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The problem with Elon Musk hosting SNL is that the show holds too much cultural relevance

  • Vox

    "It’s easy to be cynical about Musk’s hosting gig," says Emily VanDerWerff. "SNL needs viewers, and controversy drives curiosity from casual audience members, and Musk will be sure to drive controversy, ergo. And SNL’s decision to let cast members who’d rather sit out the episode take the week off easily folds into this narrative. After all, what better way to get a certain subset of viewers all het up than being able to call some of the show’s cast members snowflakes or whatever? But I would argue we’re not being cynical enough. Every single SNL controversy is driven by the same basic impulse to ascribe the show with a power it simply does not hold. The latest SNL controversy has almost nothing to do with Elon Musk and everything to do with the baby boomer gerontocracy." VanDerWerff argues that SNL's outsized cultural relevance is mainly due to baby boomers still holding on to power, whether politically or in pop-culture (though, technically, Lorne Michaels and President Biden were born before the Baby Boom generation). VanDerWerff adds that "every few months the show becomes the most important TV story in the news makes me a little bonkers. The worst part is it’s nearly always the same controversy. SNL does something that comments (or seems like it will comment) obliquely on our political culture. There are many headlines about how bold and controversial SNL is. Then after a few days, nobody cares anymore....SNL is pretty great at inserting itself into the middle of the national discourse whenever it feels like it. Whenever the show casts someone as a presidential candidate or a vice presidential candidate, the move becomes headline news. And it spent most of the Trump administration offering up weak cold opens about the latest political news largely designed to assure its audience that, yes, Trump was very silly, but so is politics as a whole. We could still laugh about him! These, too, made the news, and 'Here’s what this week’s SNL cold open had to say about Trump!' became a mainstay for plenty of sites, including this one." As VanDerWerff points out, "the Musk controversy breaks down along familiar-enough generational lines — Boomers: 'You kids get mad at anyone you disagree with!' Millennials/Gen Z: 'The hoarding of wealth is destroying the planet!' Gen X: 'Why doesn’t anybody care about The Simpsons this much? — that I think it illuminates the main reason SNL can still dominate headlines. Baby boomers still control most of our levers of institutional power, and SNL is one of their most beloved cultural institutions. This is not to say that no young people watch SNL; the show has viewers across all demographics. But it is to say that SNL’s penchant for abruptly making news has less to do with SNL than with its perceived importance to the culture as a whole. And that perceived importance is a lot easier to believe in if you were there to watch its legendary early seasons in the mid-’70s than if you started watching it (as I did) in the late ’90s."


    • UPDATE: SNL will livestream tonight's show to more than 100 countries via YouTube for the first time: Elon Musk hosting has drawn interantional interest, particularly with the potential of him mentioning cryptocurrency Dogecoin.
    • Bringing in Elon Musk is likely Lorne Michaels' attempt to reverse SNL's rating slide: "SNL has had a rocky time, ratings-wise, since it returned to the studio in October for the first time during the pandemic," says Steven Zeitchik. "It was clocking a respectable 9 million viewers at the time of the presidential election. But averages dropped to 4 million soon after and have often hovered in that lower range...At a time when network programming has suffered massive viewership drops as younger people often pay more attention to social media stars, TV gatekeepers are trying to find new ways to reach audiences. The Musk move, experts say, may be Michaels’s version of going that influencer route." As one unnamed veteran tells Zeitchik, “I think Lorne recognizes if he just keeps playing to liberals on the coasts, his audience will wither. So he’s trying something.”
    • Elon Musk hardly needs SNL's megaphone -- and he isn't even this season's worst booking: "He spends his life promoting things — like alternative currency and conspiracy theories — that make the world a worse place and a more irritating place," says Daniel D'Addario. "For those in a frame of mind even slightly divergent from Musk’s, news about him sounds like dispatches from a world in which joy has been removed from everything. The ambition to explore space, via Musk’s interests in space travel, has become a bland corporate escapade; the simple act of exchanging money for goods and services, in the world of Musk-endorsed cryptocurrency, sets the planet on boil. Do you like art? You’ll grudgingly tolerate NFTs. This would seem to make Musk a perfect fit for present-day SNL, which so badly wants to remain current that it aired a near-unwatchable sketch explaining what NFTs were before Musk was announced. The series, which began its life as an anarchic counterculture goof branded 'Not Ready for Prime Time,' now seeks to be bigger than prime-time by booking the most potently relevant figure in our culture. But, as was the case with Trump in 2015, it’s hard to see how you deflate Musk’s pretensions while he’s standing on your stage. This is hardly SNL’s worst booking offense even this season. After ditching musical guest Morgan Wallen in October over his flouting COVID-19 safety protocols, the show brought him back, and asked cast members to stake their credibility on Wallen’s exemplary behavior going forward, in a December sketch didactically framing Wallen as a good, misunderstood fellow. (This was not a bet that paid off, as Wallen was dropped by his management early this year for saying a racial slur on tape.) An appearance on NBC’s air is not a merit badge, but SNL itself made the case here that time on air is determined by, or determines, moral virtue. The show’s casting communicates more than just jokes: SNL attempts, in a bumbling manner, to set itself at the center of the cultural agenda, to be an arbiter. In having Trump on in 2015, the series both caught the wave of a conversation and sparked a new one; in re-booking Wallen, it made an affirmative statement about the star’s rehabilitation. And in selecting Musk, it’s playing at anointing a self-styled rebel into a mainstream star, even as Musk’s stratospheric success and the way he’s found it suggests he’s as mainstream as it gets."
    • Michael Che is glad Elon Musk is hosting because he's a white host he's heard of: "Well, you know what's funny is that like, I would say I know about 20-25% of the white people that get to host the show anyway," Che said on The Wendy Williams Show. "So Elon, I was like, 'Oh, I know who he is at least.' I don't really know a lot about pop culture, so I really don't ever know who the host is in the first place. But I like that it's kind of polarizing and stuff. To me, it makes it exciting, I mean, everybody wants to watch now, so that's cool."
    • Looking back at Elon Musk's TV cameos, from The Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory

    TOPICS: Elon Musk, NBC, Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels