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Colin Jost and Cecily Strong
Photograph: Dale May

SNL's Colin Jost and Cecily Strong interview: "This job is truly ridiculous"

SNL’s “Weekend Update” anchors, Colin Jost and Cecily Strong, fight for the survival of poop jokes and tell us how to crash the show’s famous after-parties

As Saturday Night Live’s longest-running segment, “Weekend Update” is almost as much of a New York institution as the bagel. There are few more recognizable or coveted positions at SNL than that of news anchor, with comedic giants such as Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dennis Miller and Tina Fey all having done time behind the desk. For relative newcomers Cecily Strong and Colin Jost—she had been on the show for just a year before getting the “Update” gig, and he’s SNL’s co–head writer, now stepping in front of the camera—that’s a lot of pressure. Not that you’d notice. During our photo shoot, they were jocular, chatty, excitable and—it has to be said—very attractive for folks this funny. In short, they’re the sort of people you wish would come to your dinner party.

“Weekend Update” has one hell of a legacy. How did you prepare to step into that role?
Cecily Strong:
I don’t know if there’s anything you can really do other than do it. I didn’t want to think about it too much and overwhelm myself.
Colin Jost: I think you try to focus on what jokes you like doing, that you know are at least true to your voice.
Strong: You just have to be thrown in, to find out what works for you.

Who are your biggest influences behind the desk?

Strong: That’s so tough. But I think the closest to me would be Amy Poehler, just because she did so many sketches at the same time as doing “Update.” And like me, she’s not a stand-up, she comes from an improv background. But it’s tough to put  your name next to Amy Poehler and not sound like a jerk. [Laughs]
Jost: Mine’s Norm Macdonald. That was an attitude I really liked.
How did it feel the first time you hosted “Update,” knowing there was so much expectation?
Strong: I truly was close to tears. I was just trying to keep it together. It was overwhelming, and I was so honored! I’m a crybaby; I cry all the time for any emotion ever, so I think I was excited, scared and just trying not to sob.
Jost: I had no idea about the cameras, and that was just daunting—knowing where to sit, where my eye line was. Little things like that felt logistically overwhelming. People are constantly coming up to you and turning you slightly, or moving your head up and down, telling you, “This is where you are.” And you’re just trying to tell a joke!

How hard is it to keep a straight face while on the air?
Strong: I feel like we’re not required to keep a straight face. I don’t think it’s as bad to break as it would be if you were playing a character in a sketch, because on “Update” we’re just ourselves.

So you see it as just being yourselves? Or do you consider Saturday Night Live’s Cecily and Colin to be some kind of parallel-universe versions of you that ended up being news anchors?
Strong: I’m still so new at it and still trying to figure that out. It’s sort of a weird, heightened version of myself.
Jost: Taller?
Strong: Yes. Heightened in that way. Thank you for clarifying.
Jost: [Laughs] The more you do it, the more it becomes you, because that’s the space you’re in.

I’d still like to know who invented the news-anchor voice. It’s so universal, but so unnatural.
Strong: It probably started with radio, right?
Jost: FDR or something?
Strong: Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt. That’s a great joke I just told right there—she actually had a terrible voice. That joke would have killed years and years ago. I played her in eighth grade. [Puts on Eleanor Roosevelt voice] She talked like this!
Jost: Eighth-graders must have loved it.
Strong: Yo, that’s how to be cool. I was very upset about that, because I was like, It’s tough enough that my pants are never long enough, and now I have to talk like that in front of these kids. [In Roosevelt voice] “I’m Eleanor Roosevelt!” [In low, teenage voice] “You’re a loser! Your pants suck! You look dumb!”

What happens when you’re asked to cut a joke that you love?

Strong: Sometimes you’ll keep them. It’s so weird the jokes that you’ll fight for—you have to tell your boss, “You are not cutting that.” I had to fight for that cop-and-meth joke: It was about this woman that was suing the cops; she said they forced her to defecate on her lawn, because they were looking for meth in her house, and the punch line was, “You’ll never believe this, but they found meth in her house.” [Laughs] I was like, “I know that’s a good joke. I’m putting my job on the line for that joke.” This job is truly ridiculous.

When SNL started, it was such a notorious party environment, but it seems like it’s all very clean-cut now. What’s it like working there?
Jost: It’s kind of a mix. People drink and go out and keep late hours. I just feel like there’s less drugs, at least that you hear about.
Strong: That’s why we’re all so tired! The schedule was created by people who were on so much cocaine, and now we’re drinking Starbucks iced tea.

That’d have to be a lot of iced tea.
Strong: So much iced tea.

Cecily, how did your experiences at Second City in Chicago prepare you for SNL?
Strong: The improv has helped with my writing, but the best experience I’ve had writing is here. This is really the boot camp. You write every week, and you write some bits that stink. 
Jost: You don’t have a choice.
Strong: It’s like, “Not that. That doesn’t work.”
Jost: “We get it, we hate it, sorry.”

When you’re writing, do you focus on choosing one really solid idea, or do you just churn stuff out until you hit the good stuff?
Jost: I think I started with more of a shotgun approach, just because I was used to that. I would write six sketches in a week and then one would make it into the show, whereas now I’ll write two or three, but they have a better chance. I have some sense how to do it.

You have a better self-editing process now.
Jost: I would hope!

Do you have any tips on how to crash those famous SNL after-parties?
Strong: Make friends with Wally, our cue-card guy.
Jost: You have to find out where it is and hang out at that place until they close it down for us, and then hide in the bathroom for a couple of hours.
Strong: And then you’re probably a nightmare person, so I’d prefer you not to.

Saturday Night Live airs Sat 11:30pm on NBC through May 17. 
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