The Five Kinds of Host Opens You See on ‘SNL’
Surprise, surprise — Dave Chappelle rocked a 15-minute monologue on Saturday Night Live last weekend and managed to upset a few apple carts. (Not coincidentally, it was also the highest-rated show of the year.) It’s almost enough to make one wonder why SNL host monologues don’t cause more controversy than they do. One theory? Most hosts don’t actually perform monologues.
Say what now? Every episode of Saturday Night Live rolls straight out of the cast credits into an opening bit with the week’s celebrity host. But surprisingly few of the guests get the ball rolling with a Chappelle-style joke set. And for good reason — ever see Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps try to deliver a one-liner?
Here then are the five different kinds of SNL host opens, each suited to a particular kind of host’s theatrical gifts — or lack thereof.
I Get By With A Little Help from the Cast
Count on SNL to do a little stunt-casting a few times a year, bringing in a Charles Barkley, an Elon Musk or a Kim Kardashian to shake things up. Sure, the trick will boost the curiosity factor — Billie Eilish does comedy? — but will the host actually be able to pull off a solo open?
It’s probably best to have a couple of professional ringers around, like when NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon was pegged to host the show in 2003. Gordon managed to stiffly take the stage but Lorne Michaels didn’t leave him out there alone for long. Enter Chris Parnell and Rachel Dratch as blissed-out racing fans, shouting “Rusty Wallace sucks!” and boosting the open’s energy level by about 1,000 percent.
Gordon was a comedy genius, however, compared to Paris Hilton. She was one of the most famous people in the world in 2005, but she could barely get through a David Letterman interview, much less deliver a monologue. SNL went with a double-barreled approach to save her, sending cute dogs and Kenan Thompson to the rescue. That’s hot.
Lindsay Lohan actually did just fine as a host in her younger days, but that changed when she returned as a tabloid wild child. The joke was that the cast was there to reassure her that she’s trusted (as they pat her down for weapons and/or drugs). Part of me thinks that it was more than a joke. Why not have Kenan and Kristen out there just in case something goes wonky?
This tried-and-true SNL trick sends the host scurrying backstage to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the night’s episode is being put together. There’s always a pretend sense of “wait, why are you back here?” that’s corny but effective. Rainn Wilson, at the height of his Shruteness, took us behind the curtains in 2007, “surprised” to find that the hallways of 30 Rock closely resemble a certain paper sales office in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
And sometimes, it’s just straight-up shenanigans, like when Chris Hemsworth leaps off the stage to playfully beat the crap out of the cast. For some reason, these behind-the-scenes glimpses often include exotic animals that never find their way into the actual show, like the camel that’s hanging outside of Vanessa Bayer’s changing room.
There was a run in the show when it seemed like every open consisted of the host taking questions from “random” audience members. Sometimes, like when Kristen Stewart hosted in 2019, the bit features questions from what appear to be real people but are actually SNL writers who turn up in the cast a few seasons later. (JB Smoove was killer at this.) Below, Stewart offers to smooch a then-unknown Andrew Dismukes. YOU’RE NEVER GETTING ANOTHER CHANCE, ANDREW!
The Q&A format also gives SNL a chance to trot out impressive celebrity cameos. The stars were out for Tina Fey’s open, seemingly at the expense of actual cast members, as Fred Armisen cruelly points out.
A Little Song, A Little Dance, A Little Seltzer Down Your Pants
There’s no more surefire bet to start a show with a bang than a musical number. For a Jack Black or Catherine Zeta-Jones, performers known for their melodious chops, it just makes sense. But musical opens aren’t restricted to professional songbirds. It was almost a religious moment when Adam Sandler returned to SNL after a 24-year hiatus, settling scores and healing old wounds by crooning “I Was Fired.”
The most unlikely host to pull off the musical open? Hands down, that honor belongs to 7-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady. Sure, Lorne Michaels ran practically the entire cast out on stage just in case something went wrong, but by golly, Brady pulls it off, mostly by virtue of being a good sport.
But the granddaddy of the musical opens, and perhaps the greatest open ever, belongs to Steve Martin. Mixing in a splash of Backstage Antics, Martin decides to commit to giving a damn about the night’s proceedings. It’s an open that’s been aped by Mike Myers and Steve Carell, among others, but in this case, the first time is the best time.
And, of course, there are the handful of hosts that Michaels trusts to deliver a straight-up monologue. They don’t necessarily have to be professional stand-up comics. If you’re a TV veteran with 60+ years of comedy chops, you’re probably up for the job.
Then there are the comedians. From the first show ever with George Carlin to its most recent with Chappelle, the most tried-and-true show open is the stand-up comedian who knows how to work a crowd. In the right hands, it’s the best way to start SNL off right.
Top image: Broadway Video