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The longest-running morning show anchor team on network TV is looking past the 2016 election, to 2018 and beyond. “There just aren’t a lot of shows that get stronger nine years in,” said Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough. Nine years into their run, which almost included a detour to CBS, Morning Joe has never had more people watching it. The show is giving MSNBC its most-watched morning show block in its 20-year history.
We sat down with Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski Tuesday morning at McGillin’s Olde Ale House (Est. 1860), where they are hosting Morning Joe this week during the Democratic National Convention. The wide-ranging conversation touched on the evolution of the show, the fickle TV business, the lengths they went to keep Willie Geist, and being the subject of a tabloid report of a rumored romance. “I fully understand that it is fair game,” Brzezinski says about the Page Six story last month.
Mika: We just walked upstairs just to get our bearings here from three hours of screaming in a pub and massive screaming when a mouse ran across the room. I almost jumped up on a chair.
Joe: This is the most energized crowd we’ve had.
TVNewser: Even more than Cleveland?
TVNewser: Do you think it’s because shots are flowing at 7 in the morning?
Joe: I think it has to do with the fact that, yeah, they started drinking shots at 6:45 and drinking beer. Not us. But yeah, it was crazy.
TVNewser: Cleveland was supposed to be boring; it wasn’t. Philly was supposed to be a coronation; it isn’t. Does that make it more interesting to be doing the show when there’s actual news to talk about?
Joe: It does. This has been the most remarkable election year. And you thought that going into the conventions they would be boring made-for-TV events, instead they’ve actually been great made-for-TV events because none of them have gone according to script. I thought Cleveland was a mess on the first night and had not seen anything like that since ’76. But then last night was just a madhouse and Tom Brokaw was saying he hadn’t heard anything like that since 1972.
TVNewser: What’s your relationship like now with Mr. Trump?
Joe: Well, it’s about the same. We talk to him whenever we have a need to talk to him. I think we talked to him last week during the convention. But we’ve been friends for 10, 11, 12 years. But I still don’t think he’s figured out that that doesn’t impact our coverage. And so he sat there thinking for nine months ‘Oh Joe and Mika are predicting that we’re going to win the Republican nomination fight because we’re friends.’ And I kept saying, ‘Donald, we’re not saying this because we’re your friends, we’re saying this because you’re going to win.’ I still don’t think that they’ve figured out what our job is. I always say we’re like John Madden: you throw a 50 yard touchdown pass we’re going to say you’re doing a great job. You throw five interceptions in a row, we’re not.
Mika: We were friends with him before he started running for president. So, unfortunately, when you decide to run for office there are going to be people who tell you what you want to hear, and then there are going to be real friends who tell you the truth. If you want people who are going to tell you what you want to hear go ahead; that’s never going to be me. Ever. And there’s some things we deeply disagree with.
TVNewser: So the show is coming up on 10 years, next summer.
Mika: Do you believe this?
TVNewser: Talk about the on-air dynamic that makes this work almost 10 years in.
Mika: It’s funny, we were talking last night to someone at the ‘Know Your Value’ launch party that there’s definitely a great dynamic. But add Willie in the mix, because at times Willie was pulled away to do Today Show stuff, and something was missing because it’s a three way dynamic and sometimes even four way or five way that makes it a family.
Joe: When Willie was renegotiating his contract and they were trying to figure it out whether to keep him there or not I went to [MSNBC president] Phil [Griffin], I said, ‘Phil, everybody loves to talk about the dynamic and everybody talks about the chemistry. And yes we have great chemistry, but look at that chemistry when Willie Geist is on the set and when Willie Geist is off the set.’
Mika: It was getting very heated and we almost lost him…
Joe: …and I said, ‘Phil, you can tell the people at NBC that are negotiating this deal and playing hardball and that if we have to contribute to Willie’s contract we will contribute to Willie’s contract. We will pay money out of our own salaries to keep him here because he’s that important to us.’ And at that point Phil was like, ‘Whoa. OK. Listen, you’re not going to have to do that. We get the message.’ So Willie is extraordinarily important. You can say the same thing about Mike Barnicle. So it’s chemistry between Mika and me but people don’t really see the whole picture.
TVNewser: Off air, with this report in the New York Post about your relationship…
Mika: I mean look, I don’t really want to talk about my personal life, but since I’m on television I have to assume that it’s fair game if people want to report on the fact that I’m divorced, which is a really sad and a hard time for my family and I consider it a failure, and a sad, hard, difficult, traumatic time for everybody in my family. I really don’t want to go further. I don’t have any plans to be very public in general about my personal life because I’m just right now very worried about everybody in my family and that was hard to have those headlines out there. I fully understand that it is fair game. I didn’t push back that much to the fact that they wanted to do a big story on it, but it was hard. It was really hard for everybody.
TVNewser: And Joe?
