The mission of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” has been pretty clear. Two ersatz anchors satirize TV news by holding forth on any number of fake news items and making jokes about the news of the week. Now, after being part of the show for its 40-plus seasons on air, and making stars out of everyone from Chevy Chase to Tina Fey, “Update” has been doing something different – covering actual breaking-news events.
In “Update’s” last two weeks, Colin Jost and Michael Che, the segment’s anchors since the fall of 2014, started things off by riffing on presidential debates that wrapped just an hour or two before “SNL” went on the air. Clips of the events were shown. Last Saturday, Jost poked fun at the boos that greeted Donald Trump last Saturday night. “Don’t you guys know, you can’t boo Donald Trump,” Jost said to the “SNL” audience. “He doesn’t hear boos.” Viewers next saw what looked like a scene of ’60s-era teens cheering on their favorite rock ‘n’ roll band.
In a world filled with real-time tweets and non-stop alerts, it was only a matter of time before “Weekend Update,” which paved the way for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s wry news stylings, would need an update all its own. Responding to events that have happened on the same day of the “fake” newscast is a way for “SNL” to keep viewers watching as the show pivots between its often eyebrow-raising opening half hour and its post-midnight comedy. While many of the tweaks are taking place behind the scenes, they might be considered seismic by “SNL” standards, as “Update” is something of an institution. On a program that varies widely from broadcast to broadcast, it is one of the few elements of the show upon which viewers can count on seeing regularly.
“It’s rare,” acknowledged Dennis McNicholas, who worked alongside Tina Fey as an “SNL” head writer and returned to the show about a year ago to supervise “Update,” of the nod to breaking news. Surprises could become more common as Che, Jost, McNicholas and a team of staffers work from behind the scenes to shake up the format. “We’d sure like to push it even further,” he said.
The show has had reason to focus on “Update,” which is showing new spark after Jost and Che experienced a rocky launch when they first took over the desk. They came together under unusual circumstances, and have different strengths: Jost serves as more of a traditional “Update” anchor while Che likes to editorialize and even ad-lib, depending on how the live crowd reacts to jokes. When they set out together on “Update,” Jost had only co-hosted “Update” with Cecily Strong for part of the previous season, and Che, once a writer on the show, had returned to it from a stint at Comedy Central. Social-media opprobrium over Strong being removed from her chair after a short stint opposite Seth Meyers added another wrinkle to the challenge of setting the duo up as the segment’s new faces.
The two were the beneficiaries of some valuable advice that they have recently taken to heart. Bill Murray, the actor and former cast member, stopped by the “SNL” offices in the fall, and suggested the duo start reading the “Update” script together to each other. “You just might find something there,” Jost recalled Murray telling them. “It was very simple advice,” Jost said, but “it helps us find asides or ways we can help each other tighten our jokes, or punch them up with a phrase.”
Indeed, the “Update” crew is doing more communicating these days, said McNicholas, who has dismantled a longstanding routine. In the past, “Update” writers worked on their own “and pounded out fast lines.” Now there is more collaboration, he said, part of an effort to find ways to spur cross-talk between Che and Jost. In one instance, Che might start riffing on Donald Trump and racism, then pass things along to Jost, who continues talking on the subject.
“Everyone wanted there to be more interplay between them, I think,” the producer said. “They looked isolated from one another.” Reaching that goal was tough, said McNicholas. Lorne Michaels, the executive producer and guiding force behind “SNL,” doesn’t want “Update” to drift into becoming a sketch that viewers might see on other parts of the show. “Any sort of scripted interplay we had trouble getting that off the launching pad.”
The answer has come in the form of working on little transitions. Che might rib Jost in a joke about Black History Month, for example. And many of the characters that appear during “Update” seem to provide a little background about the two hosts’ fictional personae. An amorous Leslie Jones makes fun of Jost’s straitlaced on-screen personality, while Bobby Moynihan has played Riblet, Che’s kooky childhood pal.
“We are both individuals getting more comfortable,” said Jost during a recent interview. “This year, we’ve both tried to write a little bit more together, to think about it, do a back-and-forth and talk it through, the two of us, the way we would in real life. Then we try to figure out how it fits, how to structure it for the segment versus writing individually.”
The group has to move cautiously. The segment has been through several iterations — for a time, when Michaels had left “SNL” for other ventures, even the guest hosts would do a segment called “Saturday Night News” — but looks more or less the same as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, when it served to tweak the rigid format of the broadcast networks’ newscasts. The desk is spartan. The anchors lampoon the offbeat and the officious. And the team is supposed to wrap things up in under 12 minutes. “There is a tradition we are beholden to, that we have to respect,” said McNicholas. “It has become its own institution.”
Even so, there are new tricks to be tested. Che has grown interested in acknowledging the reaction of the crowd in the “SNL” studio. “We try to make them kind of more involved,” he said. “It feels more natural to include them, and it makes the room a little smaller.”
“Weekend Update” isn’t known for riding breaking news the way cable-news networks do, but McNicholas suggests the team has that capacity. “We are still paying attention” after the bulk of the jokes have been written for the segment during the week, he said. “We are always capable of doing that, and have our ear out for anything all day Saturday.
As the new timing and techniques boost their chemistry, Che and Jost are building their own segment in a much larger TV pantheon. Careers have been made behind the “Update” desk, but the two hosts say that isn’t top of mind as they perform their Saturday-night duties.
“Comedy doesn’t work when it’s done that way,” said Che. “You just have to do what makes you laugh, and brings the audience along for it.”