back or their families would survive, looking up at the gas prices and thinking, wow, $2.17 a gallon.
MEYERS: Thank you, President Trump.
GROSS: Seth Meyers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Such a pleasure to have you back on our show. You know, as we record this on Tuesday, March 8, when we broadcast this, I hope Zelenskyy is still alive. Like, I don't know, you know, what to expect, but what does it mean to you that President Zelenskyy was a comic - he was a comic actor. He was in a comedy group before he was on television. What's it like for you as a comic writer and performer to think about that?
MEYERS: Every night, my wife says, don't get any ideas.
MEYERS: That's the main thing when I come home.
MEYERS: But, you know, I think that the part of it that is the most impressive to me as I watch this is how well - look, I'm not saying any of it is performative, right? This is a person who is taking very real risks and has to rise to the occasion. But we're living in a time where as a world leader, everything is recorded as we go through this crisis. And it seems to me that he is not - you know, has not wrong-footed any moment here. It's almost like the way someone on stage, particularly a comedian, is in control of the narrative for the course of however long they're on stage. And they're trying to, you know, convince the audience to hold the opinion they hold, often and almost entirely for comic effect. But I think he's using a lot of the same tools here, and he clearly knows how to appeal to people, and he's incredibly appealing. And I can't imagine what the people of Ukraine would be going through right now if they didn't have a leader who had been this sure-handed so far.
GROSS: And it's just great that he's using all that charisma to tell the truth and to convey genuine need as opposed to using it to manipulate people or, you know, offer disinformation.
MEYERS: Yeah, and even just - it's weird to - and, again, this is going to continue to be less weird because, you know, there'll be more younger leaders or, I should say, leaders younger than us who know how to use their front-facing cameras and know how to turn it around while they're walking down a hallway as opposed to, you know, I think we sometimes see older politicians try to use social media in a way that becomes very clear that it has just been taught to them moments before. So there's something very authentic about the way he's using modern technology and modern communication devices and means to get through to his people at a time where they need to hear from him.
GROSS: You know, you got your start in a tragic time on TV doing comedy because your first show on "Saturday Night Live" was the season opener after 9/11.
GROSS: So, like, what a time to start on TV and to start doing comedy on TV. Did Lorne, like, take everybody in the cast aside and say it's going to be hard to find what's funny? Here's what we do. Did he give you any advice on that?
MEYERS: It's all such a blur to me that time for so many reasons. I think it would have been a blur if I had started "SNL" in 1998 when it wasn't time like that. I think that for the people that were closer to the power structure of the show at the time, the head writers, the cast members who'd been there for a long time, I think those are probably the people that Lorne powwowed with more as far as just how to approach that time. It was a whirlwind for me. It - you know, I'd also only lived in New York City for two weeks before 9/11, so I had a lot going on. But it wasn't an easy time to write sketch comedy, I will say.
GROSS: And so I'm sure you do remember, in spite of the fact that that period is a blur, that in the opener, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was there. And there were like...
GROSS: ...People from the fire department and the police department who were, like, heroes. And Giuliani is there because he was considered a heroic figure then bringing together New York in the spirit of courage. And so Lorne Michaels says to Rudy Giuliani, is it OK to be funny? And Giuliani says, why start now? And when you think about who Giuliani has become and all the jokes you've made subsequently about Giuliani, does your head spin a little bit?
MEYERS: It does spin. Bernie Kerik was there as well, another person who fell from grace post that moment. And it does spin - and I remember a few years later when he was running for president, Rudy Giuliani came on Weekend Update. And he was someone that I continued to have a great deal of respect for. Our politics didn't align. But having lived in New York City in 2001, he did mean something to me. And there was a charm to him. I understood the pull, the charisma of Rudy Giuliani. So it is beyond head-spinning to see where this has been. And the fact that I remember once being in an elevator with him a few years after that 2001 season premiere where I was a new cast member who I think had one line in the show, he walked on an elevator with me and knew my name and I thought, wow, this guy is a very good, very charming politician. So it's a very hard thing to watch, and I imagine even harder for those who, you know, believed in him politically and believed in his - what he stood for.
