A Viewer’s Guide to the NFL on SNL

Attention comedy nerds! You’ve probably been too busy combing the Internet for the perfect Two and a Half Men outtake to realize that we are smack dab in the middle of Super Bowl Week! This Sunday, the Packers will clash with the Steelers on the gridiron, and most red-blooded Americans will be watching. But if you love Will Forte’s “The Falconer” and have never heard of the Atlanta Falcons, you’d probably prefer to spend Super Bowl Sunday watching a marathon of SNL episodes hosted by NFL superstars. To help navigate the minefield of football players trying their hand at comedy, here’s a handy viewing guide to the best and worst of the NFL on SNL:

All-Pro Episodes

Peyton Manning — March 24, 2007

After winning Super Bowl XLI, Manning set the gold standard for athlete-hosts on SNL. It’s no secret that comedy writers drool over Manning’s goofy persona just as much as sportswriters revere his howitzer of an arm. In 2009, Late Show scribe Bill Scheft wrote an essay for Sports Illustrated titled, “Take My Quarterback, Please: Deconstructing the Comedy Stylings of Master Pitchman Peyton Manning.” In that essay, Scheft quotes David Letterman (an Indianapolis native) and Alan Zweibel, who both heap praise on Manning’s skill at delivering a joke. The Colts’ QB scored just as much on the SNL stage as on the football field — his episode earned the highest rating for the show that season.

Highlight: The now ubiquitous “Peyton Manning for United Way” Digital Short.

Tom Brady — April 16, 2004

Being a Tom Brady fan is like to pulling for Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore. Nobody wants the handsome, gifted, Gisele-banging athlete to win it all. Yet that’s what made Brady such a winning SNL host — he was willing to poke fun at his perfection. His turn as host was a victory lap after winning his second Super Bowl in three years (he’d win a third in 2005), and a few years before he decided to look like Justin Bieber.

Highlight: “Sexual Harassment and You,” written by Robert Smigel and directed by A.D. Miles.

Joe Montana/Walter Payton — January 24, 1987

I’m not sure why Montana and Payton split hosting-duties; Montana had just suffered a brutal concussion in a playoff loss (which he pokes fun at in the monologue) and maybe Lorne thought he couldn’t handle the show on his own? Whatever the reason, the two Canton-bound jocks excelled in this character-driven episode; they’re terrible actors, but it’s fun to watch Montana and Peyton goof around in “Church Chat” and “Pathological Liar” sketches. FYI: it’s not on Netflix, but Debbie Harry was the musical guest and sang “French Kissin’ in the USA.”

Highlight: Montana as “The Honest Man,” a simpleton who speaks his inner monologue word-for-word.

Second Stringers

O.J. Simpson — February 25, 1978

If only the Juice knew that in sixteen years, he’d be a murderer and the butt of countless Norm MacDonald jokes…

Highlight: O.J.’s bizarre, egomaniacal, rambling, jokeless monologue, which he delivers while wearing a conehead, with no explanation.

Fran Tarkenton — January 29, 1977

One week before the 1977 Super Bowl, Lorne Michaels invited Tarkenton to be SNL’s first athlete-host immediately following the big game. Unfortunately, Tarkenton’s Minnesota Vikings were walloped by the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI, meaning Lorne had invited the losing quarterback to host his show. What a Canadian thing to do! Tarkenton humbly addressed the situation in his monologue, and thanked the show for not rescinding the invitation.

Highlight: The entire show was framed as a football game, with timeouts for sketches that weren’t working, and a halftime pep talk from Belushi. There were several football-themed bits, like “Sports Injury,” throughout the episode.

Disastrous Fumbles

Deion Sanders — February 18, 1995

Fresh off winning Super Bowl XXIX with the 49ers, “Neon” Deion “Prime Time” Sanders (two nicknames!) high-stepped into the trainwreck that was the 1994-1995 SNL season. They should have just let him perform his hit single, “Must Be The Money.” It would’ve been funnier than anything in this episode.

Highlight: During an unbearable ESPY Awards spoof, for no apparent reason, Manute Bol makes a cameo.

Alex Karras — February 2, 1985

Best remembered as the dad on Webster, Karras was also a four-time All-Pro defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions in the 1960’s. While he may have been a laugh factory working with Emmanuel Lewis, his performance as host on SNL is the comedy equivalent of running an interception into the wrong end zone.

Highlight: Karras’ monologue is so awkward and unfunny, it’s almost worth watching. It could quite possibly be the worst monologue in the history of SNL.

So what are the odds that one of the heroes of Sunday’s Super Bowl will be invited to host SNL? Pretty slim, considering that the game’s star player has a penchant for sexual assault. However, you can be sure that if the Jets ever win the Super Bowl, Lorne Michaels will extend an invitation to Rex Ryan, the most entertaining man on television in 2010.

Alex Scordelis is a sketch comedy writer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and co-creator of The Cat Whisperer.

A Viewer’s Guide to the NFL on SNL