A History of SNL Host/Musical Guest Doublethreats

This Saturday, Gwyneth Paltrow will host Saturday Night Live, and barring some act of a merciful God, she will join musical guest Cee-Lo Green to reprise her version of Green’s “Fuck (Forget) You,” as last seen on Glee. But before Paltrow dives into host-performer territory, it would behoove her to take some notes on the triumphs and failures of others who have attempted to juggle comedy and music at 11:30 pm on a Saturday.

Paul Simon

Host Date: November 20, 1976

Simon hosted the show a total of four times, which — along with his hilarious performance alongside Chevy Chase in the “You Can Call Me Al” video — should tell you something about the strength of his comedic chops. In addition to a beautiful performance of “Here Comes the Sun” with George Harrison, this episode featured Simon in a classic backstage opening.

Frank Zappa

Host Date: October 21, 1978

Zappa was a rather odd choice for a host-musical guest. Aside from his arguable lack of mainstream appeal, he was also visibly disgusted by the entire operation he had agreed to captain. Zappa was a pain in the ass throughout his appearance, reading from cue cards, staring into the camera, and showing a general disregard for keeping pace with the comedians in his sketches. While some might find this confrontational style interesting, Lorne Michaels was not amused: legend has it Zappa was banned from the show after this appearance.

Olivia Newton-John

Host Date: May 22, 1982

Olivia Newton-John’s level of celebrity in 1982 seems like a tough thing for those of us under 30 to grasp. “Grease” and “Xanadu” were both huge hits, obviously, and “Physical” has proven to be a fairly enduring nostalgia blast for a lot of people. But I have to say, when I watch a skit like the “Women’s Room” cold open, I never cease to be amazed that she was apparently so huge that jokes were written around her level of fame. You sort of confuse me, 1982. This episode — the final one of Season 7 — never quite clicked, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that topical ONJ jokes haven’t aged very well.

Stevie Wonder

Host Date: May 7, 1983

When we think of Stevie Wonder hosting SNL in ‘83, one phrase instantly comes to mind: “good sport.” Just a year after Eddie Murphy whipped out a stellar Stevie impression for the classic “Ebony and Ivory” sketch (the only real high point from the Olivia Newton-John episode), Wonder agreed to host, and he was his usually ebullient self throughout. Next to the closing credits, which paired Murphy and Wonder together for their own takes on “My Cherie Amour,” the episode’s highlight may have come in this self-deprecating spoof ad for the Kannon camera. David Paterson who?

Willie Nelson

Host Date: February 21, 1987

Nelson had started to develop an acting career in the early ‘80s, including a leading role in the highly-underrated Western “Barbarosa” (also starring Gary Busey). With his hosting gig, Nelson got a chance to try the very un-country world of sketch comedy on for size. Although he frequently stumbled over his lines, his very Willie-ness offered plenty of fodder. The “Redneck Tanning Parlor” sketch is better in concept than excution, but we do get to hear Jon Lovitz do a voice that may have inspired Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”

Sting

Host Date: January 19, 1991

Full disclosure: Sting is going to get a bit of a boost here, as this episode was smack dab in the middle of what is probably my all-time personal favorite season. In Season 16, Lorne Michaels kept favorites like Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, and Weekend Update host Dennis Miller, while adding fresh blood in Chris Farley, Chris Rock, and Julia Sweeney. Plus, I was six, and staying up late was awesome. High fives all around, guys. Back to Sting. He managed to fit in very nicely with a cast that was just starting to get used to each other. A couple of his skits were duds (“Frankenstein,” “Depressing Poetry”), but the rest were really top-notch. The most top-notch of those was certainly the legendary “Sinatra Group” skit, in which Sting cemented his leading role in the Billy Idol biopic that, I promise you, is only a few years away.

MC Hammer

Host Date: December 7, 1991

I am sending this episode straight to Yikers Island. Really, really not very good stuff. This was at the point in his career when MC Hammer started going by just “Hammer,” and it seemed as though the man’s publicists must have foreseen his future challenges and begged Lorne Michaels do give him this one last payday. Among the forgettable sketches on this episode, Hammer’s Wilt Chamberlain character stands out as the biggest “huh?” moment. Aside from the monologue, that is. I usually dislike monologues that turn into musical segments, and this one may have been what turned me sour in the first place.

Garth Brooks

Host Dates: February 28, 1998 and November 13, 1999

Brooks gets an asterisk next to his second host-musical guest appearance, since he performed as “Chris Gaines,” instead of “Garth Brooks.” Remember that time Garth Brooks created an alter-ego for himself? That was a weird thing, huh? Oh well, at least it allowed for Tracy Morgan to insult him to his face.

