Fans of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have long appreciated co-host Willie Geist for his droll take on current events, and for a camera-friendly presence that goes down smoothly while most of us are trying to open our eyes and gird ourselves for battle. He is a calming, witty counterbalance to the outsize, occasionally quarrelsome personalities of Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Mike Barnicle, and Pat Buchanan—throwing light but well-aimed jabs in the entertaining melee of ideas.
Over the past two years, Geist has carved out a niche as the show’s resident jaundiced observer, with his daily “News You Can’t Use” feature, his “Week in Review” compendium of life’s absurdities, and his thrice-weekly MSNBC.com video blog, Zeitgeist. At 34, Geist—son of CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist—is a seasoned veteran of the television news business, mostly behind the camera as an editor and producer.
“My daughter will be reading about Pat Buchanan in a history book someday, and I am hanging out fist-bumping with him and joking with him.”
On Monday, he launches a show of his own: Way Too Early With Willie Geist. As the title suggests, this half-hour program debuts before the sun comes up—at 5:30 a.m. EDT—as the lead-in to Morning Joe.
Over a recent lunch at Michael’s, the Manhattan media watering hole, Geist gave The Daily Beast an exclusive interview about his latest adventure, as well as his glorious past as a star high-school athlete in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, his role in the creation of monster celebrity Carrie Prejean as a judge in the Miss USA Pageant, his surprising affection for Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump, and his ambition to throttle Barack Obama in a game of pickup basketball.
Tell me about the genesis of your new MSNBC show.
We thought Morning Joe started to get this cachet, so why not extend the brand a little bit? People knew Dylan Ratigan from CNBC, but when he started coming on our show during the financial crisis, people at the news division really started to recognize and like him. Dylan Ratigan’s show is sort of an outgrowth on what he did on Morning Joe, so his show airs from 9 to 11 a.m. I thought there was something I could do if they gave me time to deliver the news but do it in a little edgier, more fun way. So I said: “Which way can I grow out of this?” They said: “You can’t grow after 9. Dylan is doing that. You want to grow backward.” It is every kid’s dream to host a show at 5:30 in the morning—2:30 in the morning on the West Coast.
On the West Coast, when it runs at 2:30 a.m., how can it be distinguished from that portion of Red Eye [the sometimes raunchy, politically incorrect Fox News panel show]?
We are live, Lloyd, not taped. That is our advantage. Jeff Zucker doesn’t know this yet, but I am going to spin this as part of the larger NBC late-night rebranding. It’s Jay Leno at 10 p.m., Conan O’Brien at 11:30, Jimmy Fallon at 12:30, Carson Daly at 1:30, and Willie Geist at 2:30 on the West Coast. It is my own personal fantasy that it is a late-night show, so I will account on the show for those sad souls who are still awake at 2:30 on the West Coast.
Your audience is—?
Nursing mothers, retired military personnel, people with rare sleep disorders.
Some of them will be shitfaced while they are watching?
Yeah, that goes without saying. People on the West Coast—I expect them all to be trashed or on some sort of an upper that is keeping them awake. The thing about me is that I don’t judge my audience. I welcome. It is a big tent. If you are drunk, fine. Do whatever you want to do in the privacy of your own home. I invite you to join the party. Maybe you pass out halfway through the show, maybe you make it all the way through. Whatever it is, just check in with us.
Is Starbucks going to extend its sponsorship of Morning Joe to your show?
Their reach doesn’t go to 5:30, I am afraid.
So are you looking for another product?
I think Ambien.
Sometimes things get almost over the edge [on Morning Joe]. Sometimes Joe seems genuinely angry.
The thing I love about Joe, and I really mean this, is that he is always himself. He is not trying to be a TV guy. If he is angry, he shows it. If he wants to say something totally off-color, he says it. He is just comfortable in his skin. Sometimes he makes people mad. Sometimes he gets mad. I think that Joe will argue with you, but generally he is very respectful of the guests, and frankly we’re one of the shows that has differing points of view on it. There are so many Web sites or TV shows where it’s pushing a message or pushing an agenda. Joe is a conservative Republican. He doesn’t hide that, but I think if you look at our guest list, I’d venture to say 85 percent of them disagree with Joe about everything. Sometimes it gets heated. Certain topics set him off, but generally there is a reason people enjoy coming on our show. It is kind of a safe place to have an honest conversation.
