What Elon Musk can learn from the 3 other business tycoons who have hosted SNL

It’s always showtime for Elon Musk. The Tesla honcho is a master at risking the ridiculous to change the world. In between plotting to colonize Mars, hawking vacations in space, promoting the satirical cryptocurrency Dogecoin, and designing near-supersonic capsules as new-age subways, Musk will spend this Saturday hosting Saturday Night Live.

It’s the ultimate rarity for a businessperson to cross over to hosting SNL. Since it’s only happened a few times in the 46-year history of the show, let’s look ahead to Musk’s upcoming performance on May 8, and by examining the fortunes of those who preceded him, identify any pitfalls that may await the world’s biggest EV-maker and zaniest tycoon.

Besides the usual assortment of comics, actors, and musicians, SNL has invited sundry guests from outside the realm of pure entertainment to host the show. These “civilians” include athletes from Michael Jordan to Tom Brady to Nancy Kerrigan, politicians as varied as Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Al Gore, and such broadcasters as Edwin Newman, Bob Uecker, and Brian Williams. For major public figures, perhaps the least represented walk of life is the business baron. Maybe the producers fear that even aided by funny scripts and plenty of rehearsals, they’re just too square for comedy.

The sample size for assessing if that’s true is tiny––only three non-showbiz moguls have ever headlined the show. The unmirthful George Steinbrenner engaged in a politically incorrect skit so cringeworthy it’s a miracle that it remains on YouTube; Donald Trump had fashioned such an outrageous persona to begin with that a spoof where the then GOP frontrunner’s cotton-candy coif dazzles “Vladimir Putin” at a Red Square summit couldn’t miss––call it comb-over diplomacy; and surprisingly, the preppy Steve Forbes scored big playing against type as a Jell-O-shot–popping redneck.

Let’s take a look back at the highs and lows of the corporate trio’s spots. Maybe Musk is studying their old clips. Since the Tesla CEO’s obsessions are crazier than Trump’s wall, Forbes’s flat tax, and Steinbrenner’s staged, publicity mongering “elevator” brawls with Dodgers fans, Musk has got a shot at scoring SNL’s best comedy foray ever starring a magnate.

Steinbrenner went first

On Oct. 20, 1990, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the first businessman to host the show. His celebrity was such that he appeared during a World Series his Yanks didn’t make. In his monologue, the beefy Steinbrenner, attired in a blue blazer, joked that the show “traditionally has two kinds of hosts, entertainers such as comedians and actors, and beloved figures from other walks of life. By no definition of the word can I call myself an entertainer. So I must fall into the other category.”

George Steinbrenner on “SNL,” Oct. 20, 1990.
Alan Singer—NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

The show mocked “the boss’s” ballpark-size ego in an episode where Steinbrenner dreams of the Yankees’ completing a World Series sweep with Steinbrenner on first, second, and third, and Steinbrenner pitching to catcher Steinbrenner, and Steinbrenner occupying every other position on the field.

In a piece presumably aimed at skewering the great American pastime’s reputation as sexist, Steinbrenner is confronted in his “office” by cast member Jan Hooks playing a sportswriter from the New York Post. Hooks complains that the players keep harassing her at the clubhouse. Steinbrenner sashays from behind his desk and strips down to his boxer shorts, tossing “honeys,” “babies,” and “sweet lips” as Hooks’ rage rises. She stalks off. But going pant-less is Steinbrenner’s way of saluting female reporters. Another gal walks in, and there’s Steinbrenner undoing his suspenders.

Steve Forbes of the ‘flat tax’ didn’t fall flat

It took over a half-decade for the next pillar of industry to deliver the monologue. On April 13, 1996, less than a month after leaving the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Steve Forbes took the stage, looking as if he were attending a board meeting in a dark blue suit. SNL had scheduled Forbes just before tax day because of his signature issue: When he intoned “flat tax,” the words sounded in an echo chamber. Forbes’s publisher-politician jested, “I hate these long cold winters. The moat I have around my house freezes over, making it easier for marauders to cross.”