GROSS: Well, I want to get back a little later to talking about "Late Night," but I want to talk with you about your new children's book, which I really like. It's called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." And I should mention, you did not do the illustrations; you did the writing.
MEYERS: Yes, thank you very much for giving credit where credit's due.
MEYERS: Rob Sayegh Jr. - let's give Rob Sayegh Jr. a shoutout now.
GROSS: So I'd actually like you to read from the beginning of the book.
MEYERS: (Reading) There once was a bear who was easily scared. Each night before going to sleep, he would tie a bell to his door that would make a noise if anyone tried to sneak in because even a bear who is easily scared is a very heavy sleeper. He was even afraid of his own reflection. And because he couldn't see himself, he never brushed well and always had food stuck in his teeth. When you're a scared bear with food in your teeth, you don't have many friends. Bear had one - Rabbit. Rabbit was never scared. She read scary stories. She slept with her door wide open. And she brushed her teeth while hanging from a tree branch by her ears. This gave her very strong ears. One day, Rabbit made an announcement. Bear, we are going on an adventure. Bear suggested that instead of going on an adventure, they could read a book about adventures. That way, if anything goes wrong, we can just close the book. Rabbit looked at her friend and asked, Bear, are you scared? And Bear replied, I'm not scared; you're scared. And with that, Bear walked past Rabbit and out the front door.
GROSS: So they actually do go on an adventure. Do you want to explain what happens?
MEYERS: They go on an adventure, and at every hurdle, Bear is afraid but doesn't want to admit he's afraid. And Rabbit tries to impress upon Bear that the woods are not scary. The river is not deep. The mountain is not high. And Bear chooses instead to take the long way around all of those tasks. And at each point, Rabbit asks him if he's scared, and he continues to dig in his heel and stressed that he's not scared; Rabbit's scared. But then eventually, Rabbit does something that's genuinely scary, and it goes wrong, and Bear is forced to confront his own fears to save his friend, which is the climax of the book (laughter). But it really is a book about friendship. It's about our relationship with fear. It's about the moments when you have to push past it. It's about the moments when maybe you should listen to your fear a little bit more. And hopefully, it's a book that parents can read to their kids and then talk about exactly what their kids are afraid of and how they're approaching dealing with that.
GROSS: Two of the things I especially liked about the book - one is the part, which is in the passage you read, in which Bear says, can't we just read about an adventure instead of going on one? That way, we could just close the book if it gets too scary. That would have been me (laughter).
MEYERS: That would have been me, too - 100% me.
GROSS: And - but, you know, I also like that Rabbit does something pretty stupid, and Bear realizes it's stupid, and Bear leaves. And then, you know, Bear - the rabbit's walking across this rickety bridge that can't hold Bear's weight, and Bear says, this is dangerous; it can't hold anything heavy. So he turns back, and the bridge collapses while Rabbit's on it, and that's why Bear has to go rescue him. Like, sometimes what seems like courage is just, like, stupidity, you know - like, taking really stupid risks. And I like that point, too, that sometimes caution really is the way to go.
MEYERS: Well, that's what I mean about our relationship with fear. You know, as a parent, there are things I'm frustrated my kids are afraid of because I think, as an adult, I see them as irrational fears, but there are other things I am thrilled that they're afraid of and that their fear tells them not to go to the top of the jungle gym before they're old enough to go across the monkey bars and that fear tells them to stop their bikes before the street. And ultimately, as a parent, you want your kids to have an internal risk meter that they're constantly maturing and growing into, and that way you can - (laughter), you know, not that as a parent, you're ever going to relax, but you can at least relax a little bit because I think there's - it would be very - nothing would be scarier to me than having a fearless child.
