Elon Musk’s appearance on Saturday Night Live on May 8 seemed designed to create conversation. There had been buckets of it beforehand, after all, covering everything from Musk’s unusual place in the history of SNL hosts, to his pet cryptocurrency project, to the various Musk controversies over the past several years. There was a continued wave of conversation after Musk started tweeting out grimly unfunny “skit” ideas for the show and a surge of interest in what the episode would be like: Would he be funny? Would it be a nightmare? Would he say something horrible or shocking? Maybe cast members would refuse to appear with him? Maybe he’d barely even participate? For Musk and for SNL, announcing him as host did exactly what it was designed to do: get everyone talking about Musk and SNL.
And yet the morning after the live episode aired, there were really only a couple big takeaways. There was Musk’s announcement that he has Asperger’s, a now-out-of-favor term for an autism-spectrum-disorder diagnosis. There was also an immediate meme image: Musk as the Nintendo character Wario, in a neon-yellow-and-purple outfit padded out with a squishy fat suit, a goofy zigzagging mustache haphazardly glued to his face. The sketch that was the context for that image was pretty lackluster: Wario on trial for murdering Mario, complaining that he was being unfairly stereotyped. “I’m-a not-a evil,” Musk-as-Wario says on the stand. “I’m-a just misunderstood.” The audience laughs obligingly. He’s Wario! Of course he’s evil! But also, isn’t it funny to think about such a one-note absurdist character having feelings? Isn’t it so nakedly silly to look at this caricature with a ridiculous mustache and imagine him as a human being?
The sketch was never able to turn into anything beyond the first idea, playing into the baseline superficial silliness of treating a Super Mario premise like a serious courtroom drama. As the judge, Cecily Strong bangs a gavel on a Nintendo question block. Kate McKinnon as Waluigi strokes a similarly laughable mustache. Two attempts to twist the idea around just landed in the same place where the sketch started: First, Musk’s girlfriend, Grimes, shows up as aggrieved Princess Peach and then Pete Davidson arrives as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, decrying the trial as anti–Italian American defamation.
Underneath, the concept remained the same: This aloof, inhuman character might actually be a person, and isn’t it a little unfair to dismiss him based solely on the fact that his public persona is cartoonishly evil? At the same time, isn’t it so endearing that he’s willing to laugh at himself like this — to dress up in such an uncool costume, to open himself up to ridicule for the sake of this silly sketch? Most of the memes afterward were the close-ups of Musk’s Wario face, but it was clearest in the moment when he waddled from the defense table up to the stand and the audience roared at the reveal of his round Wario body. The sketch is a power play: I can do this and it doesn’t matter! I’m still a billionaire CEO bent on changing the course of humanity! But it’s masked as vulnerability.
Musk was a willing host, more willing than it seemed possible he might be. He appeared in nearly every sketch, playing everything from a Gen-Z doctor to an awkward partygoer to a lovestruck Scandinavian TV producer, and throughout the show, the sketches were aimed at humanizing him. His “Weekend Update” professorial figure tries to explain the cryptocurrency dogecoin over and over before finally laughing and agreeing that it’s basically a hustle. His partygoer character is awkward, but it’s fine because the whole premise of the sketch is that everyone’s bad at parties now. His brief appearance in the Mare of Easttown parody sketch worked much like the Wario one: He walks in looking absurd, and the joke is that everyone instantly agrees he’s the bad guy. Haha! You can’t laugh at his badness because we’re all doing it already!
It’s the same note Musk uses to begin his monologue. He announces his Asperger’s diagnosis in a celebratory embrace of neurodiversity, while at the same time, he creates a bulwark against further criticism. Calling out his uneven performance is now in bad taste, as is harping on the grossness of his dogecoin boosterism. He’s doing something new and special by being there at all, and he’s happy to poke fun at himself. Why dunk on a guy who is already owning up to the fact that he writes dumb tweets and later climbing into a well-cushioned Wario suit?
Musk’s appearance on Saturday Night Live was a masterfully orchestrated bit of cultural creation. By being there at all, SNL and Musk both got to benefit from a cultural uproar, which is not all that hard to re-create — identify a high-profile cultural third rail and then announce that two weeks from now, you will be gripping it with both hands. The really impressive part was the show itself. Musk’s SNL capitalized on all that cultural Sturm und Drang by proving SNL’s continued cultural cachet, but the show and Musk’s performance then neutralized all the sharp edges and potential criticisms his appearance had seemed to invite. At every moment when he could have come off as awkward or cruel or inhuman, the show humanized Musk instead. It preempted criticism, flattening legitimate concerns about Musk into small-scale social-media complaints and advertising for Musk’s business interests while also building in a prewritten shrug if they do not work. (The most direct and incredible of these came near the end, as a jokey sketch imagining a death on Musk’s future Mars colony ended with Musk saying, “Well, I did say people were going to die,” and then walking away unbothered.)
The initial goal of Musk’s hosting role on SNL may have been to build more conversation around both Musk and the show, but its real achievement was to take all that conversation and then funnel it into an episode so mild and unremarkable that it felt as though nothing much had even happened. It could have built to a furious backlash for something Musk said or did; it might have alienated some of Musk’s audience or turned Musk agnostics into anti-stans. Instead, SNL cleared the hurdle by giving itself a bar so low it barely cleared sea level, and the only memorable image left over was Musk, scowling in a Wario suit. There’s not that much to say about it, and that is Musk (and SNL’s) chief accomplishment.