VIDEO: Colin Jost on Struggling Behind-the-Scenes at ‘SNL’ and How Quarantine Brought Him and Scarlett Johansson Closer Than a Wedding Ever Could
“Weekend Update” anchor makes his Stern Show debut following the release of his new memoir “A Very Punchable Face”July 15, 2020
Between his gig on “Saturday Night Live,” the A-list actress quarantining with him at home, and the celebrated new memoir on shelves this week, Colin Jost seems to be living his own wildest dream. But don’t be fooled by his successes—the 38-year-old comedian’s climb to the top wasn’t easy. During his Stern Show debut, he revealed many of his life’s greatest opportunities actually came bundled with unique challenges. Getting accepted into a prestigious Manhattan high school meant a scary if not dangerous commute from Staten Island. Attending Harvard opened new doors but also forced him to deal with rejection when the Harvard Lampoon staff came to his room and told him he wasn’t yet funny enough to join their esteemed ranks. Even landing “SNL’s” coveted “Weekend Update” anchor spot in 2014 proved to be a double-edged sword when he struggled early on and was panned by critics and fans alike.
“It made me think I was a bad human. It made me actually feel like I was not a good person,” Colin told Howard on Wednesday morning. “I really felt bad about who I was because no one had ever had any judgement of me before and suddenly everyone did, and it felt really rough.”
Despite already being one of “SNL’s” head writers, he wasn’t prepared for the backlash he’d endure from being on camera and the toll it would take on his wellbeing. “I had such deep, deep, deep anxiety. Like, drinking before shows because I felt like I was losing my whole identity,” he said. “Ten years on the show, I thought I was going to lose everything and just like be done.”
“All my best friends were there at the show and then suddenly people aren’t talking to you,” he continued.
“Is that really true? People stop talking to you?” Howard wondered.
“In that show business way, yes,” he said. “You saw like a look from them in the hallway where you were like, ‘Aw, shit,’” Colin said. “People I worked with recommended people to replace me to me.”
“It’s burned in my memory,” he continued. “I was like, ‘What?!’”
Colin eventually realized he needed to temporarily step away from his job as head writer and put some of his other projects aside so he could focus all of his efforts on anchoring. Howard wondered if he ever seriously considered quitting “Weekend Update” or even “SNL” entirely.
“Yeah, I did. I thought about it,” Colin admitted. “I thought about leaving both. I thought about leaving the show. Actually, I couldn’t conceive of saying, ‘I don’t want to do “Update” anymore but I’ll still write.’ I felt too humiliated to say, ‘But I’ll also still be here.’”
Thankfully, it never came to that. Jost soon turned his “Weekend Update” tenure around, thanks in part to sage wisdom from an “SNL” legend. “Bill Murray came by the offices one time and he was really encouraging to me and [co-anchor Michael] Che,” Colin said. “He was like, ‘There’s something there.’”
“That meant a lot because obviously I love him. Just the fact that we were even on his radar or he saw something felt great,” he continued.
Colin opens up about his 15-year “Saturday Night Live” career in his new book, “A Very Punchable Face: A Memoir.” Howard found it a fascinating read and was especially impressed to learn he’d written over 500 sketches for the show. As Colin explained it, however, the sketches which make it on air are merely the tip of an iceberg. “First of all, it’s like batting .200 or .250,” he laughed. “For those 500, I’ve definitely written 1,500, maybe 2,000 that were rejected.”
Howard was dismayed to discover his sketch titled “Monkey Business” never made the cut, despite a promising premise involving actual monkeys doing office work. “Why would that not get on the air?” he wondered.
Colin said that particular call was made by “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels even after they tried the sketch at dress rehearsal and it got a thumbs-up from guest host Shia LaBeouf. Considering how much he and Shia seemed to like the sketch, Howard wondered why Colin didn’t fight harder to save it and tell Lorne that he was wrong.
