Tales from the Vault: The NFL on SNL

Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault

With his pair of Super Bowl rings, Eli Manning no longer stands in his brother’s shadow. But can he outperform Peyton as the host of “Saturday Night Live?” Will he be funnier than Joe Montana?  The Vault Keeper considers these questions and more as he looks back at the relationship between SNL and the NFL.

I.  Eli’s Comin’

When Eli Manning hosts Saturday Night Live on May 5th, it will mark the 35th time in the show’s 37 year history that a sports-related figure (athlete, coach, broadcaster) has been named a host for the durable comedy-variety series. Manning will be the 10th host with ties to the NFL. The others? Fran Tarkenton (1977), OJ Simpson (1978), John Madden (1982), Alex Karras (1985), Joe Montana/Walter Payton (co-hosts, 1987), Deion Sanders (1995), Tom Brady (2004) and Peyton Manning (2007).  That’s an impressive list that includes five Hall of Famers and totals 14 Super Bowl titles. Not surprisingly, the list is dominated by quarterbacks.

Eli Manning got the call for the 722nd hosting stint in Saturday Night Live history.  He joins a select and diverse group that includes Madonna, Al Gore, Robert De Niro, Michael Jordan, Ralph Nader, and Steve Martin.  To be selected for hosting duty is a barometer of the host’s status as a national celebrity, and is often an acknowledgement that he/she has “arrived” as a subject of discussion and an object of admiration.  An SNL host has also somehow transcended his/her field of endeavor. For Eli, it’s more than being a championship quarterback.  If that were the only criteria for hosting, then Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson would have been done it. No, it’s more about having a particular style and identity.  Tarkenton was a “maverick” quarterback, Deion was brash and flamboyant, and Montana represented a cool, modern approach to playing his position.

On the field, what sets Eli apart from his contemporaries is his uncanny knack for bringing the Giants from behind in the closing minutes. He also has a great “back story” – trying to win over skeptical fans and sportswriters who once compared him unfavorably to older brother Peyton. But the best part of Eli’s story is that after numerous trials and tribulations – and many interceptions – he’s become a star in his own right. He really is an elite quarterback.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a local hero who plays live, from New York.

II. The NFL’s Guest-Ever Professionals

Pro football is an integral part of American popular culture, and SNL has often spoofed the sport, regardless of who the host is.  During the 1980’s, the show occasionally parodied The NFL Today with Kevin Nealon as Brent Mussberger and Phil Hartman as Jimmy The Greek.  The popular recurring “Superfans” lived for “Da Bears” and worshipped Mike Ditka.  From 1991 to 1993, the “Superfans” (featuring George Wendt and SNL cast member Chris Farley) appeared 9 times, then more or less disappeared after Ditka was fired by the Bears in1993.  More recently, the show has done expert takedowns of Brett Favre’s Wrangler commercials (“Open Fly Jeans”) and the Sunday Night Football opening production number sung by Faith Hill (guest star Jane Lynch played Hill).

But long before SNL, football players were making appearances on network television variety shows.  As the NFL became more popular, the sport’s most prominent players became highly desirable TV guests.  The variety shows that thrived during the 60’s and 70’s provide the best corollary to SNL, because as guests, players had to be themselves but also had to perform in some capacity.  On Omnibus, Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas gave Gene Kelly quarterbacking tips, while Kelly showed Johnny U some basic tap dancing steps.  The Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” (Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, and Deacon Jones) performed musical numbers on Shindig and The Hollywood Palace. The Rams’ Jon Arnett tried his hand at sketch comedy with Bob Hope, and Arnett’s teammate Roman Gabriel told jokes on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. They cranked up the laugh track for Joe Namath’s visit to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and Terry Bradshaw cooked up cornpone comedy on Hee-Haw.

