Touching on subjects ranging from his days doing improv shows at Northwestern University to his pride in telling the last Osama Bin Laden joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last year, comedian Seth Meyers shared the story of his career and his perspectives on diversity in comedy to a limited audience at Roble Theater Wednesday night. Meyers is best known as the head writer for Saturday Night Live (SNL) and the anchor for the show’s “Weekend Update” segment.
Meyers came to Stanford as part of the “Art is My Occupation” guest speaker series presented by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA). The series brings in artists of various disciplines for lunchtime conversations with students about careers in the arts. Other guest speakers so far have included Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Sahr Ngaujah and MK Asante.
Asante, an author, filmmaker and professor at Morgan State University, spoke yesterday afternoon and stayed around afterward to spend time with IDA members.
“MK really got into how his family and education influenced and supported his artistic development,” wrote Ellen Oh, IDA’s program administrator and event proctor, in an email to The Daily. “He also talked about how he has been able to expand his forms of expression from poetry to prose to filmmaking, and he encouraged students to never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Oh wrote that Meyers had been on the list for potential guest speakers earlier in the year. When she heard her old classmate was to perform at Cal Performances at Berkeley, she called in the favor, and he acquiesced.
“On a personal level, it almost felt like we had come full circle,” Oh said. “Once upon a time, Seth and I were college students trying to figure out what we were going to do with our lives, too, and I’m sure there were a number of students in the room today who will go on to have great artistic careers.”
Meyers and Oh, who proctored the talk, set the tone of the event by starting out with a jab about how Meyers broke the heart of one of Oh’s friends in college.
“I was worried that this was going to be a trap, and I was going to come here and it was going to be an empty room [with] this good friend of Ellen’s that I was awful to in college,” Meyers joked.
The conversation then led into how Meyers dedicated himself to improv at Northwestern and pursued this interest immediately after college until he landed a role as a cast member on SNL in 2001. After Tina Fey left the show in 2006, he became head writer and since then has contributed tremendously to the show’s outlook.
The rest of the talk focused on the portrayal of diversity, politics and social change in relation to comedy writing.
In particular, Oh addressed the recent SNL sketch on Jeremy Lin and how comedians must walk a careful line between being funny and offensive.
“The thing is, when you try to walk the line, you know if you shoot for the line sometimes, just by odds, you are going to end up on the wrong side of it,” Meyers said. “You try to keep your eye on that as much as you can.”
Meyers also spoke about how comedians can make social change and speak to politics indirectly by expressing their point of view through comedy.
“The greatest thing that makes a comedy writer for me is a point of view,” Meyers said. “Each [writer] has a specific voice, and once they start blending together, that’s when I think it becomes uninteresting.”
In a question and answer session, Meyers addressed questions about working on SNL, how comfortable he felt making fun of President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and his perspective on working alongside female comedians.
“You want strong voices from all different perspectives and working with strong women just gives the show incredible texture,” Meyers said.
Meyers ended the event saying that in the current economy there’s all the more reason to pursue a career that one loves since there aren’t many truly “financially secure” career paths.
The next guest in the IDA series will be author Grace Lee Boggs on March 1 at the Black House. The series leads up to the spring quarter course #Occupy Art: Immigration, Nation and the Art of Occupation.