‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ Couldn’t Take ‘A Closer Look’ at Politics Without Sal Gentile

As Seth Meyers celebrates his 10th anniversary as ‘Late Night’ host and we embark on another chaotic presidential election, the Closer Look creator describes how he makes jokes out of serious topics
‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ Couldn’t Take ‘A Closer Look’ at Politics Without Sal Gentile

Each era of NBC’s Late Night has remade itself according to the persona and interests of its host, but defining a show’s tone, identity and recurring bits is an iterative process that takes time. Seth Meyers’ tenure — which marked the 10th anniversary of its premiere on Saturday — has gone all in on politics with segments like Amber’s Minute of Fury (a topical rant from writer Amber Ruffin), Hey! (an aggressive rant by Meyers to a particular newsmaker) or The Late Night Debate or Press Conference (joke questions that cut to real answers from a political or news event). But arguably no single recurring Late Night bit more clearly differentiates it from other late-night shows in its category than A Closer Look, which didn’t début until the fall of 2015, around 18 months in to Meyers’s Late Night run — or right around when it started to seem like one GOP candidate wasn’t the joke he initially seemed.

Three nights of four each week, Meyers spends 10 to 15 minutes taking A Closer Look at a news story, digging through the assumptions that underpin it, pointing out the hypocrisy of the people involved, performing impressions of key players implicated — all of it illustrated with real news footage and (very) fake graphics. It has become a tremendously popular YouTube feature, posted online a few hours before the episode it appears in airs, and its rigorous research is supplemented by solid jokes — often very goofy ones.

Since its creation, A Closer Look has been written by Sal Gentile, a former MSNBC producer who worked on Chris Hayes’ show when Mike Shoemaker, Meyers’ executive producer, recruited him to work on Late Night. I talked to Gentile on the eve of the show’s 10th anniversary to talk about living in an endless Donald Trump news cycle, going in on Joe Biden and how he and his colleagues are getting through writing jokes about what might be America’s last presidential election.

First of all, congratulations on your WGA Award nomination.

Thank you very much.

You’ve been to lots of award ceremonies. What is the vibe at the WGA Awards? How is it different from the Emmys?

I can only speak for the east side. There are two ceremonies, the East and the West, and they happen simultaneously. And it’s funny because then sometimes we’ll find out we lost from the West Coast before our category even gets announced here. But to me, it’s the most fun award show. It’s super-informal. It’s all your friends that you see all the time in the writing community, so it’s a much looser vibe. It’s also because everybody involved is a writer, so it’s more fun because there’s a sense of community, and also writers are, generally speaking, bad producers. So it also can be a little sloppy and a little informal. It’s definitely the least buttoned-up of all the awards shows that I’ve been to.

Do you think it’s going to feel different this year, coming off the strike?

I do think it’ll be even more celebratory. As we said during the strike, writers can be devalued, obviously, by the Hollywood system. So it’s nice, just to begin with, to get together and sort of appreciate each other and talk about writing and talk about what other people are up to. Then, this year, we came off the strike with a really good feeling that, as painful as it was, we were victorious, and we felt like it was a struggle that was definitely worth it. So it’ll be nice for everybody because this’ll be kind of the first time that large chunks of people have been together since the strike. It’ll be really nice to celebrate together.

The podcast Strike Force Five confirmed either that the current late-night hosts are more collegial than the people who had their jobs in other eras, or they’re better at faking it. Do the Late Night writers have a similar relationship with writers on other shows?

Yes, definitely. Jimmy Kimmel tapes in L.A., but Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver and our show are all here in New York. So in addition to being collegial, we also all kind of know each other outside of that, from UCB, comedy, improv, stand-up, whatever. So there’s definitely a community vibe to it, yes. As far as I can tell, there’s no cutthroats among the writing staffs, where people are trying to somehow take out somebody else. I don’t even know how that would work.

It seems like there’s almost no turnover on any of these shows, so there's no point really trying to undercut anyone.

Yeah, totally. It is not the sort of sink-or-swim vibe that may have existed years ago. We’re all, for the most part, very grateful to have our jobs. And there’s not a lot of turbulence at any of the shows. Seth has basically said this, too: that we want our staff to be happy, so they’re happy to work there, and then we’re happy to see them. And it’s mutual. You’re happy for your friends and then also being happy for your friends makes everybody happy to see each other. Because all the shows are very humane places to work, nobody has to be resentful, so everybody is very friendly.

I read in Johns Hopkins Magazine, from your alma mater, that you were working for Chris Hayes at MSNBC when you were recruited to work on Late Night. Was it really as simple as you wearing the right shirt when Mike Shoemaker passed you?

