Willie Geist Celebrates 3 Years With 'Sunday Today,' Reflects on Past Guests & More
It's not every day that viewers are treated to conversational interviews with today's biggest celebrities and newsmakers, but on Sunday Today, Willie Geist is doing exactly that.
The Morning Joe and Today Show contributor helms the weekend show as news, interviews and different features fill the hour. As the show approaches its April 14 episode featuring an interview with Game of Thrones star Kit Harington approaches, so does the program's third anniversary.
TV Insider spoke with Geist about the guests that have been particularly special to him, whether he gets starstruck, what he's watching on TV and much more. Read on as the interviewer becomes the interviewee.
You’ve met so many amazing artists, actors and newsmakers through Sunday Today. Is there one experience or interview that's been particularly memorable?
Willie Geist: The Bill Murray interview last year just because — number one he's a hard guy to get a hold of – you have to call a 1-800 number to track him down – and number two he just doesn't do a lot of interviews. And to sit with him for an hour, it was a dream that I think every man or woman has had growing up to talk through Saturday Night Live and get stories from the after parties.
To talk through Caddyshack and Ghostbusters and to talk through Royal Tenenbaums and all these roles that you don't get to hear him talk about much – it was exciting on that level and then it was exciting on the level of, we had built a show that Bill Murray wanted to be on — he picks very carefully where he speaks and where he does interviews, and the fact that he wanted to do our show was a validation of what our whole team has been doing for a couple of years.
Of course, Jerry Seinfeld was along those lines, too. He doesn't need to do a lot of interviews... but the fact that he found it valuable and worth while and hopefully enjoyable to come on our show made a great statement about what we built on Sunday Today.
Has there ever been a time where you've found yourself starstruck?
Yeah, I think Jerry Seinfeld's probably one. I've met him in passing at a couple of events, but I don't really know him. And he's so smart and so funny... so the fact that he enjoyed the interview and we sat for an hour — that was cool. You kind of get through those first 10 minutes of like "oh, there's Jerry Seinfeld, the guy I watched on TV every night growing up and continue to watch every night now."
Even before the Sunday show started, the one I always cite is Mick Jagger, because I grew up in a Stones household and could do all of his dances, knew every word to all of his songs. Then you're sitting there in a director's chair somewhere on a movie set and down plops across from you, six inches away, Mick Jagger, the guy who you've been impersonating your whole life. I find that being super-prepared is the best way to prevent being starstruck or nervous in some way.
Your podcast Sunday Sitdown offers an extended listen at your interviews from the show. Does that change your approach to how you format the interviews?
It doesn't change the way I do it, because we're primarily doing the interview for TV, and if I were doing these as standalone podcasts they'd be different because... They're not exactly how you do a podcast, but the idea behind [it] was that we had these incredible 45-minute to hour long interviews with these big stars and even though our pieces are longer than most TV — we get 8 minutes or so on Sunday Today — that means you've got 52 minutes sitting back on the floor of an edit room somewhere. So, we decided just to cut it at the top and the bottom and post it as a podcast. So, it doesn't change the way I do them, but I'm happy they live somewhere and that they're not lost to the ages.
Your schedule is hectic between work on Morning Joe, Sunday Today, Sunday Sitdown and other engagements. What shows do you watching in your free time?
[This week] I interviewed Kit Harington – Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, of course. I have to be honest, I didn't watch Game of Thrones. So, I knew for a while that I was going to be interviewing him, and I just started going crazy on Game of Thrones [Laughs] and got super into it. Yes... I'm eight years late to the party on Game of Thrones, but I've arrived at the party now and I'm ready for Season 8. And I've got to have a conversation with Jon Snow himself.
Although, they protect the secrets of that season really closely. He's like, "You can keep asking a hundred different ways, I'm not telling you what happens, man" [Laughs]... So yeah, Game of Thrones I love. I'm excited that Veep is back — I love Veep so much. And what's cool about On Demand and Netflix and all that is my kids — who are 11 and 9 now, and developing their own sense of humor — are starting to watch shows I watched.
Since joining the Today team, is there any special piece of advice or wisdom you've come across from your colleagues?
I think the best advice that I've gotten, and I know it's a cliché and I apologize for even saying it, but totally be yourself… it's something I've sort of known instinctively but it's nice to not only hear it from Today Show colleagues but to watch them live it... I mean look at Hoda, Savannah, Carson for sure, Al for sure, Dylan for sure, Craig for sure, and Jenna Bush Heager probably more than any of them is exactly who she is on TV... The people on the Today Show have succeeded and made it as hosts of the Today Show by being who they are, and that's something different for each of them.
What kind of advice would you offer to aspiring up-and-coming journalists in the world of “fake news” today?
I guess, what I would say to young journalists is just report what's happening. There's a temptation now, I think, in media to be snarky... Just tell me what's going on. And let the facts of the story make your case for you if you're trying to make a case — you don't have to add in snark... I think there will be a reward for people who just stick to the story and get the facts right and are not rooting for an outcome.
What do you think are the essential building blocks of any good Sunday Today installment?
I think the centerpiece is to have a great guest... we've been in a position where whatever the big thing is that weekend, we try to get that person. So it's the Game of Thrones premiere that will be the thing of entertainment this weekend so we got Kit Harington. When Captain Marvel came out we had Brie Larson... You try to get a guest who's compelling but also relevant. The first 15 minutes of our show is news... so you hope for some big news to happen overnight... There are stories that are difficult but we try to find something uplifting in them.
Last week we had a piece about a campfire five months later in [Paradise, California] where the town was burnt to the ground. We had this story about this artist basically using the ruins as a backdrop for these beautiful paintings. So, we try to bring you something maybe that you didn't know, something that'll make you feel a little bit better about the world.
I always say to my kids when I look around and they see the news that's scary and chaotic, that there's much much more light in the world than there is dark and we try to shine that light brightly on Sunday through our spotlight pieces or Harry Smith will do an incredible closer piece... So I think just lifting people up on a Sunday morning we have the benefit of some time and people's attention because they're not running out to go to work or school.
Is there one guest you've yet to have on the show that you'd love to stop by?
The list of that is long. So, I mentioned Mick Jagger, and I have not interviewed him for the Sunday show especially given his health — and we trust he's doing better — [but we] would really love to have him on my Sunday show and spend extended time with him and if Keith Richards wants to come along all the better.
Sunday Today with Willie Geist, Sunday Mornings, 8/7c, NBC