A Very Punchable Face

A Memoir

About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In these hilarious essays, the Saturday Night Live head writer and Weekend Update co-anchor learns how to take a beating.

“I always wanted to punch his face before I read this book. Now I just want to kick him in the balls.”—Larry David


If there’s one trait that makes someone well suited to comedy, it’s being able to take a punch—metaphorically and, occasionally, physically. 

From growing up in a family of firefighters on Staten Island to commuting three hours a day to high school and “seeing the sights” (like watching a Russian woman throw a stroller off the back of a ferry), to attending Harvard while Facebook was created, Jost shares how he has navigated the world like a slightly smarter Forrest Gump.

You’ll also discover things about Jost that will surprise and confuse you, like how Jimmy Buffett saved his life, how Czech teenagers attacked him with potato salad, how an insect laid eggs inside his legs, and how he competed in a twenty-five-man match at WrestleMania (and almost won). You'll go behind the scenes at SNL and Weekend Update (where he's written some of the most memorable sketches and jokes of the past fifteen years). And you’ll experience the life of a touring stand-up comedian—from performing in rural college cafeterias at noon to opening for Dave Chappelle at Radio City Music Hall.

For every accomplishment (hosting the Emmys), there is a setback (hosting the Emmys). And for every absurd moment (watching paramedics give CPR to a raccoon), there is an honest, emotional one (recounting his mother’s experience on the scene of the Twin Towers’ collapse on 9/11). Told with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, A Very Punchable Face reveals the brilliant mind behind some of the dumbest sketches on television, and lays bare the heart and humor of a hardworking guy—with a face you can’t help but want to punch.
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Listen to a sample from A Very Punchable Face

Praise for A Very Punchable Face

“Colin Jost is as funny as his face is punchable. Which is to say: very. He also knows a lot about Staten Island, soiling himself, internal parasites, and firemen’s pensions. He’s really the whole package. And if you care about comedy—writing it, performing it, watching it, or giving up any semblance of a normal adult life for it—so is his book.”—Zadie Smith
“Colin Jost is one of the best people I know and one hell of a writer. This book proves both to be true.”—Seth Meyers

“I was caught off guard by how much I enjoyed this book, considering how indifferent I feel about Colin as a person.”—Amy Schumer

“An inspiring story that reminds us that if you are born with looks and talent, you can still make it.”—Conan O’Brien

“I think this book is fantastic. I haven’t read a single word of it, but it’s got everything I want in a book—a front, a back, a good spine. And it’s got some heft. Whoever wrote this book knew what she was doing. Well done.”—Michael Che

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A Very Punchable Face

Chapter 1

Finding My Voice

“Let thy speech be better than silence. Or be silent.”—Dionysius of Halicarnassus

“If you just don’t interfere with yourself, you’re quite interesting.”—Robin Williams

I wasn’t able to speak until I was almost four years old. I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently that’s insane. Most kids start to speak by the age of one and a half or two. So speaking for the first time at the age of four is like having sex for the first time at the age of seventy-five: You can do it, but no doctor recommends it.

My parents claim they weren’t too worried, but a four-year-old who doesn’t speak isn’t normal. It’s the opening of a horror movie. They said I could understand what people were telling me, but I couldn’t respond verbally. I would point or grunt but couldn’t form any actual words. I was a shorter, less charming Mr. Bean.

My mom finally admitted, “We were a little worried, since every other child we knew was talking in full sentences. Whereas the only three sounds you ever made were ‘Ma,’ ‘Ba,’ and ‘Da.’ But you made good eye contact with people and you were exceptionally good at miming!”

Okay, now that is a horror movie. A four-year-old staring you dead in the eyes and “miming” while repeating “Ma, Ba, Da” until blood pours out of his eyes.

I have a vague memory from that age of feeling really frustrated. Like I was trying to will the words to come out but couldn’t do it. It felt like trying to talk underwater. Or rap in outer space. My mom said I would get angry a lot and lash out.

“You very much identified with He-Man at the time,” she said. “So if other kids were communicating with words, you tended to respond with violence.”

Not sure if that was the message behind He-Man . . . “Use the Power of Grayskull to defeat the power of words! Silence your friends with your fists! And punch your way to justice!”

Other times I would get scared and not know how to express it. My mom said that when a fire alarm went off, I grabbed her hand and mimicked the sound of the alarm. Then I pointed to my heart, like, “It’s making my heart beat faster because I’m scared.” I might have been a chimpanzee?

I’ve told friends that I couldn’t speak until I was four and their usual response is: “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” And I’m like, “What the hell does that mean?” And they say, “I don’t know, you just seem like someone who didn’t speak until they were four.” And I say, “Oh yeah? Well, you look like someone who has sex with their cousin.” And that ends the discussion pretty quick.

