Colin Jost has worn many hats. Most notably, he’s currently the head writer of Saturday Night Live, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and co-anchor of the Weekend Update segment. Before that, Jost was a lowly staff writer, a position he landed after graduating from Harvard University, where he wrote for the school’s prestigious humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon.
Before becoming a Not Ready for Primetime Player however, Jost spent his adolescence in Staten Island, New York — the often over-looked blue collar community just south of Manhattan. It was in Staten Island where Jost landed one of his first jobs as a lifeguard at the borough’s Great Kills Swim Club, a life-altering experience that became fodder for his first movie, Staten Island Summer. Written by Jost and produced by SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels, the story is about a nerdy kid and the characters he encounters the summer before attending freshmen year at… yes, Harvard. With Staten Island Summer coming to Netflix on July 30th and Jost in the midst of a nationwide stand-up tour, it seemed like he wasn’t busy. So we spoke to him about making such a personal movie, his SNL experience, and the constant pressure that propels him to succeed.
So, your movie is essentially a love letter to Staten Island.
Yeah! When I started writing it, I didn’t quite know whether it was going to be that or not. I kind of hoped it’d be a fun movie about lifeguards, but it’s everything I could have wanted in terms of bringing the place to life.
This could be the movie about Staten Island, not that there’s a ton of competition. Was dispelling some of the misperceptions people may have about Staten Island a motivating factor behind making it?
I think people have ideas about what Staten Island is and in their mind they might have a lot of different stereotypes. I think about the real types of people who live there, because Staten Island has really strong characters — anyone who lives there would say that — but I didn’t want them to be cartoon characters. I wanted them to feel like real people who you might grow up with anywhere.
When people from your childhood watch the movie, do they automatically assume characters you wrote are based off of them? Like are there people who you bought ice cream from in 1995 who would say, “Colin! I know you were thinking of me when you wrote that line!”
[Laughs] Yes, it’s funny! On SNL, I work on that character Drunk Uncle a lot with Bobby [Moynihan], and people are always like, “Which uncle of that is yours?” Bobby gets it all the time, too. But that’s really not what our uncles are like at all. In a nice way, people see themselves in different things you put out there and that’s cool. Doing SNL, I’d sometimes try to use friends names and stuff and put them in a sketch — if I know they’re not going to sue me. But for the movie, I would never use a name of a friend and write a version of them. I use pretty much all fake names; they’re all amalgams of people I knew. But for example, my mom works for the New York City Fire Department and when I was a kid she would legitimately threaten to bring over people injured by motorcycles to scare me. If I was ever like, “Motorcycles seem kind of fun,” she’d always say, “How dare you. I’ll bring X-rays and have you meet firemen who can’t work because they were injured by them.” That’s a scene in the movie and was a very real moment in my life.
The main character in the movie went to Harvard, just like you did. As you say in the movie, Staten Island is a blue-collar neighborhood, and some people don’t ever leave Staten Island. Do any of your old running buddies give you grief? “There he is, the Harvard boy!”
Of course they would, because friends make fun of everything you do. It was gradual for me because I went to Manhattan for high school and would take the bus to subway all the way up to the upper east side of Manhattan to this free Catholic High School that was there. It was a really good school, but a long commute to get there. So I was already away from Staten during my high school years, and I think it was less of a transition for me to go to college.
On SNL, you can write something on Saturday afternoon and it’s on TV that night. But when you’re making a movie, you write something and it could take years before you see it. Tell me about that lag.
Well, I guess I started writing the script three years ago and have been working on it since, so it’s way longer than I’m used to. I was also doing SNL at the same time, so it went by pretty quickly, but the process was very different. The reason why I was able to do it and stick with it is that I was drawing on things from my real life. I’d take time and reflect on things from my childhood, and I think when you can go back to something that’s personal, it makes the writing easier. Everything’s there somewhere in your memory, you just need to take it out and then reconstruct it to make it fit into the movie.
Talking about SNL, there’s such a big gap during the summer with no live shows. When you see news stories in July and August do you just think, “Damnit! Why couldn’t have this have happened during premiere week?!”
Luckily, I think some of the stories are not going away. I don’t think Donald Trump is going away anytime soon, which is good news. It’ll be nice because the campaign stuff will start reaching a fever pitch by the time we get back. The candidates will be set and the primary debates will take place right as we get back, which is great timing.
When you got the nod to co-anchor Update, did you ask former anchors for their advice before taking the chair?
Yeah, I talked to everyone as much as I could because that’s the way I go about things. I didn’t know at all what it would be like. I talked to Seth [Meyers], Tina [Fey], Amy [Poehler], and Jimmy [Fallon] and asked them what their advice was. But I realized you have to just do the thing you like and have them come to you. No one can ever tell you what the actual experience is like because it’s such a weird one. They all had little helpful tips, though. Tina had also been head writer too and she encouraged me to carve out space for myself as a performer, in addition to the writing stuff. She’d tell me to make sure to at least go to bed at 2 a.m. on Friday because you have to be on camera the next day and function. You don’t want to be, like, totally burned out and feel dead on a Saturday. You want to be sharp and look alive on camera. That’s hard to do but I try to do it. I’d also watch old film of those guys, like Tina and Jimmy when they started, you can see through the first year of doing it how strong they get. You always just try to observe and learn from example.
Who was your favorite Update anchor? If you had to choose.
I like different things from different people, even from different stages of my life. Norm MacDonald hit my sweet spot in high school — he was real formational for me; I loved him and loved his style. It was cool because he was a great guy to hang with at the 40th anniversary, since he’s really funny in person too. And Tina hired me when she was head writer, so I looked up to her as someone who did both of those things so well. And Amy and Seth’s big thing were to learn how to make the job fun. What good is being on SNL if you’re not having fun? And that’s what me and Michael Che are trying to do too. If we’re having fun and doing stuff that makes us laugh, then we have to trust that will make the audience laugh, too.
Speaking of Tina Fey, it seems like you’re on her same career trajectory. You were both hired as writers, both ascended to head writers, both anchored Update, and then both wrote movie comedies about teenagers — in Tina’s case, Mean Girls, and in your case, Staten Island Summer.
Well, she’s the best. As far as career trajectories go, that’s about as good as it gets. Beyond being incredibly talented, she’s a super hard worker. I always have anxiety I’m not working hard enough when I see all the stuff she’s doing. I like doing things that are creatively interesting to me. Movies are the next thing I want to get into because I love the process. It feels like an extension of SNL in a way, from the production to performing and writing.
All of this is hard work, I’d imagine, from writing and being on SNL, to the movie. You also do stand-up and have written for The New Yorker. Do you like having downtime, or are you allergic to relaxation?
I think it’s healthy to have some downtime and you’re only alive once — what, are we gonna live for another 250 more years? So I want to get some in. But I do get anxious if I’m not working and don’t feel productive. If I don’t do anything during the day, I always think, “Ugh, I wasted a day I could have accomplished something.” On the flip-side, if I have a productive day and get something done, that gives me a lot of joy. A lot of joy for me is productivity-based… maybe it’s the German engineer in my family history. It’s not that hard for me to stay motivated because I always feel I’m behind. Even though I feel like I’m doing fine, there’s always times when I’m like, “God, I wish had also done this.” I kind of feel a constant pressure.