“I was just a staff writer and, even now, I don’t really want to go to the wall for ‘Monkey Business,’ necessarily,” Colin laughed, though he admitted he could’ve tried resubmitting it if he’d wanted. “That’s the way of kind of asking Lorne to give it another shot,” he continued. “Like, [John] Mulaney and I did this ‘Diner Lobster’ sketch and that ate it at the table and then I submitted it like 10 years later and it got on, but you don’t know when that’s ever going to happen.”
Getting Lorne’s stamp of approval is just one of the many challenges “SNL” writers face. They must also ensure their sketches appeal to each week’s guest host. In the case of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Colin found success with a sketch about a horny lighthouse keeper (above). In the case of Sir Elton John, who pulled double duty as host and musical guest in 2011, things were trickier. Colin’s sketch had the music icon playing a musician named Weird El with songs like “Don’t Let Your Son Go Down on Me.” While Elton apparently appreciated the song parody, he didn’t find much humor in Colin’s script.
“I was so excited about it,” Colin said. “He asks me to come meet with him … He goes, ‘You wrote the sketch that was me doing parodies?’ … He goes, ‘It’s not funny.’”
Ultimately, Colin realized Sir Elton was right—at least from his vantage point. “The problem I realize in retrospect was I put all these references in. Instead of ‘Benny and the Jets’ I wrote ‘Bobby Bonilla and the Mets.’” he laughed. “Elton John doesn’t know who the fuck the Mets are … I was an idiot for what I put in it, but the idea was really good.”
Colin also told Howard about a sketch now-embattled cyclist Lance Armstrong forcefully rejected in his first year on the show. “I pitched him an idea where he would do a public service announcement where he would announce that those yellow Live Strong bracelets actually caused wrist cancer,” he recalled. “He was like, ‘Fuck no! Are you fucking crazy?’ I was a first year writer. He was like, ‘Are you insane?’”
“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, sorry,’ and then I had no other ideas for him,” he continued.
Colin also shared memories of working alongside Jim Carrey, who last hosted “SNL” in 2011. He recalled the comedian and recent Stern Show guest accidentally defecating in his pants on live TV while dressed like a ballerina for a “Black Swan” sketch.
“He said he yelled so much that he like blew out his butt,” Colin said. “Our poor costume department. Also, he’s going into like another sketch 45 seconds after that so he had to put on another outfit.”
As luck would have it, Colin came prepared with a trio of his own shit stories.
In the first one, he was golfing and there wasn’t a restroom to be found. “I go into the woods and I’m like. ‘I have to violently shit,’” he said, explaining he stripped down to his golf cleats and a polo shirt. “There’s a deer watching me do this, like standing there, looking me in the eyes, horrified,” he added.
Next, he used his underwear to clean up, threw them into the woods, and pulled his shorts back up and returned to the next tee as if nothing had happened. He soon realized he’d stained his pants with feces but continued playing for another six holes.
“How old were you at the time?” Howard asked.
“Like 30, 32?” Colin laughed. “Way too old. It wasn’t that long ago. It was only a few years ago.
In the second tale, Colin took a quick trip to Hawaii with his former “SNL” colleague Will Forte. He had to fly back home after dinner and while driving to the airport he heard nature’s call. So, Colin pulled over on a dirt road and once again defecated in the woods and discarded his underwear. He told Forte what happened, so the next time they went to Hawaii together he made Colin pull over the car at the exact same spot.
“He makes me take him to where I think it was in the woods that I went and he wants to search for my underwear,” he recalled. “After like five or 10 minutes, Forte comes out … holding my underwear on a stick.”
Colin’s final fecal story didn’t involve any woods, but it did involve a heavy night of drinking and an accident at a party. It also involved his mother, Dr. Kerry Kelly, discovering soiled clothes in her washing machine and wondering if her son had experienced some kind of medical emergency.