GROSS: I know you obviously didn't intend this, but when I read the book, I was thinking about the children in Ukraine who have been forced to find courage and strength as they flee Ukraine or hide in their homes. And I'm sure they're terrified, but they're forced to rise to the occasion 'cause they don't have a choice, and that's one of the messages in your book, that, like, when you're forced to, you find the courage. So I'm wondering if you're thinking about that at all. I mean, I know it's not what you intended.
MEYERS: You know, the book was written during the pandemic, which obviously was another time where I think people were wondering how to talk to their kids about fear, although it was a weird time for us because my wife and I were far more afraid during COVID than my kids were just because they were, I think, too young to fully process it. But there was something about the idea that we were living through a really scary time. And you want to think - and I - we are seeing it right now. You want to believe that the human spirit will rise to the occasion and will be courageous, especially when their courage will benefit others who are in danger. And even on a small level, you know, I do want to look back at this time and tell my kids, hey, listen; you did a really cool thing for two years. You guys wore masks when you went to school, and that was great that you did that. That was this sacrifice that you did for other people.
And it's a shame that moment's become so politicized because, I think, you know, I grew up at a time where I think it's arguable that I never did anything or had to do anything close to what my kids just had to go through. And so I think it's nice to be able to have these moments to say, oh, yeah, you might be afraid of that, but you would rise above it if your brother or your sister were in danger, and that's something you should know about yourself.
GROSS: Do you like reading to your kids?
MEYERS: I love reading to my kids. It's my favorite thing I do. It's - in fact, this terrible thing has started to happen, which is now my boys want me to make up a Batman and Robin story every night, and it's so exhausting.
MEYERS: It's so soul-crushing knowing I have to come up with a full superhero story every night.
GROSS: Tell them to pay you.
MEYERS: I know.
GROSS: You get paid for this work.
MEYERS: I'm like, look; this is not - Daddy does not come cheap. I'm in guilds. I'm in SAG-AFTRA.
MEYERS: So - but they - I love reading books to them and especially when it's a book where they just get quiet and focused. I love nothing more than seeing the faces of my children paying attention to a story.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers, who is, of course, the host of "Late Night With Seth Meyers" on NBC and now the author of a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF COFFIN AND THE MU'TET's "LOW HANGING FRUIT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last week with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night," former anchor of "SNL's" Weekend Update and now the author of a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared."
So what were you afraid of as a child?
MEYERS: I was afraid of a great many things. I was afraid of anything that was speed-related, unlike my brother. You know, I didn't like skiing too fast. I didn't like riding my bike too fast. I was always worried about - I'm also, it should be noted, pretty clumsy. So I think early on, I knew those were not the things that I was built for. I was also afraid, it should be noted, of being in front of people on stage. And that, I think, is the one I realized it was worth pushing through because there might actually be some innate talent that was worth showing to people, whereas I think I knew early on I wasn't going to make the U.S. ski team. So...
GROSS: How did you push through the courage to be on stage?
MEYERS: You know, it was - I had to build sort of safe ways to do it. I never had the courage to audition for school plays. But our senior year in high school - and again, it was someone else's idea - said, hey, I think we should do a comedy night and, you know, we'll do sketches. And it was a version which I think probably happens to this day at high school comedy shows and middle school comedy shows across the country. You do sort of a tailored version of an "SNL" sketch where, you know, you drop in teachers' names instead of (laughter) you know - in our time, for example, Hans and Franz might have had some issues with our principal. So it was that sort of thing. And being on stage and doing that was really fun, but it was sort of a controlled environment. We - you know, we weren't judged until we went up on stage and did stuff that we were pretty confident people would like. And then it was being at Northwestern and seeing the college improv troupe and knowing that's what I wanted to do, and seeing it and realizing that it was going to be worth pushing through the fear to try and do that. And once I got past that, it was sort of off and running as far as the anxiety part of it went.
GROSS: You know, your first two children have great origin stories. So the first time your wife gave birth, she was in the Uber when she started going into labor, and you made it to the hospital, like, just in time. And tell us the compressed version of the second time around, when she didn't even make it into the Uber.
