Colin Jost, from Harvard Lampoon to ‘SNL’
Colin Jost has seen a lot of comedy history in his 31 years. He was just 22, fresh out of college, when he arrived at “Saturday Night Live” as a writer in 2005. He’d come straight from an even older comedic institution, predating “SNL” by nearly 100 years: the Harvard Lampoon, for which he had been president.
Jost, who plays Nick’s Comedy Stop Friday and Saturday, is now co-head writer of “SNL” with Seth Meyers, and he has written essays for The New Yorker. While he’s onstage at Nick’s on Friday, he’ll also be on TV, featured on “John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show” on Comedy Central.
We spoke with Jost from his New York apartment about the future of “SNL,” the Lampoon, and his return to Boston.
Q. It seems no matter how much has been written about “Saturday Night Live,” there’s still a kind of mystery about the show.
A. There is a lot of mystery, I think. I felt it before I was there. There seems like a lot of mystery around how we find people for the show, how the show’s put together, how the writing’s done for the show. The reality is, you have to make decisions really quickly, [so] you just are looking for either people or ideas that just jump out at you. I think that’s what Lorne [Michaels] is so good at, is not second-guessing himself when he sees something that really makes him laugh.
Q. Was it intimidating to start there so young? Were there a lot of people around your age there at the time?
A. It was definitely intimidating. I don’t know who the next youngest person was when I started. Maybe they were 27, maybe something like that. I was definitely intimidated, but you can’t think about it too much. If you’re worried about being intimidated or you’re worried about what host you have to pitch with, it doesn’t help you. You kind of have to have blinders on and just assume you’re there for the right reasons, even if you’re not totally sure yourself yet.
Q. The image is that it’s a fairly cutthroat place to be, although some have said it’s cutthroat and some had a great time from the start, it seems.
A. It always feels [like] it has a healthy competition to it. But at least right now I don’t feel that it’s cutthroat. I think people like each other and generally like each other’s comedy, which I don’t think has always been the case. I think in different eras there were more cliques or factions representing different kinds of humor. And I feel like that doesn’t exist, at least to the same extent, now. No, it’s good. Definitely some of my best friends are people I work with. It’s a pretty good vibe at work.
Q. Has Seth Meyers been a mentor to you?
A. Oh absolutely. He’s been super helpful through the years and I’ve learned a lot from him. Working with him when I was starting out, if I didn’t have a scene one week, I’d sort of shadow him for the week and try to help on a production level as much as I could. That taught me a lot. He would always read pieces for me if I wrote them. I would run them by him and he would always make them better.
Q. What do the departures of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen mean for next season?
A. Well, those are big holes. Those are two people that are some of my favorites ever on the show, and they’re people I loved working with and who always made things we wrote a lot funnier. Which is what you always desperately hope for as a writer at the show. They’re challenging people to replace because they played so many types of people. They had a very wide range of skills that not everyone, even stars on the show, necessarily have. They were both stars and had such a variety to them, which is great for a variety show.
Q. Do you think the show is going to feel a lot different next season?
A. I think it’s always hard to predict until you’re doing it. My guess would be yes. But I thought it would be kind of a crazier change when Kristen [Wiig] and Andy [Samberg] left last year.
Q. I guess the most important question is, who’s going to play Lindsey Buckingham on “What’s Up With That?”
A. Oh my God, I don’t know. I think we might have to just get the real Lindsey Buckingham.
Q. Do you get much time during the season to actually get out and do stand-up?
A. Yeah. When we’re on, I still probably do three or four shows a week. I’ll go late after we finish, even if it’s 11 or midnight or something. Certain nights of the week we’re there all night so I can’t. On off-weeks I try and go on the road almost every week. It’s such a liberating thing when you have a little bit of time off, more than a week, especially during the summer, when I’m able to sit and write a lot of new material.
Q. Did you see being president of the Harvard Lampoon as part of your career path?
A. Oh yeah. I had no idea. Before I went to a meeting at the Harvard Lampoon, I had no idea that there was even a comedy magazine at Harvard, let alone that you could write comedy potentially for a living. [That] didn’t even settle into my brain until years of being at the Lampoon, when you started meeting alumni who would come back and they seemed like really fun, happy guys and they were doing these jobs that were really difficult at times, but that they really like. And it just seemed like a more interesting path than other things that were out there.
It was such a developmental thing more than anything. I always tell people when they ask me what to do to be a writer or to be a performer, the key is to go to a place where there are a lot of other people who are trying to do the same thing as you and taking it very seriously. After college, people do things like UCB and Groundlings and Second City, and that’s why so many of our writers and cast members come from those places, because they are training grounds specifically for a show like “SNL” or for comedy. The Lampoon, the reason I think a lot of writers come from there is because that’s all we’re doing for four years, sometimes four years before other people, in college when other people aren’t even necessarily thinking about it yet. I was there 80 hours a week, probably, not always writing, mostly just joking around. But that counts. When you’re around people who are trying to be funny all day and trying to one-up each other, that’s just naturally — if you want to do it — it’s going to make you better.
Q. How did the Harvard Lampoon operate when you were there? I feel like there’s as much mystery about what goes on in the Lampoon castle as there is around “Saturday Night Live.” It’s that weird building on the other side of Mass. Ave. to a lot of people.
A. Well, obviously I can’t reveal any of my secrets. But there were a lot of doings going on. That’s all I’ll say. I think we had pretty productive years while I was there. The people I was there with wrote a lot and just spent a lot of time there. I’m still very close with a lot of those people. It’s a weird thing when people take comedy very seriously, but that’s what that place is, and that’s what “SNL” is, too. The format of how you live at the Lampoon is very similar to how you live at “SNL.” You’re there very weird hours, you’re waiting till the very last minute and then trying to write whatever you have to do as quickly as you can. You take some chances and you do some things that are weirder that don’t get in the magazine or don’t get in the show, but you’re happy you did them and tried them. It’s the most experimental professional place you can be because you can write anything you want. No one’s assigning you anything.
Q. Have you ever played here as a stand-up before?
A. I’ve played at the Comedy Studio. I never did as an undergrad, but I have in recent years, whenever I’ve gone back to anything at Harvard I’ve tried to go there and do some sets. And Rick [Jenkins], who runs the place, has been great. I’ve opened for Seth a couple of times. But I haven’t done a club run of my own up in Boston, so I’m very excited.