Saturday Night Live Head Writer Colin Jost on Stand-Up and Sketches

Chances are you've never heard of Colin Jost. There's a good chance you've never seen him, either, but if you've tuned into Saturday Night Live anytime since 2005 you've certainly laughed at his jokes and probably find him funny -- even if you have no idea who he is.

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Hailing from Staten Island, the 31-year-old sketch writer and stand-up comic boasts a by-the-book comedic resume that is paying off in big way, from reigning as president of the renowned Harvard Lampoon (a catapult for television mainstays like Conan O'Brien and B.J. Novak) and a spot on John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show to traveling the Just For Laughs Festival circuit in Chicago and Montreal. With his first film Staten Island Summer (which he wrote and has a minor role in), slated for 2014 and a hot celebrity girlfriend -- he's dating Rashida Jones, according to Us Weekly -- the comic is well on his way to facial recognition.

Jost, who will be performing five shows in three days this weekend at Stand Up Live in Downtown Phoenix, called us one morning from his New York City apartment. We asked him what things were like behind the scenes at SNL and about the differences between sketch writing and stand-up. He asked us where the best nearby place to eat after 10 p.m. was. (We said Hanny's.)

Looking at your career path, it seems like sketch comedy came before stand-up for you. Was that the case? Not that long before, but yeah, I guess it did. I had done little things and some acting, but stand-up came after I'd been writing and doing sketch stuff.

What prompted that? That transition to adding stand-up to your repertoire? A desire to mix things up, to do something different. After I'd spent a couple years writing more, I missed performing and wanted to do it. It was just really fun to go to clubs or small shows in New York and go up and do it. It started as almost a hobby, literally, and it became more of a 'whenever I had time' thing.

So, does your schedule allow you to take off -- for example, this weekend -- three days and go across the country to do a bunch of shows? From what I've heard about the Saturday Night Live production, that seems like a lot of time to be able to take off. Well, we're off this week and that allows this to happen. We're off for a whole lot of the summer, so I tend to do it then -- in terms of going away and touring. But while I'm working I try to still do [stand-up] three or four times a week, after work, in New York. It actually feels like a luxury to get to travel to do it for a weekend somewhere, like going to Phoenix. It's very exciting because I don't get to do it that often.

Even with shows like 30 Rock and all the memoirs, I feel like there's still a bit of mystery behind the production of SNL. Can you walk me through your process in terms of taking a sketch from idea to implementation on a Saturday night?v vc We have a pitch meeting Monday with the host [where] we'll pitch them ideas. It's a nice process and they give you a lot of freedom. You can write whatever you want and it will be read at the read-through table, where the cast comes a vnd the host is there and everyone reads it aloud for the first time. The only thing you're really accountable for is having stuff at that table. But you can kind of [already] have an idea and usually run it by friends you work with, or sometimes you collaborate with cast members -- it gets collaborative at different phases.

Then, if you feel like it's worth it, you write it, and if it works... you know, there are probably 50 sketches that get written on Tuesday night. About 10 or 12 are chosen for dress rehearsal. And that's hard; that's a hard leap to get to dress rehearsal. After dress rehearsal there's usually three sketches cut. So, the whole week you're just trying to get it better. If you have an idea you like, you're trying to figure out how to write it and once you hear it read you're like, "Oh, there's this stuff I'd like to change." Then you see it blocked on the floor and you go, "Oh, there could be this other element to it now." And then you see it with costume, and then with music, and it's sort of a building process that you have to keep monitoring.

Do you have a favorite sketch from this season so far that you've done? I was proud of the Miley Cyrus parody of her video, the government shutdown. It was called "We Did Stop." It was, you know, about the shutdown using one of her videos. They all blur together. There's a 50 Shades of Grey screen test this year that I wrote and then just this last week I worked on the opening with Kerry Washington.

I write for Bobby [Moynihan] for "Update" -- Drunk Uncle is a character I write for [him]. And I wrote a bit for Kate [McKinnon] for "Update" that I liked a lot, that I thought she was really good at, where she was a mom who was reviewing Grand Theft Auto.

