Interview by Lindsey Wheat
After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1997, Willie Geist began his television career as a producer at CNN Sports Illustrated. After several years covering sports, and a stint as a producer for The Situation with Tucker Carlson, a new opportunity for Geist presented itself — this time, in front of the camera, substituting as a host on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in 2007.
He was a natural from the start, and viewers immediately took notice of his easy charm and relatable humor. This on-air charisma eventually landed him a permanent co-host gig on Morning Joe, along with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Two years later, he also began hosting Way Too Early with Willie Geist. These days, Geist is still on Morning Joe, then heads across the hall at 30 Rock to co-host the Today show. Also a bestselling author, he’s written American Freak Show, and Loaded! Become a Millionaire Overnight and Lose 20 Pounds in 2 Weeks or Your Money Back!, a satire of the popular self-help genre. Geist’s third book, Good Talk, Dad: The Birds and the Bees… and Other Conversations We Forgot to Have, came out in May. He co-wrote it with his father, Bill Geist — the award-winning, special correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning. They talk about fatherhood, sports, childhood memories and more in a hilarious and touching way. The book tour has been a special time for Geist and his father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992.
Geist and his wife (his high school sweetheart), Christina, have a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. The family splits its time between Manhattan and Lewisboro, NY, where they recently purchased a new home.
Do your kids watch you on TV every day?
They watch me no days on TV! My wife wakes up with the kids and says, “Let’s say good morning to Daddy!” She tells me that lasts about 10 seconds before they say “Change the channel!” and she has to put on Nickelodeon, or whatever the cartoon of choice is that day. I think they’re vaguely aware of what I do, but they’re not interested even a little bit. Which I kind of love.
How has it been transitioning to a new house and life in the country?
We’re new to the area and we’ve been cooped up in the city for a decade, so we’re letting all this pent-up outdoor frustration go. Every meal I’m on the grill making way too much food for four people going, “I have steak and chicken and burgers!” and my wife will say, “Who’s eating all this food?” We’re just enjoying our outdoor space and the backyard, having BBQs, watching the kids jump in the pool. We’re doing what I think a lot of families do in the summer — swimming, fishing, hanging out together. That’s a lot harder to do in the city. Westchester makes that easy and lovely.
What are your favorite summer things to do?
1. Ride bikes in Riverside Park. My daughter turned seven and just learned to ride a two-wheeler.
2. Go to a daytime Yankees game, like on a Wednesday afternoon.
3. We have a little rooftop on our building [in the city]. My wife, our two kids and I go up there on weeknights, early when there’s a nice breeze. We carry a picnic basket in the elevator and have a picnic on our roof.
4. We have our New York state fishing licenses! So, when we’re in Westchester I take the kids fishing. There’s a great tackle shop off Route 35, Cross River Bait & Tackle, and they’re awesome in there. We go in there and buy worms and the basics, and just sit on the edge of the pond and throw a line in.
5. Oh, and we really like going to the hardware store! I’m not gonna lie to you.
So you’re tinkering around the new house?
Exactly. Again, it’s a [country] versus city thing. Like at Stop & Shop, for instance — my kids didn’t know what to do with themselves. They were like, “What is this place?” It’s just a grocery store, but they’re used to the city where there are two aisles and you have to shuffle by everybody. They’re dancing down the aisles here.
It’s like that for me, but with the hardware store. It’s like a candy shop when you have a new house — you imagine yourself doing all these great projects. Like, I’m gonna need that drill for when I prepare the barn or… probably something else I’m never going to actually do.
You always look confident and cheerful on TV; you’ve said that comes naturally to you. Have you ever been star-struck by anyone?
My house was a huge Rolling Stones house growing up. My parents love The Stones, my uncles loved them. So those guys, they were gods. A few months ago I got the chance to interview Mick Jagger in Mississippi where he was shooting. He’s the executive producer of the James Brown biopic, so I got to go on set and meet him.
I couldn’t figure out what was gonna happen when I met him. Would I be in panic mode because this guy is one of my heroes? Or would it be like seeing an old friend? You’re sitting in a chair with Mick Jagger three feet away from you, and he’s going to sit and talk to you and listen to your questions — I mean, that’s just so cool! Oddly — and I think it was just because I know so much about him — I became totally comfortable around him.
Well, honestly, this may sound like homerism, but I look up to Matt [Lauer] a lot. I always have. He’s just so good at what he does and I learn so much by watching him. I sit in my office and I watch how he handles segments, and how he interviews people, and I study him, for sure. Same with Brian Williams, I watch him a lot. And I’ve had the opportunity to co-host Morning Joe on MSNBC with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. I don’t need to leave 30 Rock to learn what it’s like to be a really good broadcaster. It’s cool to be on set with people I really look up to and just hang with them.
Do you find you have more anonymity in the city or in Westchester?
People in New York City are great. What I love about them is that they’re so nonchalant about everything. I don’t know what it’s like in LA, I’ve never lived there, but in New York everyone pretends not to see you. I take the subway home from work every day, and the guy sitting on the opposite bench will take his paper down and just give the head nod acknowledgement, like “I know who you are, tough guy.” I love that. I think Westchester is like that, too. People just say “Hello” in a nice way. It feels small town. Listen, I’m not Brad Pitt, the anonymity thing is not a problem for me, I don’t travel with a pack of body guards. I love being out and people are friendly both places.