Jennifer Lopez

Host Dates: February 10, 2001 and February 27, 2010

With her start as a Fly Girl dancer on In Living Color, it would have been easy to imagine Jennifer Lopez’s move to the hosting side of sketch comedy going rather smoothly. Unfortunately, the writing on both of her episodes was notably bad, and her musical performances were reminders of her vocal limitations. That said, she was granted one big break during the 2001 episode: by placing her opposite Chris Kattan as “Mango,” the writers guaranteed that she would be the funniest person on camera.

Britney Spears

Host Dates: May 13, 2000 and February 2, 2002

I remember watching the 2000 episode as a 14 year-old hip-hop aficionado who hated pop music and wanted so badly for its new, shining savior to fail miserably. But you know what? Britney was kind of good! She was self-deprecating and not afraid to be thrown into the heaving midst of Tracy Morgan-fueled absurdity, as evidenced by the very memorable “Woodrow” sketch. There’s some legitimate chemistry here.

Justin Timberlake

Host Dates: October 11, 2003, December 16, 2006, and May 9, 2009

Many people would rank Justin Timberlake as one of the finest hosts in SNL history. Those people are probably drinking too much JT juice, I think, but there’s no doubt he’s one of, if not the best of the host-musical guest ilk. Timberlake became a one-man viral machine with his Digital Short appearances — ”Dick in a Box,” “Mother Lover,” and “Jizz in My Pants” — but his live sketches were often standouts, as well. His turn as Robin Gibb on the “Barry Gibb Talk Show” is a personal favorite.

Janet Jackson

Host Date: April 10, 2004

Janet Jackson’s appearance came two months after her infamous Super Bowl nipple slip (NEVER FORGET), and the writers wasted no time using the FCC’s nightmare for material, with both the cold opening and her monologue featuring “wardrobe malfunction” jokes. The monologue’s reference came by way of a home video featuring a very young Janet’s swimsuit strap falling off and made me feel a little weird, because, you know, the Jackson family. The cold opening, on the other hand, was not disturbing at all; in fact, it featured a pretty damn good Condoleezza Rice by Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty. The episode also saw Jackson take part in SNL’s continuing legacy (see “Schwetty Balls,” “Colonel Angus”) of structuring entire sketches around making phrases sound dirty. Come on guys, grow up. Gross.

Queen Latifah

Host Date: October 9, 2004

Before I went back and watched this episode, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Queen Latifah was a musical guest in 2004. It had been a decade since “U.N.I.T.Y.” came out, right? Well, folks, turns out that in that year, she released a jazz album. A jazz album! What a classy lady. Latifah can act, and her Gwen Ifill was good enough to get the real Ifill to discuss it on “Meet the Press.” This “Excedrin for Racial Tension Headaches” commercial parody is one of the strongest of the last decade.

Ludacris

Host Date: November 18, 2006

Ludacris, in the couple years preceding his hosting appearance, played a major role in one movie I loved (“Hustle ‘n Flow”) and one that I hated (“Crash”), so trust me when I tell you I went into this one with a completely open mind regarding Chris Bridges’ acting talent. But I hated this episode. Is it partially due to the fact that it followed the previous week’s really great Alec Baldwin episode? Sure. But also: the sketches were overly rap-centric, Ludacris’ musical performances were energized yet disappointing, and Darrell Hammond did his terrible Bill O’Reilly. There was a singing Andy Samberg character, so that’s something. Okay, so maybe I’m a hypocrite about the rap-centric sketches — but this one would have been enough!

Taylor Swift

Host Date: November 7, 2009

And, finally, we come to Taylor Swift. Don’t we always. I am not sure how Ms. Swift has come to be such a polarizing figure, but I absolutely refuse to have any strong feelings about her. I will say, however, that she was just a little bit…too much…as an SNL host. She tried very hard, which is nice and all, and she seems to have had fun, but I kept on wishing she would just take a “calm-down pill” (as I believe it’s called). Perhaps she was a bit nervous — she was reading the cue cards with an obviousness level of 7.2 on the Zappa scale — but the fact remains: Taylor Swift is not a very good actress. Which is unfortunate, considering “Valentine’s Day” was likely not the last time we’ll see her on the big screen. Shockingly, she did do pretty well as a teenager.

Adam Kaufman is yet another writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Rumpus, Nerve, and the New York Press, and he blogs about basketball at noregard.net.

A History of SNL Host/Musical Guest Doublethreats