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Dotcom billionaires are not renowned for their comedic timing. Users of Bill Gates’s Windows 95 were more likely to end up crying than laughing. And the role played by Facebook and Twitter in spreading disinformation and fostering discontent proves the joke really was on us all along.
For those reasons, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk was regarded as a controversial host for Saturday Night Live, the venerable American comedy "institution” that has staggered on for the past 40 years despite rarely actually being funny.
But the South African-born Silicon Valley mogul seemed perfectly at home as he delivered his opening monologue – one of those rambling job lots of quips and musings regarded as sacred in American comedy.
Musk continued to hold his head above water through the rest of the episode. He was assisted, it’s true, by material so howlingly unfunny it distracted from the guest’s occasional wooden moments.
The Tesla tycoon could never be accused of radiating charisma. However, as the second wealthiest person in the world, he was never going to be short on confidence. And what he lacked in screwball charm he more than made up for with gold-plated chutzpah. He also delivered a bit of a bombshell when revealing, during the monologue, that he had Asperger’s, which he claimed was a first for SNL (in fact, Dan Ackroyd beat him to it).
He – or whoever was penning his gags – could do self-mocking humour. “A lot of times people are reduced to the dumbest thing they ever did,” said Musk. “Like one time, I smoked weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast .. and now all the time I hear [that] all I do is smoke weed on podcasts.”
Musk’s mother, Maye, joined him for the monologue (it’s Mother’s Day in the US). This followed a “cold open” during which Miley Cyrus had performed her godmother Dolly Parton’s song, Light Of A Clear Blue Morning.
Saturday Night Live is rarely subtle. And this week’s sketches had all the grace and nuance of a foghorn. A skit about a post-lockdown party milked the idea that we have all forgotten how to socially engage with strangers. Musk, to his credit, blended in seamlessly playing someone who had recently received a Covid jab (surely an in-joke as he had told the New York Times last November that he wouldn’t take a vaccine).
He wasn’t sidesplittingly hilarious – but neither were cast members Kate McKinnon and Heidi Gardner. One of the funnier moments – it’s all relative – saw the ensemble of comedians playing 20-something “Gen Zers” at a hospital. Actually, they sounded like Millennials trying too hard on Twitter. Musk, as a down-with-the-kids doctor, parachuted effortlessly into the scene. He could have been just another SNL player.
Musk is a divisive figure, with a reputation for eccentricity to go alongside his accomplishments as the founder of electric car manufacturer Tesla and of SpaceX, which has the ultimate goal of colonising Mars. He and pop star Grimes were widely derided, for instance, for naming their child X Æ A-12 (“it’s pronounced cat walking over keyboard,” he deadpanned in his monologue). And there was disquiet over Saturday Night Live giving him a platform.
“I hate the fact that Elon Musk is hosting SNL and I hate even more the fact that there’s literally no way I won’t watch it,” comedian Sarah Cooper tweeted. It epitomised the mix of revulsion and fascination many felt about Musk doing comedy.
He is one of a handful of figures from outside entertainment and sport to host Saturday Night Live (Donald Trump presented the show in 2015). One theory is that the producers were eager to expand their potential audience beyond comedy fans and to draw some of Musk’s 53 million Twitter followers. Which was presumably why the instalment was simulcast globally on YouTube.
His appearance undoubtedly caused waves. Musk’s unflattering zinger about cryptocurrency Dogecoin caused its value to tumble 28 per cent. Musk has also generated free publicity for his dystopian “Cybertruck”, which he spent the weekend driving around New York.
That vehicle rumbled about ominously – much as Musk did during his monologue. Yet in the end the electric car magnate more than acquitted himself. If anyone needed a recharge it was Saturday Night Live’s joke writers.