TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are Colin Jost and Michael Che, the anchors of "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update." They're also preparing to host the Emmys Monday night, and they're nominated along with "SNL's" other writers for best writing for a variety series. Last January, they became head writers of "SNL." Jost had held that position once before but gave it up after becoming an update anchor. "SNL's" new season begins September 29. Let's start with a clip from one of last season's final episodes. Here's Jost and Che on May 5.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
COLIN JOST: This Stormy Daniels payment has turned out to be the loudest hush money in history. And during his "Kings Of Dementia" comedy tour, Giuliani...
JOST: ...Giuliani also said that the hush money was, quote, "funneled through a law firm." Dude, funneled is not typically a word innocent people use when talking about money.
JOST: No one says, yeah, my grandma funneled me $5 in my birthday card.
MICHAEL CHE: Rudy Giuliani is claiming that President Trump only learned a week ago that he was reimbursed in Michael Cohen's payment to Stormy Daniels in $35,000 installments. I have a couple questions.
CHE: Like, what kind of billionaire pays for stuff in installments?
CHE: You're the president of the United States. Why are you paying for sex like it's a NordicTrack?
CHE: And how did y'all land on $130,000? That's such an oddly specific number. I asked Stormy to come on "Update" and explain it, but her agent said no because if she's seen on camera with a black guy, her price goes down.
GROSS: Colin Jost, Michael Che, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your writing nomination and on hosting. Before we get to other things, I want to talk with you about, regarding the Emmys and "SNL," you know, I'm thinking as we record this Wednesday afternoon, East Coast time, it's earlier than that on the West Coast, where you are. There's a hurricane, like, a catastrophic hurricane, heading toward the Carolinas. And that's something that you might have to - like, assuming the hurricane is anything like what they're saying it will be, that's something you'll probably have to address at the Emmys. And, you know, it's really awkward to have a celebration when people are suffering like that. So is that something you're thinking through? Like, how are you going to deal with it?
JOST: Yeah. I don't know. I mean, it definitely crossed my mind yesterday. I mean, you never really know what's going to happen leading up to a big event because you're planning it for so long and then something could dominate the news that day. But when it's something that's a tragedy, again, we don't know exactly what's going to happen yet. But the biggest thing, I think, sometimes we face at "SNL" is you want to show as much support as you can. And, you know, you want to use that moment to maybe just actually raise money for people who are there because you have a mouthpiece to tell people, go online, give money. The people in that room have money, generally. And, you know, you hope you can make it a moment just even to get support for those people.
GROSS: So the last time we spoke, Donald Trump was a presidential candidate. He wasn't the president. It was just, like, days before the election. So the first show after the election, Dave Chappelle hosted. Chris Rock made a guest appearance. A Tribe Called Quest were the music guest. These were all people with, like, strong political points of view. And instead of an opening sketch, the opening was Kate McKinnon dressed as Hillary at the piano singing Leonard Cohen's song, "Hallelujah." And she ended it by saying, I'm not giving up, and neither should you. Can you take us behind the scenes a little bit and tell us what it was like, after the president was elected, trying to figure out what the first show of post-election Trump era should be?
JOST: Well, the sort of, like, amazing move from Lorne was that he had offered him that date, like, at the end of that summer. So I think he just sensed that whatever was going to happen in the election was going to be this huge moment, and he wanted to make sure whoever the host was would be someone that could deal with that and who, at that moment, people in America wanted to hear from. And that's - I mean, Dave is basically the ideal person to do that. So he had the foresight to book that way in advance.
And then that night, you know, the election night was insane because you - I don't know, I assumed, like, most people probably thought Hillary was going to win. And you were watching the results come in. And, you know, people were having all kinds of reactions around the office. It was very intense. And you're then trying to write comedy and, you know, not everyone even attempted to write comedy. Some people, understandably, were very upset.
And Dave was the perfect host at that moment because the next day when we were there for the table read, you know, he was just like, the reason you're in comedy is to react to things that are going on and make them funny, to find humor even in whatever is the weird, darkest things. You have to figure out how to still put on a comedy show 'cause that's why you're doing this. And I think that was just the right kind of motivation for everyone to try to put a show together by Saturday that was still a comedy show. And, you know, I think that was reflected in his monologue really well.
GROSS: So you all watched the election results at the office?