For the NFL figures who have hosted Saturday Night Live, the gig is far more demanding than trading a few quips with Bob Hope. In addition to introducing musical acts (for Eli Manning, it will be Rihanna), the host must also perform in several skits with a troupe of seasoned comic performers who are skilled in the art of improvisation.  The production schedule is grueling, rehearsal time is short, and skits are constantly being revised right up until air time. In its own way, hosting SNL presents a challenge that would stoke the competitive fire of any athlete.

If the opening monologues of past NFL SNL hosts are any indication, Eli will be self-deprecating while at the same time stressing his achievements on the football field.  It’s likely that some of the skits featuring Eli will play off his quiet, polite demeanor, and “aw shucks” persona. The usual SNL approach is to “reveal” that there’s “another side” to a “nice” celebrity.”  This was the driving force behind the classic United Way Spot in the episode hosted by Peyton Manning.

III. Host Busters

Eli is already one of the pro football’s best quarterbacks, but when his hosting chores are done, how will he compare to the NFL hosts who preceded him?  Here’s one Vault Keeper’s evaluation of Eli’s competition.

Fran Tarkenton
Date: January 29, 1977 – second season
Musical Guest: Leo Sayer
Notable Cast Members:  The Not Ready for Prime Time Players (Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin)

This is probably the most football-centric of the episodes hosted by an NFL figure. The shows running gag involves comedy novice Tarkenton going to the sideline to get joke-telling tips from Head Coach Belushi.  Later, sportscasters Morris and Murray offer halftime analysis of the show (“Tark is 11 out of 16 jokes for 97 laughs”) and they also point out “The Saturday Night Blimp.”

Fun facts: Tarkenton was the first ever athlete of any kind to host SNL. He must have done OK, as he went on to host ABC’s “That’s Incredible!” for four seasons after he retired in 1978 as the NFL’s all-time leader in TD passes.

OJ Simpson
February 25, 1978 – third season
Musical Guest: Ashford and Simpson (appropriate, certainly, but why not the O’Jays?)
Notable Cast Members: The Not Ready for Primetime Players

Not as many football-related gags as in the show hosted by Tarkenton.  But OJ doesn’t fumble many punchlines, and displays the deft comic timing he would later use as Agent Nordberg in THE NAKED GUN movies. On SNL, he performs the opening monologue wearing a Conehead, and he’s especially good in parody of his Hertz Rent-A-Car commercials. After he runs through the airport and gets to the Hertz rental counter, the agent tells him his car has already been given to….Walter Payton.

Fun Facts: OJ was the first black athlete to host SNL…OJ was the only guest host not invited to the SNL 25th Anniversary Show in 1999.

John Madden
January 30, 1982 – seventh season
Musical Guest: Jennifer Holliday
Notable Cast Members: Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Christine Ebersole, Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato

Longest football-related skit has Madden interviewing players in the Bengals locker-room after SB XVI loss. Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo are among actors wearing actual licensed Bengals uniforms. Tony Rosato plays the team’sforeign-born placekicker (in actuality, American-born Jim Breech was the Bengals PK). Madden is basically the straight man here, and while it’s neat to see him when he didn’t need a hedge-cutter to trim his eyebrows, the skit is the kind of dud that typified a lackluster 1982 season for SNL.

Fun Facts: For the duration of 1982 season, the show’s cold open was changed, meaning Madden didn’t get to say, “Live from New York – It’s Saturday Night!”… The tagline returned to stay in 1983.

Alex Karras
February 2, 1985 – 10th season
Musical Guest: Tina Turner
Notable Cast Members: Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Chris Guest, Jim Belushi, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss

Not much football in this episode. By 1985, former Lions’ defensive lineman Karras had been out of the game for 16 years and had almost completely distanced himself from a career he would always view with ambivalence. At the time of his hosting stint, he was the star of cuddly, “heart-warming” TV series, Webster, which ran from 1983 to 1989.

