CIW 14 in ’14: Chicago Comedian Susan Messing on Seth Meyers, Sasheer Zamata & Colbert’s Late Night Gig

There’s no denying that comedy has become an integral part of the cultural conversation this year.  Seth Meyers took over Late Night, Sasheer Zamata joined Saturday Night Live, Broad City and Amy Schumer sparked a discussion of women in comedy and now Stephen Colbert will take over for David Letterman in 2015.  We couldn’t think of anyone with more of a pulse on the comedy scene today than our own CIW 2013 speaker Susan Messing, who is busy teaching classes at DePaul University and the Annoyance Theater, just wrapped up a class at the University of Chicago and has merged her comedy with that of Blaine Swen to create “Blessing,” a Tuesday night show at iO Theater.
Messing discussed two of CIW’s 14 in ’14 nominees, Sasheer Zamata and Seth Meyers, offered her opinions on the announcement that Colbert will replace Letterman and suggested it might be time to finally retire the age-old debate—a debatethat just doesn’t seem to go away—about whether woman can be funny.
Sasheer Zamata.
Seth Meyers.
A lot of the conversation has centered around diversity in comedy this year.  Why do you think we’ve seen this conversation this year?
They just have to stop this man and woman thing, and start recognizing that the chicks are as funny as men.  It’s an old, tired conversation that really needs to end.  It’s getting old…when they say, why isn’t there a woman?  There’s Craig Ferguson and [Jimmy] Kimmel and now Seth [Meyers] and Colbert is taking over and Letterman…. Why isn’t this happening more with women?  I don’t know.  I don’t know why they haven’t tapped into that.  They’re dumb that way.  Chelsea Handler shouldn’t be the only woman on TV.
I think everybody feels like, “If a woman couldn’t get it, at least it’s Colbert.”  But I really didn’t even think that way.  The women in my life have given it as hard as they’ve taken it, and they’re awesome.  Maybe it’s just that they’re around me all the time, powerful women, so I don’t see the discrepancy and the disparity as much as other people do…. I don’t know if we have to fight so hard.  I think we’re just exhibiting great work and that’s speaking for itself.
Susan Messing invited CIW attendees to improvise at CIW 2013.
So, we know you didn’t think, “At least it’s Colbert,” when CBS announced him as the next Late Show host. But what was your reaction to the news?
I think there are some people who are upset that they are going to miss him on The Colbert Reportand that he’s dropping his persona, but I do believe that’s not going to take away anything that is great about him.  He’s actually a really easy-going and personable human being, and I think it will be a delight to see him be himself.  He was in my [graduating] class at Northwestern, and he’s just consistently been an awesome human being.  So I think he will be very welcoming, and if anyone can take over Letterman, I think it is he.  Letterman was my baby growing up…and that he’s leaving for his own personal reasons in order to get a life is a magnanimous gesture—leave before you suck…. If Letterman has to go, I don’t think there’s a better person.
Some people were saying they wished [Letterman] had been replaced by a woman, and although I’m a big fan of affirmative action and diversity, I can’t be upset if it’s Colbert, not in the slightest.
You mention Letterman’s impact on your own comedic views. Do you think Colbert has the potential to be the same kind of influential force on late night and on television as Letterman?
Yes…sometimes it’s just nice to have a great interview with a nice human being.  I think there’s room for all these guys.  It’s a question of taste at this point, but I don’t think he’ll be swallowed up in a bad way.
I think if David is excited about it, too, that’s pretty exciting.  That’s going to be a welcoming force as opposed to something begrudging.  Letterman gets to leave on his own terms, and he gets to support his successor.  You can’t have a better way to go.
Do you watch the other late night programs?  Have you watched Fallon and Meyers this year?
I especially watch Seth [Meyers] because he is also someone I know.  He’s a really awesome guy, and I love seeing him outside the confines of Weekend Update.  It really was just a natural extension.  It has been a really smooth transition as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve really enjoyed him.   
Wait—how do you know Seth Meyers?
I think he was in one of my improv classes.  I think I taught him.
So, we can credit you with some of Meyers’s success?
No, not at all—not in the slightest.  People like he were fully formed when they started.  He doesn’t seem to have changed a bit…. He’s a terrific guy.  There are interviewers who alienate the people that they interview, and he’s just not one of them.  He’s easy to watch—and so is Colbert.  They’re easy to watch.
You mentioned briefly affirmative action and diversity in light of the call for hiring a woman for The Late Show, and you’ve already offered your opinions on women in comedy.  What do you think of SNL’s hiring of Sasheer Zamata after similar push from the public?
SNL has turned into a real institution, and I guess with that comes the kind of scrutiny that social media now gives itself the right to express.  I think sometimes it’s good; it’s an evolutionary thing.  And sometimes…remember how everyone was getting all upset about how Seinfeld only had men in his car [on his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee]?  I [thought], just leave the guy alone.  Let him interview who he wants.  I feel like [Creator and Executive Producer] Lorne [Michaels] is going to cast who he wants.  If he needs a gentle reminder, so be it.  And I do think that there is a voice that needs to be heard. 
So I think [Sasheer Zamata’s] own work will rest on her own work.  Honestly, her success is going to depend more on whether she aligns herself with good writers or that she’s willing to come up with stuff herself, and if she can stomach being in [the writers’ room] every week…. If she puts her nose to the grindstone and doesn’t look to her right or to her left, hopefully she can make her own name and people won’t say, “Well, she had to be brought in because of affirmative action.”  I think [that’s] erroneous.   I don’t care how she gets there as long as she does, and…I hope she has an easy and joyful ride.
What’s it like watching comedy and comedians as a comedian yourself?  Does it just feel like work, or do you laugh along?
Here’s something weird about comedy: I would rather talk to my friends about their kids.  I’m afraid to sometimes watch them on TV because I’m afraid that inadvertently somehow I will steal their shtick.  And it’s also work for me to watch comedy.
It takes a lot for me to really invest [in a TV show].  For me, it really is work.… I was watching a teeny bit of Portlandia, and it was so disturbing in the best sort of way, that I thought, “Oh, something that I could maybe invest [in].” I could not salute comedians more.  I love them so much; I really do.  I get it—it’s not an easy gig to play the moment instead of the joke, so I get that as well.  But it’s not, “Oh, God, I can’t wait for today’s episode of blank ever.  Ever.”
What’s next on the Chicago comedy scene? What do you see going on here?
We’re comfortably stretching the boundaries here, but I’m noticing more of a trend of people getting ready to take their stuff to LA and sell it…. Now I see people thinking, “Oh, if I create this web series, perhaps it will sell.”  And it really is a way to start a brand new way of accessing Hollywood is by creating your own thing and selling it.  That’s a new gig…. I do believe people far more have an agenda than they used to.
It’s rare that people are doing it just purely to do it, and saying, “Whatever [comes] after this is great.”  And it’s not wrong either—it’s just the way right now the needle is pointing…. So, the evolution really seems to be in the place of selling it.

Q&As are edited for clarity and content.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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