In their alternately affectionate and raucous joint memoir, "Good Talk Dad: The Birds and the Bees ... and Other Conversations We Forgot to Have," network news personalities Bill and Willie Geist riff and reminisce about their lives thus far as one of America's funniest father-and-son duos.
At least ostensibly, the book is about their fairly circumscribed but still effective form of communication during Willie's youth — which involved keeping things light, laughing a lot, reveling in a certain degree of ineptitude at fishing and camping, and studiously avoiding potentially disastrous topics, like sex. But in a larger sense, the book is a series of set pieces built around the theme of father-son bonding despite, or maybe because of, their woeful (and maybe glorious) inadequacy at dealing with tricky issues through any lens other than comedy.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Bill Geist, a former columnist with a Chicago Tribune suburban publication and now a longtime contributor to "CBS Sunday Morning," and his son Willie, a former high school sports standout who now is a co-host on NBC's "Today" and MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Here's an edited transcript of our chat, which was punctuated by regular bursts of laughter.
Q: Since this is the Chicago Tribune, let's first establish your Illinois bona fides.
Bill: I was born in Champaign — actually Urbana. (Laughs.) It was a quarter of a block into Urbana. Went to high school there, then the University of Illinois. Later on we moved to Evanston and I worked for the suburban section of the Chicago Tribune, the Suburban Trib, from 1972 to 1980. Then we moved to New Jersey, where I worked for the New York Times till '87, and for CBS since then.
Q: Willie, you don't have many memories of living in Evanston, I take it.
Willie: No, we moved when I was 5. But we still had a lot of relatives back there. My dad's mother lived in Champaign, so I would go back and do Lou Henson's basketball camp every summer and live with Grandma Marge. And my other grandma lived in Barrington, so I still feel a strong connection to Chicago and to Illinois.
Q: Evanston, as I recall from the book, was the site of the not-so-famous incident of Willie riding in the front seat of a VW Bug with no seat belts. Bill is driving, hits the brakes, and little Willie's head makes contact with the windshield.
Bill: (Laughs.) A lot of things happened in Evanston, for sure.
Willie: Parenting was a little more lax in those days. It was in the pre-car seat era, and I was standing on the front seat, jumping up and down. Every so often, when Dad would have to stop short, and ... I still have a scar on my forehead, let's put it that way.
Q: Well, what happens in Evanston, stays in Evanston.
Bill: (Laughs.) All these misfortunes make good material, though. I was writing a column three days a week for the Tribune, and a lot of stories like that one got into the column.
Q: But as Willie mentioned, the concept we have today of parenting, with a capital P, wasn't much in vogue at the time. Parents didn't obsess about their kids the way they seem to now.
Bill: No, they didn't. I think Willie's mother Jody, when she was pregnant with Willie, water-skied, drank wine and went to a Grateful Dead concert at Northwestern. The times were a little different. But, you know, Willie seems to have turned out OK.
Q: That remains to be seen, to some extent.
Bill: Well, he shows promise. (Laughs.)
Q: Part of the setup for the comedy in the book is that both of you seem to have had a sense of how things ought to be between fathers and sons. Bill, you wanted to teach him how to camp and fish, and you had this notion about having the talk with him about the birds and the bees and so on. And yet you had no true gift, let's say, for that sort of thing.
Bill: (Laughs.) You put it very kindly.
Q: So where did those ideas come from — "Father Knows Best," maybe? "Leave It to Beaver"?