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5 ‘SNL’ moments that set the stage for Elon Musk’s controversial episode

While ‘Saturday Night Live’ appeared to shock the world by tapping Elon Musk to host, there is plenty of cringey precedent for it.

5 ‘SNL’ moments that set the stage for Elon Musk’s controversial episode
[Photo: Britta Pedersen/ POOL/AFP via Getty Images (Musk); Giovanni Tancredi/Unsplash]
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When Saturday Night Live announced that meme-connoisseur and aspiring immortal Elon Musk would be hosting the show on May 8, the news didn’t so much break the internet as it broke the world record for most instantly furrowed brows.

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The announcement fueled an entire news cycle, obviously by design. First came the annoyed response on Twitter, followed by careful bemusement from some cast members, and then the bizarre announcement that none of them would be forced to appear on the show with Musk. The episode hadn’t come close to airing yet and the conversation around it already felt like being stuck in an annoying, pointless tunnel with TikTok lights. It was exhausting.

Why all the fuss over this particular host? Take your pick. There’s his recent vaccine skepticism, preceded by his initial COVID-19 skepticism, both of which are just the latest in a long history of Musk being dangerously wrong about important things. There’s the likely mobilization of his Swiftie-level rabid fan base against those who don’t enjoy his comedic stylings. But mainly, people just seem to feel that a centibillionaire who is effectively a defense contractor probably shouldn’t have his terrible sense of humor—picture a horny Zoomer who is too into Rick and Morty—validated by another comedy institution. (It has already been validated by Rick and Morty, which threw Musk a vocal cameo last summer, along with The Simpsons and South Park.)

Oh, and there’s also just the general queasiness around a big business bro getting to do whatever the hell he pleases, no matter how unwarranted. When Musk crowdsourced some potential sketches for his imminent hosting duties, he came off a little like Donald Trump did when he used to fire off breathless tweets about all the neat people he was meeting with as president. Both men seemed to have come into their opportunities as a result of having won some kind of contest.

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In Musk’s case, there is actually some precedent. During the third season of Saturday Night Live, 80-year-old grandmother Miskel Spillman took center stage after winning the show’s Anyone Can Host contest. The fact that she acquitted herself admirably meant that being an experienced comedian was by no means a prerequisite for the show.

Musk is just the modern-day proof that Anyone Can Host SNL. (If he proves incapable, however, Musk will have capable SNL vet Miley Cyrus in the bullpen as musical guest for his episode, in the same way comedic journeymen Buck Henry hung around during Miskel Spillman’s episode.)

While it still feels very strange that the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla will be hosting the show, there is plenty of cringey precedent for it beyond Spillman. SNL has a long history of sanitizing controversial figures, and it is this tradition in which Musk’s turn is best understood. Here are five other moments from the show that paved the way for this week’s potential space-train wreck.

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Donald Trump hosts while running for president

In arguably the most shameful moment in the series’ 46-year history, SNL invited the future president to host in fall 2015. At the time, it might have seemed like a fair counterbalance to the show’s typically left-leaning politics, but ultimately it hinted at some moral rot within the infrastructure. Trump may not have committed any of the sins of his presidency yet—from the Muslim ban to COVID-19 negligence—but by that point he’d already waged the racist birther conspiracy theory against President Barack Obama for four years straight. While Musk is not exactly on Trump’s level in sheer malevolence, the two share a certain trollishness and palpable delight in leaving controversy in their constant wake.

A minor tradition of business leader hosts

Business people are tricky to both mock and embrace on a TV comedy show, because sponsorships can get in the way. For instance, it would be particularly weird if Apple CEO Tim Cook decided to take his comedy chops out for a spin, considering Apple’s investment in advertising on the show. Still, over the years, Saturday Night Live has invited on a handful of business leaders, to varying degrees of success. There was press magnate and fellow presidential candidate Steve Forbes; then-owner of the New York Yankees George Steinbrenner; then-head of NBC Brandon Tartikoff; and Playboy founder and mascot Hugh Hefner. None of these folks had ever been taken to court for calling a heroic rescue worker a “pedo” at the time of their hosting, however.

A long line of sanitizing cameos

In the third episode of the third season of Veep, Vice President Selina Meyer (played by former SNL cast member Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is plagued by an unflattering impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Her solution? Make a cameo on the show, thus demonstrating she’s in on the joke—and owning it. Art was imitating life in this case, as a long line of divisive public figures has appeared on the show to prove they’re good sports and fetch some positive headlines. That list includes Sarah Palin, the probable inspiration for that Veep episode, along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Texas. No matter how self-deprecating their sketches, guesting on the show only makes these folks appear more grounded by an in-check ego—a tantalizing prospect for one of the more powerful people on Earth.

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That weird Amazon episode

No, Jeff Bezos never hosted SNL. He might as well have, however, for all the positive reinforcement the show gave Amazon and Bezos personally in a bizarre episode from 2018. Right at the fever pitch of the debate over whether Amazon should open half of its second headquarters in Queens, one sketch framed Bezos setting up shop in New York as a heroic attack on Trump, while a “Weekend Update” segment shamed New Yorkers for being outraged about it. How will the writers treat Tesla and SpaceX during the Musk episode? It’s doubtful any sketch will be entirely flattering, but it’s even more doubtful any of them will get too deep into how Musk has exaggerated the Tesla’s self-driving abilities and the potential real-world impact of that.

Kanye West’s rant

During the summer of 2018, Kanye West drove his already-sputtering reputation to the junkyard and left it there. (His 2020 presidential campaign didn’t help matters, but the damage had already been done by then.) The spiraling West spent a disastrous few months caping for Donald Trump and claiming that “slavery was a choice.” Although part of West’s career-suicide jaunt was guided by his natural instincts, he has also been very open about how mental illness played a role, as well. He was pretty clearly an unwell man. So, SNL capo Lorne Michaels knew what he was doing when he invited West to be the musical guest on the season premiere of the show that fall. He wanted the instability and uncertainty. He wanted a big moment, and he got one, in the form of three lackluster ‘Ye performances and one shambling pro-Trump rant.

Elon Musk isn’t the same kind of unstable as Kanye West, but the two share some similarities. Musk is known for reliably making wild statements that have tangible reverberations on the stock market. (Indeed, investors are already speculating on how Musk’s SNL appearance will affect the dogecoin, a thing we all just have to know exists.) The promo video treats Musk like a naughty loose cannon. Watch out, world! More than anything else, that feeling appears to be what Michaels wants out of a host. With West, it was exploitative; with Musk, it’s just kind of pathetic.