When my editor asked me to watch Elon Musk on Saturday Night Live, I desperately wondered how to refuse. ‘Actually, I’m busy on Saturday night.‘ Useless. There are a million ways to watch live television after the event. ‘I’m a bit sick right now.’ Too sick to watch TV and write about it? ‘I can’t hear Pete Davidson’s voice without wanting to punch a hole in wall.’ True, but not the sort of thing you want to admit in public.
Damn it, I agreed. Journalists are asked to visit Syria and Afghanistan, after all, so I can hardly complain about having to watch Saturday Night Live. As The Spectator’s unofficial comedy critic, moreover, I have had to experience everything from Sarah Cooper’s mirthless Netflix special to Charlie Kirk’s bewildering satire on right-wing punditry. How much worse can this be?
So I sat down, removed all sharp objects from my immediate vicinity, and watched. The show began with Miley Cyrus singing a tribute to mothers as the cast members hugged their mums. Well, it wasn’t comedy, and it was saccharine, but you can’t get mad at people for loving their mums. Go mums.
It was all downhill from there. Elon Musk performed as well as a man who has spent his life working in tech could be expected to perform — a little awkwardly, perhaps, but with endearing enthusiasm. His head and arms jolted around as if he was a marionette being wielded by a man with a nervous tic, but he kept smiling and remembered all his lines.
The problem was the writing. A sketch intended to poke fun at ‘Gen Z’ was just a bunch of idiots standing around with colorful hair calling each other ‘bro’, ‘sis’, ‘king’ and ‘queen’. Several times I thought about stopping the show right there and telling my editor that I was being rushed into emergency surgery and could not finish the piece. The ‘joke’ that young people have bad hair and use impenetrable slang could have been made since at least the 1950s. The joke is always on the person telling it because it is such a devastating admission of old age.
A bunch of references to Elon Musk’s career were awkwardly woven into the show. In one sketch, the cast members were a bunch of cowboys who wanted to hunt down a rival gang that had killed one of their friends. Musk’s cowboy kept suggesting things like tunneling into their camp. Get it? Oh, and he rode an electric horse. Get it? Like an electric car. An electric horse. The problem is that there is nothing wacky or eccentric about the idea of powering a car with electricity. Musk is a man developing implantable brain-machine interfaces and your best example of his outré ideas is an electric car?
To be fair, the sketch also contained a good joke about cryptocurrencies. There were some good moments in the show. A sketch about the awkward conversations people might have when COVID regulations are dropped was enlivened by a raw nerved performance from Kate McKinnon. A sketch making fun of the overblown melodrama of modern science-fiction films utilized Davidson well, which is not something I thought I would ever admit.
But everything seemed so dated. A whole sketch was based around ‘Baby Yoda’, who I had hoped had been the victim of cultural infanticide soon after achieving undeserved viral status in 2019. Elon Musk had an O.J. Simpson joke written for him, which was a seam of humor Norm McDonald mined to hilarious and outrageous effect in the 1990s but which seems more than a little hackneyed 25 years later.
Musk going on the show was controversial, of course. A few cast members complained, though they was all smiles on Saturday night. Musk actually presented a humble face, asking if people who are bewildered by his juvenile enthusiasm for 4/20 memes expected the boss of Tesla and Neuralink to be a ‘normal, chill guy’. It was all a bit ‘I’m so random XD’ – and predictably side-stepped actual controversies like calling a random English diver a pedo — but it worked. If Musk’s appearance was a PR ploy, it was well-executed.
As it turned out though, the lasting impression of his presence was the contrast between a man who, like it or loathe it, is working at the forefront of technological progress and the creaking obsolescence of the mass culture around him, with its aging reference points and thick sentimentality. There was no sharp satire or striking absurdism — just a dull, gurning self-satisfaction, which does not engage with radical, disturbing phenomena but just points at them and says ‘mad, eh’ or ‘nasty, eh’.
Anyway, I did it. I watched Saturday Night Live. Never say that I am not prepared to suffer for what I do.