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‘Saturday Night Live’ Is at a Post-Trump Crossroads

In Elon Musk, ‘SNL’ got another business tycoon to distract its viewers while it figures out what to do next

Scott Laven/NBCU

“What is this? People really watch this show, or …?”

The line came from Kate McKinnon in character as Frances McDormand, the Oscar winner typically no-nonsense in an appearance on a fictional Icelandic talk show. But it also summed up the sentiments of many viewers, some of whom tuned into Saturday Night Live for the first—and perhaps only—time to check out the comedic stylings of host Elon Musk. (International viewers were assisted in their efforts by a YouTube livestream, the first in the show’s 45-year history.) They found an episode that was predictably awkward and often bad, if not exceptionally so—though you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t accustomed to watching live sketch comedy week after week.

The truth is that SNL is deeply flawed by design. When a TV show tasks itself with developing 90 minutes of new material in the space of six days, then performing it live while incorporating a new cast member, it’s a miracle when anything good comes out of it, let alone an entire episode. But as the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, one of the richest men in the world, and a non-comedian obsessed with comedy (just look at his Twitter), Musk attracted a much larger audience than the masochists who watch in the faint hopes of catching a “Papyrus” or “Diner Lobster” in real time. That meant neophytes could see for themselves what’s long been evident to regular viewers: SNL is at a crossroads, and it has no idea where to go.

In handing a platform to an attention-seeking tycoon, SNL earned widespread comparisons to the infamous fall 2015 episode headlined by Donald Trump. It’s an easy analogy that elides the show’s long history of controversial stunt casting, from Paris Hilton to George Steinbrenner to Andrew Dice Clay. But it also hits on a central irony of Musk’s hosting gig, at least on its face. SNL spent the five years after the Trump gig atoning for its sins with earnest musical numbers and political sketches stuffed with celebrity appearances, captained by Alec Baldwin as Trump himself. As a mea culpa, the political material always ran disingenuous, given the disastrous gimmick that started it all. As a ratings engine and Emmy magnet, though, they were fantastically effective. Robert De Niro earned his Guest Actor nomination for a glorified cameo!

Musk’s casting may look like Lorne Michaels memory-holing the lessons of the Trump era. In truth, it’s just the show falling back on what it knows best in a time of uncertainty. Trump’s reelection loss has led to a collapse in ratings for the cable news outlets that once thrived on the chaos, and while SNL remains the top-rated broadcast or cable comedy among the all-important 18-49 demo, it’s nonetheless slipped from its early-season, pre-election heights. Trump’s episode may have been widely rebuked at the time, but it also earned a lot of eyeballs. And while Musk is reviled by some critics—for union busting, COVID-19 denialism, misleading investors, meme plagiarism, baselessly accusing a man of pedophilia, and dumb-looking tunnels, among other sins—he’s nowhere near Trump’s level of public disdain. For SNL, there’s plenty of upside and relatively little downside to revisiting the stunt-hosting well.

While raw viewership is hardly in a death spiral, the flagging has also come with a creative sense of aimlessness. Without Trump and #resistance humor as an animating force, SNL has made a welcome return to less literal premises and more opportunities for young cast members, both squeezed aside under the Trump administration in favor of famous interlopers play-acting the news. Say what you will about “Snatched! Vaxed! Or Waxed!” or Chloe Fineman as Britney Spears hosting a talk show, but they are, at the very least, comedic concepts, which is more than you could say for Matt Damon’s Brett Kavanaugh yelling his way through a shot-for-shot remake of the justice’s confirmation hearing. In the most telling reversal of all, the show doesn’t even have a cast member assigned to take over Biden from Jim Carrey. SNL is trying things again, which is good. But it hasn’t hit on anything as reliable as the Trump show. That requires patience, and entertainment as a rule is not a very patient industry.

Which brings us to Musk, who started strong by falsely asserting he was the first person with Asperger’s to host the show. (Former cast member Dan Aykroyd, one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, has spoken openly about his experience on the autism spectrum.) “I don’t always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak,” Musk admitted earlier in his monologue, “which I’m told makes for great comedy.” Sure enough, Musk proved to be far from a natural on camera, with a stiff delivery and restless body language that left him largely unable to stick a punch line. Musk has a longtime obsession with comedy, whether by poaching Onion staffers for a multimillion-dollar project he subsequently abandoned or hyping meme assets like GameStop or Dogecoin, which he inadvertently sank by discussing on air. But as Musk just showed for everyone to see, money and passion are no substitute for raw talent.

Not that the subpar performance was Musk’s alone. Half-assed pitches like “Woke James Bond” may have been mocked when the executive floated them on Twitter, but “Gen Z Hospital”—a thin pastiche of TikTok slang like “bestie” and “it’s the ___ for me”—was hardly much better. The night’s sole standouts were “Murdur Durdur,” a Mare of Easttown parody-cum-blatant “Rural Juror” ripoff, and Ego Nwodim’s defeated Disney mom. Musk didn’t sink SNL so much as fail to inspire it beyond a typically uneven, hit-or-miss output. It’s unlikely any SpaceX fans stopping by for some hero worship were converted into die-hards.

To the extent that the Musk episode had its host-specific failings, it uncritically boosted Musk’s image as a visionary genius. (Dodgers fans, still without their promised shuttle, would dispute that reputation.) Individual cast members may have obliquely signaled their displeasure in the weeks leading up to the show, but the jokes and sketches themselves barely challenged the idea that Musk is something more than a very skilled businessman. Apart from a single Weekend Update joke about crashing rockets, the show otherwise cast Musk as an ahead-of-his-time outlaw, a confident space commander, and a child prodigy who designed his own video game as a 12-year-old. To the extent that SNL subverted Musk by demonstrating his ineptitude at the comedic arts, it was entirely accidental.

But for all their parallels as SNL figureheads, Elon Musk is not Donald Trump. He’s not running for commander in chief of the United States armed forces; he’s not even a particularly egregious plutocrat—just an obnoxious one with a stan army to match. Getting mad about his SNL stint thus feels like a waste of energy, as does pretending the episode itself was some kind of creative nadir. Frankly, SNL has bigger problems than a meme-literate car salesman. Next week, Musk will be gone, replaced by the far less controversial Keegan-Michael Key. But the issue that he was always just a temporary solution to remains. SNL doesn’t know what it is after Trump just yet. We’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.