What is the value of the celebrity host?
Lainey messaged me on Saturday about why it seemed like SNL is always better when the host is a returning cast member as opposed to a celebrity. Knee-jerk reaction: because they’re proper comedians and they get it. But it does go a little deeper than that, because there many examples of actors who make excellent hosts—Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Christopher Walken and John Goodman come to mind. And Jon Hamm and Justin Timberlake have hosted good episodes. Timberlake is surprisingly not obnoxious as a host and if he stuck to making music and guesting on SNL I’d have zero problem with him. So while it’s easy to say that former cast members make better hosts and better episodes, I don’t think it’s entirely representative of the problem. There’s a lot wrong with SNL (Lorne Michaels, I’m looking at you and your need to retire), but getting to the defining problem, I think we need to find the answer to the question: What exactly are we trying to accomplish with the celebrity host?
Celebrity hosting is a long-standing tradition on SNL (although I think they didn’t have hosts for the first year), but watching Maya Rudolph’s episode this last weekend, it occurred to me that it might be time to retire this particular one. The best celebrity hosts are the ones who are willing to get outrageous and look foolish in the name of comedy. So much of sketch comedy is just being willing to look stupid, but it seems like increasingly, the hosts aren’t going that far. Daniel Radcliffe’s recent stint as host led to a particularly strong episode and it felt like Radcliffe was really game for anything and never said no to the writers. The attitude on SNL used to be that the approved sketches were the show, and if the host balked at being in a sketch then that sketch was done anyway, without the host. There was no argument. But over the last 10-15 years, it’s evolved into a system in which the host’s willingness to play along is the chief object…although Bill Hader has talked about how SNL is often concerned with not offending celebrities, in case they’re wanted to host at some point.
So the problem can’t be laid entirely at the door of sensitive celebrities, but also on the SNL staff that is more concerned with courting celebrities than comedy. A show like SNL should not be worried about offending anyone. They should only be concerned with being funny. When securing celebrity hosts is getting in the way of the best comedy, the celebrity host has lost its value. Rudolph was a good host, just like she was a good ensemble member, and Amy Poehler came back to do a few sketches, as did Justin Timberlake. It felt like an episode with no host, since Rudolph fell back into her role with the ensemble, as did Poehler, and Timberlake was effective in a couple sketches. Which made me think—why not abandon the weekly host in favor of doing ensemble comedy with feature spots from people who can actually deliver in a sketch?
I’d like to see SNL try this. Give it a year, see how it goes. Don’t worry about booking celebrities as hosts, but if someone is willing to play along and be in a sketch here or there, then sure, invite them along. The celebrity host is supposed to add to the humor—the surprise of seeing the dramatic actor or musician who is really funny, or the actor with the killer impression—but these days they feel like a drag on a show that is in desperate need of revitalizing. Well, here’s a way to revitalize, and Lorne Michaels can still keep his job.
But as long as we’re talking about celebrity hosts, why hasn’t Ty Burrell hosted yet? The man is willing to go full-Nazi in a sketch. He’d be an awesome host. NO FEAR.