In hosting "Saturday Night Live" Elon Musk pulls the supervillain ploy of taking an audience hostage

Musk's "SNL" gig isn't the end of it all, but it is another show helping him gloss over the ways he makes it worse

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 8, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the Axel Springer Award 2020 in Berlin (Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)
SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the Axel Springer Award 2020 in Berlin (Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)

Only a true supervillain has the gall to turn live TV into a crime involving hostages. The Joker's pulled that move a few times, as has Dr. Evil.

As Elon Musk prepares to host "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, we can at least say that he's following in something of a grand tradition among his ilk. He's also one-upping those other malefactors because, unlike them, he's real.

The world learned the world's third richest person would commandeer "Saturday Night Live" two weeks ago by way of the evildoer's megaphone of choice, Twitter. The official "SNL" account shared a coy photo of his name written on an index cards, one of three with the other two setting the dooms date (May 8) and the other revealing the evening's Harley Quinn, er musical guest, would be played by Miley Cyrus.

We kid, but only sort of. Indisputable is that millions of folks are indignant about Musk hosting, reportedly including several cast members who may not perform alongside him in Saturday night's episode. Many others who haven't watched "SNL" in years and don't plan to break that trend are likely ticked off in principle which, OK, fair.

But the main reason "SNL" mastermind Lorne Michaels said yes to such a controversial figure hosting the late night institution is as old as the medium itself, which is to lure in the curious and halt the season's downward rating trend. "Saturday Night Live" experienced the same boost enjoyed and suffered by the mediasphere while Donald Trump was in office, remixing itself into a balm for our misery with its weekly trolls.

No comedian enjoyed the layman's assertion that Trump was great for comedy, but his vicious administration was a boon for "SNL". . . and the comedown hasn't been kind. Pulling in Musk is Michaels' way of admitting he and the show need a taste – just a bump baby, that's all.

While Bowen Yang and Aidy Bryant released their own dismayed social media reactions to Musk's duh-dumb "Let's find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is," tweet, Michaels is probably correct to wager that they're outnumbered by folks who share Pete Davidson's bewilderment at not knowing why people are freaking out.

"And I'm like, the guy that makes the earth better, kind of, and makes cool things and sends people to Mars?" the comedian told Seth Meyers on a recent episode of "Late Night."

Half of Davidson's point likely reflects the public's prevailing view. Ask the average person to tell you about Musk, and they'll say he's the guy who blessed us with Teslas, is currently worth $166 billion and wants to send humans to Mars.

Tell them that he also called concerns about the pandemic "dumb" in its earliest days and about half will reply, "Yup, they are."

That Musk is barred from running for president is cold comfort, and he's not running for any office now. He could in the future, but that possibility isn't as concerning as the damage he's doing right now in his current starring role as a planetary wealth hoarder. Musk is considered to be a union-busting, exploitative white collar goon who has enough money to influence government officials and bend policy to his will and whims.

One episode of "Saturday Night Live" won't shift that one way or another. However, it still serves the larger purpose of polishing Musk's celebrity value. Musk has already popped up on "Young Sheldon" and "The Big Bang Theory," along with "Rick and Morty" all shows featuring geniuses, the last one a thoroughly damaged and possibly sociopathic one. 

These cameos are thematically understandable given Musk's founding of SpaceX. The company recently sent four astronauts to the International Space Station by way of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Musk might not have a film to promote but that's something he can crow about.

He's also a proponent of Hyperloop technology, which he and other mega-gazillionaires swear will be less expensive and polluting than air travel, and much faster than traveling by train or car. It involves travelling inside floating pods sliding within giant tubes at speeds exceeding over 700 miles an hour, which doesn't hold a hint of Bond movie nefariousness about it at all.

But these shows present him as a fictional figure, and in small doses. "South Park" and "The Simpsons" each tossed him a guest voice bone, but nothing central enough to earn more notice than a credit.

"Saturday Night Live" enables him to sell some version of himself, and whether of the parts he embodies has any basis in who is really is matter less that knowing he'll be in millions of people's living rooms and – ugh – bedrooms for 90 minutes. Come Sunday and the top of the week, the show's sketches will receive wider circulation, so even if you choose not to watch it you'll probably stumble across the episode's most successful bits.

Americans fall all over themselves for men like Musk with or without a gig like this, but any and all airtime assists them in styling their image and whatever legend they want to spin out of it. Plus, Musk's obscene wealth is actual as opposed to a reality show producer's prop, and to countless millions that make him the kind of guy who must be doing something right. Laugh at his jokes, forgive his sins and accept that to make that better Earth Davidson talks about, you have to move fast and break things. If one of those things is a town, or a group of people, or a nation,  so be it.

Musk's "SNL" hosting gig coincides with the one-year anniversary of forcing his Alameda County, California-based Tesla factory to resume production in defiance of the county government's pandemic-related manufacturing shutdown order. (Around this same time he also received a performance-based company payout of approximately $775 million.)

He assured workers that they could take unpaid leave if they felt uncomfortable returning to the plant, and when some took him up on his offer, the company sent them termination notices.

No amount of shaming or threats of legal intervention made a difference. By December, according to county data, at least 450 Tesla workers had been infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But have you seen the latest Tesla whips though?

These criticisms are based in moral and ethical concerns, and this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" audience probably won't be thinking about much of either. They'll tune in to see whether Musk is funny, and he has a Twitter feed lousy with proof that he isn't, but that doesn't matter. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and billionaire Steve Forbes were not known as funny men, but the writers scripted them to be. "Saturday Night Live" also made Rudy Giuliani come off as a mensch in 1997.

NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff got a spin at the hosting wheel and I'm sure he did fine job of reading lines off of a teleprompter, but who in the heck remembers?

"Saturday Night Live" writers can and will massage Musk's persona into something palatable and they might even make cryptocurrency investors wet their pants by working a mention of Dogecoin into a skit. Celebrities love giving fans a shout-out during the monologue, and some of its investors are praying he does, supposedly jacking up its price. Doing so would place "Saturday Night Live" in the headlines for reasons other than ratings on Monday morning. Nobody should be shocked if Michaels blesses that move.

And really, this episode isn't the democracy-ending event some are making it out to be. It will be added to lengthening list of Musk's rehabilitating appearances, which he may build into a persona he can sell to the public or merely use to stroke his ego.

Over its many decades "Saturday Night Live" featured hosts who turned out to be not-so-great people. Less than a handful of them rose to positions where they could strangle our democracy, our environment or starve our economic system.

Musk is already there, and Michaels senses that he's type of polarizing host worth ransoming his 46-year-old show's audience for a week. In the short run his strategy will probably work. It may also prove to the countless people for whom "SNL" is no longer relevant, to quote another famously media-savvy archenemy, that there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.

"Saturday Night Live" airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. ET/ 8:30 p.m. PT on NBC.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aidy Bryant Bowen Yang Dr Evil Elon Musk Pete Davidson Rudy Giuliani Saturday Night Live The Joker Tv