The Night Beyoncé Stole ‘Saturday Night Live’
On Friday, Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé lands in theaters, hoping to become a box-office phenomenon like Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour was a few months earlier. But even if it’s not, Beyoncé’s stature as the most seismic pop star on the planet remains secure. For all her accolades, though, she’s never been as successful a dramatic actress as she is a musician. Sure, she was solid in Dreamgirls but it’s best to forget Obsessed. Frankly, she’s more captivating in her music videos than she is playing someone else.
Beyoncé has largely stayed away from comedy, although she was a good sport in the very mediocre Austin Powers in Goldmember. But when it comes to being funny, her finest moment was actually on Saturday Night Live. Oddly enough, the bit I’m thinking of is pretty hard to find online — it involves her playing the straight woman amidst a sea of silliness. (It also plays to her strengths, since she’s really just playing herself.) Beyoncé is the best part of a sketch that imagines a very different version of her “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video. It’s very clever, although the premise now feels super-cringey.
Beyoncé already had four No. 1s — to go along with the four No. 1s she’d earned in Destiny’s Child — when “Single Ladies” was released in October 2008, taking the top spot on the Billboard charts. The propulsive dance track, all about the narrator getting over a guy who broke her heart because he didn’t value her, was complemented by a dynamic video, which merged Bob Fosse with J-Setting to create a striking routine for Beyoncé and her two female backup dancers. As co-choreographer JaQuel Knight (who later worked on her “Drunk in Love” and “Formation” videos) put it, “‘Single Ladies’ has my entire childhood in it. … It has my grandma at the cookout; it has my nephews dancing at the family reunion; it has me in the marching band; it has a little bit of this out in the street. Every piece of me that danced or saw dance plays throughout the movement of ‘Single Ladies,’ so it was a really beautiful piece to me.”
Almost immediately, everything about the “Single Ladies” video became iconic: the black-and-white imagery, the simplicity of the visual design, the energy of the dancing, that metal glove Beyoncé was wearing. (Plus, “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” was ubiquitous in the culture, quickly becoming a shorthand diss of dummies who mistakenly underrated someone in their lives.) The clip’s staying power was apparent when “Single Ladies” ended up winning three prizes at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, which took place about 11 months after its premiere, including Video of the Year. Everyone knew the video, and most everybody tried to replicate the dance.
In November 2008, at the height of “Single Ladies” hysteria, Beyoncé appeared on SNL as the musical guest, alongside host Paul Rudd. This was her fourth time on the program, her second as a solo artist, and there wasn’t any assumption that she’d do anything other than perform two songs off her new album I Am... Sasha Fierce. But Bobby Moynihan, who was relatively new to the show, had an idea.
“The Saturday before, Kenan (Thompson) and I were hanging out in his dressing room, and he showed me that ‘Single Ladies’ video,” he told Billboard. “I’d been trying to think of something to do with (fellow cast member) Andy (Samberg), and I literally just thought, ‘Well, if I put a leotard on and dance around behind her, maybe that’ll be funny.’”
Essentially a gender-swap sketch, the bit would feature Moynihan and Samberg dressed as the backup dancers for Beyoncé, who’s confused why the video’s director (played by an enthusiastic, clueless Rudd) doesn’t want women dancers for her song of female empowerment. Calling in reinforcements, Samberg recruited his pal Justin Timberlake, who talked Beyoncé into doing the sketch. “I was there that night,” Knight recalled in that same Billboard piece. “I remember we got there, and Justin stormed into the dressing room and already had his leotard on and started to do the choreography! At that point I was like, ‘We really have something huge on our hands here! If it made it to SNL, it was a thing.’”
Like the song and the video, the “Single Ladies” sketch was a hit — although back in 2008, its success was mostly seen as further proof that Timberlake was a rising comic star and a beloved SNL fixture thanks to his hosting stints and “Dick in a Box.” In subsequent days, much of the focus was on just how funny he was in the sketch. Beyoncé appeared on Ellen, saying, “I just can’t believe how hilarious he is!” The parody was built to exploit the goofiness of Timberlake, Moynihan and Samberg, who all looked ridiculous in their outfits, dancing (badly) alongside Beyoncé, who’s trying her best despite her inept backups.
Fifteen years ago when the bit premiered on SNL, I laughed a lot. As time has gone on, though, I find the sketch a lot more iffy. Blame it partly on what a turnoff Timberlake has become — what was once endearing about him has curdled into poisonous self-regard, not to mention the Britney Spears (and Janet Jackson) stuff — but it’s also the none-too-subtle homophobic undercurrent of the gag that rankles. It would be enough to have the guys look silly in their outfits, but their high, effeminate voices and generally flamboyant manner are meant to make them even funnier. The joke punches down, especially whenever Timberlake lets fly with “We’re the dancers” with maximum mincing. So, they’re gay and dumb? Is that the idea? (The final reveal that they’re actually Rudd’s sons doesn’t do much to help matters.)
The premise is even stranger when you consider that so many pop stars, including Beyoncé, incorporate male dancers, many of whom are LGBTIQA+. I always wondered what they think of the sketch, which basically makes fun of Timberlake and the guys for how girly they’re behaving. (Also worth pointing out: Timberlake has gotten pushback in recent years on claims that he’s an ally for the gay community.)
Ironically, what still works best in the sketch is Beyoncé herself. While she might not be the most confident in her line-readings, her utter puzzlement as her backup dancers gyrate and grind too close to her is really amusing. As she’s only gotten more and more famous in the last decade — projecting an imposing royal air — the low-key Beyoncé has mostly taken a backseat, but it’s on full display in this SNL bit. She is very charming as she tries to stay polite while being surrounded by morons.
Since SNL puts so many of their viral clips on YouTube, it’s surprising the “Single Ladies” sketch isn’t up there. Maybe it’s a rights issue with the song? Maybe Beyoncé didn’t want it on there? Whatever the reason, the sketch takes a little longer to track down, although it still pops up on YouTube, TikTok, Dailymotion and elsewhere, often in low-res, truncated versions. It’s a bit that recalls a familiar SNL comedic premise, which is to juxtapose a very talented or attractive star with a dorky, woefully untalented cast member. (Think of the “Shy Ronnie” bits with Rihanna and Andy Samberg — or the Chippendales tryout between Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley.) And while Timberlake got a lot of the attention at the time because he was America’s Adorable Moppet, it’s really Beyoncé who holds the whole thing together. She’s the calm center amidst the lunacy.
In subsequent years, Beyoncé would continue to appear on SNL — or, rather, Beyoncé references would. Maya Rudolph started playing the pop star back in 2004, and Beyoncé’s pop-culture dominance was such that the show would occasionally do pre-recorded videos about her supremacy, perhaps most memorably on the 2016 sketch “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” a fake horror trailer that mocked white people’s alienation over Beyoncé’s “Formation” single and video, which proudly celebrated Black culture. That clip, along with 2014’s “The Beygency” (a fake thriller trailer about a regular guy, played by Andrew Garfield, hunted down by a shadowy agency because he dared express a negative opinion about her), suggested that Beyoncé was such a towering figure that anything she did almost automatically made her topical.
Perhaps fittingly, Beyoncé herself hasn’t been back on the show since “Single Ladies.” Ultimately, that sketch worked so well because Beyoncé can’t believe she has to put up with this shit — as she became an even bigger global superstar in real life, the queen of all she surveys, she soon didn’t have to.