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Updated: 6/4/2009 - 4:20 AM

When in doubt, laugh...
Bill and Willie Geist | Dishing out humor a family staple
  2 comments below

Bill and Willie Geist at home near Wades Beach. Carol Galligan photo
When guests sit down at their Pridwin Hotel tables on June 13 at the 19th annual Book & Author Luncheon, sponsored by the Shelter Island Public Library, they should most definitely be ready to laugh. Two members of the Geist family, father and son Bill and Willie, will be co-hosts at the event and both of their careers rely heavily on their wits — or, actually, their wit.

When asked if they thought humor was genetic, they moved quickly to tales of the extended family dinner table, a place of almost continuous laughter. “There was Uncle Bert, Uncle Herb, Uncle Mike,” Bill said, “all very funny guys. Willie grew up in a totally ridiculous atmosphere. The fact that he's rather normal, all things considered, is amazing.” He went on, “When my daughter, Libby, brings men friends home, she'll often say ‘He's really funny.' No, that's just not what we need, bring home a brain surgeon or a tire mechanic!” Willie, continuing talk of the dinner table, “You had to hold your own and at times it could get rough, you could get cut down to size, but it was great preparation for the real world.”

And in that real world, they both seem to have managed very nicely. Bill began life in Champaign, Illinois, home of the University of Illinois, where he both graduated and met his future wife, Jody, to whom he's been married for 39 years. His early career was as a reporter and columnist, both in Chicago and New York. He made the transition to television with relative ease. “The producer of ‘Sixty Minutes,' Don Hewitt, was a fan of my column in the Times about New York. He liked what I did and said you ought to try TV and so I thought about it, decided to do it; I thought it would be fun. Charles Kuralt called me a couple of times, he was in charge of the show then and he convinced me it would be fun to just give it a whirl, so I did, for better or worse.” He went on, “It helps to have that inner sense, that feeling ‘I can do this.' I read things obviously that I can't do. Joan Didion is one of my favorite writers. I read the first paragraph of her last book and threw it across the room, saying ‘Wow!' — it was just that great.”

Willie's confidence is right up there as well. Now 34, with a wife, a two-year-old daughter and a son expected in July, he'd been working at CNN in sports “and I wanted to do things on camera and they kept saying no, and it was the same thing. I kept thinking, I know I can do this, how do I get out of this room and show somebody that I can do it. Sometimes all you need is that one chance to show them.” And, it would seem, he did, since he, with Joe Scarborough and Mica Brzezinski (Yes, Zbigniew Brzezinski's daughter) cohosts the  weekday show “Morning Joe” on MSNBC from 6 to 9 a.m.

The only downside for Willie is the requirement to get to work a little after 5 a.m. “People say, ‘Oh, you must get used to it,' but after almost two years ... no, not at all, never, but the good thing is once I get there, it's great.” About the show, “I think it keeps getting better because our chemistry is growing and we get each other's sense of humor. Each of us brings something different to the mix, we look at the show as sort of a breakfast table, people who are watching, hearing what's going on, laughing some of the time, being angry some of the time.”

Bill, speaking of Willie's show, went on, “I've been in journalism for 35 years and Willie's met more important people in the last year and a half, people of high level importance.” Willie went on, “People can drop in, sit, stay for 10 minutes, or if you want to stay longer, great! Stay for an hour! We just put an extra chair in there.” Asked about the degree to which the show is planned and how he prepares, Willie said the main preparation is to be on top of the news. “I just go on all the newspaper websites the night before, and just read everything because you never know what will come up. By the time we get in in the morning it's been pared down to maybe five or six subjects, we don't have teleprompters or scripts, it's just three hours of ad-libbing.”

Turning to the subject of Shelter Island, for a long time Bill and Jody  had never heard of it. Bill, having come from the midwest, found the ocean “overwhelming. It scares me still,” he said. But a New York Times colleague told him about the Island and it was another case of love at first sight. Thirteen years ago, they found a home near Wades Beach with a view of Shell Beach, and they love it. Jody is a dedicated gardener and has taken up sailing, buying a small Sunfish for herself. The house is large, with a guest cottage, and has become a family center. According to Bill, “My wife was buying baby blankets five years ahead of time,” waiting for the day that three generations would come together there. And now they have. “Now it's here,” Bill said, “and we love it, we really do.”

Reservations for the Book & Author luncheon can be made at the library or by calling 749-0042. The cost is $60 per person, $35 of which is a tax-deductible contribution.

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2 comments found

Bill and Wilie Geist : 7/13/2014
Bill and Willie, I love you guys!! I catch Bill on Sunday Morning and Willie every weekday morning. Keep up the good work. And thanks for being here.

Geists : 5/28/2009
Carol, you made a silk purse out of a sow's ear! Great article and even the photo made sense. Thank you, Jody

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