Colin didn’t shy away from talking about his family on Wednesday, nor about the mysterious childhood malady which left him unable to speak until he was four. Howard was fascinated that his guest, after all he went through, would later choose a career involving so much public speaking.
“Almost being told by nature that you shouldn’t do this made me want to do it more, you know?” he said. “I’d worked at this for so long, even on a speech therapy level that I wanted to see it through and get better at it.”
“Was it ever diagnosed?” Howard wondered.
“If there was a diagnosis I don’t know what it was and I keep asking and inquiring and no one will tell me,” he said, adding, “I’m sure that it was terrifying for my parents.”
Colin’s mother Dr. Kelly served as the New York City Fire Department’s medical officer for over two decades and she was a first responder during the September 11th attacks. Her story of heroism is one Colin highlights in his new book.
“She is extremely modest. Part of why I wrote it is she would never write it herself,” he told Howard.
Still, growing up with a mom in that line of work wasn’t easy. “She worked six days a week, every week, and one of those days she worked 24 hours straight,” Colin said. “She’d usually wake us up and tell us she was going to a fire, which is maybe not the best thing to tell your kids when they are sleeping.”
Colin isn’t the only “SNL” cast member whose parent was a first responder. His mother worked alongside Pete Davidson’s dad Scott Davidson, a Staten Island firefighter who died as a result of the attacks. “If someone dies in the line of duty, she has to break the news to the families of the firefighters,” he explained. “So, she knows that community well … and some of her good friends are actually widows of firefighters.”
“She cares about Pete, beyond his comedy career, and Pete’s family. It’s a weird bond,” he continued.
Though Dr. Kelly survived the call that day she, like so many of her colleagues, didn’t escape unscathed. “She has lung issues that she’s had that are kind of lingering,” Colin said, explaining those respiratory issues have also made her more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19.
Colin has been holed up during the pandemic with his high-profile fiancée, actress and Stern Show veteran Scarlett Johansson. “We have not gone anywhere. We’ve been in the same place the entire time,” he said.
“[Before quarantine] I don’t think we had spent more than a week straight in the same place,” he said. “This is more marriage than going through a wedding. You’re really into an everyday groove and it’s been great.”
Howard had several questions about their celebrity romance. For starters, why didn’t Colin write about Scarlett in his book?
“I wanted to keep it clean and tell this story up until now,” Colin explained.
Considering she’s one of the most recognizable actresses on the planet, Howard wondered if Colin was ever concerned about the public seeing him as just Scarlett’s boyfriend.
“That was definitely a worry,” he admitted. “I worried about my identity with it and also with comedy. So, I was always worried about anything that felt non-comedy.”
Howard also wanted to know if it bothered him to watch the woman he intends to marry get intimate with another person on screen, even if she is merely acting.
“I don’t think it’s really happened that I’ve experienced it yet since we’ve been dating,” Colin said, jokingly adding, “I’m gonna try and push her into a lot more animated stuff. Just all voice work.”
Howard joked he could ask her to stop kissing people on set for medical reasons during the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s a great loophole,” Colin laughed.
Ultimately, the quarantine might well shape more than just Colin’s love life. It could also help determine how long he continues his run on “SNL.”
“What’s the deal? Are you going to leave after this season?” Howard wondered near the end of the interview.
“I’m not sure,” Colin replied. “The COVID stuff has really affected how I feel about it because, you know, being away from people who make you laugh really makes you appreciative of not only the job but the routine of being at work and having to run into people in the hallways.”
“You have an anxiety to do other things and kind of like prove your worth in other ways, but the thing that Lorne says is people who you love who used to be cast members on ‘SNL,’ the funniest they ever were was on ‘SNL,’” he continued. “Even if they did great, brilliant work after, there’s something about the first time you discovered them and saw them on ‘SNL.’”
“It’s like this pure thing,” Jost concluded. “It’s just, like, trying to make people laugh for four minutes.”
Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face: A Memoir” is available now.