It really, genuinely is. It’s so crazy. I’ve had so many fortuitous turns happen for me on the way to getting this job 10 years ago — which is crazy to even say. I haven’t fully grasped that it’s been 10 years.

But to go back even further, I was working for Chris Hayes at MSNBC in the exact office space that is now the Late Night office space. Where I sat is now where the Late Night booking department sits. I was sitting there when they announced that Seth would be taking over. At the time, I was doing comedy: I was on improv and sketch teams at UCB and making videos and doing all the things that aspiring comedy people want to do, and working at MSNBC was my day job.

And I had, at that point, decided, “I want to do comedy, and I want to make that transition.” I had no idea how, though. I remember hearing the announcement (about Seth Meyers becoming the host of Late Night) and being like, “Oh man, that would be a cool show to work for.” Not having any idea but knowing it probably would be a good fit for me, knowing that Seth is both an improv person and also interested in the news and politics and stuff. It was just an idle thought.

So then fast-forward to sometime in 2013, whenever they were beginning to staff up the show, and they had a very small bare-bones staff. They were starting to hire up — Seth was still at SNL — and I was just wearing my UCB hoodie. Every day, basically, I was going to UCB after work. And I ran into Shoemaker. I think it was actually on floor nine, where the cafeteria is. We were both waiting for the elevator, and he saw my UCB hoodie and just started making chitchat. We found out we knew a bunch of people in common. Seth obviously was very familiar with UCB, had done a lot of improv there himself and done ASSSSCAT and stuff like that.

Shoemaker was like, “We’re hiring for, specifically, a segment producer who can do comedy guests but also political guests and news guests and authors and stuff, if that’s something you’d be interested in.” And I said, “I definitely would be.” I interviewed with him, and that was it. It all happened really fast. 

It’s crazy how the stars aligned, but it’s genuinely true that that’s how it happened.

Do you still get involved in the research on political guests, or are you just A Closer Look all the time?

A Closer Look is so all-consuming now. Seth might chat with me for a little bit. I might offer some thoughts and maybe talk to the producer who’s working on a segment with a political guest. But that’s kind of like a cursory, informal thing. A Closer Look is my life, truly my first child. I have a child now, but A Closer Look is my eldest child. Basically, after a year of working at the show as a segment producer, Seth asked me to start working on the desk pieces that became A Closer Look with him. And then, very quickly, we all realized I should be moved over to the writing staff to work on this full-time.

Do you remember any formats that you iterated on that were sort of proto-Closer Looks, as the segment as we know it came into focus?

Yeah. Before they were called A Closer Look, we would give them one-off punny names. Seth and I have talked about this. We both think the first one was an explainer in 2014 on the Greek debt crisis. Seth called me in and we worked on it and we called it Up Shit’s Greek.

Definitely landing on A Closer Look was an improvement over coming up with all of these ridiculous names. We did a piece on Mike Pence defending this bigoted Indiana bill when he was the governor that basically allowed business owners to deny service to same-sex couples.

I think maybe the first one that we decided to call A Closer Look was one on Republicans in the House holding hearings to defund Planned Parenthood, with a bunch of ridiculous lies and misinformation. Then we did another one on this wave of bigoted anti-trans bathroom bills. After ones like Up Shit’s Greek, I think everybody is thankful that we just decided to go with A Closer Look instead.

When Jesse David Fox reported on the segment for Vulture back in late 2016, there was a reference to you having sent a draft to Seth at 2:30 a.m. Your home life has changed since then. Has your workflow changed as well?

Yes, yes, it has. We had a child basically exactly at the same time as COVID. Our son was two months old when lockdown started.

How convenient!

Yeah, I know. Perfect timing. They really nailed it. In fairness, I shouldn’t have sent our birthing schedule to all the various labs and markets and so forth. I shouldn’t have told everybody, “This is when we’re having a child, in case you want to start a global pandemic.”

But yeah, so a lot changed after that. Before, I used to pull all-nighters. Sometimes I’d be in the office, sometimes I’d be home, and I would send in scripts as late as four or five in the morning. Sometimes Seth and (Shoemaker) would wake up and not have an email from me with the draft for the next day's A Closer Look because I was still working on it. There were crazy days when I’d send one in after 6 a.m. I’d be up all night.

Now I work from home in the morning, and I just start writing around eight in the morning, and then I send in that draft late morning to Seth, so that I can try to get a normal night’s sleep. Although with a child who won’t sleep in his own bed, it’s not ideal. But yes, my workflow has changed.

Do you still get to spend time in the writers’ room, or is your work generally just more solitary?

