NEW YORK - The “Weekend Update: Summer Edition” publicity tour is barely started when Michael Che, in a Detroit Tigers cap and “Undefeated” sweatshirt, starts grumbling about Donald Trump. It’s not that he’s a bad president, though the “Saturday Night Live” comedian will later describe POTUS 45 as “a psychopath.” It’s that Trump, as a comic premise, has become too easy.
Che reads through a tease he and Colin Jost, his partner on “SNL’s” fake news, were handed to deliver before a commercial break a few minutes before they appear with Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar and Sara Haines on “The View.”
Jost: “Hey guys, Colin Jost and Michael Che here to tell the ladies about our special, and we’d like to thank the man who made it possible.”
Che: “You mean, Lorne Michaels?”
Jost: “No I was thinking of Donald Trump.”
Che mumbles through the script. He speaks clearly when he’s done.
“Nothing frustrates me more than it feels like we’re the Donald Trump show.”
Jost, sitting across the room, waits a beat.
“What frustrates me,” he cheerfully responds, “is that they assume ladies watch ‘The View.’ “
It’s been almost three years since Jost, 35, the Harvard kid who skipped from graduation to the “SNL” writer’s room, and Che, 34, a late-blooming standup who is the comedy institution’s first black anchor, succeeded Seth Meyers. The transition was bumpy. Meyers, with eight years behind the desk, was “SNL’s” longest-running newsjoker and good enough to inherit NBC’s “Late Night” slot from Jimmy Fallon. Critics attacked Che for flubbing lines and Jost for his schoolboy smirk. But “SNL” boss Michaels stuck with them and it’s paid off. Starting Thursday night, Che and Jost will host the first of three prime-time “Weekend Update” specials meant to capitalize on “SNL’s” post-Trump ratings boost while the show is on summer hiatus. The duo that delivers these summer updates is vastly different from the stiff and awkward pair who premiered in September 2014.
Some of the change is structural. They’ve abandoned Meyers’ relentless pace for a looser, more conversational approach. That allows them to react to each other and the studio audience. Some of the change is simply about experience. They’re more comfortable after 63 episodes behind the desk. Meyers, who says he watches “SNL” every week, said he has noticed the change.
“They really broke out of what had been the style of what ‘Update’ was,” says Meyers. “Certainly, this last year there was no part of it that felt like a shadow of what we were doing before I left.”
Jost followed a well-traveled road to 30 Rock, spending “90 hours a week” at the Harvard Lampoon, writing a spec script for “Arrested Development” as a senior and applying to not only “SNL” but the shows of Conan O’Brien and David Letterman. He started at “SNL” in 2005 at just 22 and eventually became co-head writer. Less conventionally, Jost has maintained a steady stand-up career, which is where he met Michael Che.
Che did not spend his college years punching up his résumé. In fact, he didn’t go to college. He attended LaGuardia High School, which is near Lincoln Center and specializes in the arts. Che focused on learning how to paint. After that, he worked a series of menial jobs (barback, gopher at a Toyota dealership) and scraped by. He didn’t even step onto a stage until his mid-20s.
“It was always a fantasy but I never did public speech or public performance,” says Che. “There’s a big ego hit of, I’m going to get on stage and perform and be bad at it until I get decent. That in itself is terrifying.”
But on a Tuesday night in 2009, he saw a club on MacDougal Street had an open mic night. Che threw down $5 for his spot, got good and drunk on E & J Brandy and took the stage.
“I did it like three times because I loved doing it,” he says. “It was like exciting immediately. And I did it like every day.”
In 2013, Jost brought Che in as a guest writer, usually just a two-week gig, but he immediately made an impression on Meyers, who was then co-head writer.
“Che kind of came in comfortable,” says Meyers. “That was the first thing I was taken with. He was just a confident guy. And then it turned out prolific a well. The thing about guest writers is they very really lead to full writers but Che did right away.”
Jost has been at “SNL” so long, it’s pointless to list the sketches he’s contributed to. But his comic sensibility is not hard to pin down. He loves the unexpected, quirky and offbeat. He trusts his impulses.
