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Colin Jost Knows What He Has: ‘A Very Punchable Face’

Though Colin Jost has worked at “Saturday Night Live” for nearly 15 years, it wasn’t until this past spring that he was able to watch his show the same way its audience does: from home on a Saturday night with a sense of anticipation and uncertainty.

The circumstances were not ideal. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, with its staff members sheltering in place, “S.N.L.” finished its 45th season with three remotely produced episodes assembled from footage that cast members recorded on phones and other devices.

Until now, Jost said he had avoided rewatching “S.N.L.” from home, as a coping mechanism to survive the emotional ups and downs of making the show.

But with this ad hoc production process, Jost, a longtime “S.N.L.” head writer and an anchor of its Weekend Update desk, said he was genuinely surprised by his colleagues’ creations.

Speaking by phone from Montauk, N.Y., where he has been these past four months, Jost told me, “It was really heartening to see people make things, to have no idea what they would be and then have them really make you laugh.”

At “S.N.L.” in particular, he said, “you don’t get to step out of your own work and have that experience often.”

Jost, 38, has been in a retrospective mode for a while now, having been working on a memoir of his life and trajectory at “S.N.L.,” where he has spent nearly his entire career. Not that his time there has been especially tumultuous or scandalous. But Jost knows many viewers believe he has coasted on his annoyingly clean-cut looks that, despite his underlying earnestness, can give him an air of insincerity.

As he writes in his memoir, “Some of you think you know me, but you’re actually just thinking of the villain from an ’80s movie who tries to steal the hero’s girlfriend by challenging him to a ski race.” (In acknowledgment of this, he titled the book “A Very Punchable Face.”)

In pre-pandemic times, Jost’s memoir, which Crown will publish on July 14, might have come across as a victory lap for an author contemplating new horizons. But now the book reads like his appreciation for a comedy institution that he hopes will come back in its traditional, chaotic form as soon as possible.

As exhilarating and as frustrating as it was to make “S.N.L.” from home, Jost told me, “You finish watching and then you’re just sitting on your couch. It’s a lot less fun than getting to celebrate or commiserate with your friends.”

In early March, when such things were still permissible, I met with Jost in his office at NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters. With no particular sense of urgency, we talked about “A Very Punchable Face,” a book that is partly an account of his awkward coming-of-age in Staten Island and partly a recap of his relatively smooth career path from the Harvard Lampoon to “S.N.L.” to Weekend Update, which he anchors with Michael Che.

When I asked him why he had written a memoir — a step rarely taken by “S.N.L.” alums, let alone by someone still working at the show — Jost told me he felt he had reached “the end of what felt like a defined chapter in my life.”

Referring to his relationship with the actress Scarlett Johansson, Jost said, “I’m about to get married. I now almost have a stepdaughter who I love and is a big part of my life now. I’m starting to do more and more outside of the show. It felt like the right time to look back.”

Within days, “S.N.L.” announced that it was suspending the rest of its live season and seemed unlikely to return. Gradually, however, its producers began strategizing to write and perform the show from home, a plan that at one point would have leaned more heavily on contributions from the Weekend Update desk.

But, said Jost, “We felt like everyone needed an outlet who was working at the show, and I think people wanted to see the whole cast.”

While his castmates were assembling their sketches from whatever they had on hand or could order online, Jost discovered he was grossly underprepared for his own weekly segment. “I had four shirts,” he said. “I had to really, consciously think: Did I wear this shirt last Weekend Update?”

He also had to be provided with a new iPhone to record his contributions because, as he explained, “I have such an old phone, I don’t know that it would have shot video at a resolution that was acceptable for human consumption.”

He helped write scores of Weekend Update jokes and a sketch where Brad Pitt played Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. But Jost probably gained the most attention from these episodes for a stray acoustic guitar that was prominently placed onscreen in his first at-home appearance.

“Scarlett had that guitar forever and it was in the quarantine,” Jost said sheepishly. “She was like, ‘Maybe I should learn to how to play,’ and just left it on the couch. It was so perfectly framed there and then everyone pointed it out and I was like, how can I be so dumb? I had no awareness of it at all.”