But I kind of understand what they mean. To this day, I’m in my head a lot of the time. I create entire monologues and have full, detailed conversations with friends—entirely in my head. And then I get frustrated because that whole carefully constructed dialogue will never see the light of day. It just exists fully built in my brain like a ship in a bottle, and then it floats away before anyone can see it. It’s like rapping, but in outer space.

I still have a deep fear about speaking. Not public speaking, but regular speaking. Once I get going I’m okay, but it’s starting to speak that’s the problem.

I’ve noticed that I say “Uhhhh” a lot in conversation before I speak, and it’s because I’m stalling to let my words catch up with my brain. It’s like a pinwheel spinning on a computer, waiting for me to locate the information somewhere in my mind. “Uhhhh . . . want to go out for lunch? And uhhhh . . . don’t go in the kitchen, it’s on fire.”

I even get scared when the phone rings because I think, I’m not ready to speak yet. I haven’t figured out what to say. But when I push through that fear and start saying words, I’m instantly relieved. That’s why answering the phone and talking to another human still feels like a huge psychological accomplishment. (And that’s why I currently have 254 un-listened-to voicemails. The oldest is a call from Omaha Steaks in 2007!)

That’s also why I loved performing, even as a kid. It forced me to speak with conviction and to express emotion in what I was saying. If I didn’t have an outlet as a writer and as a performer, I don’t know what I would have done. It would have been like trying to rap, but in outer space. (Sorry, I’ll stop.)

I’m always happiest when I don’t have time to think or plan ahead. If I’m onstage and someone yells something from the audience and I just have to react, that’s when I’m most comfortable. Or when I wake up in the morning next to my future wife and we can talk and joke around while I’m still half asleep and not paralyzed by my own thoughts yet.

An ex-girlfriend gave me some great advice: “You need to say what you’re thinking a lot more and not be afraid of being judged or being inarticulate or offensive or even boring.”

Being boring is what I fear most, so I tend to keep a story or a joke in my head until it’s ready to tell other people. Sometimes this is good, because the story might be better by the time I relay it. But a lot of times it’s bad, because I could have just blurted it out and found the funny part of the story in real time. The more I get it outside my head and onto a stage or page (huge rhyme alert), the better off I am.

When I was four, however, my parents weren’t worried about my future career as a performer. They were worried about their child not saying a single word. And that’s when they sent me to Staten Island University Hospital to work with a woman who saved my life.

I remember my speech therapist as this glowing blond angel who started pulling words out of my brain. Like when Ursula steals Ariel’s voice in The Little Mermaid, only she was putting the voice into me, while doctors removed my vestigial fish tail. And even though she was from Staten Island and probably had a thick Green Book accent, in my memory she sounds like the fairy godmother in Cinderella. “Come on now, Colin! Enunciate! Let the magic of words transport you!” Instead of what she really said: “Repeat after me: My ex-husband is trash. If I catch him with another Perkins waitress, I’m getting Uncle Lou to break his thumbs.”

I asked my mom recently if my speech therapist was actually blond and she said, “Oh yes, she was striking! What a beautiful woman! I’ll never forget her!”

“Oh great,” I said. “What was her name?”

“I have no idea!”

In fairness, my mother suffers from Giant Irish Family Syndrome, where she can’t even remember her own children’s names without cycling through multiple cousins first.

“Hey . . . Sean, I mean Patrick, I mean Colin!”

It could be worse. She often gets to the dog’s name before my brother, Casey.

I’ve tried many ways to track down my speech therapist because I wanted to thank her. But clearly my mother is no help (“Was it ‘Brenda’? I know it started with a letter . . .”), and according to my dad, my medical records before the age of fifteen have “disappeared.” (Either my parents misplaced them or they’re covering up a much darker secret.)

So if you’re reading this and you were a speech therapist at Staten Island University Hospital around 1986, please know: I am eternally grateful to you for giving me the power of speech. It was so much more effective than the Power of Grayskull. I don’t remember any of the exercises we did together. I just remember feeling that anger and frustration slowly fade away. I remember not being scared anymore. And I remember how happy I felt when I could finally express myself. I didn’t have to punch my way to justice anymore.

I’m still learning how to speak and not be afraid of what comes out. But you taught me that once I get going, it will be okay.

Now, whenever my mom meets a new mother whose child is having difficulty speaking, she says, “Don’t worry, my son was a very slow talker and now he makes a living from it!”

“Oh, which son?”

“Dylan. I mean Billy. Wait, no, Colin. Whichever one does the news.”

About the Author

Colin Jost
Colin Jost is a head writer at Saturday Night Live, a Weekend Update co-anchor, and a touring stand-up comedian. He has five Writers Guild Awards, two Peabody Awards, and a PETA Elly Award for the sketch “Diner Lobster.” He’s also been nominated for thirteen Emmy Awards and lost every time. He lives in New York and in the hearts of children everywhere. More by Colin Jost
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