You’re no stranger to morning TV. Your show Way Too Early with Willie Geist was on at 5:30 a.m.
I know! I was waking up at like 3 o’clock. And now, I wake up a little later, at like 4:30 a.m. I do Morning Joe, which starts at 6 a.m., and then run and do the Today show. It’s still early, but it’s a little more civilized.
What is the biggest trip you’ve taken for the Today show so far?
This year, I would say Sochi, Russia, for the Olympics. I probably never would have gone on my own were it not for this amazing job that I have the privilege of having. You know, I got to go over there with my friends — my co-hosts and my producers — and we had a blast. You’re all in the same hotel for three weeks, you go out, you do your job, see the country a little bit — I’d say that was probably the coolest.
Does covering the Olympics fill the void of covering sports like you did when you were with CNN Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports Net?
You know, I think it does. I love sports, that’s how I started my career, as a producer. But I think what I’ve realized being in news now for almost 10 years is that I love sports more as a fan than I do as an employee. When you work in sports, it’s a job. There’s no cheering in the press box. There’s cheering in the stands. I loved it, but it stripped a little of the joy out of it.
The cool thing about working for NBC is that we’ve got the Olympics until the end of time, so that means you have a shot at going to the Olympics every two years.
With your busy schedules, do you and your wife have time for date nights?
We try to go on a date at least once a week, but usually more. You know, we love our kids, but it’s important to spend time without them. We usually don’t go to a movie because my wife says if we have two hours we shouldn’t sit in a dark theater and not speak to each other. So we usually get together with friends and go out to eat. We’re still learning about some of the places up in Westchester.
Are you a techie at all? Do you have a favorite gadget?
You know, my whole world is in my iPhone. But I’m notorious in my family for being frustrated by technology. I have no patience for the printer that doesn’t work — it never works — it’s always connected to, like, the printer three floors above you. Still, my wife would probably say I’ll take my phone to my death bed.
What advice do you have for someone looking to break into broadcasting?
Volunteer to do anything from the start. Even if it’s outside your job. Say, “I’ll go run and do that.” Just be open to do anything. If you’re working on TV, don’t walk in your first day and announce your plans to be on TV. Because that’s what everyone wants to do. Just work hard for a while, prove yourself to everyone around you, and they’ll see that you work hard. At that point, once you’ve established trust, then you can start asking questions like, “What do you think I should be doing? I’m thinking about getting on the air.” Some people walk in and you ask them, “What do you want to do?” and they just say, “I want be on TV.” So you know they’re there just to move past you, they’re not there to invest in what you’re doing. I think it’s good to be ambitious, but work hard at your job first.
Then I would suggest they practice writing. Writing is a gift that can carry you through so much. I think being a good writer is key to everything in this business. If you can write, you can be self-sufficient, and you can always create your own content and speak in your voice, and you won’t always be reliant on other people to get your message.
My dad was diagnosed 22 years ago, but he just went public about it two years ago on the CBS Sunday Morning show. It was strange, because the first 10 years that he had it, he didn’t tell me or my younger sister. There were no outward signs, so we didn’t know anything was wrong. We did think he was slowing down a little bit but we said, “Well, I guess Dad is getting a little older.” In hindsight, we should have asked more questions, but we didn’t because we were young. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t want people to worry about him or pity him. He didn’t want to be known as “the sick guy.” The funny thing is, by the time he told everyone, which is 20 years in at that point, everyone knew. Everyone on TV could see it, and all of our family friends knew. It was time. He needed to just break that tension and not make it difficult and awkward for people, and I think he’s glad he did, because he just got so much love and support, not only from his friends and family, but also from all the viewers of his show.
You two are very close. Has your relationship changed since you became a father?
His diagnosis didn’t change the way I feel about my own kids, it’s just more of a good lesson for them that things do happen, and people you know and love get sick, and you rally around them and love them. My dad gets up every day and goes to work despite having Parkinson’s. He gets on a plane and flies to cover a story and appears on TV. I think that’s a good message to the kids, to see that things will come along in life, and it’s how you handle them that matters.
Has he been on the book tour with you? Are you traveling together?
He’s been there every step of the way. We didn’t quite know going in because you have good days and bad days with Parkinson’s, but he’s been on fire — he’s funny and charming and himself — he’s been his best self. I honestly don’t know how he’s doing it. I mean, I’m exhausted. You go out, you do these events, you get home late, I get up early and go in to work — so I don’t quite know how he’s pulling this off but man, he is.
What are some of the things on your must-do list for summer?
We just bought this little 12-foot rowboat called a Jon boat. I’m going to take the kids out fishing. Nothing fancy, you row into one of the reservoirs in Westchester and you sit in a boat, you have a sandwich, you have a drink. You catch fish. Maybe you don’t catch fish. But it’ll be fun.
Oh, and my wife and I are seeing Jay-Z and Beyoncé on tour. Gotta do that! And, I think drinking a lot of bourbon in the backyard will be a high priority.