If Jost followed one of the most reliable industry routes to arrive at “S.N.L.,” his colleagues said he was never content to coast on his pedigree and earned his keep there every week.

“He seemed like he was a child,” said Andy Samberg, who joined the “S.N.L.” cast in 2005, the same year that Jost started there as a writer.

“But,” Samberg added, “it didn’t seem like, professionally speaking, he was out of his depths in the slightest. He was someone who was game to write with anybody and he was also a guy who would lock himself in his office and write something hilarious by himself.”

Che, who became Jost’s co-anchor in 2014, said that they found it challenging at the start of their partnership to put a personal stamp on Weekend Update and escape the influence of numerous celebrated predecessors.

“The first season or two, the only thing you’re thinking about is how to do the segment the way other people have done the segment,” Che said, adding that he and Jost were seeking a way to do it “just for us — there was no template for it.”

What has succeeded for them, Che said, are recurring bits like the one where they read jokes sight-unseen that they have written for each other (and which Che often writes to make Jost sound racist).

“I guess if you look at Colin and you don’t know him, if someone told you that he was a racist, you’d be like, yeah, maybe,” Che said. “He couldn’t be further from it, which is why it’s so funny. I literally try to come up with the worst possible things for him to say, because there’s nothing really bad to say about him.”

Jost gets a bit more introspective in “A Very Punchable Face,” looking back on a childhood in which he did not begin speaking in full sentences until he was nearly four and an adolescence in which he struggled with his weight.

As he told me, “My confidence throughout my life was always about being creative, feeling like I was funny or smart. I never feel confident about my physical appearance. There’s still that chubby kid inside of me.”

Jost hastened to add that, in the book and in life, “I’m not really ever looking for sympathy from anybody. If people hate me, I understand it. I also hate myself sometimes.”

He is, of course, reverent in his treatment of “S.N.L.” but suggests that it was a mistake to have President Trump host the show in 2015 while he was still a polarizing candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Trump’s much-derided appearance, Jost writes, “was a wake-up call for our show. It became clear that he wasn’t like any other political guest. He was a uniquely divisive and dangerous candidate. And that episode of ‘S.N.L.’ has not aged well, politically or comedically.”

Jost himself has been criticized for his approach to Weekend Update that sometimes tends toward bland centrism — say, a series of jokes mocking the backlash that Amazon faced from New Yorkers in 2018 when the company announced plans to build a new corporate campus in Long Island City, Queens. (Amazon canceled those plans a few months later.)

Reflecting on this routine, Jost told me, “I think about my family — on Staten Island, if someone said there could be 25,000 new jobs on Staten Island, everyone in my family would say, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’” He added that he was angry that elected leaders had not done a better job of reaching out to communities about Amazon’s plans and said people were right to point out “all of its downsides.”

Anyone who picks up his memoir expecting the author to dish on his personal life with Johansson, the “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit” star, will likely come away disappointed. Jost made no apologies for the absence of this material.

“I’m a private person,” he said. “I like preserving that part of my life as its own space. I like talking about anything, essentially, but that’s just one part of life that I like keeping for us.”

Near the end of the book, Jost writes that he is “preparing mentally to leave ‘S.N.L.’ in the future” and getting ready “to sleep semiregular hours and write without the constant swirling pressure of a live show every Saturday night.”

But when we spoke in June, Jost sounded less committed to this hazy exit plan. After working on the at-home episodes, he said, “It made me even more appreciative of my job and my friends at work, the energy and the joy of doing the show. That makes me want to stick around more.”

In the coronavirus era, Jost said it was difficult to make future plans with any sense of foresight or optimism. “It hits you in waves, of having hope or feeling normal for a second, and then lurching the other way,” he said.

But when he thought back on his first mass Zoom conversation with his “S.N.L.” colleagues, as they planned for their first at-home episodes, Jost sounded like he was looking forward to many more such interactions at the show.

“We’d all been in these weird bubbles,” Jost said. “You start thinking, how can you ever do comedy in times like this? And then you’re around funny people and you have no choice. Everyone just has it in their bones.”

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