It began with tweet from Miley Cyrus. On April 24, the singer tweeted news that she would be returning to the Saturday Night Live stage as a musical guest on May 8. It would be her seventh appearance, and her fourth time performing there in the last five years. But the celebratory moment didn’t last long.
In the accompanying photo, sandwiched between the date and Cyrus’s name, was the designated host, controversial and polarizing Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. And not everyone was laughing.
And even more people — including some notable names — chimed in with their dissent.
“SNL gonna bring out the Thai kids who got stuck in a cave for a sketch with Elon,” wrote comedian Desus Nice.
“Inspiring: Elon Musk is the first SNL host to directly profit from the apartheid,” wrote Onion contributor Skyler Higley.
“I feel like the SNL booking is stunt to push cryptocurrency on Twitter,” wrote comedian Noel Casler.
The message was decisive and clear: Musk’s appearance, no matter the outcome, would be anything but funny.
Resurfaced headlines began flooding Twitter. A Verge headline from 2017: “Tesla factory reportedly described as a ‘predator zone’ by female employees.” A New York Times headline from 2018: “Menial Tasks, Slurs and Swastikas: Many Black Workers at Tesla Say They Faced Racism.” An Atlantic headline from 2020: “Elon Musk’s Lesson in How Not to Celebrate Diversity.” An Observer headline from the same year: “Elon Musk’s Transphobia on Twitter Is Not a Joke.”
Without so much as a rehearsal underway, Musk’s past, much of it recent, left many wondering if the show should feature a man who once tweeted, “Maybe worth considering chloroquine for [COVID-19],” to his 50-plus million followers at the outset of the pandemic, weeks after first tweeting, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first (and likely not the last) time the show has caught flack for giving airtime to a contentious person. In fact, in 1990, when controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay hosted the show, cast member Nora Dunn refused to perform on the show.
“[He] was an abuser of women and he was a homophobe,” Dunn recalled in a 2015 Salon interview. “Lorne said, ‘Andrew Dice Clay was a phenomenon worth examining.’ And yeah, he was a phenomenon — but if you’re going to examine him, he shouldn’t be the host, you should write an article.”
Though no one from the cast has (thus far) refused to take the stage come May 8, this current cast members are making their opinions known online.
Aidy Bryant, who has been with the show since 2012, shared a March 25 Bernie Sanders tweet on her Instagram shortly after the announcement that read: “The 50 wealthiest people in America today own more wealth than the bottom half of our people. Let me repeat that, because it is almost too absurd to believe: the 50 wealthiest people in this country own more wealth than some 165 MILLION Americans. That is a moral obscenity.”
Elon Musk is the seventh most wealthy American, according to Forbes. SNL writer Sudi Green also shared Sanders’s post.
Fan-favorite featured player Bowen Yang first posted a frowny face emoji on his Instagram story minutes after the announcement. For anyone questioning the correlation, Yang clarified in his next Instagram story post, which featured a screenshot of Musk’s tweet reading, “Let’s find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is.” Yang responded with the words, “What the f**k does this even mean?”
Though Page Six ran a headline over the weekend that read “‘SNL’ cast won’t be forced to appear with controversial host Elon Musk,” the story is quoted as “historically speaking,” and not in response to Musk’s appearance.
So why court such controversy, especially mere months after the show received a swift backlash over a transphobic Weekend Update joke?
Ratings, most likely.
You may think a show as established as Saturday Night Live would be the draw, but the show’s ratings very much fluctuate depending on the guest. Compare their most recent episode, hosted by Academy Award-nominee Carey Mulligan with Kid Cudi as the musical guest to an episode earlier in the season, which featured host Dave Chappelle and musical guest The Foo Fighters. Mulligan and Kudi’s episode was watched live by 3.6M (a season low) compared to the 9.1M who tuned in to see Chappelle and The Foo Fighters. Chappelle? Controversial. Mulligan? Not so much. Of course, there are other factors at play here that could help explain such a disparity in viewers — Chapelle may be considered more of a household name than Mulligan. But his controversial sense of humor has undoubtedly helped propel him into the spotlight time and time again.
This not to justify the host choice, but to explain how, from Saturday Night Live’s perspective, opting for Musk might prove a financial slam dunk, given both his following (he’s the twenty-third most followed person on Twitter, ahead of The New York Times, LeBron James and even Miley Cyrus) and the ensuing controversy, which will likely result in many tuning in with a I can’t wait to see how this turns out lens.
From a producer’s perspective, it’s a win-win. If he’s funny, great. If he flops, even better.
But there’s a chance that this could backfire and viewers will opt to tune out, choosing to adopt a “vote with your dollar”-esque approach.
“I remember when Elon Musk threatened workers if they unionized,” reads one viral tweet. “I also remember when I found out he was exploiting children in third world countries. What I won’t remember is him hosting SNL, because I won’t be watching it.”
But even that perspective is giving the episode social impressions. As Beyoncé once said: “You know you that b***h when you cause all this conversation.”
It seems success or failure really isn’t the metric so much as morality is here. Is it ethical to give Musk — who is not an actor, musician, sports star or entertainer in any way — a chance to redeem himself to millions, given his sordid past — and, in some cases, present?
That will remain the question well after this Saturday.
If you liked this story, read about Jonah Hill’s powerful response to body shaming.
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