Consider the finale of “SNL’s” 2016 season when Mikey Day, a writer and performer, suggested a take-off on the 1997 film “Dead Poets Society.” There’s a point where cast member Pete Davidson hops onto his desk to make a short speech.
“And my mind was like immediately, it’d be really funny if he stood up and his head went into a fan,” Jost says.
It was a simple idea but did not come cheap. “Farewell Mr. Bunting” featured a two-and-a-half-minute build before the fan worked its magic, sparking an unforgettable, comic bloodbath.
“He likes wordplay, he likes silliness he likes anthropomorphizing inanimate objects,” says Dennis McNicholas, the head producer of “Weekend Update.” “There’s a real innocence to Colin’s love to comedy. I’m hesitant to say it’s childlike but it’s got that quality.”
“I like more pointed things,” says Che. “I like more point of view things. I don’t really like the word political. I like social. I’m into social interactions. … Colin is so creative and abstract with certain things. He goes more toward absurdity. Which is almost the opposite direction. You pull from him and he pulls from me and then you get a good thing.”
Jost arrived at the desk first, replacing Meyers in March 2014 to serve alongside Cecily Strong. That didn’t last. “SNL” plucked Che to replace her before the next season, sparking a complicated transition. Meyers’ approach to “Update” had been to shower the segment with jokes. His process had also been developed after years on the job. On Friday, he’d look over hundreds of jokes and, with machine-like precision, mark off what he liked and what he didn’t.
Che and Jost tried, but the process didn’t work.
Michaels gave them little nudges. Don’t think about Seth or Norm or Tina or anyone. Just be yourself.
“The hardest thing I think in comedy is to be the stepdad,” says Che. “The first year you’ve got that weird, awkward stepdad phase of, we want real dad back. Where’s the guy we fell in love with? I don’t like these guys because they’re not real dad. The worst thing you can do as a stepdad is wear real dad’s clothes.”
“And say, call me Dad,” says Jost.
“I read the news like an anchor,” say Che. “I didn’t know how to do it.”
“And also alternating,” says Jost. “All right, you do one joke, I do one joke. You do two, I do two. And it’s a setup and a punchline.”
“But even his cadence,” says Che. “You start to read jokes in an update voice.”
The critics weren’t the only ones noticing their struggles.
“We were waiting for them to figure out their new way of doing ‘Update,’ ” says Erin Doyle, an “SNL” producer. “They were doing it as it existed. The format itself is really great and really funny. If they were both Seth, then it probably would have never changed.”
The big breakthrough may have come last July, when Che and Jost were brought in to do segments on MSNBC after the speeches at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. In the broadcasts, they’re still wearing ties and sitting behind a desk but when you watch those presentations, Che and Jost are comfortable slipping into off-the-cuff remarks and lengthy, twisting jokes that are more topic-based than target-based. This carried over into last season, which allowed them to deliver their material without following a strict pattern.
“It was very by the seat of our pants,” says McNicholas. “It was like they were telling jokes to one another. It had a real looseness to it but also it allowed us to treat the current events and the news stories. We didn’t have to swing for the fences for every joke. That really came out of Che wanting to be liberated from the script. That’s the way we grew starting last year. We started building things at the top of the segment on a topic basis as opposed to joke to joke. And they trade off and they do runs.”
That’s what comes natural to them.
During their appearance on “The View,” Jost and Che work without a script and keep the studio audience laughing. But there’s a telling moment about how hard it is to deviate from the Trump-is-bad narrative, the obvious take that’s pervading late night television.
Sara Haines notes “SNL’s” record 22 Emmy nominations and asks if they will thank Trump if they do win.
“I’ll thank him for all the stuff he’s doing for America, but I don’t know about the stuff he’s doing for our show,” says Jost.
There’s complete silence in the room, which he acknowledges.
“See, I feel like I can’t make jokes like that,” Jost says. “People are like, maybe he does like him.”
Che quickly speaks up.
“I do like Donald Trump,” he says and then delivers a line that kills. “I just wish he wasn’t our president.”