The Blunt Calculus About Elon Musk’s SNL Appearance That Everyone Seems to be Missing

The Tesla CEO made it even harder for rivals to sell their electric cars

With his aw-shucks, confessional, good-sport, loves-his-mom, boyishly eager-to-please star turn on Saturday Night Live, Tesla’s Elon Musk did what the CEOs of Volkswagen, Ford, GM and everyone else in the electric vehicle race know they cannot: yuk it up as an equal alongside pop culture celebrities, and then hog the conversation on TV, Twitter, and in the tech press for two days afterward.

And with that, Musk accomplished what he must have intended all along as guest host of the iconic comedy show last weekend: Widening the already forbidding moat separating Tesla from the rest of the fast-growing EV pack.

For the last several months, most of the world’s large automakers have taken their turn with high-profile declarations about their coming EV wares: GM, back in January, with CEO Mary Barra’s announcement that by 2035, the company intended to be selling only electrics; Ford CEO Jim Farley, the very next week, announcing he had doubled spending on EVs and would not be left behind in the race for the future; and in March, VW CEO Herbert Diess’ statement that he would build six gigafactories in Europe and be the world’s largest EV maker by 2025, eclipsing Tesla. Chinese EV makers like Nio, Xpeng and Geely are making a run for stature in the international market, too, and the country is already the world’s leader in lithium-ion batteries.

Yet in the first quarter, Tesla still accounted for one of every four EVs sold around the world. Tesla revenue surged surged 74%, and a jump in sales gave the company a reasonable shot to produce 800,000 vehicles this year, a 60% spike from 2020. In second place with 17% of the world market was China’s SAIC, which mostly makes micro EVs. VW was third with 8%, followed by China’s BYD with 5%.

The past is not prologue, and VW very well could surpass Tesla in sales, especially in the 2030s, when EVs appear likely to be much cheaper and more normalized, so that motorists can easily buy one as they would any another vehicle. China could become to EVs what the juggernaut Japan was to compacts in the 1980s. Musk has repeatedly reminded those pointing out these possibilities that his only goal, going back to the ‘oughts, has been to prime the materialization of a global EV industry, and that it doesn’t matter who wins as long as electrics come to dominate the road.

Perhaps that’s true. But if so, Musk intends to remain the biggest force in EVs as long as he can.

Hence the SNL appearance. Let’s get a couple of things straight first: Musk’s Wario and the eccentric cowboy Leron were among the best comedy SNL has done in at least a couple of years, and probably longer. Musk took the piss out of himself all night — on dissing masks, on pushing Dogecoin, on advocating tunnels, on generally showing off and on mouthing off. At the top of his monologue, just 52 seconds in, he disclosed that he has Asperger’s syndrome, apparently the first time he has done so. Critics zeroed in on whether he really was the first SNL host to have Asperger’s, as he claimed, and quickly tut-tutted that, no, it was Dan Aykroyd, in 2003. But if so, was Musk yet again lying, as his critics have it, or was the slip the fault of SNL’s own producers and writers, including Lorne Michaels, the show’s co-creator in 1975 and still its top boss? If they themselves did not recall that Musk was not the first, and inserted the assertion into his lines, how was Musk himself to know with certainty?

There has been much serious critiquing of the show, from quibbles like the above, to raves and brutal pans. What they share is playing into Musk’s diabolical plot, which amounts to this: build up his already formidable cult status, attach that to ultra-desirable vehicles, and, as global EV sales swell over the coming decade and beyond, work to stay the world’s biggest player in an industry he created.

“I thought he was quite good,” said Simon Moores, managing director of Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, a battery metals research firm, who watched the livestream from his home in the U.K. “Very Elon. Amusing. Personable. People love that. Drives the Tesla-Elon brand and trust forward. Worked for him, from my view.”

But what hasn’t been said, or at least said enough, is what a massive risk Musk took. “He could have completely flopped,” said Ari Lightman, a professor of marketing and digital media at Carnegie Mellon University. The Asperger’s disclosure in particular merits attention: Musk took a gamble on his image, since henceforth his condition will no doubt be a central part of every substantial story written about him, in addition to quite a few insubstantial stories. Asperger’s could be a question mark hanging over any seemingly outlying decision Musk makes. Moreover, concerning the future of Tesla, don’t be surprised if a hostile investor sues, claiming, with arguable justification, that Musk withheld material facts that could bear on his capacity to serve as CEO. “It’s not like saying, ‘I have cancer.’ It’s potentially a condition that could impact your decision making,” Lightman told me.

A fixture of Musk’s rise has been his polarizing effect: He enjoys a substantial international cult following that seems inured to neutral assessment of Musk’s actions, and of the Teslas themselves. His base of intense critics is smaller, but often seems louder. I exchanged messages with Ed Niedermeyer, a long-time Musk critic and author of “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors.”

Niedermeyer viewed the SNL appearance as just more evidence of Musk as a conman and a hustler, “someone who will do whatever it takes when his back is to the wall.” In his Twitter feed, Niedermeyer devotes much of his recent criticism to Tesla’s flawed and exaggerated autonomous driving software, which he thinks is a deliberate “scam.” “I think the most important qualifier to these words ‘hustler,’ ‘scam,’ etc is that he has entered into them because his back has been against the wall,” Niedermeyer told me. “Not saying that to excuse him, because I don’t think it does, but it’s important context.”

Niedermeyer suggested that the entire SNL appearance was one more such scam — solely an exercise “to shore up Musk’s image.” When Musk poked fun at himself, it was all a self-serving ploy, including the Asperger’s disclosure. I asked whether SNL was complicit, since it would have had to be for the sketches to be so tightly written to aid Musk. “I mean, I’m sure there is give and take,” he responded. “They are getting something from Musk (attention) and they are giving something for that (an opportunity to tune up his image). This kind of arrangement is very standard in the entertainment/PR industries. I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some kind of arrangement like this.”

In a way, Niedermeyer is right: Musk’s motivation did involve his image. But it’s not necessary to reach for conspiracies to assess why: Musk wants to sell EVs. He wants to sell more EVs than anyone else — to produce and sell them at prices almost anyone can afford. When there is a club, a movement, even a cult around that vehicle, the greater desire it can evoke. A greater number of people will want that vehicle.

It’s the central message the legacy automakers have yet to understand, and why Musk remains the most redoubtable actor in the EV space.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store