But the co-anchors say they realized the segment was stronger if they dialed up their banter and acted more like who they are off camera. "Episode by episode, we've been bringing that a lot more," Che says.
Che joined SNL as a writer in 2013, then left the following year to become a correspondent on The Daily Show. After just three months, he was picked to co-anchor SNL's "Update" with Jost.
As the anchors of "Weekend Update," Che and Jost often find themselves joking about hot-button issues. This past weekend was no exception, as protesters gathered outside the show's studio to demonstrate against guest host Donald Trump.
Jost says the show doesn't take sides politically. "What goes into the show are different takes on what's happening in the news," he tells Gross. "What Lorne [Michaels, the creator of SNL,] likes is ... the idea of speaking truth to power. So whoever is in a position of power you're going to take shots at."
For his part, Che wasn't bothered by the controversy: "I liked the protest because it showed that the show is that relevant, that it's that important to people. ... When people are passionate and they love the show so much that they don't want people they don't like on, it makes it exciting. If they didn't care it would be worse."
On the audience's muted response to the Donald Trump episode
Che: It's always hard in comedy to write for people who've made up their mind. I thought the audience pretty much had their minds made up on their opinion of [Trump] so they're always looking at everything like, "Is this a trap? Is this joke going to be a trap? Is this joke going to make me like him a lot more, or is it going to make me like him a lot less?" I thought they were kind of overthinking a lot of the things we were saying, so that's where the tension [came from]. ...
Jost: It was a little tense at dress rehearsal, and Donald Trump didn't have any say in whether we did those things or not, but it just didn't play in front of the audience at dress rehearsal.
Che: It's a live show so you get to hear the audience enjoy it or not enjoy it when it's on TV. So we kind of write the show — for me at least as a writer, you want a show that plays well to a live audience so that the people at home understand that it's good, that it's fun, we're all in on the joke. So when it dies on air it's hard to relate, then it's just awkward, then it's just tense. And then the next sketch has to follow that, so you can't kill the room for the rest of the show.
On Jost stepping down as head writer
Jost: The head writing job is stressful. ... I do the same exact amount of writing [now] as I did last year [as head writer], but the managerial part of the [head writer] job of dealing with the staff and managing a staff is very stressful and ... it runs contrary to how you think as a performer. It's much more you're thinking about the logistics of the show, which doesn't really free your brain as a performer. That was the decision. And I had been a head writer for three or four years, and then I was a writing supervisor for, like, three years before that, so I had been some version of that job for, like, six years and it burns you out. It's not an easy job to think creatively and then also have to think logistically ... about the show. So I feel a lot more relief and a new joy about my job this year because I'm focusing on the creative elements again. It kind of gives me a second wind at our show.
On SNL sticking with cue cards instead of going digital
Jost: I feel like everything is changing so much at our show all the time that I actually think you'd rather trust human error of getting the cards ready than computer error that if something messed up that it would be kind of a nightmare — I guess it's almost like a faith in humanity, that they can get it better than a computer.
Che: I remember one time one of the cue-card holders had their thumb on the last word of a joke and I couldn't read it until they moved it.
Jost: One time right at the beginning of "Weekend Update" I turned to see my first joke, and someone in the audience dropped something and it rolled at the cue-card guy, who then moved the card, because some object was going at him, and so I turned to the camera and there was basically ... a second, which is pretty terrifying, when you're like, "OK, I think I know what the first joke was." ...
Jost: That's one of many potential downsides of having a camel on a live set.
On getting into comedy
Che: I was, like, 25, 26 years old, which is a very strange age because you feel like you're as old as you'll ever be when you're 25, 26. My friends ... are starting to have kids and get married and they're settling in and they're out of college and they have all the degrees. All my friends are starting to be grown-ups, and I was like, "Yo, I'm selling T-shirts on the street. This is weird. I gotta do something." And I'm having these odd jobs to raise money. ...
I was just in a really, really tight spot. I was just in such a funk that I was like, "I just gotta start trying things that I always wanted to do." I always wanted to do comedy, I just didn't know how. I wasn't a performer, so I was like, "I don't know how I would ever get into comedy," you know? ... Improv classes were too expensive, so I just started going to open mics. And the day I did it, I did like three because I just loved it so much. It was so much fun. It wasn't good, it was just fun to do. It felt like a release. It felt like something I could get, so that was it. After that, I didn't think about anything else.