If you caught Michael Phelps on Saturday Night Live last evening, here's what you saw: An awkward kid managed to stay out of the way while the big kids put on one of the more memorable performances in a while. (Case in point: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Priceless.) In SNL terms, Phelps was less like Peyton Manning, the new gold standard for athlete-turned-television actors, and more like Michael Jordan, who was calculated and reserved but still likable in his iconic SNL appearance back in 1991. Phelps played himself or a version of it in four of his eight sketches; he agreed to poke fun at his mom and his diet; he gracefully deferred to walk-on guests like Fey, William Shatner and Jared Fogle; and he says he made a conscious decision to keep his political views out of an episode that was particularly chock full of them. It was Jordan, of course, who once said, "Republicans buy sneakers too." Same goes for Speedos, it appears.
But the TV cameras don't catch everything. Late in the show, Phelps survived one of the hiccups that come with live television. At one point, Chevy Chase (presumably a guest of Lorne Michaels') wobbled toward the stage off-camera with a glass of wine in his hand, just as Phelps was about to introduce musical guest Lil' Wayne. The host didn't blink. Of course, it's entirely possible that the 23-year-old simply didn't recognize Chase. Phelps is more of the Ashton Kutcher school of comedy, which is why he called up the actor for hosting tips last week. These are the perks that come with winning eight Olympic gold medals.
Phelps was like the senior quarterback at a homecoming pep rally. He hobnobbed with the common folk, chatting up production assistants and lesser-knowns like Casey Wilson off-camera. Afterwards, one of Lil' Wayne's band members told me Phelps had even befriended a Baltimore-born band member throughout the week-long process. He donned wigs and sported an awkward retainer; he danced (something he says he learned by studying Manning's SNL stint earlier in the week); and all the pretty girls in the crowd swooned. So did Bruce Springsteen, Bob Costas, Brian Williams, Luke Russert and celebrity chef Guy Fieri, who were all on hand just to see Michael Phelps. (Fieri was sitting front and center, an odd seating arrangement if you consider his easily recognizable coif.)
Also not seen on TV was an Aquaman sketch that got scrapped after the early evening dress rehearsals. A "Hall of Justice" set went unused, leaving a few of us lamenting what we'd missed out on. Which is fine. We'll see plenty of this guy in weeks to come.