MEYERS: Yeah. Second time around, we basically - she felt a contraction. We got in the elevator. We walked out of the elevator into our lobby. And she said, I'm having the baby right now. And I told her that was ridiculous. I should note that I'm not or - and have never been an OB-GYN, and I know very little about the women's reproductive system. But I boldly told her that was fine. And then she - and then I kind of looked down, and it was very clear from the shape of her sweatpants that she was not lying. And so she got on the ground. And in, I would say, 10 minutes later - it was also about a 40-minute drive to the hospital. So this was a huge decision by her part to stay. And, yeah, she delivered the baby in the lobby. And by the time he was born - because I had called 911 - not that I'm the hero in the story, but I had called 911. I mean, everybody always talks about what my wife did, but I think both her and I were pretty heroic on the day. No, but so there were police officers and firemen surrounding us when our son Axel was born.
GROSS: So the day after your wife gave birth in the lobby, you did your show.
GROSS: And your opening monologue was the story of this crazy birth. Does NBC not offer paternity leave (laughter)?
MEYERS: Well, this is - you have brought up what we like to call in our marriage a sticking point, Terry.
MEYERS: It should - so it should be noted that I absolutely could have taken that Monday off. He was born on a Sunday morning, and everything was fine. You know, he was healthy. Mom was healthy. Her parents were in town. Her sister was in town. And to be honest, I said to her, I got - you got to let me go tell this story. This story's too good. I don't want to sit on it for another day. And to my wife's great credit, even she appreciated - and she also knew that this story was about, you know, her superhuman ability to deliver her own baby in a lobby. So I did have her blessing when I went in and told that story that day. And, you know, of the shows - I don't think this is a show that I will go back over the years and look back at individual, closer looks per se. But I'm very happy that there is that sort of time stamp episode where I can one day show Axel. This is a - this is not even, you know, two days after you were born. This is your dad on TV telling the story.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers. He has a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last week with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night," a former "SNL" head writer and anchor of "Weekend Update" and now the author of a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." When we left off, he was talking about how his wife went into labor so quickly that just as they were starting off for the hospital, she gave birth to their second child in the lobby of their building.
You know, in your latest Netflix comedy special, which is called "Lobby Baby," at the end of the special, you do comedy from your wife's point of view. You say, you know, I always talk about my wife in my comedy. But I sometimes imagine what it would be like from her point of view. So you tell a bunch of things from her point of view. What do you think she was thinking (laughter) while you were calling 911?
MEYERS: Well, (laughter) she did say at one point in, you know, the whole ado about having the baby in the lobby - she did look at me and say, stop writing because she could see, while it was happening - I talk to myself when I'm writing or when I'm, you know, formulating an idea, and which my wife loves to catch me doing. I would say, if she has a catchphrase, it's - who are you talking to? - when I'm alone in the kitchen.
MEYERS: So it was, like, once everything calmed down and, you know, she was getting loaded up into the ambulance, she looked at me. And she said, please, stop writing, because she could tell that I was just immediately taking it and turning it into material.
GROSS: Since we've been talking about the opening monologue - the day after your wife gave birth in the lobby, let's hear the end of it. And this part - you know, there's some funny parts of it. But it's very moving, what you have to say. And you're talking about - at the beginning here, you were talking about your son's middle name and how he got that name.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")
MEYERS: His middle name is Strahl, which is my mother-in-law, Joan, that's her parents' name. That's her maiden name. And I never met my wife's grandparents. But I've heard so much about them. And they were Holocaust survivors who met the day after they were liberated. They met in a hospital in Austria. And days like this, you really - you know, when someone is born, you just have such an appreciation for everyone in your lineage who lived so that you could have this moment. And so we were just so happy to give him this name for people who obviously had to work so hard to do that. And...
MEYERS: But of course, mostly, I just want to thank my wife, who, you know, obviously has to get an apartment closer to the hospital.