Joe Montana/Walter Payton
January 24, 1987 – season 12
Musical Guest: Debbie Harry
Notable Cast Members: Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz

There’s plenty of football mentioned in this episode, but none of the gags would pass the league’s sniff test today. Montana’s entire monologue goes for laughs at the expense of the concussion he suffered during an NFC Playoffs loss against the Giants. In “The Football Liar,” Payton discusses steroid use among athletes, and “Super Bowl Gambling Memories” celebrates the Cowboys 21-17 loss in SB X because they beat the spread.  I suppose you could consider this episode a fascinating time capsule of an ill-informed era, but given the state of today’s game, most of the jokes are cringe-inducing.  Still, “Super Bowl Gambling Memories” is notable as an early spoof of NFL Films, with a narrator imitating the stentorian tones of John Facenda and use of NFL Films’ footage from SB X and SB VI. The short piece concludes with our famous shot of a smiling Tom Landry being carried off after winning SB VI, as the Facenda-wannabe intones: “The Cowboys – 6 point underdogs – had beaten the spread.”

Fun Facts: The “Weekend Update” anchorman in ’87 was Dennis Miller, who later became one of the announcing crew on ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”

Deion Sanders
February 18, 1995
Musical Guest: Bon Jovi
Notable cast Members: Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, Michael McKean

While the Not Ready for Prime Time Players had been gone for 15 seasons, SNL was ready for “Prime Time” as they loaded the show with jokes that poked fun at Deion’s penchant for hot-dogging and his purported selfishness. In one skit, Deion pays tribute to “The Ickey Shuffle” and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.

Tom Brady
April 16, 2005 30th Season
Musical Guest: Beck
Notable cast members: Fred Armisen, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Seth Meyers, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte, Amy Poehler

Memorable cold open features Seth Myers as Peyton Manning, wearing #18 Colts jersey and boasting that since his passing stats are better than Brady’s, he should be the host instead of the Patriots’ quarterback.  Peyton also admits that he didn’t have tickets for the show – “Eli got me in.”  During Brady’s monologue, Brady refers to Patriots winning 3 out of the last 4 Super Bowls, then goes where no NFL SNL host has ever gone before – he sings and dances. He also imitates Kermit the Frog.

Peyton Manning
March 24, 2007 – 32nd season
Musical Guest: Carrie Underwood
Notable cast members: Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler

Manning’s intelligence, timing, and perfectionism are among the traits that made him a future Hall of Famer – and one of the most popular SNL hosts of all time. Although Manning often seems robotic on the field, his role as a pitchman for a number of products helped to humanize him, and that human quality is well on display in this episode.  The priceless United Way Spot is the highlight and the gold standard all hosts must follow.  Andrew Luck may someday duplicate Manning’s passing accomplishments in Indianapolis, but it will be tough for him to achieve Manning’s level of SNL greatness.

Fun facts: Manning’s hosting stint was one of the highest-rated of the 2007 season and helped turn SNL around after a long ratings slump … During his monologue, Manning introduces his mom and dad and brother Eli, all of whom are seated in the studio audience.

IV.  How I Rate the Hosts

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. OJ
  3. Tarkenton
  4. Brady
  5. Montana/Payton
  6. Deion
  7. Madden
  8. Karras

For Eli to earn a high rating, he’ll have to remember that on SNL, a “long bomb” means a skit that goes on forever and doesn’t get any laughs.  He’ll also have to keep in mind that here, his passer rating is meaningless. It’s the Nielsen rating that will measure his hosting efficiency.  Though I’d love to see Eli pay homage to a classic SNL bit of yesteryear – playing Gumby, perhaps, Ed Grimley, or Buckwheat – he’ll be best served by doing something that makes the show uniquely his own.  Since he’s famous for playing his best in the fourth quarter, perhaps he and the SNL cast perform in bad skits and tell lousy jokes for most of the show, then ring up frequent comedy “scores” over the final 15 minutes to win over the audience.  We’ll know soon enough.  As they might say in showbiz, Eli – but never in football – break a leg.

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