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When the Athletes Come to ‘Saturday Night Live’

From Michael Jordan to Peyton Manning to Nancy Kerrigan, when the pros host ‘SNL’ it’s a two-way street of nerves and amazement that can yield unexpected results

Carson McNamara

All week long, Michael Jordan was at the top of his game; dominating in practice, and absolutely slaying it in his preparations to host the 17th season premiere for Saturday Night Live. “I remember Michael being incredibly intuitive and smart,” writer and performer Al Franken recalls. “He didn’t show any nerves. He was at the top of being Michael Jordan, no question.”

By around midnight on September 28, 1991, Franken and Jordan had begun “Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley.” A parody of low-rent cable public-access shows mixed with a 12-step program, the recurring sketch featured Franken as an ultra-earnest, cardigan-wearing motivational host who preached to himself that “I’m good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.” In this iteration, Stuart was trying to convince his guest, “Michael J.,” that he didn’t have to be the best basketball player on earth to find love and self-worth. As the two gazed into a nearby mirror to recite Stuart’s mantra, Jordan showed a flash of fallibility: He flubbed his line and giggled. “It wasn’t intended,” says the former U.S. senator from Minnesota. “But it felt very natural and organic. … We were in the moment, which you have to be in sports, so it all worked.” Thirty years later, the sketch remains a hilarious classic that also works as a six-minute, 35-second window into Jordan’s more human side.

Jordan wasn’t the first host to “break” during a sketch, and certainly wasn’t the last. He also followed a long line of non-comedy stars who stretched themselves to take center stage at the famed Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. There’s an extra layer of fascination when a top-tier athlete gets in on the SNL fun: Instead of stoic hyper-focus on scoring a goal or taking a shot or winning a medal, they cut loose, ditch the uniform, and for 90 exhilarating minutes try their hand at something they aren’t extraordinarily gifted at. Picture Charles Barkley playing one-on-one against Barney the Dinosaur in 1993, or Derek Jeter dressing up as a New York Yankees wife razzing Derek Jeter in 2001.

Taking on SNL serves as a chance for highly skilled athletes to exude rare vulnerability. Controlling their adrenaline and delivering in the clutch in front of a live audience may be part of their DNA, but opening themselves up to performing comedy alongside seasoned professionals is not. That may explain why only between 30 and 40 sports figures in the show’s 46-year history have done it—a list that includes sports-adjacent hosts Howard Cosell (1985) and George Steinbrenner (1990). Hosting SNL is an honor reserved for the best and the boldest, and it can yield bizarre, sublime, and triumphant results—but it’s also one of the riskiest things a pro athlete might do in their career. “It’s a scary process,” says Will Forte, a writer and cast member from 2002 to 2010. “There’s so much stuff to know and it’s constantly changing until the show starts. I did the show for eight years and if I ever had to host I’d be terrified!”

If you’re here to find a salacious anecdote about how George Foreman blew off rehearsals during his gig in December 1994, had a panic attack just before Don Pardo announced his name, and then got hammered at the after-party, it’s not going to happen. All the SNL vets interviewed for this feature still marvel at the athletes’ professionalism and dedication during their respective weeks at the helm:

I love it when an athlete hosts. … If it’s like a Peyton Manning situation, it’s like, “Oh, holy shit. I cannot believe that happened. He should host a million times more and maybe be a cast member.” And if they don’t do a great job, it’s just hilarious because we all get it—like, you shouldn’t even have to do this. There’s just an unpredictability about it—it’s not only so cool, but it’s very vulnerable for the athlete who does it. … You win for even putting yourself in the situation. Like, good for you. —Heidi Gardner (cast member, 2017-present):

They were all incredibly professional, very intelligent, very much understood the premise of what the comedy was and what they’re supposed to do. —Franken (writer and cast member, 1975-80 and 1988-95)

Athletes are among the best hosts. For writers, they provide a lot of instant subject matter from their careers, as opposed to a lot of actors who are blank slates. And for their performances, expectations are lower so if they’re decent, everyone’s happy. —Robert Smigel (writer and cast member, 1985-2013)

They know how to go inside themselves when they need to do a job. They don’t let the liveliness of the show and the intensity get to them because they know where to go in their brains and bodies. They can tune everybody out. It’s only, like, 350 people in the audience and not a stadium. —Christine Zander (writer, 1986-93)

One athlete had to walk so the likes of John Madden (1982), Billy Martin (1986), Chris Evert (1989), Deion Sanders (1995), Jonny Moseley (2002), Eli Manning (2012), Ronda Rousey (2016), et al. could run. His name is Fran Tarkenton, and he broke through in February 1977. SNL was only 16 months old at the time, yet it had already carved out a reputation as a cutting-edge alternative to mainstream Middle America late-night TV. Early hosts helped establish that vibe, starting with George Carlin and continuing with Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Robert Klein. Tarkenton, then the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, knew none of this when he was asked to be the first athlete to host. “I’m playing pro football and don’t even know what Saturday Night Live is or who John Belushi is,” he says. He wasn’t sure why he was picked, either: “I think it was because I was kind of outspoken and played a little differently than all the other quarterbacks. … People called me ‘the Scrambler.’”

