Judging by the most recent Morning Joe promo, cohost Willie Geist spends the wee hours of the morning drinking with models at New York nightclubs before stumbling to 30 Rock just in time for the early-morning MSNBC newscast.
In actuality, the 36-year-old Geist is in the studio before any of his Joe colleagues, hosting Way Too Early With Willie Geist from 5:30-6 a.m., and says his mornings tend to be far less glamorous: He’s more likely to be stumbling around in the dark trying not to wake up his young children as he steals one of their juice boxes for the road.
Way Too Early, which Geist has hosted since 2009, is designed to be a quick, 30-minute download of what viewers need to know each day, before the longer-winded analysis of the news on Morning Joe from 6-9 a.m. Geist brings his signature wit to the program—he’s also the author of two satirical books—offering up snippets of news, politics and sports stories with touches of humor (and often working in references to his alma mater, Vanderbilt University).
Geist was initially skeptical of the pre-dawn time slot—who would be up at that hour?— but he discovered that plenty of folks make his show the first thing they watch each day. Way Too Early grew 15% in total viewers in 2011 and 32% in the adults 25-54 demo, making it the No. 2 cable news program in the half hour.
He also appreciates the upside of an earlymorning schedule that allows him to spend time at home in the evenings (for TV, he says he watches almost exclusively whatever is on the Discovery Channel) and see his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
“That’s really valuable, especially at this age,” Geist says. “So I don’t take that for granted. I don’t love getting up at 3 in the morning, but I do love the back end of it.”
Becoming a cable news host was a bit of a happy accident for Geist, who started at MSNBC in 2005 as a producer on The Situation With Tucker Carlson. When Don Imus said a fateful few words about women’s college basketball, Geist ended up on the short list for replacement hosts based on the on-air riffs he did during the closing segment of Tucker.
“I saw Willie on Tucker’s show and I knew immediately that he would be a perfect fit,” Joe Scarborough says of forming the Morning Joe team.
Now more than four years in on Joe, the charming and outwardly apolitical Geist is described by his cohosts as the glue that holds the show together, often diffusing tense policy arguments between Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski with his satirical wit.
“The thing that I hate, I mean absolutely hate, is when he’s not there,” Brzezinski says. “It is so different. The show for us is harder to do. It’s sort of like [missing] your right arm or something. He’s really kind of important to the show’s success and it being good every morning. And it’s hard to make the show good without him.”
Geist’s down-to-earth demeanor can be credited to two things: his father, CBS News’ Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist, who he says “has none of the trappings of television”; and the fact that he started as a producer, paying his dues at the nowdefunct CNN/Sports Illustrated network to learn the business from the ground up.
“I feel like those six or seven years of doing that were so good for me and now so inform what I do on camera. I understand why things are happening, I kind of help produce the show in my head,” Geist says. “I feel like I’ve got a ! rm foundation from which to do what I do now. I’m glad I did it that way.”
Besides naming his father, Tucker Carlson and Scarborough among his mentors, Geist says he watches fellow NBC News anchors Brian Williams and Matt Lauer very closely to learn from them. He says he of course has thought about sitting at the NBC Nightly News or Today show desk someday (he occasionally guest-hosts the latter).
“That’s like asking, would you want to play center-field for the New York Yankees? Yeah, of course I would,” he says. “But I feel like I’m on the best show on TV right now, a show where you can totally be yourself.”
That authenticity and the idea of not “playing TV” have been cited (though not always explicitly) by other rival morning shows looking to remake their image, and Geist calls the emulation of the format flattering.
“I think people are ready now for less TV convention. Everyone has grown up with the guy sitting in front of the camera, keeping it between the lines, but that’s not the way they talk about things at home,” he says. “I hope we see more of it. I think it’s the future.”
And while Scarborough predicts there will be millions and millions in competitive offers in Geist’s future at the end of his contract (a sentiment echoed by a rival news executive), for now, in a busy political year, Geist is enjoying his hand and thankful for where he is.
“Joe, Mika and I kind of fell together in an amazing way,” he recalls. “It’s weird to go back and think about fate. If Don Imus hadn’t said one thing in the span of four seconds, my life would be totally different.”
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