Joe: Well, you know, as always I defer to Mika on whatever she says (laughs). I totally agree with her it’s a tough enough time for Mika and sorting through everything. She wants to keep it as low-key as possible for her family.
TVNewser: One of the things that came up in the Gretchen Carlson lawsuit was the on-air dynamic on her morning show and the allegation that her co-anchor Steve Doocy “put her in her place,” according to the suit. How do you all manage that, when Mika wants to speak up and…
Joe: When Mika puts me in my place? It’s very degrading when Mika puts me in my place on-air (laughs). You talk about the on-air dynamic over a decade, it’s changed. We’ve gone through years that have been better than other years. We’ve gone through some tough years where there is an edge. And I think what really makes our show work is it’s real. And there were a couple of years where it was real and we were at each other’s throats pretty regularly and we never went to the side and said ‘Hey, let’s go out and smile and play TV.’ If we were on edge and we were fighting about waterboarding or we were fighting about race issues or fighting about other things, it got, at times, very, very heated and we never pulled back. And I think that’s what works.
Mika: We also know our roles. That’s Morning Joe [pointing to Scarborough]. The show starts and ends there. And he depends on me to make sure that he stays in whatever lane that is that morning. And every morning it’s a different one because every morning everything is different and that’s what we navigate. And there’s a lot of sign language involved. I make sure everyone else gets in there and sometimes tamps him down a little bit. Sometimes I jump in there. Sometimes I don’t need to because other people are and that’s my job. So I’m clear on my job and he’s clear on his and we really like doing it.
TVNewser: How long do you want to keep doing this?
Mika: I can’t think of a better job. I’m so lucky to say, especially as a woman in television, I feel like every time you meet someone in television they’re always looking for that next job, they always want someone else’s seat. I love my seat. I love my job.
Joe: That’s one of the things that Mika said to me when we were talking to CBS and she said as we were getting very close to going over there and doing the morning show over there, she just stopped in the middle of it and said, ‘You know, you will never have the freedom that you have here. They leave us alone. They let us do whatever show we want to do. They never interfere. They never even call.’ And they don’t.
TVNewser: Was that based on your experience having worked at CBS or was it because it’s the difference between a cable channel and broadcast network?
Mika: Both. I’d worked at CBS and I knew there was new management. I knew they really wanted to give us that freedom, but I knew ultimately the construct of that network broadcast would be very difficult for him to thrive in. I’d be very worried about timing constraints and going to local and this and that, and there were other dynamics and people they wanted to bring in. The minute you think you can create this, and you’ve seen other shows try and imitate it, is the minute it’s over. This exact dynamic, everything from the guy behind camera one to the guy doing the music, they’re all the same people. They’ve all stayed with us. We lost [executive producer] Chris Licht along the way. Alex [Korson] stepped up. But the transitions have been slow and at times painful because people don’t want to leave us because they know they’re on the best show and that dynamic is something you really can’t create. It can’t come from management somewhere.
Joe: It’s all very organic. We don’t play TV and we don’t really play by the rules. The whole team doesn’t play by the same rules that everybody else does. It’s all a team and it’s all actually a lot more like a campaign, where they put us down on the second floor away from everybody else.
Joe: Well, not for a while. Not until this ends. Like Mika said, this is the best job we could have and we’re working through 2018 and we’d love to work through the next election too because the crazy thing is that, and I can’t believe this, but after nine years not only are the ratings great and in some ways better than ever, more people are watching us now than have ever watched us before, the buzz around the show is bigger than it’s ever been, and we’ve done that for nine years and there just aren’t a lot of shows that get stronger nine years in.
TVNewser: With the same anchor team.
Joe: With the same anchor team. It’s not that we don’t complain about waking up at 3:30 or 4 every morning, but there were times that we would get onset and go, ‘Wow this is a grind.’ Now we are just really thankful to be able to be associated with this show and have the people around us on the team that we have.
TVNewser: And they’re still leaving you alone.
Mika: They’re still leaving us alone. Every once in a while they don’t and we do the opposite. They’re like, ‘Fill the table; bring in new people!’ And that’s when Joe and I and Willie say uh-oh, we need to go back to vintage Morning Joe and we only have Willie, Joe and me on the set and maybe Mike. And we just go back to who we are because when they start to try and tweak with us that’s a bad day.
Joe: Whenever they say, ‘Put 30 people on the set and put in 20 news stories’ and all this other stuff, at that point we know it’s time to strip it down. And when it’s time for us to push for a reset then we just put Willie, Mika and myself on set at the top of the show. I remember back about a year ago or so we made a dramatic switch where it was just Mika, Willie and me, just to make a point: this is the show. We don’t need 30 people around when we have Mark Halperin and Mike Barnicle and Harold Ford and Gene Robinson and Katty Kay and of course Nicolle [Wallace]. That’s exciting and that’s fun and we love it, but at the core of the show it’s Mika, Willie and me. And that’s when you really see that chemistry between us working the best.
Mika: It’s Morning Joe.