The next thing Tarkenton knew, he was on an airplane from Southern California—where he and his Vikings had just lost Super Bowl XI to the Oakland Raiders at the Rose Bowl—to New York City. Sensing he was, uh, out of his league, he immediately asked the show’s funny new cast member to be his mentor for the week. “I told Bill Murray that ‘I need you to be a role model for me.’” he recalls. “He was a really good mentor. … I leaned on him so I didn’t make a total idiot of myself.”

Not that the week wasn’t surreal. Tarkenton says he was exhilarated and overwhelmed by the preparation process, which included an extended Saturday-night rehearsal with a separate audience. He was in shock that the writers wanted him to sing the ballad “Feelings” during his monologue.

He learned that Belushi, a former high school athlete in Chicago, was “a football nut” and asked to collaborate with him on a cold open. “I told him that the funny thing about being in a locker room before a game is that the most religious guy on the team always says a prayer,” he says. “[We] pray nobody gets hurt. … And when the prayer’s over, we say, ‘Let’s go kill those SOBs!’ They liked that, so that was kind of the opening of the show.” (Minnesota native Franken adds that Belushi was at first wary of having someone from the rival Vikings host the show and went so far as inviting Franken to his apartment, where he read a biography of Chicago Bears heavy Dick Butkus aloud to him.)

Tarkenton also got a firsthand glimpse of Saturday Night Live’s after-hours glory. After saying his onstage good nights at 1 a.m., Tarkenton and his friends hopped from famed New York City eatery Elaine’s for a late-night dinner to a downtown loft shared by cast member Dan Aykroyd and his then-girlfriend, Carrie Fisher. “It wasn’t fancy at all … but it was packed with people,” he says. Waiting to use the toilet, he was aghast to see that at the front of the line, a guy was peeing in a toilet with a blanket over his head because the bathroom had no walls. “I was learning a lot of things about New York,” he laughs.

Interestingly, the NHL’s Great One himself reveals he was jittery in advance of his 1989 hosting stint—but the cast’s welcoming attitude helped ease his nerves. “I had such a great time,” Wayne Gretzky, now a Turner Sports on-air analyst, writes via email. “Everyone made me feel so welcome from [creator-executive producer] Lorne Michaels to [cast members] Dennis Miller to Dana Carvey to Phil Hartman. I remained friends with some of them long after. I was sad when my show ended.”

Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan is similarly enthusiastic when describing her stint in March 1994. Amid a scandalous and eventful winter during which Kerrigan learned that fellow American competitor Tonya Harding was connected to an attack on her before she captured a silver medal in an event watched by nearly 44 million people, “I was a nervous wreck because this was outside my comfort zone,” she says. “But it was so much fun to have a new challenge. Everything at that time was really challenging.”

Though Kerrigan grew up trying to stay up late on Saturday nights to watch the show, she too was flummoxed by its rigid structure. “It was an eye-opener,” she says. “The show is so goofy and everyone’s having fun and it seems like such a great time, but it was so much more time-consuming than I had anticipated.” She still smarts over the cut sketches in between the Saturday dress rehearsal and the live show as well as the constraints of reading cue cards hand-written with up-to-the-minute jokes: “People would say, ‘Oh, Nancy really looks like she’s reading.’ Well, first of all, I’m not an actress. And yes! My eyes aren’t the best … and the writers change the script on you right then and there. So of course I’m reading!”

The cast didn’t let her off with mere well-wishes and bouquets of flowers, either. One sketch with Adam Sandler, she says, required her to serenade him with a deliberately off-key rendition of “Endless Love.” Not only was she terrified of singing—“right before I sang, I was like, ‘What was I thinking agreeing to this?’”—but Sandler tried some physical improv live on camera. “He held my hands and looked at my face and tried so hard to make me laugh,” she says. “I’m squeezing back like, ‘Cut it out, this is hard enough as it is!’”

She cackles while detailing a pretaped segment at an ice rink with Chris Farley, in which the two played pairs’ figure skaters who crash and burn during their Olympics event. The props department created a Kerrigan dummy doll to use for the outlandish stunts. “So Chris is out on the ice by himself and I’m standing on the side waiting,” she says. “And he’s literally flirting with the doll and fondling it like, ‘Ohhhhhhhh, Nancy.’ I turned 16 shades of red. It was a doll! It was so embarrassing!”

