Willie Geist Not Looking Beyond ‘Today’s’ Third Hour, Yet: ‘If I’m being groomed to replace Matt, I haven’t been told’

By Gail Shister Comment

Willie Geist, today named 9 a.m. co-host of NBC’s “Today,” harbors only one fear about his new gig – he might have to wear a dress.

“I have a feeling I’m going to be a woman on the Halloween show,” he says in his trademark understated style. “I’m afraid it might be some kind of initiation, like paddling. I’ve never been a woman before, at least not professionally.”

Geist, a regular on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” since 2007, doesn’t officially begin until Nov. 12, but don’t be surprised to see him cross-dressed on “Today” on Oct. 31. Co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, a good pal, was Prince Charles on last year’s show.

The peripatetic Geist will remain a co-host on “Morning Joe” during the 6 a.m. hour, but will have to give up his 5:30 a.m. baby, “Way Too Early with Willie Geist,” which he created in 2009. It will live on under a new host.

“I don’t feel great about losing my show, but there was no way to keep doing it,” Geist, 37, says. “I couldn’t give it the time and attention it needs. It’s important to me that it live on. I started it as a lark. It’s amazing how many actual responsible human beings are watching at that hour – movers and shakers of the world.”

Geist will continue as a backup for Matt Lauer, co-anchor of ‘Today’s’ 7 to 9 a.m. hours since 1996. Conventional wisdom says Geist is being groomed to succeed him, but that’s not how Geist sees it.

“If I’m being groomed to replace Matt, I haven’t been told,” says Geist, who signed a new multi-year contract. (His previous deal expired at the end of September.) “There’s not even the implication of

that in my new job. I fill in sometimes, but so do other people at NBC. I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

Geist says it’s “a natural fit” for him at 9 a.m., with Guthrie, Natalie Morales and Al Roker. “ I don’t feel any sense of ‘first day of school, new kid.’ I’ve spent enough time with them that I know them well. We like each other and get along. They all have self-deprecating senses of humor.”

According to Geist, he and ‘Today’ executive producer Jim Bell began discussing the move casually over the summer at the Olympic Games in London, where Bell was in charge of coverage and Geist was a host. “It wasn’t terribly formal until the last several weeks,” Geist says.

It was an easy call. While “Morning Joe” is TV’s “marquee political show,” Geist labels “Today” as “perhaps the most iconic show in the history of television news.”

Though “Today” has lost its once-untouchable No. 1 ranking, it “has huge brand recognition around the world for excellence in TV for 60 years,” Geist gushes. “Matt is the best who’s ever done this in morning TV. Savannah is whip smart and funny. Everyone genuinely gets along. The chemistry is not contrived.”

In joining “Today” and giving up “Too Early,” Geist is also getting a side benefit, the importance of which cannot be overstated to a father with two young children — an extra hour of sleep, until 4:30 a.m.

“Every minute counts at that hour,” he says.