Saturday Night Live is an American institution — and just like America, it often gets its priorities mixed up.
The variety sketch show drew staggering amounts of backlash when then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump hosted the show in 2016. History is doomed to repeat itself, insofar as SNL bringing a highly controversial figure into the fold: tech icon Elon Musk, set to host the May 8th episode.
Musk’s SNL gig may seem like a shock, all things considered, but in truth, it’s just the logical next step in the twisting and contorting world of celebrity.
It’s no secret that you don’t need to be an actor to host SNL. Athletes do it successfully all the time, like in Peyton Manning’s classic United Way sketch. Justin Timberlake isn’t known for his acting, but he became a regular institution on the series.
You don’t need to be an actor to host SNL — but you do have to be a performer.
Elon Musk does not fit the criteria. He came up in the world of silicon valley, where going against the grain for the sake of innovation was the status quo. In turn, Musk earned billions of dollars and a hefty fandom to boot, one built around his reputation as a “disruptor.” But his high status means he can no longer disrupt. Musk is, in fact, everything comedy is supposed to work against.
As Musk sits in the hosting seat, the SNL writers have their work cut out for them — but no amount of work can make this ... well, work.
The Musk Dilemma
If you’re a writer for Saturday Night Live, there are two ways you can approach Musk’s appearance: create situations where he laughs at himself, or find a way for him to lampoon others. Both have their own unique challenges.
If Musk is shown laughing at himself, making fun of his reputation, or just wearing a dress like Rudy Giuliani did that one time, then Elon Musk is humanized and justified no matter his actions in the future. It’s a similar problem to what Donald Trump faced. No matter what he does, it’s difficult to parse the silly comedy with the strange reception surrounding his image. Treating him like any other celebrity guest inadvertently endorses his behavior by ignoring it.
Comedy is about punching up, about making fun of those in power. That’s great when it’s Will Ferrell making fun of George Bush, but who does Elon Musk have above him to ridicule? Jeff Bezos? Recent divorcée Bill Gates? No matter which way the writing goes, it underlines just how strange this hosting choice is.
What’s my Motivation?
It’s not often that CEOs host SNL. In fact, the only other times prominent businessmen have hosted — Donald Trump and Steven Forbes — were part of a presidential campaign. So why would Elon Musk, the bad boy of tech, want to appear on network television? Saturday Night Live is the ultimate in mass-appeal comedy, so if he’s electing to appear on it, he’s looking to appeal to the everyman.
When Musk tweets out asking for sketch ideas, he’s not just trolling and engaging his fanbase. He’s trying to establish an image as “relatable.” It may seem like speculation, but it’s this kind of image control that’s needed when you say “people will probably die” traveling to Mars.
Appearing on SNL is a common tactic when you’re an object of mockery: Mark Zuckerberg appeared with Andy Samberg doing an impression, Hillary Clinton did the same with Amy Poehler, even fictional President Selina Meyer made an SNL cameo in an episode of Veep.
The difference is these people weren’t hosting. Appearing in a one-off sketch to prove you’re in on the joke is one thing, but performing a monologue and taking up multiple characters is another. Hosting SNL is usually an opportunity to plug a project, be it a recent athletic achievement, a movie, TV show, or album. Musk appears to be plugging himself.
A Look to the Future - and the Past
There are thousands of people who believe Elon Musk is ahead of the curve in everything he does, and they could very well be right. But if he’s ahead of the curve of CEOs becoming multi-hyphenate entertainers, it spells a weird future for Silicon Valley.
Probably the best-case scenario for Musk’s SNL performance we have is a short skit Bill Gates and his successor Steve Ballmer filmed for a Microsoft conference. It’s only 40 seconds long and consists entirely of two of the richest men in the world bobbing their heads to “What is Love” and imitating the characters from Night at the Roxbury.
Gates and Ballmer look incredibly awkward and dorky driving through the streets of Seattle, but they know it. They know they’re not actors, so they make their performance self-deprecating, fully committed, and short. It’s these three things that make for a decent non-performer SNL appearance.
But no matter how well crafted his episode is, there’s no escaping the fact that merely by joining the list of SNL guest hosts, Elon Musk is ushering in a new era of CEO celebrity, one where the brains behind the business must also be the face, while simultaneously cultivating a relatable personality and following.
He’s trying to be everything to everyone, and this episode will prove you can’t be one of the richest men in the world while still cracking jokes about Twitter on live television.
Elon Musk’s Saturday Night Live episode airs May 8 on NBC.