“He was a little [wild],” Kerrigan says of Farley both on and off the clock. “I guess he was sober for months and months at that time, but I was like, ‘OK, he’s still kind of crazy.’” At the cast’s weekly dinner on Tuesday night, “I was surprised because Mike Myers was so quiet. … Chris had this crazy energy. He was just on and entertaining all the time. Like, whoa, I don’t think I can keep up with him.”

As for the after-party, well, she wasn’t exactly chilling at a downtown hipster hangout: “Oh gosh, my mom’s cousin kept going up to Jon Bon Jovi and saying, ‘Oh, Bon, I really like your music!’ I was just sitting there like, ‘Yeah, sorry, this woman is with me.’”

The week that someone like Jordan or Gretzky hosts SNL turns 30 Rock into a two-way street of nerves and wide-eyed amazement. While the athletes are bewildered to be in a totally different environment, all of those seemingly jaded cast members and writers—the ones who are paid to consistently collaborate with the upper echelon of celebrity—turn into fans who struggle to contain themselves.

“I definitely had an appreciation for them and their abilities,” says Alan Zweibel, an original writer from 1975 until 1980. “I’d sit next to them in a meeting and look at their fingers and think, wow, their fingers are bigger than mine, their legs are longer.

Zweibel asked Tarkenton to throw a football to him in the hallway outside the offices: “I wanted to tell my grandkids someday that I caught a pass from Fran Tarkenton.” A year later, he bonded with another NFL player—O.J Simpson, then the running back for the Buffalo Bills. “He was really affable and approachable,” Zweibel says. He particularly recalls Simpson being extra sensitive about a travelogue sketch that described the horrors of living in Buffalo. “He ended up calling his head coach and read it to him on the phone. They both agreed that it wouldn’t be good publicity for the Bills and the city so we scrapped the idea.” (That said, Franken’s recollections are slightly different: “O.J. spent less time at the show than the rest of the athletes, which was definitely strange and a departure. All the other athletes really put in the work. He was off doing other stuff.”)

As the athletes have shuffled in and out through the eras—that’s you too, Bob Uecker (1984) and Mr. T (1985)—the thrill has remained. “The guys went crazy for the athletes and so did a lot of the girls,” says Zander. “You would root for them because they all worked really hard to do what we wanted them to.”

Zander, insisting that she knows nothing about sports, cops to a few favorites. Gretzky was “as sweet as could be” and came to every rehearsal smiling, laughing, and with his lines memorized. And as a Chicago native, she was also giddy around Walter Payton, who cohosted with Joe Montana in 1987. That episode also featured the sketch “Sincere Guy Stu,” which parodied the concept of hearing people’s internal monologues as they engaged in a banal conversation. Montana relayed all his thoughts aloud. “Montana wasn’t a natural comedian,” Smigel says. “But his persona was so perfectly innocent and sweet-natured that no one could have performed it better.”

“He was so funny!” Forte says. “I must have been about 12 years old when I watched, and it still sticks in my head.”

Upon hearing the list of Hall of Fame–worthy athlete hosts during his tenure—Jeff Gordon (2003), Andy Roddick (2003), Tom Brady (2005), Lance Armstrong (2005), Peyton Manning (2007), LeBron James (2007), Michael Phelps (2008), and Charles Barkley (2010)—Forte singles out two. “Charles Barkley and Peyton Manning immediately jump out at me,” he says.

Four-timer Barkley is “one of the funniest people on the planet,” Forte says, adding that he’s particularly fond of Barkley’s participation in a 2010 installment of MacGruber. “I remember we had to shoot the same night as the college football national championship and everyone wanted to watch the game so a TV was brought down to us,” he says. “I would have been pissed but Charles was so cool about it.”

The “super-funny” Manning, meanwhile, starred in Forte’s most cherished SNL sketch: “I played this motivational coach and we do this dumb dance. Peyton is funny and delivered the lines so earnestly and it just all came together.” He’s actually underselling it—the locker-room-set scene is a hilarious classic, culminating in the two flailing their bodies to an obscure Herb Alpert jazz tune. “Lorne had specifically asked to shorten the dance. It just wasn’t clicking,” he says. But during the live show, it killed. “Peyton lifted up my leg to play it like a guitar and I feel like I probably should have stretched a little more. Like, thank god he didn’t tear my leg off.”

And though Gardner has only worked with Barkley (2018) and then–Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt (2020), she confirms that athletes loom large on the show (and not just in the physical sense). For Watt, “He treated it like it was a football game,” she says. “Every host gets a binder full of the sketches that’s usually in the dressing room. But that binder was his playbook. He had it with him the entire week and when a writer told him something, he would note it in his book. I’m positive he was watching all the rehearsals, treating it like a game. I was like, ‘This is so fucking cool. I feel like I’m on a football team with J.J. Watt!’”

