At ‘Morning Joe,’ Anchor Trio Navigates While ‘Washington Is on Fire’

At 'Morning Joe,' Anchor Trio Navigates While 'Washington is on Fire'
Courtesy of MSNBC

In the era of the Trump-dominated news cycle, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist have to balance hot political talk on “Morning Joe” with the audience’s occasional need to cool down.

It hasn’t been easy. The anchors have in recent years sporadically become part of the news cycle. President Trump has called out Brzezinski and Scarborough in tweets, and “Saturday Night Live,” part of the same company that owns their home network, MSNBC, has lampooned the program and the personal lives of its anchors (Scarborough and Brzezinski married in 2018). The show has also raised eyebrows in TV-news circles by having Scarborough and Brzezinski hold forth outside the show’s New York home studio.

None of it appears to have upset their audience. Over a five-season span, starting with TV’s 2014-2015 cycle and ending with 2018-2019, the viewers advertisers like best – people between 25 and 54 – have increased more than 113% at “Morning Joe.”

The three anchors, who have been together since “Morning Joe” launched in 2007, say the rapport they have with each other helps them get through all of it. They agreed to speak to Variety as part of this week’s cover story on transformation in morning television, in an interview that has been edited for length and clarity. During a quick break from their broadcast, Geist, Brzezinski and Scarborough discussed how Geist keeps things from getting too overwrought; how they react to the “SNL” parodies; and how they grapple with an intensifying news cycle. And they reveal that the most important rule of for success at “Morning Joe” is not to overthink what might spur success at “Morning Joe.”

Variety: The three if you have been together since the show started, which is not the norm in the current world of morning TV. But has the job gotten easier or harder as you’ve worked such an intense news cycle?

Mika Brzezinski: The relationships have gotten better, and we have gotten to know each other over time, and each other’s families. I think that’s what makes the show work, in that it’s just easy to work with everybody.

Joe Scarborough: Trump has so dominated everything that we don’t get to do quite as much other material that we’d like to do. When Washington is on fire, it’s hard to talk about 12 tips for, you know, grooming your Shetland pony.

Willie Geist: I didn’t know Mika when we started. I knew Joe a little bit. I had done a few hits for his ‘Scarborough Country’ show. Like any good marriage or whatever, you know each other’s cues. You know where somebody is going with a line of questioning or a joke, and it just fills in and it feels totally natural…I always say it’s not the format. The format is like a radio show. We are just sitting around with friends talking and ad libbing, reacting to each other. It’s in the people. It’s in the chemistry.

Scarborough: The NPR show “Car Talk”- I’ve always said it’s not about the cars, it’s about the talk. And that’s the same thing here. The three of us. ..The chemistry is Willie, Mika and me, and I’ll tell you where I feel it and where Mika feels it is on Monday morning ,because Willie works six days a week and he’s on Sunday ‘Today” and his family actually has to see him on one day, but we really feel it when we wake up on Monday morning.

Brzezinski: Mm-hmm. We hate it.

Variety: Morning programs were once known for easing people into their day. Part of the appeal of this show is that there are blunt conversations. Has it changed things?

Brzezinski: The news has definitely gotten harder.

Scarborough: Mika and I for the first time had to talk to each other before we went on the show and basically say, ‘Let’s keep it down to a simmer. We can’t say the world is coming to an end every day. We can’t predict that locusts are going to descend from the heavens every day and tear the flesh off everyone in Washington every day….Willie has really been the anchor and never quite gone overboard. That’s been our greatest challenge.

Brzezinski: You come on the air sometimes in such a defensive crouch because you can’t believe where things have gone. So I say, again, the show itself, the relationships are so easy. We think that’s why it works, but has the job gotten harder? I think the news has gotten harder to cover. The value of the truth has been diminished by President Trump himself and it’s become a more difficult landscape to keep track of all the developments and put them into context There is actually not enough time n our three hour show to do that.”

Scarborough: We know the president is watching or the senators are in the gym watching or House members are watching. The media is watching. I don’t know, I feel a little more responsibility than I may have before Trump.

Variety: What do you think viewers will and won’t tolerate these days?

Scarborough: I actually think the news has gotten so bad and so numbing that we deliberately talk about baseball during the playoffs. We talk about other things to ease in, There are some mornings you just have to go right in there and do it. But I’ve got to say there are no calculations. I do what I feel like doing. We all do what we feel like doing.

Brzezinski: There’s not much of a strategy.