JOST: Yeah. I mean, we were there. Tuesday night is our writing night. So we're basically there all night. You're mostly there all night until the table read, which is Wednesday afternoon. You kind of go straight through. So normally, it would have been a later start than normal because you're watching election results roll in. But then it was even more delayed because people were processing what was happening. I mean, it was just very shocking. Whatever - you know, whatever you expected going in, I think it was still shocking.
GROSS: So I'm asking some of these questions 'cause you're head writers as well as "Update" anchors. Who came up with the idea of Kate McKinnon as Hillary singing "Hallelujah?"
JOST: Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider and Kate had an idea of doing some kind of song. I forget what the original - I think they had a different song originally. But they had the idea of doing something in that vein. But I don't know if it was just Kate or if it was a whole group from the cast. I forget the original version or original origin of it. And then I know Lorne had thought of "Hallelujah" because Leonard Cohen had just - I think he had just died that week or...
GROSS: That's right.
JOST: ...Before? I forget the exact timing. And I think he just thought that might be a song that would be - that would seem sort of doubly appropriate in some way.
GROSS: So getting back to "Update," when you do "Update" on Saturday night, it's really Sunday morning on the East Coast 'cause by the time, you know, you're on, it's after midnight. Every late-night comic has done bits on the week's news. And so, like, you're kind of, like, late to the game in that respect. So how do you find things that are going to feel fresh at the very, very end of the week or the very beginning of the new week?
CHE: Fortunately, there's not a lot of people that I think think like me. So I never really have a problem with finding interesting takes because I feel like when you kind of do your own thing, it's not going to bump. You know? If I have a thought and five other comedians have that same thought then I'd feel like it's not even worth saying. You know?
GROSS: What's an example of a joke that you can say that you feel like other comics can't? Can you think of one?
CHE: Well, nobody else is calling the president a cracker on national TV.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter). That got you a lot of love.
CHE: Yeah. It sure did.
GROSS: What kind of reaction were you...
CHE: And also...
GROSS: ...Expecting? Yeah. Go ahead. No. I'm kind of being sarcastic. You got it from both sides for that.
CHE: Of course.
CHE: But to me, that's interesting. That's compelling TV.
CHE: 'Cause there's a lot of - I think there's a lot of people that felt that way and was probably thinking it, as well. And I think there's a lot of people that understood where that emotion was coming from. Sometimes - you know, it's the same with Kate at the piano. People watching it, and some people liked it. Some people didn't. But the thing is you believe Kate felt that, and that's what makes it interesting. So it was honest. You know? It really came from her. It really came from a real place.
GROSS: So - yeah. Go ahead.
JOST: That week, too - I was just remembering, too, that week, I forget if we worked on it later in the week together, Che, too. But on election night, too, then we woke up after the next day or, like, you know, in our office. But I was - Neal Brennan was there, too, working on the show. He's a writer. He worked with Chappelle on "Chappelle's Show." But we wrote a sketch that was in the show that week that was about the election results coming in and people watching and sort of a time lapse of how the night went as the results came in. And we wrote that essentially in response to what was happening in real time in our office that night before because, you know, the discussions were - you know, it was sort of like early joking around. Like, uh-oh, Hillary didn't win Alabama. I bet - watch out. And then it got to, like, wait; she's going to lose Michigan. It was like - it was that kind of thing.
And it was perfect for Dave and Chris Rock, who came in and did it, too, later in the week because they were not surprised. They were like, yeah, of course. This is how America's going to go. And it was - they could play that attitude in the sketch. And it kind of reflected what was actually - what we were all actually figuring out in real time that night.
And I think when we read it at the table on Wednesday, which is, you know, the day after the election obviously. When we read it at the table read, it didn't even necessarily play that hot because people were also kind of - it was very raw, so no one really wanted to relive what had just happened the night before in sketch form. But then by the - by Saturday, I think people were ready to at least laugh about it even if it was in a cathartic way. And I think that was another one where, like, Dave and Chris were perfect for that kind of - to come in and have that perspective.
CHE: It's very helpful to have a veteran or legendary comedian like Dave where you kind of - you know, I think one of the things that years in comedy gets you is trust. And people understand how honest you are. And I think it's a little bit more - it makes people more comfortable when they know that you're about to speak. And it's something that we all write toward. And hopefully someday we will create that kind of relationship with the audience.
