Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Elon Musk (Photo: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images) and the cast of Saturday Night Live (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

By booking Elon Musk, Saturday Night Live is dabbling in a dangerous cult of personality

Elon Musk (Photo: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images) and the cast of Saturday Night Live (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Last fall, Saturday Night Live became one of the few late-night shows to resume business as usual in the middle of a global pandemic. While the output of the show’s 46th season has been otherwise typical—hits and misses, attention-grabbing but bad political sketches, comforting familiar faces mixed with promising newcomers—the host bookings carry hints of disruption. With plenty of big promotional cycles on hold and stars presumably (and understandably) reluctant to commit to a mid-COVID-19 week in a New York City skyscraper, the show has leaned on a blend of stand-up comics (Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle), alumni (Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph), or people who are both (Chris Rock, John Mulaney), along with recent breakouts like Dan Levy and Regé-Jean Page. The show’s April 2021 episodes looked a bit more like the usual SNL, with high-profile Oscar contenders Carey Mulligan and Daniel Kaluuya. But on May 8, Elon Musk is coming to crash that party.

For those blissfully unexposed to his cult, Elon Musk is an entrepreneur and engineer known for his work with electric car manufacturer Tesla and private aerospace form SpaceX, among others. He is also unfathomably wealthy—one of the richest people on this planet whose surly bonds he yearns to slip in favor of letting people finally die on Mars. He would also be fine if people, including his employees, died here on Earth of COVID-19, a threat he persisted in calling overblown for months, even questioning the efficacy of vaccines until he recently backtracked.

Because Musk has a substantial fanbase, spends way too much time on Twitter, and has dabbled in COVID-19 denialism, the obvious comparison point here is Donald Trump, who parlayed his own status as a wealthy dabbler into a two-time SNL host of unsurprisingly poor quality—then put in an even poorer performance as the actual president of the actual United States. Musk isn’t running for anything (“pandemic-enabling union-buster” is not, as yet, an elected position), but casual observers and fans alike will naturally think back to that 2015 Trump hosting gig. In addition to being one of the worst episodes in modern-day SNL history, it allowed the show to stain itself with complicity, treating Trump as a cute, silly novelty candidate rather than treating his racism and ignorance as a genuine threat to democracy.

This has all been written about ad nauseam. The more charitable read of the Musk booking (which has already inspired posted-and-deleted social media displeasure from cast members Bowen Yang, Aidy Bryant, and Andrew Dismukes) is that, like some other hosts from season 46, it recalls the show’s roots, when hosting duties were not so closely tied to movie openings, Oscar nominations, or season premieres of other TV shows. This season, Adele showed up to host rather than sing, without an album to promote. Burr, Mulaney, and Chappelle performed extended stand-up sets in the monologue. These choices inch a little closer to the what-the-hell variety-show eclecticism of SNL’s first five years, albeit not nearly on that level.

During those classic seasons, movie stars, comedians, and musicians were mixed in with less obvious choices like former press secretary Ron Nessen, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, activist Ralph Nader , and elderly “Anyone Can Host The Saturday Night Show” winner Miskel Spillman. These sorts of bookings (and, in Spillman’s case, contests) became less common in the show’s later decades, with sports stars and politicians serving as the occasional mildly wild cards. Sometimes the show would go even further afield, to the likes of Brian Williams, Steve Forbes, Al Sharpton, or Trump. In the early 2000s, the show even developed a recurring sketch where a host not known for their performances would become a pitchman for a bizarre fast-food restaurant, like Al Sharpton’s Casa de Sushi.

Yet there’s something more discomfiting about Musk crossing that studio stage, even if the writers dutifully plug him into an ad for Elon Musk’s Bahn Mi Rocket. By most standards, Musk is closer to the eccentric-moron Trump who hosted in 2004 than the aspiring-demagogue Trump who hosted in 2015. The difference has more to do with how the ecosystem of fame has shifted, establishing terrifying cults of personality around seemingly anyone with some manner of megaphone.

In the past, when an oddball host like Forbes or Nessen came to the show with outside-showbiz fame, their lack of obvious camera-ready charisma felt like part of the supposed fun. Forbes’ episode from 1996 (which, like a lot of SNL episodes, is available in truncated form on Peacock) isn’t any kind of high-water mark. Produced in the aftermath of his-then-recently-ended presidential campaign, there’s some silly self-effacement to go along with the grotesque false modesty. Yes, there’s a fairly appalling bit where he plays a roofer, coded as a dumbass lowlife, aspiring to be rich enough to buy an above-ground pool. But there’s also a funny Nightline sketch where Forbes plays himself, pitifully unable to disguise the fact that he’s written a Primary Colors-style tell-all, clumsily praising the revolutionary candidacy of one “Teve Torbes.”

