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Jost do it – ‘A Very Punchable Face’

July 21, 2020
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Celebrity memoirs are generally a tough sell for me. The notion that a famous person is going to tell me anything of substance about themselves – particularly in a book – seems unlikely. So often, these books are baldly self-celebratory with nary a hint of genuine introspection.

Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face” (Crown, $27) isn’t the worst celebrity autobiography you’ll find. Jost, a longtime writer and “Weekend Update” host for “Saturday Night Live,” knows how to write and is unafraid to look foolish – a solid combination for someone presenting a book about their own life. While it might not be as thoughtful or reflective as you might like, Jost does pull back the curtain a little bit, particularly when it comes to his family and his Staten Island roots.

Again, it’s not some sort of soul search, but nor is it merely a wad of rehashed “SNL” backstage anecdotes (though it’s closer to the latter). Instead, we get a pleasant, perfectly cromulent memoir – one that focuses largely on the goofy stories, but still leaves room to talk a little bit about the stuff that matters.

Jost grew up on Staten Island, son of a teacher and a doctor in an Irish Catholic family, part of an extended clan that all lived in the immediate vicinity – many on the same block. He was a bookish kid, ultimately getting a spot at Regis, an elite NYC public high school. His work there led to his acceptance to Harvard, which was where he discovered his passion for comedy writing thanks to a stint at the famed Harvard Lampoon.

Following graduation, we watch Jost’s earnest and painfully naïve attempt to make inroads into the world of television writing (although the truth is that his journey more than made up for its naivete in its brevity – he was still in his early 20s when he first landed at “SNL”). From there, we get an engaging, if surface-level, look behind the scenes at the legendary sketch show; it’s a chance to see at least a little bit of how the sausage is made.

Bouncing back and forth between personal and professional anecdotes, Jost takes a look back, walking us along the path that led him to where he stands now – “SNL” head writer, “Weekend Update” co-anchor, Scarlett Johansson fiancé … and insecure Staten Island kid. These stories paint a picture of the man – a picture that, if we’re honest, in many ways validates the self-deprecating title of the book. His has been a largely charmed existence, but at least he’s somewhat forthcoming about acknowledging it.

“A Very Punchable Face” is a solid read. There are some funny stories, to be sure; hell, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Jost pooping his pants as an adult. How many times? Here’s a hint: More than once! Ask him about hosting the Emmys or his blood feud with Aidy Bryant. Jost does well in capturing some of the day-to-day reality of life as an “SNL” writer; the behind-the-scenes writers’ room stuff is interesting, albeit with a familiar flavor – other books have gone deeper.

And that’s ultimately the biggest issue with the book. It’s not superficiality, per se, but Jost never quite manages to get over the hump and truly let the reader in. There’s a glib remove to it all that undermines its sincerity. Of course, that remove is a foundational part of Jost’s whole comedic sensibility – again, look at the title of the book – so its presence is to be expected. The arms-length detachment is unsurprising, but it would have been nice to get more of a look at the person behind the persona.

That said, the book is actually at its best when Jost steps away from 30 Rockefeller Center. The strength of his connection to his family – and Staten Island in general – is obvious, as is his affection for them (though those hoping for some juicy ScarJo dish will likely walk away disappointed – there’s not much here about Jost’s far more famous fiancée). But even these stories seem to come from a place of wry observation, which occasionally results in a ring of disingenuousness that the stories themselves neither warrant nor deserve.

“A Very Punchable Face” isn’t going to change the celebrity memoir landscape. Jost’s book spends more time skimming the surface than we might like, rarely wading beyond waist-deep waters, but it’s an entertaining enough reading experience. If you’re a fan of Jost or “SNL,” you’ll enjoy yourself; if not, feel free to find someone else whose face you’d like to punch.

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2020 16:24

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