When Colin Jost stepped onto the Studio 8H stage in Pete Buttigieg’s trademark rolled-sleeved white button down and blue tie, he wasn’t just another comedian on Saturday Night Live mimicking a presidential candidate.
Jost was a SNL comedian imitating a former college dormmate.
Buttigieg and Jost have known each other for almost two decades. The two not only both graduated from Harvard University in 2004, but they both lived in the same dorm — Leverett House — during their time at the Ivy League institution and both graduated with honors in History & Literature. The two were not close at Harvard, then-friends and advisers told CNN, but the 2020 campaign offers them an unexpected reunion.
The two former college housemates met again this week before Buttigieg appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon.
Standing in a green room as the mayor prepared for the interview, he and Jost joked about how life had led each of them to this moment: One as a top writer and performer on the country’s premier comedy sketch show and another running to be President.
“What are the odds,” Buttigieg said, according to someone in the room.
Howard Georgi, a physics professor at Harvard who worked as the “master” of Leverett House during both Jost and Buttigieg’s time there, said he isn’t totally surprised both are where they are today because they were both deeply involved during their time at Harvard.
“Pete and Colin had something in common: We didn’t see very much of them,” said Georgi, who, as the so-called “Master” ran the residential housing and lived among the students for 20 years until 2018.
Georgi said Buttigieg was deeply involved in Harvard’s Institute of Politics, an organization he would help run in his senior year as the president of the organization’s Senior Advisory Council. And Jost, likewise, threw himself into The Lampoon, a long-running and well-regarded humor publication at the university that he would go on to run.
“The Lampooners are sort of their own collection,” Georgi remembered. “If you get to know the Lampooners, it is a bad sign. It means there has been some prank (at your expense).”
And Buttigieg “was one of those people who knew just what he wanted to do” at an early age, he recalled, and spent at the politics institute as possible.
Jost takes on Buttigieg at SNL
The role of playing Buttigieg is an uncommon one for Jost, who has been a writer at the show since 2005 but often only appears in the show during “Weekend Update,” a role he has held since 2014.
But as the oft-mocked presidential primary ramps up, Saturday Night Life often taps outside talent — actor Woody Harrelson has played former Vice President Joe Biden on the show this year — or less used comics to play the variety of candidates seeking the nation’s top job.
Jost, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, first played the South Bend, Indiana, mayor in late September when he imitated the candidate during a mock Democratic debate.
“It’s Buttigieg, right? Am I pronouncing that correctly,” asked Cecily Strong playing CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“Sure,” said Jost playing Buttigieg.
The writer reprised the role in October when he played Buttigieg again during a spoof on CNN’s LGBTQ presidential town hall.
Jost, with his arms down and away from his body, seemingly portraying stiffness, says, “I went to Harvard but they don’t teach you where to puts your arms.”
After being asked how he responds to criticism that he is not “gay in the right way,” Jost says, “I have heard that. But there is no wrong way to be gay, unless you are Ellen this week.”
Jost then asks his own rhetorical question.
“Why am I not winning this? I am a veteran, I am under the legal retirement age, and when I talk, it makes sense. Is something wrong with me,” Jost says, mocking Buttigieg’s inability to break into the top tier.
Ran in different circles
Despite both being involved, Buttigieg and Jost were not incredibly close at Harvard, according to people who knew them at the time. While they knew each other, they also ran in distinct circles.
But people like Steve Koh, one of Buttigieg’s longest friends and a groomsman as his wedding, said it was clear early on that both he and Jost had distinct goals beyond the walls of Leverett House.
“He was very involved with the Lampoon, which had its own community and building. He was very much of that universe,” Koh remembered of Jost, adding that even in their brief interactions it was very clear he was “already thinking about the structure of comedy and about what makes something funny.”
As for Buttigieg, Koh said it was clear he had political goals, but even he — one of his best friends — never envisioned him being where he is now.
“We all knew Peter was going to have some sort of public service life, but thought that was (going to be) a mayor or serving the country by being in the military,” said Koh, who is now an assistant professor of law at Boston College Law School. “I definitely did not expect him to run for president and I definitely did not expect him to run for president at 37.”
He added: “It is quite striking to have two people who knew each other at age 19 cross paths in this way. Having said that, in college both displayed a strong sense of leadership and commitment to their respective fields. So it is not completely inconceivable to me that this could have occurred.”
John Della Volpe, the now-director of Polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, worked closely with Buttigieg during his time at Harvard and sees a great deal in common with the presidential candidate he now sees on his TV.
“He seems exactly the same, he seems the same as he did when he was 19 or 20,” Della Volpe recalled. “The way in which he approached things and people, I can certainly see similarities.”
Even if Jost knows Buttigieg more than many comedians know their subjects, it doesn’t appear to have helped him — something that the writer admitted earlier this month on “Weekend Update” when he compared his impression to one President Donald Trump delivered at a rally.
“I bet Trump’s impression of those two agents,” he joked, “is about as accurate as my impression of Pete Buttigieg.”