So coming from other comedians, it might have even been a really, really tough plane to land. But Dave being who he is and people understanding how measured Dave is as a - just as a voice and as a role model I think - coming from him, it worked perfectly because I think people believed it. People said, yeah, I could see that there are people - black people and people of color that seen this happen and was probably like, yep, America's right on time with this one, you know?
CHE: I think that was kind of the tone that he was trying to - that was kind of the point. And it was kind of cool to watch because not - like I said, not a lot of shows can get away with that. And not a lot of comedians can get away with that, and so that's what makes our show special.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Colin Jost and Michael Che, the anchors of "Weekend Update." They're head writers on "Saturday Night Live." And they're preparing to host the Emmys on Monday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY Z'S "IT'S ALL THE SAME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Colin Jost and Michael Che, anchors of "Weekend Update," head writers at "Saturday Night Live." And now they're preparing to host the Emmys on Monday.
So what is the job of head writer?
JOST: Great question. I mean, we would love someone to explain it to us.
CHE: Yeah, it's a great title. People think - when they hear head writer, they think, oh, that's the guy that writes everything and delegates. But it's really not. It's really more of kind of a supervisor role. But we're competing to get stuff on just like any other writer, you know? There's no - you don't walk around with a big old cigar or anything like that.
CHE: It's not like the brochure.
JOST: No, it's very - and very often, the - some of the time - usually the writers that are - there's writers that are getting the most on that aren't the head writer...
JOST: ...Because sometimes as a head writer, you're stuck in meetings for a while. You're talking to the host in a different way, or you're more hearing ideas than you are getting to write your own. So you still definitely contribute as a writer. And part of it I think is sort of trying to lead by example and just write things you think are funny.
And then the other part of it is trying as much as you can to help newer writers if they have an idea that you think could be really funny, and they're new, so they might not totally know the structure of it or how to cast it or that kind of thing - just to help them with that because that's what happened to us when we were new. People who are more senior, you know, really looked out and tried to make what we wrote better 'cause otherwise, it's hard to get things on when you're new.
CHE: Also, you're - more so than any other writers, you're thinking of the entire body of the show. Like, you're thinking of the cold open. You're thinking of the monologue. You're thinking of the first sketch out of monologue. You're thinking of, you know, what would be interesting, you know, what bumps. And things like that, as a head writer, you kind of have to consider more of the show as a whole as opposed to when you're a writer, you're just thinking about your piece and if you have a tag for somebody else's thing or whatever. But as head writer, you kind of have to think about the entire show more so than...
JOST: In the beginning - the first part is usually the part that's figured out last...
JOST: ...Which is what makes the job stressful...
JOST: ...You know?
CHE: ...'Cause the news cycle is so quick now that what seems relevant Monday probably won't by Saturday.
JOST: Yeah. You know, Lorne always talks about how the first 15 minutes of the show are the most important because that's when you're - if you're tuning in, that's your real chance to hook a viewer.
JOST: The monologue is such a tricky thing always because you want to show off who this person is maybe in a way you haven't seen them before. And that's a thing we often have to at least help figure out. And then the cold open is such a different animal, and that's constantly shifting. And, you know, the number of weeks where the cold open and the monologue are both even vaguely figured out before Thursday - it almost never happens. If it does, you just cross your fingers that those will hold up by Saturday because those are - those feels like a luxury.
GROSS: The cold open is usually where the political sketch is. And if, like, Alec Baldwin is doing Trump, that's where it is. And usually, like, if Kate McKinnon is doing Jeff Sessions, that's where it's going to be. So I can see why that would be kind of last-minute. And speaking of Alec Baldwin, like, do you know if he's coming back?
JOST: We truly didn't - someone said to us the other day, oh, you're coming back as head writers. And we truly - no one ever told us (laughter). So we do not know. We try to just - we, like, try to figure out what we're doing on our own and then we wait and see. But, you know...
CHE: It's kind of like being on, like, a playoff team. Like, sometimes you might get 40 minutes. Sometimes you get 10 minutes. You know, sometimes you start, and certain combinations work. So you never really know. It's more so about, how do we execute the best show? So it's a weird place of - it's always in the moment.
GROSS: So what...
CHE: So it's kind of hard to answer that, you know?
JOST: There's times you don't learn about, like - you don't learn about a new credit or something you're getting until someone in your family sees it in the scroll at the end of the show.
