NBC’s “Late Night,” which in five years with Jimmy Fallon as host became a playground for adventurous musical acts, has fresh marching orders from new host Seth Meyers that are leading it in a less tuneful direction. Industry sources, including several who worked with the show on its first two weeks of bookings (when ratings opened at 2.7 million viewers, then dropped to 2.1 million the second, according to Nielsen), say Meyers is booking fewer performances overall and isn’t keen, as Fallon was, on incorporating music into the broadcast.
Meyers, who started the new gig on Feb. 24 after eight years of serving as head writer on “Saturday Night Live” and hosting the show’s satirical news segment “Weekend Update,” is a current affairs wonk whose young tenure at “Late Night” has often felt like an expansion of the “Update” formula. Where Fallon’s show had music in its DNA, leveraging the cool credibility of house band The Roots for quirky, talked-about skits with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus, sources suggest that Meyers’ affinities lie more with politicos, authors and the sports world.
After premiere-week performances by Kanye West, Brad Paisley and A Great Big World, subsequent weeks of “Late Night” have featured just two music acts. In interviews, artists’ representatives said they were told the show is imposing a formal limit of two performances per week.
For comparison, Fallon’s version of “Late Night” averaged four musical guests per week, as does ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’s “The Late Show with David Letterman.” The only other major late night talk show to book two or fewer music acts per week is “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” also on CBS.
“Music is kind of limited on Seth right now,” said one major label source with multiple bookings at the new “Late Night.” “He’s known for ‘Update’ and having more of a focus on political humor and news commentary, so they’re playing to his strengths.”
Meyers, who along with music supervisor and former Vh1 producer Jeremiah Silva was unavailable to comment for this story at press time, expressed early ambivalence toward incorporating music into the show in promotional interviews with local news affiliates last year. He tossed around the idea of using a DJ in lieu of a house band, but decided at the last minute to recruit old friend and SNL-alum Fred Armisen to write theme music for the show and put a band together.
While some in the independent label community have expressed hope that Armisen and members of his “8G Band,” including Les Savy Fav and Frenchkiss Records founder Syd Butler, will be sympathetic ears at “Late Night,” not everyone is as excited about the band’s prospects.
“No, no, no, no, no,” said the major label source with multiple “Late Night” bookings at the suggestion that Armisen and the 8G Band could play a similarly influential role on the show to that played by Questlove and The Roots. “The Roots were such an ingenious play for Fallon in terms of lending credibility to the show; and as a backing band they were note perfect… It remains to be seen what the situation is with Armisen and his band.”
The new incarnation of “Late Night” is still in its early days, and the tone and structure of talk shows tend to evolve over time as the host finds his footing and segments sink or swim. Whether or not the show becomes more or less music friendly down the line, sources said they remain eager to use “Late Night” as a relatively rare opportunity to connect with broad network television audiences.
“It’s an American tradition and a great way to get your music in front of a couple million people,” said the rep of a band who performed on the show recently. “Who doesn’t love late night television?”