It’s definitely much more solitary. Pre-COVID, if there was a hearing that would start at 9 a.m. with Michael Cohen or Robert Mueller or whoever, I would have to plant myself in front of a TV and type as fast as I possibly could. So at some point, it made sense for me to have my own office so I could concentrate. Post-COVID, everybody’s workflow has changed a little bit. Everybody has more of a hybrid schedule, which everybody loves, and which I think is so much more humane. So there’s just less chopping it up in the writers’ room in general.

When you do get together either with your colleagues or with people from other shows at the award ceremonies or on the picket line, is there a sense that you might be writing jokes about America’s last election?

Yeah, yeah. Well, we’re all waiting for the Trump 2.0 Justice Department to finally crack down on late-night shows. But yeah, I think there definitely is. 

I’ve said this before, and I think this is how everybody approaches it, which is that it’s cathartic to make it funny. I think that for everybody, this is how we process the high stakes, which are nerve-racking all the time. You find yourself staying up all night worrying about it, doom-scrolling and looking at the latest polls or whatever. For us, the catharsis is to make jokes about it.

I think the other thing we try to do in A Closer Look is to make everything funny but not trivial. We try to make sure we’re definitely still stating the stakes of what we’re talking about. But yeah, there definitely is that awareness.

The show’s politics are pretty clear, broadly speaking, but how do you decide how far you can go with critiques of Biden?

I don’t think we decide. We say what’s true and what’s plain to our eyes. For us, comedy mocks and criticizes people in power no matter what party they are, and I think that’s a healthy thing. And it’s a healthy thing for people who support Joe Biden. The MAGA side is the cult side. That’s the side in which any expression of disloyalty or hesitation or disobedience is immediately punished. It’s healthy for comedy shows, and for anybody who may describe themselves as progressive or on the left, to have a sense of humor about things and to poke fun at people in power. That’s a key component of our democracy. So we try to keep that in mind.

But on the other hand, it’s pretty obvious from our show that we are also very much trying to keep everything in perspective about the choices that we face. So it’s a balance of, on the one hand, wanting to do comedy. And when there’s opportunities for comedy about Biden, we definitely don’t pass them up. But on the other hand, we’re trying to make the stakes as clear as possible, and trying to put everything in context and perspective. So whenever we do comedy about Biden, we make sure as much as possible to provide that perspective and that context about the choices and about the stakes of the election.

I won’t ask you to comment on a show you don’t work on, but Jon Stewart did definitely get pushback after his first episode back hosting The Daily Show from people accusing him of bothsidesism. 

Yeah. I think anybody who watches our show would agree that we’re always trying as much as possible to provide context and perspective on the differences and the choices. But it’s still healthy to poke fun at people in power.

Is this something that you and Seth codified when Biden became the candidate?

We just take it day by day, but we’re both on the same page about the stakes of the election. There’s no clarification that needs to happen between the two of us about what’s at stake and what the choice is. It’s not a question of not doing the jokes. It’s a question of putting the jokes in perspective and giving it context so you’re not drawing up false equivalencies.

The presidential election cycle gets shorter every time, or maybe just feels like it does. Was there a particular moment this time around where you really felt like, “I guess we’re really in it now,” or does Trump just make it continuous for you and for A Closer Look by being the way he is?

To some degree, it definitely felt continuous, which is by design by Trump, because he never stopped contesting the results of the last election. So his desire is to make it feel as though it is unending. Nobody doubted that he would run again, but I guess it was probably when he announced at Mar-a-Lago, right after the midterms, that it really felt like it kind of solidified the situation. I was like, “I can’t believe this guy is running for president again.” Especially in the face of such an utter rejection. The midterms are historically supposed to be terrible for the party in power. And not only was it not terrible, Democrats did great, and every Trump-backed MAGA candidate was humiliated, even in states where they theoretically should have won.

For him to immediately and sort of audaciously declare again, even in the face of such clear and utter rejection — I think that was probably when I felt like, “I can’t believe we have to deal with this guy again. No amount of saying no will make him go away.”

How often does news break that forces you to just shred an entire script?

Oh, so often.

Oh, no.

Yes. Well, it happens less often now that I write in the morning, which is another kind of good thing about the changed workflow — I can adapt to things. It used to happen a lot more when I would write overnight, and there’d be times I’d send in my script at 4 a.m., and then I’d wake up and something insane would happen. Or I would start writing at night, and then Rudy Giuliani would go on Fox News at 10 and make some stunning criminal confession by accident, and I’d have to take whatever I was in the middle of writing and just dump it. It definitely happens.

I would say the most common thing is that I’ll have to throw out half the script or something like that, and instead of having a completely done script, I’ll be halfway done and I’ll be like, “All right, well, I have to start over again.” That still happens a fair amount.