JOST: And you're like, oh, I guess that kicked in this week or, you know...
GROSS: Did that happen to you?
JOST: You know, you just...
CHE: Well, I didn't know I had - I didn't know I was a writer on the show until, like, three weeks after I was a writer on the show.
JOST: What do you mean?
CHE: Well, I remember Seth was like, you know you're hired for this evening.
CHE: And I had no idea. I thought I was still - because I came...
JOST: Oh, that's right.
CHE: ...In on a guest contract, so that was, like, week to week. And I was working there for about two weeks. Like, I was already there, and they were like, you know you're hired, right? Like, you work here.
CHE: Seth, who was head writer at the time - I had no clue. No one told me. And this was in the middle of a production week.
JOST: It's not always a great communication place.
CHE: No, yeah.
JOST: But - and part of that is - I mean, it's really just the velocity of the show sometimes. There's so many moving pieces that not everyone is told everything all the time. And the reality is we would basically be doing a similar job regardless of what our title was.
JOST: Like, we were - when we were added as head writers with Kent and Bryan, or when Chris and Sarah had been head writers, too - like, you're doing effectively the same job. You're in most of the same meetings because we've been there for a while, and you're - you would do the same hard work. And you would do the same - you would care in the same way about the show, regardless of what your title is.
GROSS: My guests are Colin Jost and Michael Che, anchors of "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update." They're also head writers on the show. They're hosting the Emmys Monday night. Here's a clip of Che on "Update" from last season's finale.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
CHE: A report has found that 86 percent of people arrested in New York for marijuana possession are black or Latino. Well, duh. We're the only ones they search. That's like saying the only people that have STDs are the people that take tests for STDs. We're not the only ones that carry drugs. If cops searched white dudes in cargo shorts as much as they search black dudes in hoodies, prison would look like a Dave Matthews concert.
CHE: You know, people are always talking about needing diversity in Hollywood. You know where we really need diversity? Jail.
CHE: Forget about #OscarsSoWhite. How about prisons is too black...
GROSS: We'll hear a clip from Colin Jost on "Update" after a break. And we'll talk more with Colin Jost and Michael Che. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Colin Jost and Michael Che, the anchors of "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update." They're preparing for the new season, which starts September 29. They're also preparing to host the Emmys Monday night. They're nominated, along with "SNL's" other writers, for best writing for a variety series. Last January, they became head writers of SNL. Jost had held that position before but gave it up after becoming an "Update" anchor. We just heard an excerpt of Che on "Update." Here's Jost from last February after President Trump's first State of the Union address and Trump's tweets about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
JOST: President Trump also tweeted that he had the highest ratings ever for a State of the Union address, which - get this - wasn't true.
JOST: And this time, even Fox News fact-checked on him. You know you're running your mouth too much when even your hype man is like, yo, that ain't exactly accurate, though.
JOST: So sorry.
CHE: That was good.
JOST: Oh, thank you. Then in a new interview, President Trump stated that he is not a feminist. Was he getting accused of that a lot?
GROSS: Michael Che, one of the things that you've said that's controversial is, you were talking about Louis C.K. doing a set, you know, kind of testing out new material, showing up as a surprise to the audience. And there were a lot of complaints. Like, the public isn't ready to see Louis C.K. yet. And you tweeted that, you know, he should be able - it wasn't tweeted. It was on your Instagram.
You said a lot of what I read says that C.K. shouldn't get to be a famous comedian anymore because to them he's still winning, isn't that strange? Meaning, he can be shamed, humiliated, lose millions of dollars, lose all of his projects, lose the respect of a lot of his fans and peers and whatever else that comes with what he did. But since he can still do a comedy set for free at a 200-seat club a year later, it means he got off easy. That's how coveted fame is.
After the response you got to that - you know, a lot of negative responses to that - how do you feel about what you said?
CHE: I think it was extremely ill-timed. I mean, the thing about when you write anything, you kind of surrender the context and you kind of surrender the way it will be presented to people and how people will - the tone it will take, you know?
So I think if you - you could cleverly make that to seem like a terrible thing. And you can make it seem like what it was, which was just me saying I just think it's interesting what the power of fame and what the power of stage, how it's perceived, you know? I just think it's extremely interesting. And that was like something that was kind of selfishly a thing that came to my head immediately when I read those stories.
