Imagine a world in which the cable news networks had nothing to say. It’s become unthinkable in 2018, what with the relentless churn of headlines. But that fantasy is what fuels Michael Che and Colin Jost, the anchors of “Saturday Night Live’s” immensely popular “Weekend Update” segment, as they contemplate taking on yet another challenge — hosting the Emmy Awards for the first time. The two men, who’ve made their mark with political zingers, are focusing on finding new sources of material to mine for their humor.
“What if Anderson Cooper was like, ‘I got nothing,’” posits Che over drinks at Bar SixtyFive at Manhattan’s fabled Rainbow Room.
“Sorry,” says Jost, mimicking the CNN anchor. “What else? What else? No?”
Of course, having no CNN, no “Face the Nation,” no Fox News Channel, would likely put the duo out of work. It might also make their hosting gig a hell of a lot easier, given that political news is more likely to rile up audiences than make them laugh. The pair remain tight-lipped about the exact concepts they are considering for Emmy night but admit they’re willing to get into politics if there’s something going on in the country that warrants it.
“It’s kind of hard to avoid it. It’s in the front of everybody’s brains,” says Che. But he insists the material that works best is “always what’s funny to us and what’s the most fun to do that we think we can score with. That’s a priority.”
It’s the approach they bring to “SNL,” and they aim to replicate that for their gig at the Microsoft Theater on Sept. 17. “If we have a political joke that we think works and that makes sense at the time, we will absolutely do it,” he says. “If there’s something purely silly, we will absolutely do that as well.”
The plan calls for Jost, 36, and Che, 35, to serve as the central hosts, with various “SNL” associates lending a hand both onstage and behind the scenes, and not just because the show itself is up for 21 nominations. A sketch involving Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen is believed to be in the works. And a bevy of “friends” of SNL — including Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, John Mulaney, Andy Samberg, Neal Brennan and Mitch Glazer — have been recruited to offer ideas about what might be done.
That’s all credit to the man behind the entire Emmy production: “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels, who’s taking the show’s reins for the first time since 1988. Getting him on board meant getting access to a rich Rolodex of current and past “SNL” stars as well as top comedy writers, says Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. “I’m just trying to co-opt his whole organization to the benefit of the Emmys,” he adds.
The team will certainly have its work cut out for it. Awards shows still capture big crowds, to be sure, but significantly fewer people have tuned in with each passing year. Last year’s Emmys, hosted by Stephen Colbert on CBS, featured a landmark moment in which former White House press secretary Sean Spicer came out onstage after he had been ousted from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Social media exploded — yet the ratings barely budged from 2016’s totals, which represented a new low.
The same fate has befallen all other kudo-fests: Viewership for this year’s Grammys plunged more than 20%. The audience for 2018’s Oscars was the smallest in the glitzy event’s recent history.
The reasons for the ratings plunges aren’t hard to figure out, particularly for the Emmys, which take place in an era where viewers are hopelessly splintered across broadcast, cable and streaming. “It used to be when there were just three networks, or even in the early HBO days, that there were very few shows that we could declare to be the best of the best,” says Mark Lashley, professor of communication at Philadelphia’s La Salle University. “And now all of these things are up to a personal standard, not a national one.”
And then, of course, there’s the ideological divide that seems to be growing ever wider, with increasing backlash from viewers when celebrities seize the awards spotlight to make political or social statements.
But Jost and Che are confident that “Saturday Night Live” carries with it a broad enough reputation that people from coast to coast (and yes, in between) will want to check out their awards telecast, though they’re making no predictions. “To try to engineer, to get to a number is impossible, or just not that interesting,” says Jost.
Whatever material the team chooses “will be of the moment,” vows Michaels, who echoes the emphasis of entertainment over politics. There is also work being done to tamp down the long running times that are so typical of awards programs, he says. “Most of the decisions we have been making have been about how to move faster.”
Still, let’s not kid ourselves: Che and Jost made a name for themselves with their razor-sharp barbs, which are often aimed in the general direction of the White House, which is sure to factor into their Emmy routine. “There could be a huge Mueller investigation playing two days before,” says Jost. “We might have to tell a joke about President Pence,” says Che. “Who knows?”
A read-through of any recent “Weekend Update” dispatch tells the tale. “Experts say that Trump’s new tariffs will directly hurt U.S. manufacturers. But why would Donald Trump care about what ‘experts’ say?” Che cracked in April. “Experts also said that he couldn’t win the presidency and that eating four bags of McDonald’s a day will kill you. But somehow there he is. Healthy as a fat horse.”
Acknowledges Michaels of their brand of comedy, “Often, there’s a sharper edge.”
Those aren’t the sorts of jokes one might have heard 30 years ago; the last time Michaels supervised the Emmys, John Forsythe was the host. Along with “SNL” writers such as A. Whitney Brown, Al Franken, Herb Sargent and Robert Smigel, Michaels tapped “SNL” alumni Nora Dunn and Jan Hooks, who delivered a performance as the Sweeney Sisters, a sibling lounge act that was a signature “SNL” segment at the time.
Greenblatt, who was a young Fox executive when the 1988 show aired, thinks a broadcast festooned with “SNL” antics could offer kudo-casts a boost. “We take the awards shows very seriously,” he says. “They are really hard to pull off and make fresh in today’s world. We have all seen so many of them.”