MEYERS: But I mean, she's so amazing. And I - you know, my kids, like, you know, I haven't known them very long. But I can guarantee you, I'm going to...
MEYERS: I'm going to love them unconditionally forever. But as far - when I - just the speed in which she took this guy and, like, had him on her - and I was just watching him like, oh, my God. He's going to be - that kid's going to be fine forever because of her. She's really amazing. I'm still getting choked up thinking about how brave I was.
MEYERS: But, you know, obviously, I just want to thank my beautiful wife, Alexi, who is twice now an incredible rock star with these incredible deliveries and stories. And thank you to everyone here for indulging me on this crazy story. And welcome Axel Strahl Meyers to the world.
GROSS: So is this the only time you actually teared up during an opening monologue of your show?
MEYERS: You know, I did about Ashe as well. And I will say, after the 2016 election, you know, that morning I spoke. And I wasn't tearing up because of the election result. But I did tear up - I just remembered tearing up because it caught me off guard. You know, my mom's name is Hillary. And I got really - it did make me sad thinking that maybe my mom would never live to see a female president. And so I think that was - but I will say this, I have only teared up on the show speaking about my family, which is not a surprise because I am a real softy when it comes to that.
GROSS: You have a third child now. What was that birth like?
MEYERS: Well, (laughter) it was a home birth. We did a home birth.
GROSS: Oh, like, why even pretend like you're going to make it to the hospital?
MEYERS: When you only make it 0.1% of the way from your apartment to the hospital...
MEYERS: ...The last time out - and we put the boys to bed. About five minutes later, my wife said, my water broke. And about six hours later, Addie was born in the bathtub and slept between us. And it has been a very, very chill baby for her - the first six months of her life. I would not have been OK - I shouldn't say, well, let's go back to the theme of fear. I would have been terrified to do a home birth for our first baby. But having done it a few times, you know, especially having done it in the lobby and realizing that also works, you know, it was pretty special to do a home birth. There was nothing medical about it. It was all miracle. And it was a really cool thing to be a part of. And when I say a part of it, I mean that I stood behind three other women and watched through my hands.
GROSS: (Laughter) Who were the three women? A midwife, a doula and your mother-in-law?
MEYERS: And a mother-in-law. Yeah. They gave me exactly what they knew I can handle, which was very little.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you always want to be a father?
MEYERS: I did, but I was in no rush, you know? I had my kids a little bit later in life. But it's exactly as wonderful - it's beyond what I thought it would be. You know, one of the pressures - the biggest pressure I felt about it was, oh, my God, I hope I like my kids as much as I like my parents. As - I want to be as close with my family as I am with my family. And so it turns out it's pretty easy. You just love your kids so much. And you get to watch them grow. And everything about their personalities makes sense to you because you've watched them each step of the way. And they're fantastic. And I'm saying this on very little sleep because last night, my 6-year-old - he's about to be 6. My 6-year-old threw up. And then we had to bring him into our bed. And then the 4-year-old insisted he was about to throw up, even though he's a terrible liar. And we knew that wasn't true. And so we had both boys in our bed. And one had a bucket to throw up in. And then the younger one was wearing his bucket as a hat.
MEYERS: And he kept saying - we kept saying, you need to go back to your crib. And he kept saying, I don't want to miss the party, because he thought if people were up and talking, but only - the only word he had to describe that was, it was a party.
GROSS: Was it funny at the time?
MEYERS: It was. I mean, it's that thing that's very hard to explain unless you're in the moment. But, you know, my wife and I were so tired and, you know, so frustrated by the inability of the kids to, like, shut up (laughter) and go to bed. But we also, you know, were squeezing each other's hand throughout the whole thing and holding back. You know, the funniest thing is not. laughing when your kids do things because that will encourage them. We had - you're going to have to beat me, Terry. I apologize. But this is was a great - the other day, the the older one was mad at the middle one, and you could tell he was trying to come up with words to express his anger. And out of nowhere, he said, you stubborn [expletive]-hands.
