HomeEntertainmentTVColin Jost Has Spent 10 Years Torturing Himself for Our Amusement

Colin Jost Has Spent 10 Years Torturing Himself for Our Amusement

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When Colin Jost welcomes viewers to “Weekend Update” next week, it will make his 10th year behind that desk—a remarkable feat given that most Saturday Night Live fans didn’t think he’d last a season.

In Jost’s 2020 memoir A Very Punchable Face, he writes about an encounter he had with Chris Rock in the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, right near the end of his first full season on SNL. Rock said, “Hey! You’re still here!” in a tone that Jost couldn’t help but interpret as an incredulous, “They haven’t kicked you out of the building yet!”

There’s a good chance that wasn’t what Rock meant, but it makes sense that this is how Jost would interpret it. By May 2015, Jost’s tenure as a “Weekend Update” anchor had been a disaster. He was stiff, awkward, and came across as smug. Much was made from critics of Jost’s “permanent smirk,” which was particularly infuriating to those who considered him the “epitome of white-male mediocrity.”

What does this guy, a boring comedian who got this dream gig despite very little on-camera experience, have to smirk about?

The explanation for Jost’s unearned confidence is that he wasn’t actually confident at all. “I would get nervous and my reaction was to smile or laugh on camera, which was unnatural and probably came across as smug,” Jost wrote. It was a tragic misunderstanding, emphasized by his unrelatable Ivy League background, his aforementioned punchable face, and his middling jokes. “Every summer for the first three years of doing ‘Update,’ I was convinced I was getting fired,” he wrote. And so was everyone else.

Things picked up for him with Leslie Jones’ first appearance on “Weekend Update” in May 2014. It was controversial due to Jones’ material seemingly making light of slavery, but its most influential moment turned out to be a throwaway line early into the segment. Jones flirtatiously calls Jost “a delectable caucasian” as Jost blushes with discomfort.

This was the start of a years-long running gag of Jones hitting on Jost with increasing aggression. She’d call him a “little salty oyster cracker” or a “creamy slice of provolone cheese.” These were rarely the main point of Jones’ segments, but they became an expected, ingrained part of Jost and Jones’ dynamic. If Jones went on “Weekend Update,” viewers knew she’d be on Jost’s side of the desk, and she’d be giving him at least one racially, sexually charged comment that would make him blush.


Relationship expert Leslie Jones, Colin Jost, and Michael Che during Weekend Update on February 13, 2016

Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Jost credits Jones the most for his survival in those earlier years. He wrote, “I was so in my head, overthinking every joke—but when Leslie came on ‘Update,’ she would literally shake me out of my head and into my body.”

But although she helped him feel more comfortable, half the appeal of them as a duo was just how uncomfortable she made him look. In between her sexual advances she’d neg or yell at him in a way that gave Jost no polite manner to respond. Jost’s style had been commonly criticized for coming from “a place of centrist, dispassionate pragmatism,” with Jost trying to position himself as a cool, above-it-all figure dunking on anyone outside his small window of acceptable public opinion and behavior. Jones cut straight through that persona; she performed as a borderline-crazy person with no concerns over politeness or normalcy, and Jost had no choice but to sit there and take it.

The trick of purposely making Jost uncomfortable went far beyond Jones. There was also Cecily Strong’s Judge Jeanine Pirro, who made Jost break harder than he’d ever had by repeatedly spilling her drinks all over him. At one point in her final appearance, Jost expresses relief that Pirro has nothing left in her drink to spill, only for his mischievous co-anchor Michael Che to offer her another glass.

Cecily Strong as Jeanine Pirro, Colin Jost, Michael Che during "Weekend Update" on May 18, 2019.


Cecily Strong as Jeanine Pirro, Colin Jost, Michael Che during “Weekend Update” on May 18, 2019.


The joke is that Jost’s supposed ally is scheming against him and quietly reveling in his miserable predicament, but regular viewers of SNL know that Che’s not the only one with an apparent grudge against him. On one of the rare occasions where Jost appeared outside of “Weekend Update,” the digital short ends with Kyle Mooney shooting him in public. “I don’t usually support castmates shooting each other,” showrunner Lorne Michaels says in the short, “But Colin can be annoying.”

The sequel to that sketch ends with Jost getting repeatedly punched in the face by Kyle Mooney, then Beck Bennett, then host Tiffany Haddish, then Lorne Michaels, all while the rest of the cast watches unmoved.