GROSS: What do you mean selfishly? Meaning, because you're famous?
CHE: Well, it's selfishly because I work in this business. And you realize that you're extremely lucky to. And people are very, very - it's a privilege. You know, it really is a privilege to be able to work. It's a privilege to be able to do this and have a job that you really, really care about and that people love and respect. And they will take it away from you, you know? Whether you like it, they will take it away from you. And they remind you, like, hey, you know we will take this away from you.
And I think that's kind - that was what I was talking about. I wasn't really even talking about Louis necessarily. I was using him as an example because it was something that reminded me of, wow, this is kind of a special thing that we get to do. And he could go through whatever he went through, which seems scary as hell, deserved. And people will still say, well, you get to - you still get to do this thing. And that bothers me.
GROSS: I think...
CHE: Them saying that. Not me, obviously.
GROSS: Yeah, I think what's bothering a lot of women is that if he - he doesn't seem to have done anything as of yet to change. He said he's going spend a lot of time just, like, listening and thinking.
GROSS: And if there's evidence that he's changed, he hasn't presented it yet. And I think that was what was bothering a lot of people.
CHE: Yeah. No.
GROSS: Like, he's back on stage. But, like, what's different? What's changed?
CHE: None. You know what? And I'll - it is so crazy because I was just talking about this with somebody. But that's kind of - I don't agree. I don't disagree with any of that. Like, I truly think him going on stage and not addressing anything was insane, you know? And I don't fault that he - I don't fault the attempt of making it right. I do fault the execution of not making it right, if that makes sense. You know, like I think - I think everybody has the right to defend themselves. Everybody has the right to take the opportunity to clarify or apologize or make any bad situation right. But when you don't do it, you can't - it's indefensible. You know, like what can you say? And I think that he missed a big opportunity to make that right.
GROSS: So is this - Michael Che, is this one of the reasons why you're not on Twitter anymore? What we were talking about was Instagram. But still, is this - is this...
CHE: I don't like Twitter because it's - yeah, it's - no one's as angry as they say they are. No one's as happy as they say they are.
CHE: It's just kind of this land of hyperbole that I don't - I have a platform. Like, I have - we go on TV. And we're lucky enough to be able to tweet to a camera and speak. So it's not for me. I just don't like - I don't like the way it makes people feel. I don't like the way it makes people gang up on other people.
Justly or not, it's just uncomfortable. It's - I don't like it at all. It's just a cesspool of everybody just yelling at each other. And the anger and - anger and, like - and I don't know what the opposite of anger is, but I've never experienced it.
CHE: Anger. Anger and the opposite.
JOST: Peace. Joy. I don't know.
CHE: Anger and extreme joy are the only voices that get heard on Twitter, you know?
GROSS: One thing I have to say is that if you're following terrific journalists on Twitter, you get the news really quickly. You get links to great articles really quick.
GROSS: Like, that's a terrific function that Twitter serves.
JOST: Well, it also used to be - it also used to have a great function because you'd follow comedians or your friends who are really funny. And every time you go on, you'd see like a great joke. You know, and it was...
CHE: Everybody is just so scared to death on there, man.
CHE: It's a - I don't know, Terry. We got to - we have to talk about this more.
CHE: I'm going to get you off Twitter.
CHE: It's just - it doesn't make sense.
CHE: It really doesn't.
GROSS: I don't tweet. I just read good journalists. And...
CHE: And you know why?
JOST: It's lost that...
CHE: And why don't you tweet?
CHE: And why don't you tweet? Because you know that if you say one thing just in the heat of...
GROSS: You know why I don't tweet?
CHE: Yes, please.
GROSS: There are several reasons. One is I would be writing a tweet and then I'd be thinking, let me think, let me sleep on that - and then edit it in the morning.
CHE: Yes. Right.
GROSS: And that's not the spirit of Twitter. And I don't have the time. I spend so much time working on the show.
GROSS: Tweeting would just be another assignment. It would just be more work. So I like reading journalists. I like reading comics. But I don't want to tweet.
CHE: You're one - and I totally agree with you. It's like you have to think of it as if - this has to be able to stand up when I don't have control of it anymore. This statement - it's in black and white.
JOST: It's a full press release.
CHE: It's a press release.
JOST: Anything that used to be authentic.
