'Saturday Night Live': The 9 Kinds of Hosts
Just like Saturday Night Live cast members tend to fall into comedy archetypes, so do the show’s hosts, also. It’s as if each season, producer Lorne Michaels goes shopping in every section of the SNL Host Superstore -- “I’ll get one from the Athlete aisle, one from the Musician aisle …”
Not to call the show formulaic -- OK, fine, we’re calling the host selection formulaic -- but it’s hard to find a season where each of the Host categories we'll propose is not represented. This season is no different.
Of the hosts that have appeared or been announced so far, we have Owen Wilson, Rami Malek, Jonathan Majors, Kieran Culkin, and Simu Liu (Huge Stars with Something to Promote), Kim Kardashian-West (Lightning Rod), and Jason Sudeikis (Ex-Cast Member). Odds are very high the other boxes on Lorne’s host shopping list will be checked off by season’s end.
Here are the nine kinds of hosts you’ll find in every Saturday Night Live season.
The Ex-Cast Member
Also known as: Glory Days, Ol’ Relic, The Remix, Will He Do Buckwheat?
Ex-Cast Member Hosts: Eddie Murphy, Kristen Wiig, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Dana Carvey, Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph, Chris Farley, Bill Hader, Adam Sandler, pretty much all of them
Bringing back old SNL cast members to the 30 Rock stage is always one of the surest bets of the season. Consider all of the qualities that an SNL alumnus brings to the table:
- A greatest hits package of beloved characters -- no need to invent fresh premises when you can just trot out Target Lady, Gumby, or Stefon. It’s audience catnip and because we haven’t seen the characters in so long, it feels like welcoming back old friends.
- While returning cast members will surely have some nerves, this won’t be their first batch of pickles. Reading cue cards? Done it a million times. Performing live? Can do it in their sleep. So many obstacles for other kinds of hosts just don’t apply here.
- Finally, Ex-Cast Members have the confidence of knowing they’ll be in every sketch -- no sweating it out to see if their bits will be cut in dress rehearsal like the old days. “Why couldn’t SNL have always been like this?”
Bringing back old friends is a no-brainer. Plus, David Spade can always use the work.
The Lightning Rod
Also known as: The Polarizer, Hot Mess, Outrage Magnet, Free Publicity
Lightning Rod hosts: Kim Kardashian-West, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Andrew Dice Clay, Rudy Giuliani, George Steinbrenner, Hugh Hefner. Paris Hilton, Latter-Day Lindsay Lohan, Jesse Jackson, Ed Koch, Ralph Nader, Ron Reagan, Al Sharpton
Can a hosting spot on SNL swing a Presidential election? We can never be sure, but apparently, it doesn’t hurt.
Saturday Night Live seems to pull one of these bozos out of its back pocket once a season -- the bizarro guest who has no apparent ability to act, be funny, sing, or do anything else that might be considered “entertaining.” These are often political people, often from New York, and often fail miserably.
What controversial non-performers bring to the show, in theory, is an audience. A pathetic group of celebrity looky-loos, but an audience nonetheless. It’s the equivalent of drivers slowing down to check out the burning semi on the side of the interstate. What exactly is on fire? Did anyone make it out alive? It usually ends up boring but there’s always the chance of an explosion.
Also known as: The Cue Card Reader, Baseball for Brains, I Swim Good
Athlete hosts: Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Chris Evert, Derek Jeter, Charles Barkley, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Lance Armstrong, John Cena, Jeff Gordon, Wayne Gretzky, Nancy Kerrigan, Joe Montana, Ronda Rousey
Lorne, serious question: Why athletes? Most of them aren’t particularly funny and their ability to hit a fastball or skate fast rarely translates into hilarious comedy.
But sometimes, it works. Charismatic stars like Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan have a good-natured charm that gets them through shows like champs. In other cases, the show has proven it can use the athlete’s relative lack of comic timing as a punchline -- Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky. (Why oh why has NBC chosen to take Gretzky’s amazing Waikiki Hockey off the web? Probably music rights, but dang.)
Then there are the attempts that just fall flat, like with Jeff Gordon or Nancy Kerrigan. Seriously, can someone throw poor Michael Phelps a life preserver?
The Professionally Funny Person
Also known as: The Stand-Up, The Ringer, Old Pro
Professional Funny Person hosts: Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, John Mulaney, Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres, George Carlin, Awkwafina, Louis C.K., Dane Cook, Joan Rivers, Bernie Mac
Next to an Ex-Cast Member, the Professionally Funny Person is the surest bet for a solid show. It’s like bringing a professional soccer player to your kid’s father/son game -- pretty much guaranteed to dominate without breaking a sweat. The shows themselves can be spotty but there’s something about a few hundred thousand reps in front of a live audience that makes professional comedians, you know, good at this.
Even the mediocre shows have one or two killers. Check out Jerry Seinfeld in Stand Up and Win, Lily Tomlin’s Hard Hats, or Aziz Ansari’s Bedroom. Richard Pryor’s Word Association is one of the ten best sketches the show has ever done.
