Colin Jost describes his college Mardi Gras experience as "post-apocalyptic" and not necessarily representative of New Orleans. "Otherwise, good lord," he says. "Literally, things in the street were on fire. It seemed like there was always somebody low-level screaming somewhere, preachers preaching in the middle of the night, just trash everywhere — probably the worst time to visit New Orleans, but also very fun."
Jost returns to New Orleans May 30, when the Saturday Night Live (SNL) head writer and "Weekend Update" host performs standup at the Civic Theatre. SNL wrapped its 39th season earlier this month, but Jost says he won't get a break at least until July. He's reshooting scenes for Staten Island Summer, his comedy about a high school graduate heading to Harvard. (Jost, a Staten Island native, was president of the Harvard Lampoon, the university's longstanding humor publication.) He also uses his down time to do standup.
"I think less about sketch ideas in my standup and more just my voice," he says. "It's always got to be the truest to you. Whatever happened to your life informs what that perspective is. The more you tap into that, the better your standup gets."
Jost joined Saturday Night Live's writing staff in 2005. Among his early favorite sketches he wrote are the "Dakota Fanning Talk Show" segments starring Amy Poehler (as the hyper-precocious child actor), "which feels like 100 years ago for me but at the time was really exciting." Jost's sketches and characters include Kristen Wiig's Bjork, Bobby Moynihan's Drunk Uncle, "Jon Hamm's Guide to Picking Up Women" and Vanessa Bayer's Miley Cyrus.
This season, Jost wrote Kate McKinnon's Justin Bieber, who mugs and poses on Piers Morgan Live while goofing on the host, badly ("I think I'm 40. Maybe I'm five. I don't know. My brain is broken.") "She was so great at it. It made me really happy, the audience was so happy to see her do it," he says. "It's a nice surprise. It's obviously not luck — she's super talented — but you try something and it's like, 'This could work, right?' and it works even better than you thought."
In 2012, Jost was promoted to co-head writer alongside Seth Meyers, who now hosts NBC's Late Night. "He called me into his office for a drink and told me then, which was one of the happiest moments of my life to get that title, which means so much for me as a writer, like the pinnacle of what I could do at the show," Jost says.
Jost now is SNL's co-head writer alongside Rob Klein. In March, Jost also joined the Weekend Update desk, filling Meyers' vacant seat next to cast member Cecily Strong. Jost says landing the gig was a "drawn-out series of semi-cryptic conversations" with producer Lorne Michaels. "He was inquiring about my interests and also sort of telling me, 'Well, you'll do that, you'll do 'Update.' And you're like, 'Wait, is this real?' It was so confusingly casual," Jost says.
Jost's "Update" inspirations include former hosts Norm MacDonald and the duos of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon (and Fey and Poehler).
"What I loved about Norm was there was a bit of rock 'n' roll mentality to him, where he would tell a joke that he thought was really funny, and if the audience didn't laugh, he didn't care. He stood by it," he says. "I loved Tina and Amy, Tina and Jimmy — they were such great personalities in addition to having great jokes."
Jost joined the "Update" desk with only a handful of episodes left before the finale. Jost is paired with Strong, who frequently rolls her eyes at him. (Jost pranked her with a "breaking nudes" segment, misheard as "breaking news," which cut to a clip of naked men break dancing.) Their rapport will come into focus as next season heats up.
"There was so much to figure out logistically," he says. "The first few shows you're just trying to figure out how cameras work, where your mark is on the desk. There's a learning curve to all that, which I feel more comfortable with at the end of the season, but there's a much bigger question of how to write for ourselves, both individually and as a team, and how to grow that dynamic."
SNL's 39th season saw several cast changes in addition to Meyers' departure and Jost's promotion. In one of the show's biggest cast shuffles in nearly 20 years, three repertory players left at the end of the 38th season, and seven actors joined the featured cast this year.
"I think we're still finding what the tone is," Jost says. "As nerve-wracking as it is to not have a tone yet, it's exciting to get to determine what it'll be, to try things and stand by things you think are funny and see if they work. To try those and try to not have fear about it either way is exciting."