Review: Elon Musk hosting 'SNL' was a gimmicky ratings grab — but not a disaster

·6 min read
Tech magnate Elon Musk dressed as a priest on "Saturday Night Live"
Host Elon Musk in a sketch from "Saturday Night Live." (Rosalind O'Connor / NBC)

World's first or second richest person depending on the day, man who named his latest child (of six) X Æ A-Xii, coronavirus scofflaw, reformed vaccine skeptic, mediocre EDM artist (briefly), fanboy tech pinup and headline generator Elon Musk hosted "Saturday Night Live" Saturday night. He became one of a small group of public figures not from the world of entertainment or sports to host the show, but he does have 52 million followers on Twitter, where he sometimes will make a joke.

It doesn't take a degree from Stanford to work out the equation that describes this collision of cultural asteroids. The pixels this billionaire side hustle had already produced in articles and videos would more than fill one of those creepy-looking Tesla pickups. From the show's perspective, it was a ratings grab: Some portion of the Musk cult not accustomed to watching "SNL" would tune in. (Additionally, the broadcast, for the first time ever, was made internationally available via livestream.) Musk, who has appeared on "The Big Bang Theory" and in "Iron Man 2" and "appeared" on "The Simpsons" and "South Park," would get to host "Saturday Night Live." There is still some cred in that. And however bad it turned out he would be just as rich in the morning.

There was no indication from those previous appearances that he had unlocked the secret of comedy (timing), but you never know — John McCain proved a game and adept host; Charles Barkley and Peyton Manning got good marks for theirs. Musk's comedy tweet game is not strong: "Throwing out some skit ideas for SNL," he tweeted in advance of the show. "What should I do?” (Cast member Chris Redd replied, “First I’d call Em sketches.”) Suggestions: "Baby Shark & Shark Tank merge to form Baby Shark Tank"; "Irony Man – defeats villains using the power of irony"; "Woke James Bond"; "The Dogefather."

But by the same token, one watches most any "SNL" with the hope that it might be good, or good more often than not, rather than the expectation that it will be.

The episode opened with a sweet segment in which cast members appeared with their mother, for Mother's Day, as if to say, besides that moms are cool, "not everyone on the show needs to be a pro." Musk's own mother made an appearance in his opening monologue, which began with a sort of disclaimer: "I don’t always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak. Which I’m told makes for great comedy." He went on to say, "I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host 'SNL,' or at least the first to admit it." (In fact, original cast member, and later guest host, Dan Aykroyd is a person with Asperger's.)

Musk was used in every live sketch and filmed piece and in the "Weekend Update" segment, assigned both light and heavy lifting. His regularity improved the odds that he'd be good in something good and sent a signal that he was invited on the show to actually be in the show, and not just as bait on a big hook fishing for ratings. He was never less than eager, and sometimes almost good, if herky-jerky in his delivery, with a tendency to fix upon the cue cards, roll his eyes and shrug his shoulders. (Called upon to laugh in one sketch, he did what amounted to a crude imitation of a person laughing.) I do not doubt he was enjoying himself. I'm no particular Musk fan, but it wasn't hard to stay in his corner for 90 minutes.

And though Aidy Bryant, who had reposted a Bernie Sanders tweet about billionaires and income inequality that was widely taken to refer to the booking, was not present, the cast members who were did not seem to begrudge Musk's presence, and kept the energy up around him. All in all, as "SNL" goes, it was a decent showing.

The jokes hit a goodly number of Muskean topics and old tweets — Mars, cars, "The Matrix," smoking dope on Joe Rogan's show, COVID-19 and cryptocurrency — without digging deep on any of them. There is always the question in a show at least vestigially devoted to topical satire on how hard to poke the guest, and how much to flatter him. "SNL" was kind to Musk and his various pet projects — which is only polite, after all, though it reminds us as well that the show itself tends to bark more than bite, and not bark that loud at all. Michael Che's "Why are all these rich white people trying to go into space?" was as serious a question as the evening asked. Nothing about crashing Teslas, though, or the environmental impact of digital money.

Appearing as an economist on "Weekend Update" to explain Dogecoin, Musk seemed to throw in a couple of ad libs, to judge by anchor Michael Che's shrugs, referring to himself as "The Dogefather" at the opening and howling "To the moon!" at the end. ("This is possibly what he meant when he tweeted earlier, “Let’s find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is.") It was not quite Sinead O'Connor ripping up the pope's picture, but it got some whoops.

Musk appeared in a variety of wigs, beards and full body costumes: as a doctor spouting youthspeak in "Gen Z Hospital"; a partygoer in a funny filmed piece about uncomfortable post-pandemic party talk (which is to say, a piece he was cut out for), which included the first of a sprinkling of jokes throughout the night about incestuous cousins; a priest in another filmed piece, taking off on "Mare of Easttown"; the director of a candy-colored Icelandic talk show, in love with its sticker-wearing social-media star; as video game character Wario, on trial for killing Mario, in which it was suggested that, like Musk, he was being unfairly painted as a villain; and as a cowboy suggesting they cut the bad guys off at the pass by digging a tunnel to come up underneath them. (This had a good line about "self-driving horses, which are just horses.") The Icelandic and Italian accents were comically creditable.

And he appeared as a near-future version of himself in a third filmed piece, "The Astronaut," which had Pete Davidson as fatally chill Mars colonist Chad. (This bit contained the evening's dumbest joke, but the one that made me laugh out loud, when Davidson read the number 80085 as "Boobs.") "Well, I did say people were going to die," Musk says from the control room — this is something he said in the real world — making a quick exit. "I was never here."

Miley Cyrus, who appeared in the Mars piece, was the musical guest. She's always good.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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