About halfway through Colin Jost’s new memoir, A Very Punchable Face, he tells a story about the time he passed out drunk in a Helsinki cemetery. “I’m the kind of person who, once he gets sleepy,” he writes, “cannot stop himself from falling asleep on whatever surface or food is next to me.*” The asterisk leads you to a footnote—the book is riddled with them—where he recounts once falling asleep with his “face on a hamburger” at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, after the Saturday Night Live after-after-party. This, he explains, earned him the nickname “Burger Jost.”
Reading this, I was forced to confront something I’d long been aware of, but had spent years suppressing. I interviewed Jost on the phone about seven years ago, for a short, frivolous item in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine, and he had related the same anecdote. In fact, he was slightly more forthcoming in the interview than in his own memoir; according to my notes, still sitting in Google Drive where I left them, it was Jason Sudeikis who coined “Burger Jost.” The memory I’d suppressed was that Jost was an unusually generous and friendly interview subject, especially considering how asinine my questions were. This was back when he was just a head writer at Saturday Night Live: before I’d ever seen his blandly handsome face on my TV screen, before he became engaged to Scarlett Johansson, before I’d watched him deliver the joke news on Weekend Update—before I developed an unhealthy fixation on him, before I tweeted about him scores of times (in the pursuit of an ongoing bit where I pretended to see him as a righteous truth-teller), before I caught what I’ve come to think of as “SNL Disorder.”
I know for a fact I’m not the only one who has suffered from SNL Disorder. I’ve heard other people (friends, colleagues, podcasters) describe it in similar terms: a compulsion to watch the show, week in, week out, despite taking little pleasure in it. If pressed, sufferers tend to rationalize and say that they like to know what the average American finds funny. They might say they want to catch a glimpse of our waning monoculture before it slips behind the horizon—perhaps to finally figure out who Billie Eilish is. Maybe also they’re a little hungover sometimes on Sundays, indulging in some palliative Hulu. Like so many other institutions in American life, SNL chugs along almost regardless of its capacity to execute on its core functions. And, as with so much else, no one can seem to agree on what, exactly, has gone wrong—or, indeed, if anything has gone wrong at all.
For one reason or another, I was mesmerized by Colin Jost the very instant I saw his face on Weekend Update. He was just … this guy. The edgiest thing about him was his jawline. And his almost elementally anodyne bearing only heightened the Jost Mystery: It was never quite clear what he was there to do, why he, of all people, was installed at Weekend Update for what has proved to be a longer tenure than Norm Macdonald’s, Kevin Nealon’s, Amy Poehler’s, Colin Quinn’s, or even Jimmy Fallon’s. The Weekend Update chair is usually the launching pad for post-SNL fame or infamy, but Jost seems to have gotten comfortable there.
And who could blame him? In recent months, the anchor’s chair has transformed into a plush seat in his Montauk, New York, home, which he shares with Johansson. Though I overcame my chronic case of SNL Disorder earlier this year, I still see his likeness everywhere in my feeds: screenshots of him Zooming from home with a conspicuous guitar in the background, suspiciously well-timed paparazzi shots of him shredding two-footers in the Hamptons, Times portraits of him strolling pensively in the dunes. Considering all of these from the vantage of my sweltering Brooklyn apartment, I had to agree that there is indeed something about him, something in the face area, that lends the impression he simply drifted to the top of the food chain—from Harvard, to SNL, to head writer, to Weekend Update, to dating Scarlett Johansson, to hosting the Emmys, to getting engaged to Scarlett Johansson, to buying that home in Montauk—borne aloft on zephyrs of privilege and charm.
Of course, this is the precise reason Jost wrote the book. “Listen,” he writes in the introduction, “I know why people want to punch me.” He goes on: “I look like a guy who’s always on the verge of asking, Do you know who my father is? Even though my father was a public school teacher on Staten Island.” These two lines are the book in miniature: He knows he made a bad impression over these last six years, and he wants to patch things over by showing you the real Colin Jost. What’s surprising is the extent to which he succeeds. At least for me.
From his childhood in Staten Island all the way up through hosting the Emmys, the protagonist of Punchable portrays himself as a klutz and a grind, a try-hard who also frequently shits his pants (on the golf course, at a movie theater, at an office party), a straight-A student whose body is covered in stitches acquired from dumb accidents (a sledding incident, a surfboard to the face on the Jersey Shore, a VR-related mishap). But above all, Jost portrays himself as a millennial of the meritocracy, ascending its grueling peaks, accruing credentials and promotions, but never without a measure of impostor syndrome.
