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Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Updated: January 21, 1:34 PM ET
Sports Star's Guide to Surviving 'SNL'

By Patrick Hruby
Special to Page 3

Oh, sure, you've got the game and the fame. The megabuck deal and the megawatt smile. The championship ring and the champion bling-bling.

But until you've hosted "Saturday Night Live" - or played fiddle 1-A to Bugs Bunny in a full-length feature film -- well, you're still just a well-known jock.

For sports stars, a guest stint on "SNL" is akin to pop-culture knighthood, the ultimate mark of crossover appeal. But that doesn't make it an easy gig. Beyond juicing the ratings for one of television's most venerable shows, former hosts such as Andy Roddick and Michael Jordan are expected to remember their lines, suffer through 12-hour rehearsals and keep a straight face while the likes of Mike Myers and Will Ferrell make merry.

Needless to say, it's a daunting task. Even if the merrymaker in question is only Jay Mohr.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon compared the SNL hosting experience to "The Winston-- controlled chaos."
"This should be a great experience, but I don't know what to expect," NASCAR's Jeff Gordon told a Charlotte newspaper before his SNL appearance last year. "It will probably be a lot like The Winston -- controlled chaos."

The key to a successful show? Simple: Don't make a total fool of yourself. Unless it's for laughs. (Also, do not, under any circumstances, shred a 5x7 glossy of the Pope. Trust us on that).

Like Justin Timberlake in a celebrity basketball tournament, you're not expected to be good. Just competent enough to avoid serious injury. With that in mind, then, here are some guidelines for surviving -- and even thriving -- on "SNL":

1. Stick With the Game Plan
In football, you don't bench your All-Pro quarterback on the eve of the Super Bowl in order to start a third-string clipboard-holder who has never thrown a pro pass. "SNL" is no different. The best way to make it through a sketch is to play yourself. For one, it lets the cast and writers play off your familiar foibles; more importantly, you're already in character.

Take Jordan, for example. During his 1991 appearance, the hoops demigod produced one of the show's funniest athlete-related bits by portraying himself on the recurring "Daily Affirmation" bit featuring Al Franken as self-help guru Stuart Smalley. (Note: this took place well before the theatrical release of "Stuart Saves His Family.")

With the goofy Smalley goading him on, Jordan peered into a mirror and intoned Smalley's ego-massaging catch phrase: "I'm good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." This was laughably ironic given that the real-world Jordan was plenty good, plenty smart and arguably the most popular athlete on the planet.

Other memorable bits saw top-seeded Andy Roddick (2003) play himself in a "Battle of the Sexes II" against Fred Armisen's Billie Jean King; Derek Jeter (2001) hit baseballs into the studio audience during his monologue, mock-injuring several spectators; and Deion Sanders (1995) sit in on a MLBPA meeting with Chris Farley's John Kruk.

Sanders also played a mediocre rapper during his appearance -- quite a stretch, since Prime Time also played one in real life (and, coincidentally, performed his ill-fated ditty "Must be the Money" on the show) -- while boxer/grill pitchman George Foreman (1994) starred as George Foreman in three straight bits, probably an unofficial "SNL" record.

Remember: Carrying on like George Steinbrenner (1990) is what got you under the lights of Studio 8H. Why change a winning formula?

2. Reverse Field
Justin Timberlake
Like Timberlake in a celebrity hoop game, you don't expect much from the jocks hosting SNL.
On the other hand, there's nothing like a changeup when the hitter expects smoke, play action when the defense stacks the line. Going against type is risky (see Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist), but if done right it can produce bigger laughs (see Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist).

In a 1987 show co-hosted by Walter Payton, Joe Montana rolled out a trick play worthy of Sam Wyche, mining his dry, straight-shootin' persona to maximum effect. In the sketch "Honest Stu," Montana played the utterly sincere housemate to Phil Hartman's "Dan," who is attempting to hook up with a date (Jan Hooks). As Hartman and Hooks hint at sharing Hartman's bedroom for the night, Montana's Stu spoils their plans, stating that it won't bother him in the least if Hooks sleeps in the living room. Hartman and Hooks grow increasingly frustrated with Stu's guilelessness, and the kicker comes at the end of the bit, when Montana tells the couple: "You won't disturb me. I'll be in my room, masturbating."

In a pinch, cross-dressing offers a quick and simple way of confounding audience expectations (just ask the Kids in the Hall). The Rock's (2000, 2002) turn as a love interest to Tim Meadow's "Ladies' Man" was funny as a sight gag, while Jeter's role as "Mrs. Alfonso Soriano" allowed the New York Yankees shortstop to take a shot at his pretty-boy image. During a bit about a gossipy group of New York Yankees players' wives, Jeter quipped, "Jeter does not do it for me. He looks like the Rock had sex with a muppet."

3. Bring in the Bench
Take it from Barry Sanders, Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Garnett: A superstar athlete is only as good as his or her supporting cast. On "SNL," this means calling for backup.

Cranky tennis legend John McEnroe popped up as an audience member during Roddick's monologue, then appeared in a number of sketches. Barkley brought in diminutive NBA peer Mugsy Bogues for a bit with Smalley. On the same night Jordan hosted, director/Nike adman Spike Lee made a cameo on Chris Rock's "Nat X" show.

Most of the time, fellow sports stars simply serve spot duty. During a sketch about quitting smoking, the Rock beat up cigarette-holding Chris Panell with the help of fellow grapplers Triple H, Big Show and Mike Foley. Talk about comedic overkill. On some occasions, however, more help is needed. Montana and Payton co-hosted the show, as did wrestlers Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. Yankees manager Billy Martin even brought in a co-host who could actually act, stage and screen veteran Anjelica Houston.

The moral? Extra faces spread the laughs around -- and also the blame, if a sketch falls flat.

4. Run the Two-Minute Drill
Never mind wit. Brevity is the soul of non-embarrassment. In comedy, shorter is usually better, particularly on a live show that has a hit-or-miss history of magically unfunny high-concept bits that drag on forever.

Andy Roddick
"Billie Jean King" dissed and dismissed Roddick in the "Battle of the Sexes II" skit with two words: Clay Aiken.
During his 2002 appearance, freestyle skier Jonny Mosley landed in the "SNL" Dead Zone, thanks to a "Boston Kids" sketch that never found a groove. Mosley's ski dude (+1 for playing to type) finds himself stuck between Jimmy Fallon's dreadfully dull "Sully" (-3) and Rachel Dratch's insufferably boring "Denise" (-3) as he rides a lift. The ski dude can't wait to get off -- and neither can the audience.

We could go on with additional examples, like Jordan's tiresome "First Black Harlem Globetrotter" bit. But that would be dragging things out. Instead, keep in mind the gold standard of overlong "SNL" athlete sketches -- Wayne Gretzky's (1989) Elvis-in-Hawaii parody "Waikiki Hockey," which ends with the Great One singing the following:

Mona luckahiki means hockey
Mona luckawiki means love
A moonlit ice rink means romance
with my baby and the stars above.

The horror. The horror.

5. Go to the Silent Count
When in doubt, leave the punchlines to the pros. Better yet, don't speak at all. Some of the show's best sports bits have come from the sounds of silence, most recently during Roddick's "Battle of the Sexes II."

As Armisen's aged King rants and raves (at one point calling Roddick "Clay Aiken"), Roddick calmly dispatches his opponent while sitting in a lawn chair -- a nice bit of visual comedy, and one that works for sports and non-sports fans alike. Which, after all, is the whole point of hosting "SNL" in the first place.

Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter for the Washington Times. You can reach him at