Scarborough: There’s not much of a strategy other than ‘Auggh. I don’t want to read about another Trump tweet. I don’t want to go straight into bad news.’ Let’s talk like friends around the breakfast table and we will get into the news, Like today, it took us a while to get into the news because we were having so much fun talking to one another.

 Geist: One of the things you hear from people all over the country is ‘I love your show. I find the news exhausting. It is a hard thing as a viewer to wake up every morning. It’s important, but it is exhausting.’ So we are going to cover every detail of what happened, but you can say ‘OK, so we know this is going to be another long day with impeachment hearings, but you know what? This is a big country and there’s a lot of stuff going on, did you see the playoffs last night?’ It’s nice to puncture that exhaustion a little bit and say, ‘Here’s something we share. Here’s something we have in common.’

Variety: Joe and Mika are out of the studio more frequently. Since this show hinges on keeping a panel conversation going, how do the three of you navigate when part of the core team is somewhere else?

Scarborough: Since we have been doing this, we have noticed a lot of [on-screen graphic] ‘boxes’ are going up, even when people are in the same studio. They are putting them in ‘boxes.’ When we are off set, people aren’t seeing the side of my head. I am talking to you directly and I am telling you exactly while looking right in your eyes what I think this is going to happen today. And you can see it on the other networks, a lot of ‘boxes’ are going up and people are talking straight to camera when they are in the studio with the host.

Variety: Do you think people know or care whether you are in Florida or New York?

Scarborough: We have found not only do they not care, in fact, sometimes ratings are better when we are not on set…People are interested in what you have to say, not how lavish your set is.

Variety: In hindsight, did President Trump’s tirade against you on Twitter help this program or hurt it?

Brzezinski: Oh my gosh, I don’t think it helped.

Scarborough: The big tweet?

Geist: I don’t think it was good for the show, but it proved that Donald Trump has some obsession with Joe and Mika.

Brzezinski: It actually proved there is a line. Democrats and Republicans, people from all walks of life were like, ‘No. That’s a no.’

Geist: If that tweet came out this morning, in this era, now, would Republicans come out and defend Mika the way they did? I don’t know.

Brzezinski: I think they’d start going, ‘ Well, what did she do?’ I think they’d start playing the game.

Scarborough: That was the first time I had seen a lot of Republicans criticize him as president.

Brzezinski: They would not do it today.

Variety: Your personal lives have been on display in recent years for obvious reasons. Has that taken any sort of toll on your doing the show or on your lives in general?

Scarborough: No, not at all. Listen. It only affects us in one way. We have six children between us.

Brzezinski: ‘Saturday Night Live’ is kind of a bummer.

Scarborough: That’s a great example. That would be something that, you know, when we first saw it, we would laugh at it, ‘Oh, this is great.’ And we would stop about three minutes in and go, ‘Oh, our children are watching this.’

Variety: Do you get a heads up when they are going to parody you?

All three: No!

Geist: Those are the ones where you wake up early on Sunday morning and you have 1000 texts and you’re like, ‘Uh oh.’

Brzezinski: It’s hard to go to sleep.

Scarborough: So the first time, we got all these calls. They woke us up. The second time, it’s 11:30 and we go to sleep at 7 after we watch Lawrence Welk and we have milk and crackers. So I had the milk and crackers and the Maalox is on the side table and at 11:30 our phones start ringing. Mika was asleep. I woke up immediately. …I was turning off all the devices. I didn’t even look at them. I just knew we were on ‘SNL.’ I said ‘I’m not going to wake Mika up. We will just talk about this in the morning.’

 Variety: Ratings have soared since Trump came into office. Do you think there is more room to grow? Do you worry that if there is a change in the White House that there could be a different dynamic?

Brzezinski: I don’t think we think about these things. If we did that, it would be a little stilting. We just plop down and enjoy it. There has never been a moment when we have said, ‘Can we talk about the show and make some plans?’ Can you imagine us debriefing ever on the show?

Scarborough: I don’t know anything about business other than off track betting in Mozambique and betting on the dogs, but one thing I know about the cable business, I don’t know if broadcast is this way or not so much and maybe I’m not supposed to say this, but so much money that cable networks make are on the subscriber fees. We know one of the reasons people watch MSNBC on cable outlets is because of ‘Morning Joe.’ So you know, when I was on ‘Scarborough Country,’ I looked at the ratings every day and I was just, you know, well , because everyone wanted to fire me for four years, but it just doesn’t matter here. We are not going to calculate, and it just doesn’t matter who is in the White House. We are going to do our job.

Geist: What’s ‘Morning Joe’ going to do when Bush is gone? What do you do when Obama is gone? Every president that’s ever been is going to change, and we have been pretty steady.