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Too scared or not scared enough? Seth Meyers explores our relationship with fear

Seth Meyers tells the story of his second son's dramatic birth in his Netflix stand-up special<em> Lobby Baby.</em>
David Schnack
Seth Meyers tells the story of his second son's dramatic birth in his Netflix stand-up special Lobby Baby.

It's not easy to find the funny in today's catastrophic news cycle, but that's Seth Meyers' job. The host of NBC's Late Night host is used to facing fear with humor. And that's why, after his wife gave birth to their second son in the lobby of their apartment building, Meyers appeared on TV the next day to tell the story.

"It should be noted that I absolutely could have taken that Monday off," Meyers now says. "But I'm very happy that there is that sort of timestamp episode where I can one day show Axel, 'This is not even, you know, two days after you were born and this is your dad on TV telling the story.' "

Meyers writes about fear — and how we acknowledge or ignore it — in the new new children's book, I'm Not Scared, You're Scared! The story is about a bear who's afraid of everything, and his best friend, a rabbit, who loves risky adventures. By the end of the book, the bear has shown that when he's called on to have the courage to rescue his rabbit friend, he can do what needs to be done.

"It's about our relationship with fear," Meyers says. "It's about the moments when you have to push past it. It's about the moments when maybe you should listen to your fear a little bit more. And hopefully it's a book that parents can read to their kids and then talk about."

Meyers has satirized issues in the news ever since he became an anchor on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment in 2006, a position he held until 2013. He's also been head writer on SNL. But he says that his favorite thing to do it is to read to his two sons — even though that's gotten a bit more challenging lately.

"This terrible thing is starting to happen, which is now my boys want me to make up a Batman and Robin story every night, and it's so exhausting," he says. "But I love reading books to them, especially when it's a book where they just get quiet and focused. I love nothing more than seeing the faces of my children paying attention to a story."

Interview highlights

On writing a book about fear during the pandemic

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

It was a weird time for us, because my wife and I were far more afraid during COVID than my kids were, just because they were, I think, too young to fully process it. But there was something about the idea that we were living through a really scary time. And ... you want to believe that the human spirit will rise to the occasion and we'll be courageous, especially when their courage will benefit others who are in danger. ...

I do want to look back at this time and tell my kids, "Hey, you did a really cool thing for two years. You guys wore masks when you went to school, and that was great that you did that. That was this sacrifice that you did for other people." ... I think it's nice to be able to have these moments to say, "Oh yeah, you might be afraid of that, but you would rise above it if your brother or your sister were in danger." And that's something you should know about yourself.

On kids having too much or not enough fear

As a parent, there are things I'm frustrated my kids are afraid of because I think as an adult, I see them as irrational fears. But there are other things I am thrilled that they're afraid of, and that their fear tells them not to go to the top of the jungle gym before they're old enough to go across the monkey bars. And that fear tells them to stop their bikes before the street. And ultimately, as a parent, you want your kids to have an internal risk meter that they're constantly maturing and growing into. Not that as a parent you're ever going to relax, but you can at least relax a little bit. I think nothing would be scarier to me than having a fearless child.

On their second son, Axel, being born in the lobby of their apartment building

[My wife] felt a contraction. We got in the elevator. We walked out of the elevator into our lobby and she said, "I'm having a baby right now." And I told her that was ridiculous. (I should note that I'm not and have never been an OB-GYN, and I know very little about the women's reproductive system, but I boldly told her that was fine.) And then I looked down, and it was very clear from the shape of her sweatpants that she was not lying. And so she got on the ground. It was also about a 40 minute drive to the hospital. So this was a huge decision on her part to stay. And she delivered the baby in the lobby. I called 911. Not that I'm the hero in the story, but I had called 911. I mean, everybody always talks about what my wife did, but I think both her and I were pretty heroic on the day. There were police officers and firemen surrounding us when our son, Axel, was born.

On always wanting to be a father

I had my kids a little bit later in life. But it's exactly as wonderful — it's beyond what I thought it would be. The biggest pressure I felt about it was, Oh my god, I hope I like my kids as much as I like my parents. ... It turns out it's pretty easy. You just love your kids so much and you get to watch them grow. And everything about their personalities makes sense to you because you've watched it each step of the way. And they're fantastic. And I'm saying this on very little sleep, because last night my 6 year-old threw up and then we had to bring him into our bed, and then the 4 year-old insisted he was about to throw up, even though he's a terrible liar, and we knew that wasn't true. And so we had both boys in our bed and one had a bucket to throw up in, and then the younger one was wearing his bucket as a hat. And we kept saying, "You need to go back to your crib." And he kept saying, "I don't want to miss the party," because he thought if people were up and talking the only word he had to describe that was it was a party.

On staging an intervention for his friend, comic John Mulaney, who was abusing drugs, and then having him then on Late Night to talk about it

I think that's one of the biggest upsides of being friends with incredibly funny people is they're going to have an ability — be it with the things they're going through or with the things you're going through — to find humor in it, and that will then make the passage through those tricky times a little bit easier to bear. And also with John's story particularly, when he tells it on our show or when he tells it on stage, I really hope that it brings comfort to other people who have been through it, be it on John's side of it or the rest of us that had to make that difficult decision to step in.

On what it was like having to do an intervention for Mulaney

I will just say it's really scary, because you don't know how your friends are going to react to it and you, collectively, with a lot of other people you trust, know what the right path forward is. This is someone you love and someone you believe is as smart as anyone you've ever met, and so you're really hopeful going into it that they're going to agree with the decision you all made without them. ... It was emotionally really exhausting. But in so far as the things you do in your life that take a lot out of you, there are very few that mattered more than that one.

On "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," a Late Night segment when he has writers from his diverse writing room tell jokes that he can't tell as a straight white man

Again, [this segment] just came to us gift-wrapped by Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin. ... But particularly Jenny, who wrote a lot of monologues for us, she was a monologue joke-writer when we hired her, and she wrote these really funny jokes that I would say to her, "These would be really funny if you, a Puerto Rican lesbian, told [them], but if I told [them] I think they would not go well at all." And we would laugh about it because she appreciated that that was true, that sometimes it's not just the joke itself, the delivery system matters.

And then they pitched, "What if we did 'Jokes Seth Can't Tell'? You will do the set ups and we'll do the punchlines of these jokes." And I mean, I can't believe how many we've done, but it's sort of just like the monologue, we do a monologue every night and "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" is it's own refillable bucket and they're just joyous to do. It's so much fun to sit out there with the two of them.

So much of it is just about being lucky enough to have someone step in and say, "Hey, just FYI, here's how someone like me hears that joke." ... They've saved us from making a lot of mistakes. I do not feel like anything we've ever cut because someone stepped in and said, "That's going to be hurtful to someone" has made our show any worse — if anything, [it] has made the show better. And I'm eternally grateful to have them around. Just, again, it's nice going through life, realizing you don't know everything and trying to learn a new thing every day.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and TK adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.