The announcement that Elon Musk was going to host “Saturday Night Live” seemed startling and odd on its face. That’s exactly how publicity stunts are supposed to feel. The billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX exists adjacent to the community of performers — actors, comedians, musicians and pro athletes — who usually make up the show’s hosting pool. But he’s a self-styled entertainer of a sort: Musk has made a name for himself, over and above his business success, as a social-media provocateur and crank. That’s so much the case that Musk’s suggestion, on Twitter, that he was going to “find out just how live” the sketch show really is seemed like a threat to the show, or a promise to his fans. The NBC comedy stalwart — perhaps returning to its roots as a staging-ground for guerrilla comedy — was just another thing for Musk to disrupt.
The parallel that springs to mind easily is that of Donald Trump, who appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in a 2015 episode that flattered the then-presidential candidate as in on the joke. In service of having the biggest newsmaker in the world on their show, the “SNL” team traded away their credibility, at least for a while. (Memories seemed to be short in this regard, as by late 2016, the show was treated as effectively part of the anti-Trump resistance.) Perhaps that comparison, though, is too easy: Like Trump, Musk is promoting not a movie or an album but the entertainment product that is himself. But there was never any real threat that Trump, who reveres television practically above all else, was going to violate any foundational rule of “SNL.” It’s an open question to what degree Musk’s participation will look like that of other past hosts, but we can assume, from his wearying attempt to crowdsource sketch ideas if nothing else, that reverence is not a key factor in his thinking.
There has been a groundswell of sorts against Musk’s appearance, a rejection that feels both intuitively easy to understand and hard to grasp onto in practical terms. Some stars of the show have made their revulsion clear but left the reasoning opaque. (In fairness, others have given full-throated endorsements to Musk hosting.) Why shouldn’t Musk host the show? Well, his antics are annoying, just like those of many, many entertainment-world celebrities. He has amassed a disproportionate amount of power that calls to mind many of the world’s inequities. Musk’s wealth and power are more outsized than most, but the mere fact of his being startlingly successful is hardly a novel concept within the rarefied air of celebrities who appear on this show. And he’s probably not going to be that funny, which means he will be like the vast majority of the show’s hosts: It’s so rare that someone appearing as an “SNL” guest does a good job that when they do, it effectively becomes headline news.
What makes Musk different are the ways in which he annoys and the causes to which he puts his power. Musk hardly needs “SNL’s” megaphone: He spends his life promoting things — like alternative currency and conspiracy theories — that make the world a worse place and a more irritating place. For those in a frame of mind even slightly divergent from Musk’s, news about him sounds like dispatches from a world in which joy has been removed from everything. The ambition to explore space, via Musk’s interests in space travel, has become a bland corporate escapade; the simple act of exchanging money for goods and services, in the world of Musk-endorsed cryptocurrency, sets the planet on boil. Do you like art? You’ll grudgingly tolerate NFTs. This would seem to make Musk a perfect fit for present-day “SNL,” which so badly wants to remain current that it aired a near-unwatchable sketch explaining what NFTs were before Musk was announced. The series, which began its life as an anarchic counterculture goof branded “Not Ready for Prime Time,” now seeks to be bigger than prime-time by booking the most potently relevant figure in our culture. But, as was the case with Trump in 2015, it’s hard to see how you deflate Musk’s pretensions while he’s standing on your stage.
This is hardly “SNL’s” worst booking offense even this season. After ditching musical guest Morgan Wallen in October over his flouting COVID-19 safety protocols, the show brought him back, and asked cast members to stake their credibility on Wallen’s exemplary behavior going forward, in a December sketch didactically framing Wallen as a good, misunderstood fellow. (This was not a bet that paid off, as Wallen was dropped by his management early this year for saying a racial slur on tape.) An appearance on NBC’s air is not a merit badge, but “SNL” itself made the case here that time on air is determined by, or determines, moral virtue. The show’s casting communicates more than just jokes: “SNL” attempts, in a bumbling manner, to set itself at the center of the cultural agenda, to be an arbiter. In having Trump on in 2015, the series both caught the wave of a conversation and sparked a new one; in re-booking Wallen, it made an affirmative statement about the star’s rehabilitation. And in selecting Musk, it’s playing at anointing a self-styled rebel into a mainstream star, even as Musk’s stratospheric success and the way he’s found it suggests he’s as mainstream as it gets.
Perhaps that, above all, is what is so vexing about Musk’s appearance. There are many people in the world for whom 90 minutes on NBC would really help them get a message out. A man who is among the richest people in human history with 53 million Twitter followers and a news media in his thrall is not one. Elon Musk’s preoccupations are, if not dinner-table conversation for every American, certainly leading news topics in an increasingly wearying world. A cryptocurrency-obsessed social media troll who has had some weird ideas about COVID is, unfortunately, as close to a certain strain of America as any actor or recording artist one might find. Musk promises less to bring “SNL” up to speed than to burst its bubble and let all that is corny and embarrassing about this moment in. That may be necessary — someone at the show clearly thinks so — but it hardly feels like a moment to celebrate.