CHE: You're just doing mini press releases on something that you thought about for 30 seconds. But the crazy part is it lulls you into thinking, oh, this is just an interaction. This is a casual conversation. And then next thing you know, you're held to that forever. Like, if you said this one thing, that means that's what you believe. Ten years from now, if you want to run for president, but wait a minute - you believe this thing because you said it in 2009.
JOST: Right (laughter).
CHE: And people don't want to hear anything else. There's no - it's insane that people base articles on this. They base what jobs you should be able to have based on something you said flippantly in a conversation getting the news as it was happening.
JOST: Having a...
CHE: It's just an insane responsibility.
JOST: Having Twitter on your phone is like being with a journalist that hates you 24 hours a day.
CHE: Yeah, seriously.
JOST: Anything you say will - on that can be spun. I mean, truly that's what you have to think of it as.
CHE: Yeah. It's like walking around with the district attorney, and everything you say is just going to the district attorney.
CHE: And you're like, why am I doing this?
GROSS: I see you both have very strong feelings about this. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Colin Jost and Michael Che, anchors of "Weekend Update," head writers of "Saturday Night Live." And they're now preparing to host the Emmys Monday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Michael Che and Colin Jost, the anchors of "Weekend Update." They're also head writers of "Saturday Night Live." And Monday they'll be hosting the Emmys.
So it was very controversial when "Saturday Night Live" had Donald Trump - candidate Trump guest hosting the show. And you were doing Update back then. And we talked about that a little bit the last time you were on. But...
JOST: Right, right.
GROSS: And there were protests and everything that you were having him on. Would you have President Trump on the show?
CHE: I mean, to me, I don't mind anybody being on the show because I think something good can come out of anything in comedy, you know? But I wouldn't go for it. I don't know what the win is. Like, I don't think people find him funny.
GROSS: What was it like to work with him before he became president?
CHE: It was like working with any unfunny, insecure dude, you know, just like a - you know?
CHE: That's another thing. Like, when you see him as a human and then he's in this kind of larger-than-life chair, it kind of - I don't know.
GROSS: Michael, you said that when Trump was on the show during his candidacy, that he seemed insecure. What made him seem that way?
CHE: Well, most people are insecure when they come on our show just because it's a scary thing to do. You know, it's very hard to be on live TV. It's very hard to be around so much - a very talented cast that's used to it, and you kind of got to keep up with them. And the speed of the show is very intimidating. And I think it humanizes a lot of people. It humanizes most people that host the show, so - and also, you always think you're funny until you're in front of an audience, you know, especially an audience that's not necessarily your audience.
GROSS: But did he do particularly things that made him seem insecure?
CHE: There's always a code of we know how hard the job is, so, you know, it's almost doctor-patient privilege...
CHE: ...When you host the show.
JOST: It's HIPAA.
CHE: Yeah. It's kind of that where we don't kind of, you know, spill everybody's tea, as the kids say.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about the Mother's Day show when each cast member's mother comes out and talks about their child, who's the cast member, except for Michael Che's mother. So on Update, Melissa McCarthy, playing your stepmother...
GROSS: ...Comes out wearing this, like...
GROSS: ...Pink T-shirt that says, like, world's proudest stepmother on it - or stepmom. And so I hope it's not putting you too much on the spot to ask. How come your mother wasn't there?
CHE: My mother doesn't really like cameras. She doesn't even like still photos. So it was kind of hard to get her to sign up for live TV. And it's - to me, it's mind-boggling with anybody. Just - I know how nerve-wracking it is for us as professionals to be up there on home base. But for someone that's not even a professional comedian to be like, sure, I'll do that for Mother's Day and try to land a joke, it's kind of cool to see. And it was a lot of great moments. But my mother just doesn't like, really, like, TV and cameras. But turns out Melissa McCarthy is a much better comedian than my mother...
CHE: ...Is what I'm trying to say. Who knew?
GROSS: Would you describe the sketch - because it's too visual to just, like, play the audio.
CHE: Melissa McCarthy comes out as my mother on Update. And she's very, very, very motherly. She's wiping crust off my face. And she's a little bit smothering. And she's extremely supportive. And it's a little annoying. But also it's my mom, so it's very - it's pretty close to my actual relationship with my mother probably.
JOST: If I could brag about Michael's acting in it, I thought he was especially good playing opposite Melissa. And I thought it was - he played it in a...
JOST: ...Very real way that you would want to try to keep on the positive side of it while also being annoyed by it.
CHE: You know, I'm not even going to let anybody give me credit for that. It's Melissa McCarthy flying, so you just sit. It's like everything's better with bacon. Everybody's funnier with Melissa McCarthy...
CHE: ...Doing the heavy lifting, so I'm just sitting there watching most of the time.
GROSS: So I think it's interesting how comedy is changing in the sense that, like, there were so many comics for so many years - and maybe there still is at comedy clubs - telling, like, sexist jokes about sex and about women. And I think - I hope that it's more difficult to do that now.
CHE: Well, I think it's hard to - being in comedy is kind of hard 'cause, like, I'm exposed to so much comedy. And most of the country and most of the world knows maybe five to ten stand-up comedians, so - and they base all of stand-up - of the thousands of stand-up, they base everything based on, you know, who's popular at the time. And it's usually only five or 10 guys that are extremely popular and crossover mainstream.
But as somebody that works in comedy, I think for years - and even studying comedy as a kid, like, there's always going to be jokes that was funny 20 years ago that won't be acceptable years later. I mean, as a black person, you know, there's stuff that doesn't fly - you know what I mean? - that would have. There used to be comedians that came out in blackface that was white, you know? Like, that's completely not acceptable anymore.
And I think that's always going to be the case. More people - especially now that media is so much bigger and more people have voices, they can say, look; even with the Louis situation - like, yeah, Louis can go out there. But also, people have the right to come out and say, you know what? We don't want to see and we don't want to support anybody that supports him. And that's your right, too. And I think that's you know, that's something - as a performer, you have to deal with people can reject you. Just the way you can comment on everybody, they can comment on you. And that's the way it is, you know? You kind of got to take what you get from that.
JOST: And there's two things - there's two elements to anything like that is - one is, how does it fly among your peers? You know, if someone's a comedian and they're doing jokes like that now, it's not even your peers - your peers would probably just be like, why? (Scoffing) Like, what? That doesn't seem, like, well, I mean, they might not even say that to you. They might just not really want to hang out with you or really think that that was a great - whatever, you know. That's part of it. And the other is just audience.
GROSS: So I think I need to let you go and get back to preparing for the Emmys. Just a question - are you nervous?
JOST: I was going to say yes.
CHE: No. It's not - you can't be nervous. It's just - it's comedy. It's, like, literally comedy. Even if it's bad, that's pretty funny too.
CHE: Worst-case scenario - it's terrible, and it's funny that it's so bad. So it's - you know, it's nothing to be afraid of. Nobody - like, this isn't a real - this isn't a real job, you know?
JOST: That's a good - I didn't really think about...
CHE: If I was a fireman, I'd be...
CHE: ...I mean, firemen should be afraid.
JOST: I'd be very nervous.
CHE: Brain surgeons - but, like, for comedy, we're literally going out there, and we're just going to tell some jokes. And people are going to like them or not. But it's nothing to be afraid of.
GROSS: Colin, you have...
JOST: Well, thank you. This is actually a good...
GROSS: ...Fireman in your family.
JOST: I do.
GROSS: Do you see it that way, too - that, like, fire is something to be afraid of? Comedy isn't worth getting really...
GROSS: ...Worried about because it's just comedy?
JOST: ...Certainly, fire is a lot - (laughter) - a lot scarier. Yeah, as the first, basically, non-hero in my family...
JOST: ...It's - I don't - no, I get nervous because I'm more nervous leading up to it than I am...
GROSS: Because you have higher standards than Michael Che has.
CHE: I don't have high standards at all, man. This is back-of-the-classroom humor. I'm throwing spitballs at everybody. I could care less, you know? What's there to be afraid of?
JOST: I get nervous more when I'm not - when it's not in front of me. When I'm thinking about it in advance, that's more nerve wracking than when you're actually out on stage and you're feeling. Then you know what it's like to be on stage, and then that feels a lot more liberating. It's more the lead up to it where - I don't know - having not actually gone through it before, where that's more nerve wracking for me. But I would still take it over fires.
GROSS: Good luck to both of you. Thank you so much for coming back on our show. I really enjoyed it. And...
JOST: Thank you for having us.
GROSS: Yeah, my pleasure. Good luck on Monday.
Colin Jost and Michael Che are the anchors of "SNL's" "Weekend Update" and are head writers on the show. Monday night, they'll host the Emmys, which will be broadcast on NBC. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review the new Hulu drama series "The First," starring Sean Penn. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER SONG, "I'LL WALK AWAY")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This Friday, the streaming service Hulu presents eight episodes - the entire first season - of a new drama series called "The First." It's from Beau Willimon, who adapted "House Of Cards" for Netflix. And it features Sean Penn in his first starring role for television. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Sean Penn has acted on TV before. When his father, director Leo Penn, was working in television in the '70s and when Sean was a teenager, his dad got him small roles in a few shows, including a pair of episodes of "Little House On The Prairie." But since Sean Penn became a movie star, he hasn't starred in a TV project until now, when he headlines a new eight-hour drama series called "The First," launching Friday on Hulu.
And launching is the most appropriate word - not only because Hulu, which rolls out most of its original shows like "The Handmaid's Tale" in weekly installments, is making all of the first available at once, but also because it's a fictional drama about space exploration set in the near-future of the 2030s. "The First" is all about the quest to launch the first manned spaceship to the planet Mars. Even more, it's about the people who have decided to design or go on that mission and their loved ones affected by that decision.
"The First" is created by Beau Willimon, who adapted the British miniseries "House Of Cards" for Netflix and stayed with it for four seasons. Now, working with Hulu and Great Britain's Channel 4, he's produced a new drama series whose characters are much more noble than venal. The characters in "The First," from the astronauts and engineers to the visionaries and politicians, are more like the White House staff in Aaron Sorkin's NBC drama "The West Wing."
Even when they don't always do the right thing, they try to. And while they have flaws, they do their best to overcome them. That's important in "The First" because character is what this drama series is really focused on, not the science fiction aspects, which are done superbly, but subtly. All slightly futuristic gimmicks, like self-driving vehicles and eyeglasses that share videos, are presented without calling attention to themselves. This is, after all, only about 15 years in the future. And the space flight aspects, which you might presume would dominate this series, actually only bookend it.
Instead, the core of "The First" is the relationship between Penn's Tom Hagerty, a veteran astronaut and still-grieving widower, and his estranged daughter Denise, played by Anna Jacoby-Heron. Denise has kept her distance since the death of her mother and fallen in with a bad crowd and into some serious drug abuse. But when a space launch not involving her father is covered on television, she returns home unexpectedly, in pretty bad physical and emotional shape, to visit him for the first time in a long time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FIRST")
ANNA JACOBY-HERON: (As Denise) I was at this guy's place. And he had it on - you know, on the TV. For a second, it was like - thought about mom, about when we would watch and how scared we'd get when you - you know, even for a second, I was like, what if he's gone? Like, not the thing, but just like, if you were gone, I wouldn't even know.
BIANCULLI: The gulf between them is wide and deep, and "The First" explains it slowly. At the midpoint of this series, there's an entire episode devoted to an extended series of flashbacks, featuring Melissa George as Tom's wife. Images, paintings and other hints all start coming into sharper focus then. And the slow reveal of the psychology behind all of these characters is what's most important in "The First."
Willimon and his team of writers and directors explain things at their own deliberate speed, playing with time and with visuals to make things more clear, but in small doses. It's like watching HBO's "Sharp Objects" or AMCs "Better Call Saul." And since those are two of my favorite TV shows this year, that means I highly approve of "The First." It's about a mission to Mars, yes. But in this case, it's not the destination that counts, it's the journey and the people involved.
Penn, for one, is a revelation here. Most of the time, he's a raw nerve, burdened by both his professional and personal responsibilities. But his reactions, for the most part, are held firmly in check. You don't often see or hear his pain and grief, but you constantly feel it. The actress playing his daughter holds her own, impressively.
And the other major players in "The First" are Natascha McElhone from ABC's "Designated Survivor" and Showtime's "Californication," who plays a private-sector space race investor, and LisaGay Hamilton from ABC's "The Practice" and from "House Of Cards," who plays another astronaut. All of these characters have motivations, problems and families, all of which are explored just as deeply as outer space.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific."
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with Bob Woodward, John Kerry and chef Jose Andres, who organized chefs to feed people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, check out our podcast. You'll find plenty of interviews to choose from.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAN GETZ'S "JORDU")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.