As if financially tough times weren’t enough, the comedy show is taunting us by booking a billionaire to bring the chuckles. Especially when he’s spent the pandemic putting himself first, writes Rachel Brodsky
There’s never been a better time to be a CEO in America. Not only has your obscene income sky-rocketed during the global pandemic, as the stock markets shoot up and the wealthy splash the cash but you can now enjoy the enormous slap on the back that is being booked to host one of the primetime television shows in America. Just ask Elon Musk, the Dr No of autotrading, who will be stepping up to the Saturday Night Live mic – billionaires, so funny! – this week. Pity everyone else, who’ve been laid off, lining up at the food banks or are facing significant hardships of all kinds.
This sort of booking, it must be stated, is and never will be hilarious as the stark divide between the haves and the have-nots widens at an alarming rate. Why give such a gig to the third richest man in the world? On one hand, it could be the business mogul’s latest stab at pop cultural relevancy. In the end, though, it reeks of Donald Trump having his hair mussed by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show (not to mention, well, Trump also hosting SNL, which didn’t go over very well with the cast).
Nor did news of the Tesla titan’s booking go down well with 2021’s SNL staff. When his guest spot was announced, the sketch comedy show’s cast seemed equally puzzled by the choice. Bowen Yang, Aidy Bryant and Andrew Dismukes appeared to voice their unhappiness at the decision in a handful of now-deleted social media posts. “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che, however, seemed on board, telling Seth Meyers this week, with no trace of sarcasm: “He’s the richest man in the world, how could you not be excited for that?”
About as excited as listening to a five-hour seminar on cryptocurrency, backwards. No doubt, Musk – who, did we mention, has launched his own whatever-coin, which has, in a turn no one could have predicted, shot up in market value this week – has plenty of futuristic history-making achievements that are ripe for an SNL send-up (the red pill or the blue pill, Neo?). The 49-year-old entrepreneur initially made his fortune by founding the online bank X.com that eventually became PayPal. He also oversees SpaceX, which just last week returned four astronauts from the International Space Station. Most notably, he’s the CEO and product architect of Tesla. And that’s not including his other ventures, which include (but aren’t limited to) OpenAI, a nonprofit research company that promotes friendly artificial intelligence, and Neuralink, a neurotechnology company focused on developing brain-computer interfaces.
But not so fast. From the outside, Musk seems like a forward-thinking innovation leader atop a Silicon Valley pyramid of people purporting to change the world. And yet, the manner in which Musk has earned his immense wealth is troublesome, with Tesla workers complaining of high injury rates, working long hours with unsafe machinery, and low wages. Not only are its employees paid less than others in the auto industry, Tesla is the only large US automaker without a unionised workforce.
In the past, if workers attempted to unionise, they’ve been penalised and even fired. Last year, a California judge ruled that Musk and other company executives were illegally sabotaging employee efforts to unionise by harassing and interrogating workers, and even threatening to take away their stock options. Just last month, the National Labor Relations Board said that Tesla violated labour laws when it fired a union activist, and when Musk himself wrote on Twitter in 2018: “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?”
And this is to say nothing of Musk’s disinformation spread around Covid-19. When the pandemic first showed up early in 2020, Musk dismissed concerns as “dumb” and speculated there would be “probably close to zero new cases” in the US by the end of April. Then, when that didn’t happen, he tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW” in response to national stay-at-home orders and called quarantine measures “fascist” on Tesla’s earnings call.
In May, Musk reopened Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California – a direct defiance of county orders. “Workers on the production line piled into cars they were building, standing and sitting next to each other as they installed components. Employees say equipment was not wiped down between shifts,” wrote Los Angeles Progressive Newsletter, adding: “Just days later, the first Tesla workers tested positive for Covid-19.
Musk’s problematic nature doesn’t end with spreading Covid disinformation and union-busting, of course. He’s gained a thorny reputation as an internet troll, a meme-happy and Extremely Online contrarian with a history of tweeting first and thinking later. (Remember when he called a diver in the Thai cave rescue operation to save a group of stranded boys a “pedo-guy”? Or when he tweeted that Tesla’s stock price was too high, causing investors to immediately lose money?)
I’m not overly focused on Musk’s penchant for causing social media mayhem. Or even his perplexing relationship with electronic pop artist Grimes and their alien-language baby naming. I’m not even trying to cast doubt on his brilliance, or whether he deserves to be rich.
But just because someone is a public figure, one who is seemingly everywhere, it doesn’t mean that they should host SNL. Especially not when their entire personality is the boy at the back of class, hand in the air, bleating “well, actually” at the teacher.
Of course, being divisive gets you places. And despite being fairly obvious that NBC is salivating at the potential ratings grab, they’d be the first to claim that it doesn’t have a liberal bias (rumour has it that they nearly hired comedian Shane Gillis in 2019 to attract conservative viewers). Before Trump, the show also tapped then-New York mayor and total joy sponge, Rudy Giuliani, to host in 1997. Rarely do they connect. But at least they have gone some way to expose villains in the past, or at least show what was hiding in plain sight. In 2005, cyclist Lance Armstrong took up hosting, but he mostly spent the night cracking jokes at his being a cheater. (Which, as it later turned out, he was.)
Whether Musk will get his comeuppance or not, remains to be seen. But in 2021, when the average worker is burdened by student loan, consumer and medical debt, and ultra-plush figures like Musk live a consequence-free existence regardless of what lies they tell or who they exploit, platforms like NBC and SNL have a responsibility to acknowledge that everything is connected: even subjects like global health, inequality and a comedy show. Ultimately, their choices matter. And the booking of Musk as the smiley gamesmaster to bring lolz to the worst year of our lives, frankly, stinks.