If the Nightline bit amuses more than it stings, it’s because the self-aggrandizement it satirizes often plays out in real life on a much bigger scale—whether it’s mega-wealthy public figures deciding they have what it takes to fix the country or “just” taking an anti-victory lap around network TV. In the process of his presidential run, Forbes surely attracted a certain amount of “fans,” for lack of a better word, who might have tuned in to his TV comedy debut and cheered him on for being such a good sport. (How generous, that he has all this money and wants to be on TV!) But the 1996 version of this indulgence still feels like a window into a different world. Half the joke of the Forbes SNL sketches is that it’s kind of silly to position anyone as a fan of an awkward nerd who makes magazines and won’t shut up about the flat tax.

Whatever you do, do not try to convince Elon Musk’s acolytes that what they believe in is silly; it’s like trying to explain to Taylor Swift’s online army that misogyny isn’t defined exclusively by dislike of Taylor Swift’s music. And as ridiculous as it is to equate online fandom to the real world, there are undoubtedly somehow millions of people who genuinely love Elon Musk, despite his fairly niche interests of space travel and wasting his fortune on methods of conveyance. Even the most feverish and vindictive of musician fanbases are at least rooted in a shared love of someone’s artistic output—the work they’ve created.

Elon Musk theoretically creates things, but the idea of forming a fandom-style attachment to a guy whose primary accomplishment has been amassing wealth is, if not new, certainly exacerbated by internet platforms. It’s the same bizarre, worshipful instinct that leads Barstool Sports readers to swarm perceived haters on Twitter, inspires Joe Rogan listeners to treat the word of a sitcom second-stringer as gospel, or goads millions of people to pledge their allegiance to Trump, rather than a coherent, fixed political platform. This dedication crosses over into a kind of aspirational sycophancy, a DIY program of self-induction for people who don’t have the inclination to find a face-to-face cult. Despite the near-daily examples of how artists may let us down as human beings, more fans than ever seem to glom on to those people as an extension of, or even a replacement for, their work.

Despite their history of unconventional hosts, SNL hasn’t seemed consciously interested in chasing this new form of internet-driven idolatry. The pandemic probably would have been the perfect time to lure some TikTok star into the studio if that was a goal. Maybe that 2012 episode with one-time YouTube sensation Karmin scared them off. It’s easy to imagine executive producer Lorne Michaels maintaining some baby-boomer (and also, not unfounded) concerns about the shelf life of those performers—and/or a suspicion that a lot of professional YouTubers, say, might not maintain what he considers the proper reverence toward SNL. That’s the thing about cults of personality, and why it’s easy to mistake them for something genuinely independent-minded: They don’t require regular interfacing with traditional media. If anything, they thrive on antagonism of it, positioning their audience as savvy freedom fighters who can’t be controlled by corporate outlets—just people who run their own corporations.

That give-and-take between self-made celebrity and privileged enabling is what makes the Elon Musk booking feel so unclean. Obviously, it’s specifically disappointing because of his awful labor practices and dangerous spreading of pandemic misinformation (the latter of which in turn would, if accepted as fact, further enable his awful labor practices). In practice, it’s unlikely that watching an off-putting man bumble through live sketch comedy, whether self-deprecating, self-promoting, or, most likely, a mix of the two, will serve as an Elon Musk conversion experience. More sinister is the way that Musk can turn Saturday Night Live into just another platform for his fans and his “content,” whatever that may be. Does Musk himself know? “Let’s find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is,” he tweeted both ominously and stupidly, a shameless gesture toward his Reddit-maverick image as well as a strong suggestion that he has no idea how SNL actually works.

This won’t be the first time SNL has performed insidious PR for a member of the entitled ruling class. It arguably does this on a weekly basis. The show is also an endearingly inexplicable vestige of classic, old-fashioned broadcasting, in which shameless promotions, capitulation to sponsors, and failure to make forceful statements about anything of much importance are the name of the game. (One of the weirdest recurring criticisms of SNL in recent years involves its insufficiently revolutionary politics—a stance that buys into mythmaking about the early days of the show only to set it up as a grand failure.) Working around a host who may not be well-suited for the job is part of that showbiz-y vibe; who doesn’t relish years-later gossip about which hosts the cast members least enjoyed working with?

Musk disciples neutralize that implicit threat of becoming a future anecdote. When public figures powered so purely by a cult of personality reach this stage, it’s no longer so easy to laugh it off as a novelty. SNL boils down to a series of performances, whether it’s sketch-comedy pros creating and executing half a dozen sketches within the space of a week, a network TV institution performing the mostly-bygone ritual of live television, or a host trying to flex some different muscles. The power and reach of someone like Musk, manifested through social media cult-building, makes his appearance feel like an act of hostility toward the very idea of the performing arts, in whatever form, where the onus is on professionals to decide whether they want to sit out while Musk brainstorms “skit” ideas on Twitter, sounding like he won a contest to run a TV network for the week. The implication: All it takes to be an entertainer is some stupid attitudes and relentless self-marketing, because the only performance that really matters is the demonstration of power. If Michaels thinks of Musk as a throwback to left-field host bookings from the past (and he likely does), he’s missing something big: Elon Musk is already a real-life Teve Torbes, narrating his own idiotic exploits to a cheering crowd that refuses to dissipate.