NEW YORK—It wasn’t all porn star hush money: Michael Cohen once tried to negotiate an appearance by Donald Trump on Seth Meyers’ show, for what the “Late Night” host pitched as a fun way of coming together after torching Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.
Meyers had invited Trump after running into him at the “Saturday Night Live” 40th anniversary special in February 2015, a few months before the real estate developer’s presidential campaign launched.
Trump, Meyers told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast, started out receptive to appearing on “Late Night,” but the conversation ended once Meyers refused a demand Cohen relayed that was non-negotiable to Trump: He wanted Meyers to go on air and publicly apologize for making fun of Trump at the dinner four years earlier.
Neither a White House spokesman nor Cohen responded when asked what happened.
Back then, Meyers never thought Trump would actually go through with a presidential campaign—“Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke,” Meyers famously joked at the Correspondents Dinner—and Meyers says he believed that “right up to the moment where [Trump] won.”
Now, with Trump in the White House, Meyers doesn’t regret anything he’s done to tear down the president: “it doesn’t resonate when you call not-a-clown a clown,” Meyers said, in an interview recorded in his office at 30 Rockefeller Center, where if you craned your neck out the window just a bit past the pile of books (with Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” on top), you could see Trump Tower a few away blocks up Fifth Avenue.
Before ridiculing Trump became the heart of every comedy show everywhere, Meyers was targeting Trump every night. From behind his desk, he’d tee off with a perspective that was Obama-esque: liberal, but self-aware about politics; both Democrats and Republicans were ridiculous, but Trump’s rise represented something more nefarious that could be neither be tolerated nor taken totally seriously. Meyers donated to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and though he didn’t exactly endorse Hillary Clinton, he ended the run-up to the 2016 election by telling his audience that voting for her was an obvious, if not great, choice.
For all that gets made of businesses losing customers by turning against Trump—or the stunning success of pro-Trump media like the “Roseanne” reboot—late-night comedy is perhaps the clearest example of the appetite for, and business opportunity in, embracing the cultural divide. CBS’s “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert shot past NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon in TV ratings once Colbert turned his monologues into gleeful nightly trashings of Trump. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel became a national sensation when he broke into tears while talking about Obamacare and his infant son’s heart surgery—and has earned liberal praise for every Twitter fight that he’s had with a Republican politician since.
“[Trump] turned himself into an object of ridicule,” Meyers said, explaining why so many comedians are taking target at him. “This is a case of judo, where you’re using someone else’s momentum against them. It’s not like we’re attacking. We’re just sort of like steering his weight and lettinghim take himself down.”
Meyers’ audience is up this season over last, averaging1.58 million viewers each night—way ahead of CBS’ “Late Late Show” or ABC’s “Nightline,” both of which he beats in all 10 of Nielsen’s demographic categories. And he’s done so while using his show to get into the weeds of what’s happening in politics. On “A Closer Look,” a recurring 5-8 minute segment, Meyers covers daily details of not only the Trump-Russia-Mueller soap opera, but also issues like the West Virginia teachers’ strike or the student walkouts protesting gun violence. His audience isn’t just those who stay up past his 12:35am start time; it’s viewers who will check out clips online the next day, and will, Meyers hopes, come back over and over again to hear his take on the day’s important news.
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have appeared on the show, as have 2020 Democratic hopefuls including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He invites on journalists and authors, mostly to talk about Trump. And though Meyers has had conservative guests like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, in an audience Q&A a few hours after our interview, Meyers said it’s harder to book Republicans than he assumes it would be with “a conventional Republican president,” since he thinks they know he’ll try to make them answer for Trump.
It’s become an anti-Trump home base. Michelle Wolf, a former “Late Show” staff writer, will be with Meyers on Thursday for her first TV appearance since her White House Correspondents Dinner routine. And on the night of our interview with Meyers last Tuesday, Kathy Griffin made her first talk show appearance since the president and Secret Service went after her for a photo shoot last spring in which she held a prop of Donald Trump’s bloody, decapitated head. On “Late Night,” Griffin went on a full, free-association blast attacking Trump, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump (she called them “Date Rape and Eddie Munster”), but then confided to Meyers as she was walking off set that she was relieved not to be booed. “I know we talk about some serious stuff,” warm-up comedian Ryan Reiss said before the taping with Griffin, getting the crowd ready to cheer and laugh, “but it’s a comedy show.”
Meyers’ first up-close encounter with Trump was in 2004, when the future president hosted “Saturday Night Live” to promote “The Apprentice.” In one sketch, Meyers played Trump’s son on a public-access show called “Fathers and Sons.”
“He did not strike me as somebody who had ever even processed if something was funny or not,” Meyers said. “If the joke was about him being handsome or rich, he liked it. If the premise was based on his looks or his success, he would say, ‘Oh, I like that.’ But he wouldn’t laugh or smile.”
Meyers said his big insight into how Trump works happened thanks to a sketch that was puzzlingly scrubbed from the internet and is unavailable on “SNL” DVDs: “Donald Trump’s House of Wings,” which featured the businessman in a gold suit and tie promoting a new venture—a hot-wings bar in Englewood, New Jersey—and Meyers, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Kenan Thompson in chicken suits dancing around him.
“He always thought it was so stupid and every time we rehearsed it, he would talk about how dumb it was and how it wasn’t going to work. And then when we did it—and even if you watch it at air, the audience like loses their mind. They love it and he has this moment where the minute they like it, he likes it. He could immediately process that it was working, and then as it went on, he kept getting better and better. He would dance more,” Meyers said. “What I have seen at rallies when he was running for president and things were all of a sudden like bits that worked—like when ‘Build the wall’ or ‘Lock her up’ became catchphrases, I realized, ‘Oh, that’s the same brain that eventually was convinced that ‘Donald Trump’s House of Wings’ was a winner is the one that’s realizing ‘Lock her up’ is a winner.’ And the only thing is that the audience likes it.”
Meyers is also struck by how the Correspondents Dinner routine still seems to eat at Trump, who has continued his habit of periodically dinging the comedian on Twitter (“Seth Meyers was terrible co-hosting with Kelly. Marbles in his mouth-& he must stop picking at his hands--insult to the great Regis Philbin!” Trump tweeted in 2012, and in 2014, “That Seth Meyers is hosting the Emmy Awards is a total joke. He is very awkward with almost no talent. Marbles in his mouth!”). The morning after this year’s dinner, he joined the grievance pile on by tweeting that Wolf “couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance.”
Meyers’ said that complaint “makes me feel good.”
“When he says, ‘There’s a weak case for collusion,’ I feel as though, ‘Oh, he doesn’t understand what weak means,’” Meyers said. “I just think it means he doesn’t like it. He wishes it would go away. And I am judgmental on my performances. There are things that I’ve done that I think, ‘Oh, that was flat.’ I don’t walk around thinking everything I did was great. But I look back on that night and I’m like, ‘Oh, anybody who thinks that’s weak has a misunderstanding.’”
Meyers fans will wait for hours to see him tape the show in a brick-lined studio around the corner from the “Saturday Night Live” space, and once they get in, use their chance to ask him anything during an audience Q&A to ask him if he likes cats, and what time he goes to bed at night.
One asked him his dream guest. “Vladimir Putin,” he said. He joked that he has just two questions for him, but declined to name them.
Another viewer asked Meyers about the Correspondents Dinner again, prompting a long response about how great a night it was and how another try couldn’t compare.
But as to if he’d ever host again, he answered quickly: “I would not.”