Getting Reflective With Colin Jost, SNL's Most Resilient Comedian
Weekend Update is a Saturday Night Live institution. The parody news broadcast has been a part of the show since its inception, barring a few years in the ’80s when producer Lorne Michaels briefly left the show. Some of SNL’s most classic, famous bits came about through Weekend Update, like “Point/Counterpoint” (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”) and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s infamous defense of Hillary Clinton’s so-called bitchiness (“Bitches get stuff done!“). Original anchor Chevy Chase credits Weekend Update for the success of shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Chase may be a legendary asshole, but he’s not wrong. Weekend Update is important, and the SNL audience treasures it. So when there’s a new anchorman or anchorwoman in the running, they’re put to a major test.
So it was with Colin Jost, who’s first season on Update wasn’t exactly warmly received. And that’s a kind assessment. Critics, or as Jost put it, “the entire Internet,” were tough—very tough. It was obviously difficult to experience such personal criticism. “God, it was awful,” he told me. “It’s crazy because typically if people criticize a cast member at SNL, they say, ‘I don’t like that character they do’ or ‘I didn’t like that sketch.’ When you’re doing Update, they say, ‘I don’t like that person.’ Which is a lot rougher to hear.”
“I had moments where I thought, ‘Is there just something fundamentally wrong with me as a human being?’ Not a pleasant thought,” said Jost. “And I’m a sensitive person, so it really hurt. But I’m also a resilient person, so I learned what I could from it and kept working on getting better.”
And the hard work is certainly showing. Last October, Jost famously stepped down as SNL’s head writer, leaving him more time to focus on his performance. Working at Saturday Night Live involves insanely long hours no matter what the position is. For Jost, serving as both head writer and as a performer on one of the show’s most venerable sketches was just too much. Now, he can focus more on writing and producing, as opposed to managing the staff. “I still have anxiety about the sketches I write and about Update, obviously, but I no longer have anxiety about the entire show, which is a big difference,” he said. “I’m also just having a lot more fun and I feel more like a human being and less like an overwhelmed juggler. To me, jugglers are not human beings.”
Jost’s decision was enviable, and a sharp choice for the show. He’s a looser performer now, and has good chemistry with co-host Michael Che. “I’m thankful for Che, because he’s made me a lot better,” said Jost. “He’s always pushing us to do things our own way and find an original take, and I can always trust his opinion.”
“The truth is, critics were right. When I started, I wasn’t really myself on camera. I was trying to be some other version of myself.”
Update with Jost and Che has been doing rather well, especially considering it’s election season—always a goldmine for SNL (Jost called Trump “a golden egg”). But Che and Jost have written some solid sketches outside of politics as well, including Jost’s personal favorite, which features Keenan Thompson’s ridiculous impression of Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz. My own favorite Update moments involve Leslie Jones sexually harassing Jost. When I asked if it carried on offstage, he chuckled demurely. “With Leslie, everything you see is real,” said Jost. “And I’ve never seen anyone completely command an audience like her.”
Jones is clearly a genius, but it’s high praise coming from Jost, who’s been around the best of the best for years (his favorite hosts include Will Ferrell, Fey and Poehler, and Jim Carrey). He’s been working at the show since he was only 22 years old, moving straight to SNL from the Harvard Lampoon. SNL wasn’t his only goal; Jost simply wanted to work in comedy, and after applying to Letterman twice, he happened to land a job at the biggest comedy show in America. He told me that as head writer, he reads tens of thousands of application packets, and that it’s really hard to make any kind of impression. But Jost managed to get hired. Clearly, even as a tiny 22-year-old baby, he did something right.
Outside of SNL, Jost likes to surf. We spoke just after New Years, which he had spent riding winter waves in Montauk. “I also play golf and do crossword puzzles,” he said. “Lest you worry for one minute that I’m not a dork.”
Jost doesn’t really seem like a man of leisure, though. His career is only continuing to grow. Last June saw the release of Staten Island Summer, a movie based on his Staten Island childhood. It was charming and sweet, and starred about half the SNL cast. “It’s funny, because I used to dream about escaping from Staten Island to Manhattan,” said Jost. “Now I use Staten Island as an escape.”
Finding time outside of the rigorous SNL schedule to write a movie seems like an achievement in and of itself, but he wants to increase his output, citing Fey and Poehler as examples of people who seemingly never stop. I suggested that they might have some sort of super Adderall, or perhaps they’re in a comedy illuminati comprised of lizard people with superhuman productive skills. Jost laughed, and didn’t entirely dismiss me. I now fear for him. They can hear everything.
But lizard people notwithstanding, Jost is definitely going to be ok. “I’m very grateful to be doing Update,” he said. “I love my job now more than ever. And taking criticism is part of the job. The truth is, critics were right. When I started, I wasn’t really myself on camera. I was trying to be some other version of myself. The more I got comfortable and let go, the more my real personality has come out.”
All photos shot exclusively for Milk by Danny Lane.
Watch Colin Jost on Saturday Night Live, returning on February 6th.
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