Jost attends Regis High School on the Upper East Side, which liberates him from the confines of his somewhat knuckleheaded Staten Island upbringing, exposing him to the city’s moneyed elite.* There, Jost competes on the speech and debate team, in a discipline called “original oratory.” This, we learn, is where he got his first taste of proto-stand-up, delivering “as many jokes as possible” hoping to get a judge who “wanted to laugh and not contemplate” the self-serious diatribes of his opponents.
Being funny in comparison to one’s stolid surroundings is the fuel for Rodney Dangerfield comedies, Da Ali G Show, and even Weekend Update; it is also the foundational idea behind the Harvard Lampoon, the student publication—and feeder program for comedy writers—that Jost eventually comes to run as an undergraduate. Again, he is eager to assure us that this didn’t come easily. “Unlike most clubs at Harvard, it’s entirely merit-based,” he writes. “It doesn’t matter if you grew up rich or your mom was on the Lampoon or your dad was Saddam Hussein.” It takes him three semesters and 80 rejected pieces to get one accepted by the magazine. He describes this day as the happiest of his life.
At Harvard, Jost studies Russian literature, an interest that leads him to travel to St. Petersburg to translate a short story by one of his favorite authors. The trip turns out to be a disaster: He’s lonely, his host family neglects him, he’s too depressed to get any work done, he whiffs really hard with some Spanish girls, culminating in an incident where he vomits a plume of absinthe. He returns home early, noting ruefully that the story remains untranslated. It was here, 90 pages in, that I had to admit to myself I was starting to like the guy.
On-camera Jost is an impenetrable wall of centrist politics and apparent self-satisfaction. That persona is a foundational part of the current Update dynamic: earnest, cautious, privilege-oozing Jost vs. laid-back and eye-rolling—but prickly—Michael Che. Book Jost is different. For one, he possesses interiority, quite a bit of it in fact, and this quality can frustrate even the most committed hater. He takes pains to convince the reader that his path wasn’t as preordained as it seems, but was actually psychologically and emotionally trying. And, as the Russian sojourn suggests, he presents as someone with a measure of artistic integrity, however deeply buried it may be under his thick lacquer of jockish contentment. In fact, he even blames his arrogant on-camera demeanor on his raging insecurities, which prevented him from feeling present in his early Weekend Update days: “I would get nervous and my reaction was to smile or laugh on camera,” he writes, “which was unnatural and probably came across as smug.” Though the pro-Jost politics of Punchable are obvious, this doesn’t render his pleading any less earnest. A true snake would never turn belly-up like this.
Or would he? This canny self-presentation leaves Jost’s own ambition a bit of a lacuna. His agents pop up on occasion to nudge him this way and that, but he’s not always terribly forthcoming about what it is that Colin Jost wants. And though he’s happy to share with you the intimate details of every humiliating injury he’s suffered, whenever Jost takes you inside the walls of 30 Rock, the juicy details dry up. What was in his packet that got him accepted to SNL? We don’t know; what we do know is that Lorne Michaels left Jost waiting for six hours, then said something cryptic at the end of his interview, which confused the rest of the staff, leaving Jost to wait for another 30 minutes in an office while the situation was sorted out. Does he have any issues with cast members or writers? Not that you’ll find out about; many of the passages about his colleagues read like acknowledgments. The only host to come in for any abuse is, not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who, upon meeting Jost, allegedly said: “I like you. You got that good face.” Jost pretends to hate the generally beloved Aidy Bryant in an unfunny ongoing bit that calls to mind Chuck Norris jokes and Dos Equis ads. (“Aidy is not my enemy, because the word ‘enemy’ implies a level of respect she has not earned. Aidy, this is a serious message: The monster store called and they want your personality back.”)
At one point, Jost suffers what sounds like a panic attack outside Lorne’s office as he waits to receive the boss man’s notes after a table read, and as his heart races, he considers his own death, and how he might be memorialized on the upcoming broadcast. SNL seems like a challenging workplace for a whole bunch of reasons, and yet Jost often hides its most interesting machinations behind what I came to think of as an Epic Jack Handey voice, deployed for the purposes of professional obfuscation. For example, instead of explaining how or why Lorne promoted him to the head writer position, Jost inserts a rather unfunny scene of hard-boiled detective patter between himself and Seth Meyers that completely elides the matter. He barely mentions Weekend Update until, all of a sudden, you’re with him 15 minutes before he goes live for the first time. When he finally offers to describe what Lorne is “really like” to the reader, he deflects yet again: “Solid build. 6’2”. Jet-black hair. Has an accent you can never quite place. Hands that have clearly seen the handle of an axe.” It goes on like that for about a page and a half.