MEYERS: And then - again, but you can't reward it. And so my wife started - by suppressing her laughter, she started to cry. And so then the middle one, old stubborn F-hands - he walked over to her because he thought she was actually sad. And he hugged her and said, it's going to be OK. And that - so like, when that was a little scenelets (ph) happen, (laughter) you realize you can put up with a lot in the in-between times if you get payoffs like those. Well, i think we need to take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Seth Meyers. He has a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last week with Seth Meyers, host of NBC's "Late Night," former anchor of "SNL's" Weekend Update and now the author of a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared."
So I want to ask you about a very memorable show from the recent past where John Mulaney came on and talked about his now-famous intervention when his friends, including you, wanted to stop, you know, hurting himself by doing so many drugs. He thought he was going out to a dinner with a friend from college, and when he opened the door, he says the first face he saw was yours. What was it like for you interviewing him on your show and watching him turn this really awful night for him in this really awful point of his life into a really funny story?
MEYERS: I think that's one of the biggest upsides of being friends with incredibly funny people - is, you know they're going to have an ability, be it with the things they're going through or with the things you're going through, to find humor in it and that that will then make the passage through those tricky times a little bit easier to bear. And also with John's story particularly, you know, when he tells it on our show or when he tells it on stage, you know, I really hope that it brings comfort to other people who have been through it, you know, be it on John side of it or the rest of us that that had to make that, you know, difficult decision to step in.
GROSS: Can you talk at all what the intervention was like from your point of view?
MEYERS: It's - I will just say it's really scary because you don't know how your friend's going to react to it. And you, collectively with a lot of other people you trust, know what the right path forward is. You know, this is someone you love and someone you believe is, you know, as smart as anyone you've ever met. And so you're just really hopeful going into it that they're going to agree with the decision you all made without them. But it was emotionally really exhausting. But, you know, insofar far as the things you do in your life that take a lot out of you, there are very few that mattered more than that one.
GROSS: Did you have to speak at the intervention?
MEYERS: I insisted. I made it clear, like, I don't do interventions unless I have a big part.
MEYERS: Everyone involved got a chance to speak.
GROSS: It's something - must have been odd to prepare your remarks for that and think of what to say.
MEYERS: It was. You know, I think in any circumstance, it's always scarier to write something when you know it's in a room full of writers, even in something (laughter) with stakes like that. But I can only imagine, no matter what someone's - the profession of the person you're stepping in for does for a living, I'm sure it's hard to write something that you know that you're going to have to read to them.
GROSS: One of the things you do on your show is spotlight some of your writers who are also performers. So I want to play this musical sketch that I thought was really hilarious. And I don't know if you had a hand in writing this or not, but I think it's great that you presented this even if you didn't write it. So the occasion was the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, and you mentioned that it's the first Black woman nominee to the court and that, as an interesting sidebar, she did improv in college. Then one of your writers, Amber Ruffin, sings about how important it is to her as a Black woman to have a Black woman nominee. Then another writer, Jenny Hagel, who's a lesbian, sings about how inspirational it is to have a woman nominee. Then a third writer, Mike Scollins, who's a white guy, chimes in. And so I want to just play that song, and then we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")
AMBER RUFFIN: When I look at Ketanji Brown Jackson, I feel inspired. I feel motivated like I can do anything. I see her, and I think (singing) maybe I could be something so special. If my eyes could see the future, they'd know that it looks bright. Maybe I'd be unafraid. I'd have the ear of a nation. Maybe I could help to make our wrongs right.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jenny Hagel.
JENNY HAGEL: (Singing) Maybe I could be something so special. I would try to see the good in my fellow man. Maybe folks would look to me to be the inspiration. Women of color would look at me and know they can.
Ladies and gentlemen - oh, no, Scollins.
MIKE SCOLLINS: (Singing) Maybe I could...
RUFFIN: What are you doing?