The Jost-bashing ramped up even further in 2021 when Sarah Sherman joined the cast. Sherman was only a featured player for six episodes before she was roasting him on “Update,” twisting his words around and turning them into unflattering newspaper headlines. At one point she falsely claimed there aren’t any Jewish people working on the show, and when Jost corrects her she happily pulls up the headline, “Local Wet Blanket Colin Jost is Keeping Track of the Amount of Jews At SNL.”

The audience knows this is dishonest framing, and they’re more than happy to go along with it. Sherman performed the same schtick two more times that season, the third one escalating to her breaking into Jost’s dressing room and planting a bunch of embarrassing items inside. Che ends all three segments by helping Sherman pile on, to the audience’s delight, making it clear to poor Jost that he has no allies here.

The constant sabotage from Micahel Che makes sense, since nowhere does Jost suffer more than with the joke swap segments he does with him. Starting in the 2018 Christmas episode, the two will have each other read the other’s jokes live on air—jokes they’ve never seen before. Che first framed the idea as a Christmas gift, but it quickly became clear this was more of a sick competition to see who could best ruin the other person’s reputation.

Jost typically writes Che jokes that make him sound like a pervert, or where Che has to take a hard right-wing stance on a hot-button issue. Che, meanwhile, simply makes Jost say some of the most racist things you’ve ever heard.

It’s not a fair fight. Che is the more ruthless of the two. The structure of the segments reflects this, as it’s always Jost who’s forced to read the last joke, meaning that it’s always Che who gets the last laugh. The segments usually end with Jost’s face bright red, thoroughly defeated yet again.

The joke swaps have become a tradition for nearly six years now, even bleeding into normal “Update” segments. Jost will often say a weird racial joke out of nowhere, and just from his embarrassed demeanor and Che’s faux-disapproving reaction, regular viewers will instantly understand who really wrote it.

Che’s delightful cruelty escalated in last year’s April Fools Day episode, when Che told the audience ahead of time not to laugh at any of Jost’s jokes. Although the difference in response between Jost and Che’s jokes isn’t that noticeable on TV (a small section of the audience didn’t hear Che’s request, and the mics over-represented them), from Jost’s perspective the lack of laughs was deafening, and you can see the panic in his eyes growing the longer the prank went on. “I am covered in sweat!” he said, after Che finally showed some mercy and let him in on the ruse.

This segment was another massive success, one that instantly sparked the question of what would happen next year. Will Jost be pranking Che in the upcoming April Fools’ episode? Based on the most recent joke swap, where Che brought on a (fictional) civil rights activist to sit next to Jost the whole time, it’s likely to be Che stirring up trouble yet again. Both anchors seem to understand that their dynamic is funniest when Jost is the butt of the joke. People don’t tune in to the joke swaps to see Che sweat and suffer. They want to watch as Jost’s life flashes before his very eyes.

The joke swaps are easily Jost’s most popular moments on SNL, his segments most likely to get positive attention on social media even from non-fans. This must be a mixed bag for him, because now the most famous jokes people know from him are the ones he himself never wrote. It’s Jost’s reactions that are making people laugh, but it’s Che who gets the credit. Jost is undeniably an accomplished comedian, serving as a writer for SNL since 2005 and as a head writer on and off since 2012. But that’s not what’s coming across on stage.

On the bright side, the joke swaps have successfully destroyed that initial reputation of Jost as a smug, aloof person. When Jost laughed at himself out of nervousness in his early seasons, it came across as conceited, but when Jost laughs at himself now it’s impossible not to sympathize. We know beyond a doubt where that laughter’s coming from. When he breaks while forced to tell a few racist Superman jokes, we know that ego’s got nothing to do with it.

It’s Jost’s willingness to let himself be repeatedly tortured on live TV that makes him the most improved “Update” anchor of the whole show, as well as the longest-running one in the show’s history. He’s understood that, on paper at least, nobody roots for a Harvard alumnus who got a cushy writer’s gig on SNL shortly after graduating, not to mention a guy who’s inexplicably married to Scarlett Johansson.

To turn him into the loveable underdog he is today, he would have to suffer, and suffer he has. We’ve been watching Jost be lovingly tortured by his castmates for the better part of a decade by this point. With any luck, that torture will continue on for the foreseeable future.

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