Amusing as they are, these stories all lead up to the one hosting gig that encapsulates the magic of sports stars doing live comedy from New York. You want to talk about being in awe of greatness? Watching a master at work? Every pop culture force coming together to form one perfect entertainment supernova? Then behold the time Michael Jordan reported for hosting duty in September 1991.

First, you have to go back to earlier that summer when Jordan—fresh off his first NBA championship—was honored during a televised Comic Relief benefit special at the Chicago Theater. Billy Crystal hosted. Will Smith, then known as the Fresh Prince, saluted him. Patti LaBelle and Bruce Hornsby (?!) provided musical performances. For one of the vignettes, Farley, Smigel, and Cheers actor George Wendt reprised their Mike Ditka–obsessed “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” characters from SNL—and as a special surprise, Jordan joined them onstage to deliver a hearty “Daaaaa Bulls!” declaration. “The sketch did very well,” Smigel says. “And I later heard it helped give him the confidence to host SNL, although the idea of Michael needing confidence to do anything seemed silly.” (Jordan declined to comment for this story.)

Once MJ showed up to 30 Rock, “everybody wanted to write for him,” Zander says. “We’re always trying to do our best but people were just so excited.” Smigel agrees: “We were all starstruck, like I’d never seen… People just knew from watching him that he was the best ever.”

All that adulation prompted the cast and crew to cross the cardinal rule of SNL: asking for an autograph. “It’s incredibly inappropriate and embarrassing,” Smigel adds. Nobody can remember who asked first, says Smigel, but once it got out that he was game, “the floodgates opened. I can’t imagine how many he ended up giving out and signing. Mine is one of my prized possessions and it’s hidden in a closet where no one can mess with it.” Franken sheepishly admits to having asked him to sign a silver basketball for a friend who was a big contributor to his kids’ school. The autograph-seeking was so rampant that Jordan’s team had to send out a memo notifying the cast and crew that he was done.

When he wasn’t doling out his signature, Jordan showed up to every meeting and took an active interest in the sketches presented to him. Unlike some other hosts or musical guests, he rolled sans entourage and readily made himself available. “He was exactly what he seemed to be in interviews, which was easygoing and personable,” Smigel says. Notes Franken, “He was just obviously very cool and confident.”

During those long afternoons and nights rehearsing, his personality shined through. Smigel says that in a pretaped sketch about the history of the Harlem Globetrotters, director Tom Schiller befuddled Michael: “He was brilliant at shooting stuff that looked like authentic old footage but he’s also famously eccentric and chose to wear a beret and hold a megaphone, like the Erich Von Stroheim old-time cliché. At one point Michael turned to me and said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He wasn’t sure if Tom was really directing or part of the bit somehow.”

When some of the actors started a shootaround during a break in the action, Jordan the competitor was appalled. “He was disgusted by how crappy they actually were,” Smigel says. “He said, ‘Look at these guys, they’re just a bunch of weekend hacks.’” But at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jordan was ready. “You get one shot because it’s live, right?” Franken says. “But they’re used to that pressure, or maybe rise to it because they’re athletes. … They’re unbelievable live performers—even when we made little adjustments, he nailed it.” (And just to bring it all full circle, that night, Jordan took part in another edition of the “Superfans.”)

When the 47th season of Saturday Night Live kicks off on October 2 with host Owen Wilson (followed by Kim Kardashian West, Rami Malek, and Jason Sudeikis), almost two years will have passed since an athlete last strutted on that stage. Gardner says she’d love to see power players Patrick Mahomes, Steph Curry, and Simone Biles take a shot at it soon. “It’s hard now because I think athletes can typically be criticized for anything and I bet they’ve turned down doing the show because they don’t want to be seen like they’re not taking their careers seriously,” she offers. “But I hope that athletes take that leap and do it. … I will be their straight man in a sketch! You can quote me!”

For any pro on the fence, it’s worth considering that the high risk can yield high, if not career-altering, rewards. One-man box-office behemoth Dwayne Johnson was still a fuzzy-haired WWE personality known as “the Rock” when he hosted for the first time in 2000. Jordan got the keys to his own big-budget studio comedy film, Space Jam, in 1996; LeBron James, who hosted the 33rd-season premiere in 2007, received a scene-stealing role in the Judd Apatow–directed comedy Trainwreck (and years later, his own Space Jam vehicle). And before becoming the stars of the outrageously successful alternative Monday Night Football broadcast, the Manning brothers cut their teeth on the SNL stage.

“It was such a wonderful week,” says Gretzky.

Tarkenton says that his four days in New York City hold a “very important place of my lifetime.” He cherishes the framed photos from that special night that hang in the lobby of his office. “They’re all in there—Belushi, Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris,” he says. “I built friendships with all of them.”

For Kerrigan, she ends the conversation with a big smile on her face recalling her night under the lights. “I only wish I could do it again because I’d be way less nervous,” she says. “But it is pretty cool that it even happened, you know?”

Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.

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