Seth has a whole other segment, The Kind of Story We Need Right Now, that’s just about news that’s life-affirming and fun. Inevitably, that means you get stuck with the news that is terrible. There must be times when a story breaks that you know can’t ignore, but you wish you could. In those situations, how do you push through?

The thing that helps me push through it is to sit there and spend a lot of time working on the jokes. Like, write a joke, try to beat that joke, try to add three more jokes on top of it. Sometimes, especially since COVID, we’ll take side tangents and do a lot of silly stuff in the body of A Closer Look that’s sort of self-referential, or Seth does a bunch of silly impressions. So I’ll write in stuff like that. We’re still discovering silly stuff all the time. We’ll discover some impression that Seth either can do or can’t do but has fun trying to do. Or we’ll find some bizarre tangent. Or we’ll do some new recurring bit in the middle of A Closer Look.

We all really love the structure of A Closer Look, too, because it feels like, in addition to having a thesis and laying out an argument and having evidence to support that argument, it also can bear the weight of all of those side tangents and let us have fun and be silly and then get back into the body of the piece. So that’s how we avoid burnout.

How often do you sneak an impression in just to see if Seth can do it?

Fairly often. I’ll put something in with kind of a stage direction with a name. So if it’s an impression, I’ll put it in parentheses, as a stage direction, that name.

“(Mike Lindell.)”

Or “(Christoph Waltz)” or whatever. But I’ll put in a question mark if I don’t know if he can do it because he’s never done it before. And almost always he will say yes to it because he has such an improviser’s mentality of saying yes to things. In fact, not only will he say yes to it, but often if I put in an impression he’s never done before, in his draft, he’ll add more to it. He’ll run with it. It’ll be like an improv scene where we walk on and I’m like, “Hey, you’re Pepe Le Pew!” And then he has to say “yes” in the scene in front of the audience and start doing that accent and then he will take that and he’ll not only “yes” it, but he’ll put more into it as well.

During the pandemic, when we were audience-less, we were even more audacious because we didn’t have an audience, but he was in the studio, and he somehow was doing Foghorn Leghorn as played by Al Pacino in a live-action Looney Tunes movie. So it was Al Pacino doing Foghorn Leghorn, talking to Michael Shannon playing the Roadrunner. This is such pandemic brain, looking back at it now. It made no sense whatsoever. It’s such a relic of quarantine, but somebody told Seth, “Watching you do this felt like watching you in an improv scene.” 

How much pushback do you typically get from NBC? Are they involved at the script stage, or do you ever hear about it after something airs?

Nothing. I can’t think of a single instance of hearing anything ever. It’s just me and Seth and (Shoemaker) and our head writer, Alex Baze, and our Closer Look producer, Emily Erotas, and our staff. It has a very fun, goofy vibe of all of us just sitting in a room, reading through it, having fun with it, making jokes about it, making jokes about how dumb it is, or the stupid graphic. It feels very much like a little improv group, and we’ve been very fortunate and lucky that there’s been no outside interference into it at all.

Speaking of the graphics department, Corrections has a lot of running bits, including about everyone in the graphics department being a sexual masochist. You know there is a running gag about you in Corrections as well?

There’s definitely been a few. I can’t remember. Which one are you thinking of in particular?

That you’re secretly rich.

Yes. Because I’m always banging on about plutocrats and the oligarchy. I even got made fun of at some point for using the word “plutocrat” too much in the script, and so I think that’s where that bit came from. In one bit, I had grocery bags that were filled with Rolex watches or something like that.

What is it like being a character in an extremely niche show spin-off that’s truly only for absolute sickos, of whom I am one?

Oh, it’s amazing. I’m an absolute sicko, too. It’s by sickos for sickos. That’s the motto.

It’s so fun. Nobody has any idea what Seth is going to say or do in Corrections until it happens. So Thursday after the show tapes, a small group of whoever is left at the office and the crew file in after the audience is gone, and we sit there and we all wait to find out what our characters are going to say or do in this week’s episode of Corrections. And it’s just so funny because it’s like this little cinematic universe of fake versions of all the people who work there, and it’s delightful. It’s such a fun treat at the end of the week, Thursday at five after the last show is taped, to just go sit there and basically be treated to a tiny little show that’s catered very specifically to your life.

Do you think that a time will come when you’ll want to hand off A Closer Look to someone else, or when you stop writing it, do you just want the jersey retired forever?

I mean, it’s impossible to guess the future, but I think it’s the other way around. I don’t think A Closer Look will be retired because of me. I think I’ll be retired because of A Closer Look. They will hang me from the rafters or something. But yeah, I love doing this so much. It’s my favorite thing. I think the thing I’m the happiest about is that we found ways to reinvent it and reinvigorate it and keep it fun to do every day. I can’t imagine ever stopping that as long as I have the opportunity to keep doing it.

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