So, do you have a favorite cast member or reoccurring character to write for? Or one where your writing seems to click with their delivery? I really like mixing it up in that way, too. I like writing with different cast members. You know, they're all really good and that variety keeps me excited -- to write for different people and rotate around. Half the time, the things I write are mostly the idea I like the most. That's what I'm drawn to, and then we figure out the best casting for it. It'll go both ways, but a lot of times it's that. There's also times when a cast member has an idea for something or wants to work on something and we'll come at it from that angle.

Has your approach changed since you first started on SNL at 22? Yeah, it has. When I first got the gig I basically wrote as much as I possibly could each week. I would probably write five or six sketches a week, just because I wanted to get better at it. I put in a lot of hours and volume in terms of pages that I was writing. Through the years I think I've gotten better at paring down and knowing what was a good idea before I write it all out. These days I write maybe three or four in a week, but the ideas are better and I have a better sense of what will work on the show.

I've also learned to write for performers; that's a skill you learn as you're there. And you're a producer. The nice thing on our show is all the writers produce sketches, so you learn a lot about every element of production and how to know what you want from wardrobe, design, music, everything. You get an eye and an interest for that.

Yeah, I'd imagine that influences the way you would write from there on out -- thinking of all the little parts that go together. How did you get the job? I submitted a packet of writing like, right around when I graduated school -- which I don't think was even the right time. I forget; I submitted it in like, the fall or something, which is not even when people apply. I doubt anyone read it ever, or if they did I never heard back. Then the summer after I graduated I submitted a packet, you know, like five sketches, and I was very lucky that the people who read it liked it. I wrote for The Harvard Lampoon in college. There was someone who worked there who I contacted and was like, "Hey, can I submit these sketches?" He gave me the information and was very helpful, a guy named Eric Kenward.

Tina Fey was the head writer [of SNL] at the time, and Andrew Steele, and I was just lucky that they liked something in it. They brought me in for an interview, and that was really nerve-wracking. Then I met with Lorne [Michaels], which was also nerve-wracking [laughs]. I was very fortunate that they had a spot and that they liked something that I wrote.

So, did you always want to pursue comedy? Were there many comedians you admired growing up? Yeah, I did always like comedy. I think I liked writing and performing, and I didn't really think about what it would become. I was interested in journalism. That's how I started and what I did in high school and college. People I looked up to were probably like Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Jim Carrey, Tim Meadows...

I mean, SNL was always a thing I watched and really cared about. But when you're starting out it's so hard to get a job as a writer anywhere, you kinda can't think, "Oh, that's the only place I want to work." [Though] in retrospect, it's the place I would have most wanted to work. That's pretty incredible that you've had the opportunity to work with a lot of these people through SNL. I can't think of another job that's quite like that. Oh, it's really cool. I remember Jim Carrey hosted a couple of years ago and ... you start meeting a host every week, so it's not like the same excitement constantly. It always is fun, but when he came it was meeting your childhood idol. I remember thinking, "This is really cool!" He was so funny and I was like, "Oh, this is the best." I just remembered talking about him with my friends from growing up and how cool it would be to meet him or do something with him.

I'd imagine that stand-up has a different pressure added to it. If a sketch fails, it could be the delivery or a disconnect with the audience, but if you play to a dead room when you're doing stand-up, it's all on you. Does that change the approach in how you write for your stand-up? I started just writing jokes or ideas that I liked that weren't quite sketches. I started thinking about writing for my voice, and that's the hardest thing as a stand-up: to develop what your voice is. I feel like I still am. Once you have that, it's easier to plug in ideas and run them through. I started by just trying things on stage: it can work or not work, and I've just enjoyed that process. Do you tend to migrate toward different subject matter in stand-up as opposed to what you might use for sketches? Or does it not really matter? Not really. It is really whatever I end up writing. There's not really a particular subject or style I aim for. I think now I try to start talking about my own perspective on things a little bit more, or start talking about things in my life a little bit more -- or as much as I can. But in general, if anything interesting comes to me, I try to make it funny.

Catch Jost all weekend, with shows at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 7, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, November 8, and 7 and 9:45 p.m. on Saturday, November 9, at Stand Up Live. Tickets are $15 to $17. VIsit or call 480-719-6100.

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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard