Why Personality Matters at the Weekend Update Desk
When Seth Meyers did his final Weekend Update newscast on February 1st, he retired from the desk as the longest-tenured anchor to ever hold the position. At 7.5 seasons, he comfortably passed Tina Fey and Dennis Miller, who held the gig for six seasons each. Throughout his run, Meyers was somewhat polarizing, mostly for, well, how un-polarizing he was. To some, he represented Safeness, a thinner, younger Jay Leno who thrived on apolitical humor, and refused to ever truly rock the boat. Others enjoyed his nerdy, boyish charm, and his legendary interactions with Stefon. But whether you liked Meyers or not, he stabilized the Update desk unlike anyone else. That’s why his departure is such a big deal, and why Colin Jost, who takes Meyers place alongside Cecily Strong, has a difficult task ahead of him.
Since Chevy Chase did Weekend Update on the first ever Saturday Night Live episode on October 11th 1975, 21 people have had a gig at the Update desk (22 if you count the two episodes where Horatio Sanz filled in for a pregnant Tina Fey, but no one wants to remember that, so let’s not). Some of them like Chase, Dennis Miller, and Norm MacDonald, are remembered quite fondly, while the likes of Brad Hall and Brian Doyle-Murray are barely remembered at all. Over the next few years, we’ll see which group Jost and Strong wind up falling into.
So, what makes someone a good Update anchor? Obviously, the material needs to work, but what matters more is personality. On any given week, as the writers are throwing on their best jokes on the news of the week, some lines are going to work better than others. The key is having an anchor with a recognizable personality, who can sell the good jokes, and come up with a fast ad-lib during the bad ones. That’s why the segment became so popular when Chase introduced it 39 years ago. Between his popular catchphrases (“I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not,” “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”), and his generally likable goofball personality, he wasn’t just a generic news-anchor type who happened to be telling jokes, but an actual Fake News personality.
And over the past four decades, that has been the defining difference in separating good Update anchors from bad ones. The segment hit its nadir in the Dick Ebersol era of the early 80s. Since the show mostly lived off the presence of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo (and in the 84-85 season, Billy Crystal and Martin Short), the quality of the Update segment was no longer a huge part of the show. Its name was changed to the more anonymous sounding SNL Newsbreak, then later to Saturday Night News, and none of the anchors made much of an impact. Brad Hall and Brian Doyle-Murray had some decent jokes from time to time, but there was nothing unique about their personalities. They were as bland and generic as any local news anchor in any random hometown, and as a result, few people remember them. Christopher Guest is rightfully viewed as a comedy God for his work on This Is Spinal Tap, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind among others, but there aren’t a lot of people who remember his 11-episode run on the Update desk 29 years ago.
When Lorne Michaels returned to the show in 1985, the Weekend Update name returned, and so did the quality. While Lorne’s first year back as executive producer included tons of growing pains, the rare undeniable bright spot was Dennis Miller’s work at the Update desk. Miller was the strongest personality to handle Update duty since Chase, and his quick wit, sarcastic smarmy delivery, and knack for ultra-obscure references quickly found him an audience. His style was so memorable than eventually, Dana Carvey began to doing an impression of him on the show, which slightly exaggerated his usage of the phrase “cha-cha” but was generally spot on. Miller held the job for six years, which was longer than anyone else at that point.
Miller might be the best-remembered Update anchor ever, but he’d face stiff competition from Norm MacDonald, who held the job for three and a half years in the mid 90s. His dry, ultra-sardonic humor made him more polarizing than anyone to ever hold the job. Really, MacDonald was the ultimate “you either get it or you don’t” guy; if you got him, he was brilliant, and if you didn’t, you wondered how anyone could possibly like him. Don Ohlmeyer fell into the latter group, and fired MacDonald in 1997 in what is still one of the most controversial decisions in SNL history. For fans of MacDonald, it felt like a betrayal, and when Colin Quinn took the reigns over in 1998, he was never fully accepted by fans, and spent a relatively low 2.5 seasons on Update.
It’s a shame, because Quinn was much better at Update than he gets credit for. His Update run happily coincided with the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, and he was more than capable in mocking the ridiculousness of the entire affair. As a native New Yorker with a fairly strong accent, he played up the New York tough guy personality (his sign-off was “I’m Colin Quinn, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it), and it allowed him to stand out above the anonymous faces of the 80s. Unfortunately, he could never escape the shadow of MacDonald, and that’s why 15 years later, few people even remember his time behind the desk. But if you can find any videos of him, it’s easy to see he brought more to the table than he was given credit for.
There are plenty of ways for an Update anchor to demonstrate a personality while working alone, but Jost will be doing it as a team with Cecily Strong, and the Update pairing is a slightly different ballgame. In the late 70s, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin thrived off of mutual animosity, punctuated by Aykroyd’s “Jane, you ignorant slut” catchphrase. When the goofier Bill Murray replaced him, things got more light-hearted, focusing on the contrast between Murray’s unabashed silliness and the more subdued, serious personality of Curtin. When Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey replaced Quinn in 2000, it was fairly similar, although Fey didn’t play things quite as straight as Curtin. It was high school; she was the nerdy girl with the glasses, he was the less-intelligent-but-likeable doofus who had a crush on her.
Upon Fallon’s departure in 2004, Amy Poehler joined Fey at the Update desk, which made for the only all-female Update duo in the show’s history. Fey and Poehler’s Update had a feminist edge (in one episode, a frat-boy type played by Meyers described them as “like the Coors Light twins, but smarter,” which they naturally bristled at), but things were generally light-hearted. In some episodes, the pair would sing together (who doesn’t remember “The Party Is Canceled” or the Bobos theme song). The Fey-Poehler duo was well-liked, but ultimately short-lived, lasting just two years. Meyers replaced Fey alongside Poehler for two more seasons, then did it himself after Poehler left to work on Parks & Recreation.
Strong did Update with Meyers for the first half of this season, and the two never developed any sort of vibe like that, probably because they knew Meyers would be leaving, and their time as a tandem would be relatively short lived. But the combination of Strong and Jost figures to exist well into the future, and they’ll have plenty of time to develop both individual personalities as well as an identifiable vibe between the two. The biggest thing we’ve learned over the years is that personality rules behind the Update desk. Some jokes work, and some don’t, but what really matters is if the person or people telling the jokes can make us care about what they have to say. If Strong and Jost develop chemistry on the level of Fallon and Fey had they’ll be remembered forever, but if they do an anonymous Update where few traits other than generic News Anchor are recognizable, they could suffer the same fate as those unfortunate Ebersol-era anchors: not being remembered by anyone other than the most diehard fans