Steve Forbes on “SNL,” April 13, 1996.
Alan Singer—NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Forbes was a hoot in the “roofer” segment. He’s taking a lunch break lying on the shingles, sporting a big red wig, knee pads, and a bandanna, alongside two tattooed colleagues. The boys are swigging beers and throwing empties over the side as they fantasize about winning the $1 million Powerball lottery. “I want my piece of the pie! Where’s mine! I’m tired of living near the airport! If I won a million dollars I’d pay Chuck Norris to kick my boss in the face,” snarls Forbes as he hurls another beer can at a hostile world. It’s a great spoof, maybe the one Musk must beat to reign as the king of SNL’s comedians of commerce.

Forbes faced a special challenge in his star turn––one so darkly funny it could hardly be invented. The musical guest was none other than Rage Against the Machine, a “nu metal” group renowned for its rants versus corporate America and support for the guerrilla army in Mexico. Setting up for their opening number, “Bulls on Parade”––apparently not the Wall Street kind––the band members draped the Stars and Stripes upside down over their amplifiers; stagehands snatched the flags seconds before the cameras rolled. The removal enraged the musicians, who were already stewing over sharing the show with Forbes. The bassist reportedly stormed Forbes’s dressing room, throwing bits of the torn flags as he went. History is so far silent on any altercation that followed. The flare-up got Rage banned from SNL for life.

Donald Trump got two shots, first as a business celebrity, then as a presidential candidate

Trump’s first gig came on April 3, 2004, just after his hit show, The Apprentice, started running on NBC. In one daft sequence, the Donald, clad in a tan leisure suit and white vinyl belt, plays the proprietor of a fictional chicken chain called Donald Trump’s House of Wings, boogying with feathered poultry mascots played by Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers.

Donald Trump on “SNL,” April 3, 2004.
Mary Ellen Matthews—NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Trump did an encore on Nov. 7, 2015, en route to the Republican presidential nomination. In the monologue, Trump is flanked by two (pre–Alec Baldwin) Trump impersonators, Taran Killam and Darrell Hammond. “They don’t have my talent, my money, and especially my good looks,” intones Trump, apparently citing the lack of verisimilitude in their shaggy blond wigs to his own sculpted confection.

His signature swirls also star in a fantasy sequence where President Trump is standing in Red Square to meet Russian leader Putin. He and his handlers are fretting that heavy winds will unglue his locks, disrupting his diplomatic overtures. To save the day, an Air Force general––warning that the President’s hairdo could “collapse like a house of cards, and our country will be a laughing stock”––dispatches a stealth aircraft, shrunk to microscopic size, to land on Trump’s head. Amid the forest of billowing blond strands, a team of Navy Seals stabilize the presidential pompadour by deploying an industrial-size fire hose to unleash a torrent of hairspray. Trump was big box office; his appearance drew the highest ratings for a SNL show in four years.

Musk offers more options for mockery than his predecessors

From building a base on the Moon to mining Mars for minerals to hatching EVs sans drivers to championing Bitcoin, Musk’s infatuations provide plenty of grist for SNL satire––probably much more great material than was offered by the other three hosts from Big Business. Here’s one possible spot: Musk is piloting a Tesla Model 3 across the baked maroon-hued desert floor in China’s remote Xinjiang province, where a big slug of the world’s Bitcoin is “mined,” all powered by dirty coal. The air fills with thick smoke. Musk can’t see where he’s going. He exits the Tesla coughing and sputtering.

A nomad atop a camel comes to the rescue and lifts Musk aboard. “In the desert, our transportation is as green as yours,” says the turbaned native in flowing robes. “We admire you for sharing our vision. Our camels don’t pollute, and your Teslas don’t pollute. We’ve even learned to follow our ancestral trails in the smoke. But those damn Bitcoin miners are ruining everything! The desert’s already full of abandoned Teslas, and we’re sick of rescuing the drivers!” The camera pulls skyward to show the carcasses of EVs strewn across the arid landscape.

On Wednesday Musk tweeted: “Throwing out some skit ideas for SNL. What should I do?” Ideas abounded, but Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) quickly responded with another suggestion: “Pay your fair share of taxes,” she tweeted.

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