NBC’s Willie Geist: ‘I Have the Best of Both Worlds’

By A.J. Katz Comment

NBC News’ Willie Geist feels his Sunday show has improved exponentially over the past three years, and some big names are starting to take notice; especially in the past year.

Names like Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld and Bradley Cooper, all of whom have been interviewed by Geist for the program within the past six months.

“We’ve just had luck in getting people who three years ago were probably so far off the radar of possibility,” Geist told TVNewser Friday afternoon. “I think it’s a testament to our team and to our show that we’ve been able to attract those kinds of people.”

As Sunday Today marks three years on NBC, we spoke with Geist —who you also know from his 12 years as co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe— about how he and his producers have tinkered with Sunday Today, convincing his interviewees to open up, a workload that has slimmed down (by his standard, anyway) and his overall thoughts on NBC’s 9 a.m. hour.

How has Sunday Today improved, in your opinion?

The top of the show has changed a bit. What we do in the first 15 minutes, we have gone back to more news – like “wake up, here’s what’s happening in the world,” and less conversation off the top. That has probably made the show better and the pacing of it better. But for the most part we have stuck true to what we wanted to do, which is to make sort of a magazine show, once you get through the first 15 minutes of it and you’ve gotten all of your news of the week. We have made the pieces better and the topics better, and we know who we are and what kind of stories we want to do and the kind of people to interview. I’m proud that our team has done the show that we sort of set out to do three years ago, I just think we’re doing it better.

Without naming names, what are some of the challenges in conducting those interviews?

I think for a lot of them, it’s getting them to trust you, especially for the ones you don’t know very well and the people you’ve never met before. But I do think over three years, there’s enough of a library of these interviews where the guests watch them, or their publicists watch them, or their publicists watch their other clients do the show, and they now know what they’re stepping into.

If you take an example – Bill Murray doesn’t know me and he doesn’t know a lot of press. He’s not easy to track down and get an interview with. Just based on what he’d heard about the show and some clips that he’d seen, I guess he wanted to do it. He came to us. We didn’t really go to him because there’s no one to go to like a manager or publicist. But even there, for the first 10 minutes or so, he’s feeling you out. He’s prepared. He’s thinking: “Do you know what you’re talking about?” “Can you hang?”  and once he sort of realized that was the case, the interview was great. He gave me an hour of things I hadn’t heard him talk about, afterparties on SNL back in the day; Caddyshack. You don’t want to fanboy out on him, but once you feel like he’s willing to go there, you kind of get to go there.

 

Seinfeld was the same. He doesn’t need to do a second of press for people to come see his stand up shows, but he wanted to it, and I think he’s the same way. “Are you professional?” “Are you prepared?” “Are you ready for this?” and when you show him you are, he goes there with you. So, I guess the biggest challenge is proving to people that they have come to the right place, and hopefully most of them have figured out that they have.

What’s your Sunday morning routine (pre-show)?

By my Morning Joe standards, it’s a real “long, breathing, sleep-in” kind of morning. I get up at 5:30 a.m., which is an hour later than I get up during the week, which is very exciting. And then, go in and I’m there a little after 6 a.m., and sit with the team. The truth of the Sunday show is so much of the work is done in advance. In the case of the interview, a week out or even two weeks out and piece together, and I’ve written most the show by Friday and go in and tweak some of it on Saturday.

Sunday morning is really just the news block that we’re changing and playing with. Then, we start going through the studio about an hour before the show, about 7 a.m., and start taping some of the show, and the show starts at 8 a.m.. So, yeah I work on Sundays, but so much of the lift has been done by the time the show starts that it doesn’t feel like a burden. I get to sleep in an hour, it’s great.

 Do you have plans to hit the 2020 campaign trail at all for Sunday Today?

I think I’ll be doing so much of that with [MSNBC’s] Morning Joe. I think our correspondents will be out doing that kind of stuff. Morning Joe will be on the road on a ton during the week. We’re going to be all over the place the next 18 months with Morning Joe. That’s not to say I won’t be out on the road, shooting pieces or interviewing candidates, things like that (for the Sunday show). I don’t think it will be a road show, per se, but obviously it will be a theme throughout the next year and a half.

Do you ever miss doing the Today show at 9 a.m.?

Of course! I get to go back on Thursdays, and I sit in the 9 o’clock show and they’ll play a clip from an interview, and I get a little taste of it. I was actually on yesterday; Seeing Al [Roker] my old buddy, and my friends Sheinelle [Jones] and Craig [Melvin]. It’s fun to be over there because it’s such a different animal. It’s just a total 180 in terms of content. It’s fun! I love going over there. You miss your friends, but I was doing all three for a while. When I started the Sunday show, I was doing Morning Joe, then the 9 a.m. show, then the Sunday show. It was a lot. Of course I miss the people and the producers, but in terms of workload and content, and what I’m doing right now, it’s just the perfect balance because Morning Joe is so deep into the politics of the day, Monday through Friday, and then on Sunday you get to take a deep breath and turn the page and do some other things that are unrelated to whatever Trump said or did that day.

Did you throw your hat into the 9 a.m. mix after Megyn Kelly’s exit?

I never heard about a mix to be thrown into. So no, and I also felt honestly like I had done the 9 a.m. hour of the Today show and loved it for four years. So, no. I’m doing something on Sunday that is the Today show with my name on it, where me and our small group of producers get to determine what’s in the show every day, and who we want to talk to, and how we want to present it, and really curate it and cultivate it all week. And I didn’t want to give up, certainly, Morning Joe, which is – 12 years now that’s where I’ve been, and in the middle of this campaign. So, no I know it sounds like a diplomatic answer, but I truly in this moment feel like I have the best of both worlds, with my version of the Today show on Sunday, and getting to do Morning Joe during the week.

What’s coming up on Sunday Today this spring?

This Sunday we have Mr. Game of Thrones – Kit Harrington, Jon Snow. They say like a billion people will be watching around the world. I don’t know how they came to that number. Even if it was half that, it would be staggering. So for me, that’s the fun thing of – we’re in a place now where whatever is happening that week or that weekend, we’re in a position where we can attract the person in the middle of it. We had Brie Larson the week Captain Marvel came out, or Chadwick Boseman in the middle of Black Panther mania, or Gal Gadot in the middle of Wonder Woman. Kit was great. We did the interview the other day. I tried to extract as much about the season as I could, but he wouldn’t say much. At one point, I was trying to ask him a question, and he would lean his head back and scream to his publicist: “Am I allowed to talk about that?” and he’d get a “No!” It was a funny interview in trying to get answers to questions he’s not allowed to answer. That’ll be a good one Sunday. If we can get a sliver of even those billion Game of Thrones viewers, we will have done well.

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