What is it like to be with these same people every day?
I can honestly say if it wasn’t for those people, waking up at 4:30 a.m. would be miserable. This sounds so corny, but it’s true. You know you are going to a place where you genuinely like the people, and it is not fake, contrived TV chemistry, and you know you share a similar sense of humor, that Joe and I get each other’s jokes, and same with Barnicle, Mika Brzezinski—we all respect each other. So three hours is great. Literally it is like having dinner with your friends. It is Joe’s show, but he is a generous guy. He will let me be funny. He will let you tell the story and lets you handle an interview. He is not a megalomaniac. He wants the show to succeed and he wants to create a place where we all shine in our own ways.
Did you ever in a million years imagine you would be fist-bumping with Pat Buchanan?
No, the Pat Buchanan thing is the “pinch yourself” thing. When he was making the culture war speech [at the Republican Convention in 1992], I was in high school. I consider Pat Buchanan a friend right now. My daughter will be reading about Pat Buchanan in a history book someday, and I am hanging out fist-bumping with him and joking with him. He has got this sort of perverse sense of humor. He gets me, and laughs at everything I say, which always makes me like the person. We will be chatting casually and he will just start telling Watergate stories. We are yukking it up about this transformative event in American history. “I went into the Old Man’s office and I told him to burn the tapes! He should have listened to me!” You walk around the Upper West Side and they go, “I hate myself for this, but I love Pat Buchanan.”
You were asked to be a judge on the Miss USA pageant.
My finest hour.
You are a big proponent of Miss California—or the former Miss California.
Tragically, the former Miss California. I don’t know if I am a proponent for her. I voted for her to be Miss USA. Not because I agreed with her political positions, I don’t, but because pageants seem to me to be so boring. I liked that she jolted it and she said what she believed. She got booed and I said: “Aww, what the hell. Let’s make her No. 1.” Before I agreed to be a judge, I called my dad and said: “Dad, I have got to talk to you. The Trumps just asked me to be a judge on Miss USA.” I could hear it in his voice. “Really? I have never been so proud of you.” I think he meant it!
So now you and Donald Trump spend weekends together?
All the time. We get manicures together, deep-tissue massages. I met him the first time at Miss USA. But, seriously, he watches our show and likes it, so he has been amazing. He will call me on the phone sometimes to chat, catch up. You get a little of the Trump magic running down your spine. He is a very interesting guy. My dad wrote a piece about Trump in 1984 for The New York Times Magazine—a cover story before Trump was Trump—and I was in Trump’s office a few weeks ago and he has it framed next to his desk. My dad was always fascinated and amused by Trump, so I learned to be fascinated and amused by Trump.
I want to ask you about a picture caption in The Bergen Record. It says: “Henry Baker Jr. of Eastside and Willie Geist of Ridgewood battle for the ball on the first half Thursday’s 77-72 Eastside win.”
Eastside won that game?
That was probably 1992, I would say. Henry Baker Jr. was the star of Eastside of Paterson, New Jersey. I was one of many stars of the Ridgewood High School team. We battled fiercely for that ball, if I recall. I am sure I got it away from Mr. Baker Jr. He and I actually had a little feud. We had like an ongoing little rivalry thing. There was a lot of trash talk in the rivalry between the two schools, and as I recall it escalated into a point of near fisticuffs.
I don’t know if you have ever seen the movie Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman. It was about Eastside High. Eastside High is not the kind of place, if you come from Bergen County, New Jersey, where you want to start fisticuffs, OK? There were security guards lining the court, police escorts with your school bus to get in and out, that whole kind of thing, so I was quickly advised to take a deep breath and step back.
Would you like to play in a game with our president?
I would. And I don’t want to disparage our commander in chief, but I could take him. He is clearly a left hander but I believe personally, having watched some of the tapes, that if you forced him to the right then he can’t hurt you. So I think if we played one on one, then I would handle the president. Respectfully.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.