Jost seems to think his Catholic guilt is the driving theme of the book; he points it out multiple times, once in all caps (“HAVE I MENTIONED I WAS RAISED CATHOLIC?”). But what he really reveals about himself is that he’s a consummate organization man—both beneficiary and victim of the Peter principle. He goes from Regis to Harvard (where he rowed crew) to the Lampoon to SNL, carrying with him an eagerness to please his betters, even if those betters don’t always sound particularly deserving. In a chapter on his and Michael Che’s disastrous Emmys hosting gig, he admits that he erred on the side of caution, abandoning promising bits—“Steve Harvey Weinstein”(!!)—in the name of making things run smoothly. “We wound up with a show that ended right on time,” he writes, “at the expense of having almost zero comedy.”
An unusual number of contemporary SNL sketches work like this: Two normal people find themselves stuck with someone who is odd, and the audience-surrogate “normal” characters comment on how outré the other person is, repeatedly. The comedy comes less from the reversals of expectation that defined some old-school SNL sketches (“the caveman is actually so competent at practicing law he uses his apparent defect in lawyerly fashion”), or irony (“motivational speaker is actually a total loser”), or even the identification of a certain type (“overweight, enthusiastic sports fan from Chicago”), than from zany performances, buttressed by repeated reminders that something is a little off here. “David S. Pumpkins” is perhaps the most successful example of this tendency, though it rests atop a mountain of lesser efforts.
The show’s other mainstay is the ripped-from-the-headlines cold open, which, under the Trump administration, has become ever more closely ripped from the headlines. I understand the incredible time constraints the writers are under (even more so after reading Punchable), but SNL frequently errs on the side of caution, larding these sketches with recognizable sound bites, desperately mashing together real-world references, often at the expense of sustaining a recognizable comic premise. It’s a little like having the news read to you in “dumb guy voice.” Impressions of Republicans have become so spiteful they’re more ritualistic than funny, impressions of Democrats so saccharine they leave you feeling ill. You could watch this drift happen in real time: Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton began as a power-mad lunatic and ended with the infamously wistful “Hallelujah” performance.
There’s a way of seeing the show’s aesthetic travails as completely beyond its control. Born in the ’70s, it found its groove satirizing a stale, TV-made monoculture—inane shows, corny commercials, straight-laced newsmen—and since then it has witnessed the complete dissolution of that arrangement. As media has splintered and hybridized in unimaginable ways, SNL has been spread so thin it’s become practically translucent, a skein of satirical latex stretched over the culture. In recent years, funny sendups of omnipresent-but-niche artifacts (the podcast Serial, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang”) have seemed to fall flat with a studio audience that simply might not have known the underlying reference material.
The other thing these SNL tendencies have in common is that both are present to varying degrees in A Very Punchable Face—no surprise there. Jost is the head writer after all. But if he once struck me as the center point of the show’s ills, he now strikes me as a side effect or epiphenomenon. He also seems like a solid dude: funny, self-effacing, a good storyteller. (Apparently Zadie Smith agrees.) The resolution to the Jost Mystery offered by the book is hardly triumphant, but I found it humanizing: He’s a charismatic, hardworking guy cursed by his ability to ascend the ranks slightly beyond the limits of his talents. He writes repeatedly about his Weekend Update critics, people like me, and how much pain we caused him. “I took all the criticism to heart and I was really, really sad for about two full years of my life,” he writes. “I thought, Shit, I’m trying my best and people really don’t like me. Maybe I should just quit so everybody on Earth can celebrate.” He says he used this anger to focus, to make himself improve. This hurt to read, until I realized I may have assisted in his betterment.
Absolution secured, I was ready to abandon my disordered grievances. That is, until I came to the end of the book, to the prestige Jost had been saving all along, an epilogue that begins with a quote credited to his agents: “Sooo … when are you leaving SNL?” Jost, who once worked as a Staten Island Advance reporter, buried the lede under 302 other pages. “In terms of ‘family friendly jobs,’ SNL ranks somewhere between long-haul truck driver and Somali pirate,” he writes. It’s “an amazing and fulfilling life—to a point. And I think that after fifteen years, I’ve finally reached that point.” Soon he’ll be off to parts unknown (Hollywood), free at last of the confinement—and support—of his institutional walls. The book was phase one in the creation of Free Agent Jost, and he needed to do the one thing all those years on camera could not: make people like him. Well, it worked. I felt a little like Agent Kujan in The Usual Suspects, only realizing I’d been had once Colin’s already down the block, stepping into a Town Car with ScarJo behind the wheel.
Correction, July 31, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Jost earned a scholarship to Regis High School. The school is free for all students.