SCOLLINS: I'm inspired, so I'm singing along.
HAGEL: No, no, she's inspiring because she's a woman.
RUFFIN: And because she's Black.
SCOLLINS: She also did improv like me. That inspires me.
RUFFIN: No. Scollins, get out.
SCOLLINS: But she was an improviser. Seth, tell them.
MEYERS: I'll allow it.
SCOLLINS: (Singing) Maybe my improv classes were worth it.
HAGEL: You got to be kidding me.
SCOLLINS: (Singing) Tell my mom she's not alone in blowing her two grand.
RUFFIN: Oh, gross.
SCOLLINS: (Singing) Maybe improvisers as a people will finally come together to take suggestions and reply, yes and.
SCOLLINS: Ladies and gentlemen, Ali Hord.
ALLISON HORD: No, Scollins, you ruined it.
GROSS: I just think that's so funny. Is there a backstory to how that sketch was written?
MEYERS: It is the backstory of how many sketches at our show are written and why we're so lucky to have the writing staff we have. Amber Ruffin just showed up with that sketch fully written and showed it to me and our head writer, Alex Baze, and then immediately went into production, and I think we did it the next day.
GROSS: You have a diverse writing room. And one of the sketches that you often do is Jokes Seth Can't Tell. Why don't you describe what that's about?
MEYERS: Again, just came to us gift-wrapped by Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin, who you just heard singing that beautiful song that Scollins ruined. And they - but, you know, particularly Jenny, who wrote a lot of monologues for us, she was a monologue joke writer when we hired her, and she wrote these really funny jokes that I would say to her, you know, these would be really funny if you, a Puerto Rican lesbian, told. But if I told, I think it would not go well at all. And we would laugh about it because she appreciated that that was true, that sometimes it's not just the joke itself; the delivery system matters. And then they pitched, what if we did jokes Seth can't tell? You'll do the setups, and we'll do the punchlines to these jokes. And, I mean, I can't believe how many we've done, but it's sort of just like the monologue. We do a monologue every night, and Jokes Seth Can't Tell, it's its own refillable bucket. And they're just joyous to do. It's so much fun to sit out there with the two of them.
GROSS: So let's get to the reality of Jokes Seth Can't Tell. I mean, they're jokes that you can't tell as a white man because it would look like you're clueless or that you're punching down. Do you feel like you've actually - you know, in this era where comics often complain about they're not allowed to tell certain jokes or else they'll be canceled, is it really helpful to have a diverse writing staff who you can run ideas past and they can explain why something does or doesn't work and how a joke might have implications that you don't recognize but they exist?
MEYERS: One hundred percent, and it's been so helpful for us. And, you know, part of it is it would not have been malicious intent had I told them. If I didn't have Amber, if I didn't have Jenny, if I didn't have other people on the writing staff, I think there would be things over the years that I would have said that if Amber didn't work here, she'd be sitting at home and would say, oh, man, I wish he hadn't said that. And yet it would not have been malicious intent on my part. So much of it is just about being lucky enough to have someone step in and say, hey, just FYI, here's how someone like me hears that joke. And then once I have that knowledge, I have no interest in telling that joke that way because I did not realize that I was, you know, cutting myself off at the knees and basically selling out the joke that I was trying to tell. So they've saved us from making a lot of mistakes. I do not feel like anything we've ever cut because someone stepped in and said, that's going to be hurtful to someone has made our show any worse. If anything, it's made the show better. And yeah, I'm eternally grateful to have them around. Just, you know, again, it's nice going through life realizing you don't know everything and trying to learn a new thing every day.
GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Congratulations on your children's book. I wish you all good things and look forward to the next time we talk.
MEYERS: It's always a pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Seth Meyers has a new children's book called "I'm Not Scared, You're Scared." And, of course, you can watch him weeknights hosting NBC's "Late Night." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Julie Otsuka's new book, "The Swimmers," which Maureen describes as a slim, brilliant novel. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.