There are three types of SNL host. First, there’s the consummate comedian who knows what they’re doing and elevates average material — think Steve Martin, Emma Stone, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and pretty much everyone in the Five-Timers club. Then there’s the actor promoting a big project, who can be either an embarrassment, like January Jones, or a pleasant surprise, like Ana de Armas.
Finally, there’s the person who really shouldn’t be there, whose only purpose is to raise eyebrows and appear onstage for the audience’s wicked delight. It’s here that musicians, politicians, and sports figures exist in a bizarre, uncomfortable territory where viewers take perverted glee in watching famous people bomb on live television. SNL excels at this type of stunt casting, and it has produced most of the all-time worst SNL hosts: Paris Hilton. Rudy Giuliani. Donald Trump. And Elon Musk.
Musk’s episode is far from the worst — or is it? It’s embarrassing and cringey, reeking of his desperation to be embraced by an audience that sees him more as a curiosity than a genuine form of entertainment. Yet, the episode has aged like milk, especially considering Musk’s current persona. The richest man in the world is a walking red flag and the internet’s punching bag, and what better way to mock him than by recalling that time he dressed up as Wario and tried to convince everyone he was a human?
The richest man in the world and CEO of Tesla and Twitter — sorry, X — hosted SNL on May 8, 2021, accompanied by musical guest Miley Cyrus. At that point, Musk was not persona non grata on the internet yet. He was viewed as a desperate, slightly annoying, pretentious, but mostly ineffective threat, a large dog with a very soft bark and an even weaker bite. This curious reputation made him the ideal candidate to appear in shows and movies as a sort of “get;” he was recognizable enough that audiences would gasp, but not controversial enough that his presence would put them off. Think of the cameos Musk made throughout the early 2000s — Iron Man 2, The Big Bang Theory, Machete Kills. They’re all safe, perfect for keeping him in the pop culture lexicon, but without leaving his tech lane.
SNL changed that. When someone who isn’t an entertainer hosts SNL, they usually do it to improve their image, and Musk was no exception. The billionaire delivered a wholly self-deprecating monologue acknowledging his, what shall we call them, “quirks” — he even brought up his mom for the occasion ( it was the Mother’s Day episode, after all). And to his credit, he was a willing player. He wore ill-fitting wigs and silly costumes, stumbling through his lines and shamelessly reading the cue cards, reciting jokes like a middle-schooler recites the pledge of allegiance.
Musk’s SNL episode was a plain and overt attempt to “humanize” the machine-like businessman by using humor. At the time, it kind of worked. Reviews for his performance were mixed-to-negative, with Rolling Stone calling his episode “a snooky stroke session” and The Guardian describing it as “brutally awkward.” They were right; Musk managed to somehow be simultaneously uncomfortable and droll, a rare feat that few hosts achieve.
The issue is that the show and Musk’s attempt to be “cool” were painfully apparent. He was like the rich kid at school whose mother invites the entire class to his party, only for him to end up in the corner while everyone else does their best to ignore him, Musk’s dalliance into comedy was unsuccessful. His delivery was bizarre, lacking any sort of timing and coming off as painfully amateurish.
If his purpose was to pass the imitation game, he failed. It did not help that the cast met him halfway, trying to lower themselves to his level, but without seeming as mediocre as him. The result is an episode that feels confused, a Frankenstein without direction or purpose. The audience is laughing, but why exactly? It’s not mockery at Musk’s attempts at comedy, but pity at his failed efforts. And for a person like Elon Musk, that’s much worse.
Elon Musk is the perfect example of what Saturday Night Live can do to a person’s image. The best-case scenario sees people greatly capitalizing on their stints to introduce a new side of themselves. Think of Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Adam Driver (65), and, more recently, Timothée Chalamet. These people hosted the show to varying degrees of success, but their actual performance is irrelevant — few people remember what they did on SNL, only that they did SNL. That’s the point of the show. However, not everyone can pull off this impressive trick; just ask Musk.
The billionaire’s hosting duties successfully created a new image for Musk, just not the one he had hoped for. Rather than cement him as a celebrity, SNL turned Musk into a punch line. It allowed audiences to laugh at him — just look at his episode. It’s off-putting and weird, but you can’t turn away.
Watching Elon Musk in silly little outfits desperately trying to make you laugh is morbidly entertaining, the equivalent of watching a person fall on their face repeatedly for your sick enjoyment. And you don’t feel bad about laughing because you’re being allowed to laugh; it’s as if you’re doing him a favor, recognizing his efforts by celebrating his inadequacy. The whole thing is messed up and macabre, and if Musk were a better person, we might feel bad about it.
Musk ultimately embraced this new punching bag image and has turned it into a brand. From his increasingly controversial and puzzling choices regarding X to his wild claims that he will engage his fellow automaton Mark Zuckerberg in a fight to his increasingly public dating life, Musk is now a bona fide pop culture presence, for better and worse. SNL began his buffoonish career, and he went all-in on it, trading fame for infamy and settling comfortably at center stage. So go back and enjoy Musk’s disastrous SNL episode — mock it, tear it apart, downvote it, and share it on X. Elon Musk doesn’t mind — in fact, he might actually want you to.
It’s fitting that he played Wario in one of the episode’s sketches. Like Wario, Musk is a greedy, brutish, powerful treasure hunter who craves the spotlight and will do anything to get it. So what if the audience is booing and throwing tomatoes? At least the spotlight’s on him.