Jimmy Fallon's peripatetic kickoff to his 2010 Emmys hosting performance – a cameo-studded, buoyantly over-the-top version of Bruce Springsteen’s "Born to Run" – marked the moment a wide audience realized he was born for bigger things.
Sure, Fallon had been a popular player on "Saturday Night Live," distinguishing himself on "Weekend Update" (if not in the movies) and landing as Conan O’Brien’s replacement on NBC's "Late Night." But his Emmy stint earned him the unofficial award as "Tonight Show"-host-in-waiting.
On Monday, Seth Meyers, Fallon's fellow "SNL" and "Weekend Update" veteran and "Late Night" successor, follows his path to the Emmy stage. Meyers isn’t moving up anytime soon, with Fallon firmly entrenched on "The Tonight Show." But six months into his "Late Night" gig, Meyers has a key opportunity for prime time exposure as he solidifies his place in a shifting late-night landscape.
Meyers proved himself a capable host by twice helming ESPN’s ESPY Awards and headlining the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. But those events didn’t attract anywhere near the audience of the Emmys, which drew a reported 17.6 million viewers last year. That’s about 10 times Meyers’ weeknight base.
While he doesn’t posses Fallon’s musical chops, Meyers brings a strong skill set to the big stage.
His "Late Night" monologue is heavy on topical humor, with some lines delivered in his "Weekend Update" signature style (noting the resignation of South Korea’s only astronaut, Meyers cracked last week, "Now all he has to do is get back to Earth"). After his monologue, Meyers shows an appealing gentler side, briefly sharing stories from his life (he recently revealed this about his macho father-in-law: "He has a pet goat. And if you’re wondering if they make good pets, they don’t").
The "Late Night" host also enjoys a good rapport with his quirky bandleader/sidekick and former "SNL" cast mate Fred Armisen. Meyers is confident enough to let others get the laugh, a Johnny Carson-like trait that serves him well as an interviewer.
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Meyers’ evolution as a host comes amid the fallout from a late night mini-revolution that brought the departure of Jay Leno and a retirement announcement from David Letterman. Stephen Colbert is set to take over CBS’ "Late Show" from Letterman next year, presumably going heavy on political humor as he competes against Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, a past Emmys host himself.
Even if Chelsea Handler’s impending move to Netflix suggests that timeslot doesn’t matter much anymore, it’s still a concern for Meyers. His direct competitor Craig Ferguson is set to leave CBS’s "Late, Late Show" next year, without an official announcement on a successor.
Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert are among the Emmy nominees for Outstanding Variety Series. Meyers isn’t in that league – yet. He won’t win any awards during Monday's Emmys broadcast on NBC, but could come away with something more important: new fans.
Watch the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards live on Monday, August 25 at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on NBC.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.