What do Elon Musk and SNL want from each other?

Tech mogul Elon Musk will host Saturday Night Live this weekend despite rumblings from critics and even some cast members. Jackson Weaver looks at the rationale for the controversial booking.

Tech mogul to host show this weekend despite rumblings from cast

Tech mogul Elon Musk is hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend, and not everybody is thrilled about it. (Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)

Tech billionaire and space entrepreneur Elon Musk is taking on the role of Saturday Night Live host this weekend — for better or worse.

The answer to that question (whether inviting the third-richest person on the planet to host a show that primarily welcomes entertainers and athletes is better or worse) has already stirred debate, criticism and a social media firestorm. 

Which may have been the point in the first place.

Mixed reception

Musk announced he would host the long-standing sketch-comedy show in a pair of tweets. Both drew hundreds of thousands of mostly positive replies. 

But outside of Musk's own 50 million-strong Twitter followers, the reaction was more mixed. CNN, the Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times and other outlets ran stories about the seemingly confusing choice, which came less than a month after the Tesla and SpaceX CEO was criticized for controversial statements about COVID-19 vaccines. 

Musk later clarified that he does "support vaccines in general and COVID vaccines specifically," but it was far from the only thing critics took issue with.

Variety writer and editor Jenelle Riley wrote that she was "beyond disappointed in SNL," listing some recent business controversies involving Musk, including his decision to reopen Tesla plants early on in the pandemic.

Dean Obeidallah, who worked on the show's production staff for eight seasons, wrote in an opinion piece that Musk pushed disinformation about the pandemic, and said he "doesn't deserve to host SNL."

Current members of the show also rebelled, though in a slightly less direct way. Cast member Bowen Yang took a screenshot of one of Musk's tweets about hosting the show ("Let's find out how live Saturday Night Live really is") and posted it to Instagram, along with the caption: "What … does this even mean?"

Writer Andrew Dismukes posted, "Only CEO I want to do a sketch with is Cher-E Oteri" — a reference to former SNL comedian Cheri Oteri.

Cast member Aidy Bryant also appeared to take a subtle swipe at the billionaire.

Using Instagram, she posted a screenshot of a tweet from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The tweet called it a "moral obscenity" that the 50 wealthiest people in the U.S. have more wealth than half the country. Musk obviously sits near the top of that list of the wealthiest Americans.

The reactions weren't all bad. Cast members Michael Che and Pete Davidson both later spoke positively about Musk's upcoming turn as host, and Conan O'Brien, who used to write for the show, said Musk would be a "dream guest."

Still, the divided opinion did raise two key questions: What does SNL want with Musk? And what does Musk want with the show?

Courting controversy

"SNL knew what they were doing," Obeidallah said in an interview with CBC News. "Google Elon Musk, and controversy after controversy comes up. They booked him for controversy."

Obeidallah put the decision squarely in the context of ratings. By stirring the pot with a controversial guest, which it already seems to have accomplished, the show is hoping the buzz and outrage will draw curious viewers. 

A non-entertainer, non-athlete is a rare choice as host. The most memorable recent example was presidential hopeful Donald Trump in 2015, though he had previously hosted in 2004, months after his reality show The Apprentice debuted.

However, purposefully divisive hosts are a firmly established SNL tradition. 

WATCH | Andrew Dice Clay on Saturday Night Live:

When standup comedian Andrew Dice Clay hosted the sketch show in 1990, cast member Nora Dunn refused to appear alongside him and chose to boycott the show. Musical guest Sinéad O'Connor soon followed. Both objected to the misogynistic jokes in Clay's routines.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani hosted the show three times, while cyclist Lance Armstrong took a turn shortly after the French newspaper L'Équipe accused him of using performance-enhancing drugs.

And, as reported by the Washington Post in 2015, the show's highest-rated episode ever was when figure skater Nancy Kerrigan hosted two months after she was attacked while preparing for the 1994 Olympics. 

Kerrigan's opening monologue was filled with jokes about the attack. Melanie Hutsell, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley dressed up as rival skater Tonya Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, respectively, the key villains in the scandal.

WATCH | Saturday Night Live host Nancy Kerrigan's opening monologue:

In light of that track record, Musk's turn as host is perhaps less surprising. 

"It's always ratings and relevance," Obeidallah said. "And for a show to stay on for 46 seasons — like any show — has to stay relevant." 

Despite a slight dip in ratings after the U.S. election ended, SNL's current season is ranked No. 1 among all broadcast and cable comedies for the first time ever

That success also extends to Canada. It's the No. 1 late-night program in the country, with an average audience of nearly 1.4 million, representing a growth of 15 per cent from last year. 

And that could speak to why Musk wanted to host the show in the first place. Though his Twitter follower count alone dwarfs SNL's weekly audience, the show offers something that unmediated online platforms don't.

"The show is — in addition to being a gigantic PR machine — it is sort of a kingmaker that decides who gets to be rich and famous and make TV and movies for the rest of their lives," explained comedy writer and journalist Seth Simons.

And while Musk already has money, the fame that SNL offers is different, he said. 

Simons pointed to Colin Jost, host of the show's Weekend Update segment, who in his memoir wrote of Donald Trump's 2015 appearance on the show.

Saturday Night Live comedian Colin Jost gives a radio interview on April 28, 2016, in New York City. He wrote about Donald Trump hosting the show in 2015. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Trump's episode stands out now as a "Confederate statue" of entertainment, because it has not aged well, Jost wrote.

In a subsequent interview in which he revisited the sketches, Jost said the experience and Trump's performance reflected how "he can feel charming or even manipulative sometimes with people."

That performance, Simons said, was possible because of the nature of the show. Regardless of what they personally think of the guests, "your job as a writer and cast member is to make the host look good."

People protest in front of NBC studios in New York and call for the network to rescind the invitation to Donald Trump to host Saturday Night Live on Nov. 4, 2015. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

The ability to joke about yourself in a controlled and carefully planned way is invaluable when it comes to image control, he said. While some see Musk's immense wealth as immoral — Simons, for example, suggested it could be used to alleviate homelessness in the U.S. — comedy gives already-famous figures the opportunity to appear down to earth and relatable.

"Powerful people don't go on SNL for fun or because they're bored," Simons said. "They go on it because they get something out of it, and I would argue that what they get is sort of a culture-wide willingness to forget what exactly it means to be powerful."

If that is Musk's strategy, SNL isn't his first stage. From his blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in Thank You For Smoking, a 2005 film that he also produced, to more prominent roles in television shows Rick and Morty, Young Sheldon and South Park, Musk has already made the rounds in some of the entertainment industry's biggest slots. 

WATCH | Elon Musk in Rick and Morty:

In almost every one of these instances he plays himself, is lightly mocked, and has his image as a benevolent technocrat reinforced.  

That is likely what audiences will see on SNL this weekend, Simons said. Sketches that poke fun at Musk but reinforce his brand. Musk will be in on the joke, as he has been all along. 


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver