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Mr. Saturday Night; Seth Meyers anchors 'SNL' with his nice-guy humor

Despite appearances, comedian Seth Meyers is not a nice person. Or so he says.

Sure, there's his boyish charm and those offhanded giggles he drops with ease at the Weekend Update desk on "Saturday Night Live"; his propensity for smiling, a shocking departure from the typical comedian's angry-is-funny profile. The nerve.

On the hard streets of Twitter and the blogosphere, his street cred is that he's the nicest guy on earth. Even nicer than his Weekend Update persona, hard as that is to believe. Not so, says Meyers.

"I think offstage I'm more polite than I am onstage. Going through life trying to follow the example of my parents, you know, I try to be polite," says Meyers, in all seriousness. But an attempt to dig up this supposed "less polite" humor comes up empty. Is there an arsenal of cruel, twisted untold jokes we don't know about?

There doesn't appear to be.

"I don't think my act is one that would offend many people, [even if] it is political. But I think we learn at 'SNL' that even if someone doesn't share your politics, this is not a place where angry comedy works very well," says Meyers, who will present an evening of stand-up comedy Saturday in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.

A survey of recent Weekend Update finds an abundance of jokes about animals, soft drinks and NBC's poor ratings. Perhaps it's true. Meyers just might be, unequivocally, the single nicest comedian in show business.

Considering the temperature of the comedy circuit these days, Meyers' brand of kind-slash-political humor is still against the grain. Louis C.K. tells it like it is, in the bluntest of ways. Michael Ian Black deadpans most words, making the decoding of punch line from setup frustrating. Kathy Griffin's celebrity participation and gossip is a lightning rod, which fuels her fire in a perpetual, meta way.

No one is doing it the way Meyers is doing it. No one except, maybe, Ellen DeGeneres, whose kill-them-with-kindness stand-up was parlayed brilliantly into daytime sit-down years ago.

But as head writer of "SNL," in addition to his duties at the Update desk (which he has sat at since 2006), Meyers should know what comedy works well. The late-night NBC sketch comedy show is in its 37th season. Meyers has been with "SNL" for the last 11 years, first as a cast member, then as a co-head writer with Tina Fey and Andrew Steele, and now as sole head writer and news anchor.

Meyers has an informed, educated grip on things.

"Obviously the challenge of our show is you want to have something for everybody. A lot of different people watch 'SNL,' people who grew up with it, and they might like the political cold open and Weekend Update, but you also have the 12-year-olds, which is how old you are when you start watching 'SNL.' That's not to say we're aiming for a younger audience. Part of the show's longevity is in keeping that balance," says Meyers.

How does writing and performing for a regular, proven gig like "Saturday Night Live" transfer to the standup stage? How to avoid burnout and repetition?

"I think when you try to generate as much comedy as you do on 'SNL,' you'll come up with a few things that don't quite fit into a joke on Weekend Update. Sometimes they're a perfect fit for standup. The first thing I noticed, for the first five or six years, is that [certain material] is tailor-made for that delivery system. Because unlike Weekend Update, where I'm playing an anchor character, the nice thing is you can be self-indulgent in a way you can't be in those 10 minutes," says Meyers.

The role of comedic news anchor has been the subject of many articles and discussions in the last decade. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," doppelganger parody newscasts that have eclipsed traditional, legitimate news ratings and have been cited for their trustiness as primary news sources in certain younger demographics, can be heralded for making the fake news hip again.

But, by all accounts, Weekend Update pioneered it. Meyers is the segment's 13th host (not counting fill-ins and a brief reformatting in the early 1980s) since the late-night show premiered in 1975. He is the first sole anchor since Colin Quinn in 2000.

The matter of character isn't a major factor in Meyers' performance style, unlike his Comedy Central and Internet peers. Not even before his tenure at the Update desk, when he was a repertory cast member and writer, did Meyers break out into regular characters. On "SNL," at least, he has remained very much himself.

"Obviously there's way less of a gap between the Seth Meyers behind a desk, and the Seth Meyers on stage. Unlike Stephen Colbert, I'm not doing some crazy character. [My audiences] aren't going to be stunned by what they see [in my stand-up act]," says Meyers.

Working from behind the desk is not solitary work, when you consider the writing staff that contributes to the topical jokes and songs every week. But it is not the same as ensemble sketch or improv work, which Meyers trained in before joining the "SNL" staff in 2001.

"There's a lot of stuff that I miss about doing improv, but as I get older, I feel like I have that same group dynamic with the writing staff. It's not like I don't work with a team anymore. If I was writing in a room by myself, I'd miss that. But I've been lucky to always be working in groups with people," says Meyers.

Meyers' on-air colleagues -- Fey, Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon -- all have co-anchored Weekend Update, have their own comedy shows on NBC and make regular returns to the Update desk. Poehler returned last Saturday, a bonus to the show hosted by former cast mate Maya Rudolph.

When we spoke earlier in the week, Meyers was excited about the chance to work with a former colleague again.

"I long for every time an old cast member comes back, particularly with Maya. You have the pressure because there's no reason you can't do a good show. But with that you have the relief that you're working with someone you know is going to deliver," says Meyers.

One cannot think of Meyers without thinking of Fey. They shared the same duties on "SNL." Her role today as executive producer, writer and star of "30 Rock," which is also about a late-night sketch show's head writer and staff, has helped to signal the Era of the Writer. Meyers credits her and their predecessors with this focus on the craft.

"I do think Tina had a lot to do with it, which is one of the hundreds of reasons to follow in her path," says Meyers. "It helps to be on TV if you want to be noticed as a writer."

The next logical shift for Meyers, to follow in the footsteps of many of his former colleagues and launch or star on his own network show, is not in his immediate future.

"I don't think showbiz is a good place to plan ahead. I'm still enjoying my time here."

For now, he'll be happy to slug it out on stage, just as he does 22 Saturday nights a year behind that legendary desk.

"I like the thrill of going out, and not having a safety net; just your audience for 70 minutes or so. The fun is when you have things in your act that you really enjoy and like telling. There's a real rush to trying new material. New material is really exciting," says Meyers. "With that said, the 10 minutes before you go out, you still get sick to your stomach."