The Five-Timer Club
Also known as: Lorne’s Favorites, Oldies But Goodies, SNL Royalty, Virtual Cast Members
Five-Timer Club hosts: Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Melissa McCarthy, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Drew Barrymore, Tom Hanks
There’s something undeniably elite about being in the Five-Timers Club, a group of hosts who have been asked back at least five times. It’s a badge of honor that not only says you’re funny but you’ve made it into a comedy pantheon, or as five-time host Timberlake brags, “the most exclusive club in New York.”
The all-time leaders? Here are the hosts in the double-digits: Alec Baldwin (17), Steve Martin (15), John Goodman (John Goodman?) (13), Tom Hanks (10), and Buck Henry (10 -- and Henry was the first Five-Timer).
There are several Ex-Cast Members who make the grade as well, including Chevy Chase (8, the first cast member to return to host and the first to be banned from hosting again), Tina Fey (6), and Will Ferrell and Bill Murray (5 each). Timberlake is the only one in the Five-Timer/Funny Musician Venn diagram (although Paul Simon is close).
Weirdest member of the Five-Timer Club? We’ll go with either Ben Affleck or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The Huge Star with Something to Promote
Also known as: Opens This Friday, Slumming It, Please Don’t Look Me In The Eyes
Huge Star with Something To Promote hosts: Nicholas Cage, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon, Gal Gadot, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone
It may feel like we’re cheating with a catch-all category here, but after SNL’s first five years or so, hosting largely became a game of “I’m so happy to be here -- you might know me as the star of (Big Movie), opening this Friday!” If a star seems too big, too classy to be hosting the show, say, a Robert DeNiro or a Helen Mirren, you can bet their publicist set it up as a promotional appearance.
It’s a win for both parties: SNL gets to promote a show featuring hot stars like Timothee Chalamet, Adam Driver or Scarlett Johannsen while typecast stars get to show off little-seen weapons in their comedy arsenal. Seriously, after about seventeen period dramas, it has to be fun for Saoirse Ronan to teach people to pronounce her name. (“If it was a Wheel of Fortune puzzle, you couldn’t afford it.”)
The Surprisingly Funny Musicians
Also known as: Not Bad for a Singer, Play the Hits, Shut Up and Sing, Paul Simon
Surprisingly Funny Musician hosts: Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Garth Brooks, Chance the Rapper, Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Harry Styles, Britney Spears
Surprisingly Funny Musicians may do well on SNL for the same reason as Professionally Funny People -- lots of experience performing in front of a live audience. If you can do it in front of a stadium full of drunken idiots, you’ll probably survive Studio 8H. There’s also a lower bar -- if we don’t expect you to be funny and you pull it off, bonus points for you.
Hosting lets musicians show off a variety of skills, like Ariana Grande’s impressive ability to mimic other singers or Britney Spears’ sassy way with a colonial butter churn. Bruno Mars as a sad mouse in Times Square? Yes, please.
This group does have a subcategory: Obnoxious Unfunny Musicians. It has two members that make most lists of Worst SNL Hosts Ever: Justin Bieber and Frank Zappa.
My NBC Sitcom Is Hot Right Now
Also known as: Must See TV, Brandon Tartikoff’s Kids, Corporate Synergy
My NBC Sitcom Is Hot Right Now hosts: Every member of the cast of Friends not named Matt LeBlanc, Kelsey Grammar, Jason Alexander, Ted Danson, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Malcolm Jamal-Warner
This is the one kind of host you may not see this season as NBC has excised nearly every sitcom from its primetime lineup. But for most of SNL’s run, the show has doubled as a way to promote the network’s line-up of primetime laughs.
For the most part, that hasn’t been a bad thing. Big sitcom stars are close cousins to Professionally Funny People -- solid comedy performers who can hold their own in a scene. And if NBC gets a few more people to watch Will and Grace or The Office, then God bless America. What do you say, NBC -- one of the stars from Superstore for old times’ sake?
Also known as: The Relic, Gold Watch, Dad Jokes
Legend hosts: Betty White, Milton Berle, Ed Asner, Sid Caesar, Ruth Gordon, Norman Lear, Jerry Lewis, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles
Yeesh. For the most part, these have not worked out well. Especially in its early days, SNL felt an obligation to invite legends of comedy to hand the torch to a new generation. But in at least some instances, they weren’t willing to pass the flame and got engulfed by it.
Take Milton Berle. Please. Belushi in particular was jazzed to have the show biz legend on the show, but Berle was a disaster as he tried to turn SNL into Texaco Star Theater. That meant spit takes that reached the balcony, a pre-arranged ploy for a standing ovation and showing off his legendary manhood to the writing staff. Unfortunately, that display was probably Berle’s most impressive contribution to show history.
But when it works, it works. A Facebook campaign from the social network's early days when it wasn’t evil garnered millions of signatures begging Lorne to let Betty White host the show. This kind of petition never works, but this time it did. She wasn’t a huge star at the time in 2011 -- unless you count Hot In Cleveland as comedy stardom -- but she was rightfully beloved. And the 88-year-old knocked it out of the park.
Of course, she was grateful and gave her supporters a shout-out in her monologue. “When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live, I didn’t even know what Facebook was,” she said. “And now that I do know what it is, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
Top Image: NBC