Greenblatt suggests NBC has a decent track record for managing awards programs. The network is the current home of the Golden Globes telecast, which saw overall viewers dip just 5% this year — significantly less than the decline felt by the Oscars or the Grammys. For past Globes telecasts, NBC has tapped the team of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to good critical reception, along with Meyers and Fallon. Bringing “SNL” into the mix creates something “fresh and different,” says Greenblatt. He thinks the tone of the Emmy show should be largely celebratory but recognizes that a few nods to the news cycle are inevitable. “There will be things mentioned that are about politics and that sort of thing,” he says. “But I think the emphasis will be on television and pop culture.”
NBC executives are fully aware that they need to create an outsize event, even though many of the series being nominated may not have millions upon millions of viewers. But that’s a benefit, says Michaels, who believes an awards show flourishes when it celebrates nominees or even makes viewers aware of something they hadn’t heard of before. “When it loses that,” he says, “it becomes something else.”
“If we have a political joke that we think works, we will absolutely do it. And if there’s something that’s purely silly, we will absolutely do that as well.”
Jost and Che have worked diligently at “Update” under a social-media microscope that didn’t exist for many of their predecessors. No one was able to run to Twitter in the 1970s, for instance, to wring their hands over Dan Aykroyd — in character — saying, “Jane, you ignorant slut,” to Jane Curtin during the “Point/Counterpoint” parodies of that era. When Jost and Che first came together on-screen in the fall of 2014, 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. Some critics found their early repartee rocky.
Both acknowledge they at first felt daunted by their “Update” duties, which in the past have been held by such comedy luminaries as Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller and Norm Macdonald as well as the teams of Fey and Fallon and Poehler and Meyers. Meyers’ run at “Update” was so successful that it helped him land his own program, and he incorporates some of his “Update” stylings in the opening to NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
For Jost, who had been writing at “SNL” since 2005, nothing prepared him for being in front of the camera. “Getting the confidence for your new thing takes time,” he says. “It was kind of scary and weird, and, you know, I had seen how it was already. I had to figure it out in a different way, closer to what I do for stand-up. You don’t always have the confidence to do that here initially.”
Che also felt he had to work to hone his voice. “Initially, you’re always just doing what your heroes have done, or some variation on it,” he says. “And after a few reps, you start to get the confidence to say, ‘Now, what are the jokes I want to tell?’”
Over the months, the two added their own twist to the segment. Rather than following the old formula of each anchor reading separate jokes, Che and Jost developed more interplay, passing funny remarks on the same topic from one to the other. They followed advice from Bill Murray, who suggested they start reading “Update” scripts out loud to each other, and worked with Dennis McNicholas, a former “SNL” head writer who was a colleague of Fey’s. Suddenly, things started to click, with Che and Jost salting quick humor from their reactions on top of the jokes. The two even brought a version of “Weekend Update” to MSNBC that followed coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, along with a well-received stand-alone “Weekend Update” series that ran during the summer.
Even though Sept. 17 will mark their first step on the bigger stage of an awards program, Che and Jost say they have helped previous hosts craft jokes. And they are bolstered by having so many savvy comedy hands pitching ideas to them. “When you are on TV, a lot of friends and family come up to you and say, ‘Oh, man, you know what you guys should do?’ And it seems like such a terrible idea,” says Che. “But when it’s someone like John Mulaney or Seth Meyers, it becomes a lot more pleasant. And that’s kind of the case we are in.”
They say they aren’t trying to get tips by watching tapes of, for instance, Fey and Poehler hosting the Golden Globes. “I don’t think that’s as helpful,” says Che. “I feel like when you watch other people do their thing, you start to kind of set rules and parameters for what the job is as opposed to just doing what you would want to see and what you think is funny.”
Because the two aren’t afraid to pick at thorny cultural issues, their live “Update” audience sometimes seems shocked by their one-liners. But the mistake viewers make, they say, is thinking that comics believe everything they utter.
“People think you hate things you joke about or you love the things you joke about,” says Jost. But “you can make a joke that’s completely independent of what your deep thoughts on something are.”
Che echoes the sentiment, arguing that most comedians have no intent to wreak emotional havoc on their audience. “Not every joke is a statement. Some jokes are just jokes,” he says, recalling the perception of past comedians who told dirty jokes: “The joke was dirty; you didn’t say the comedian was dirty.”
The two are mindful that what they say reverberates across social media, but they also see a need to keep things in perspective. Posting on Twitter is “almost like chucking pennies off a skyscraper,” says Che, who has sometimes sparked controversy with his online remarks. (He recently spurred debate with an Instagram post, for example, suggesting Louis C.K. had a right to earn a living with gigs at comedy clubs.) “You don’t mean to cause an accident, but that stuff can really cause some damage when it lands.”
And so when Jost and Che take the stage at the Emmys, they are keenly aware they’ll have to navigate a landscape filled with land mines. As satirists, they’re expected to make fun of people and issues, but they don’t want to send internet trolls off on a pearl-clutching tangent. For any comedian working today, that’s a pretty tall order.
“We don’t necessarily know all the rules yet, I’m sure,” says Jost. But they’ll certainly learn them all on Emmy night.