J.J. Watt is one of the most likable figures in sports. He’s generous and philanthropic, plays the game with his whole heart, and redefined the defensive end position in the NFL with humility and class. Though we mostly know him through his actions on the field, he’s shown us just enough of the man who exists off of the field for us to believe that he’s one of the good ones. There’s one question, though, that we’d never thought to ask about the Texans star until recently: Is he funny?
This past weekend, Watt hosted Saturday Night Live the night before the Super Bowl. Star football players have taken on that role in the past—Deion Sanders, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, and both Eli and Peyton Manning have had the honor before—and as Watt prepared to join their ranks, he tweeted a shot of the studio’s facade, declaring himself on the verge of accomplishing yet another lifelong dream.
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Watt hasn’t exactly dedicated himself to building his comedy career over the years. But because he’s been one of the NFL’s biggest recent stars, he’s had the chance to refine a public persona through choice TV commercials. Upon Peyton Manning’s retirement, he joined the former star quarterback as one of the faces of Papa John’s pizza—although the way he was portrayed in those ads was often more sentimental than funny.
Nothing about watching Watt tenderly share a pie with Papa John and the Texans’ equipment manager screams “future Saturday Night Live host,” but other ad campaigns have found the funny in Watt, whose image evolved as advertisers got a sense of what he was capable of and comfortable with. Let’s take a brief tour through his reel:
Reliant Energy, initially cautious with Watt, had him go from playing it straight amid some comic actors in an Olympic curling sketch to doing physical comedy in one about synchronized swimming. And H-E-B, where he’s been doing regional spots for years, went from having him merely pop up in an ad as a “hey, it’s a famous guy!” figure to wearing costumes and goofing around the supermarket. “Funny” might be too strong a word to describe Watt’s performance in any of these ads, but he’s definitely game to experiment, and is willing to poke fun at himself.
Watt was game on SNL, too. His opening monologue—the hardest part of the show for any non-comedian to nail—was earnest and serviceable, a slightly awkward stand-up routine delivered with charm and reliant on the goodwill he’s earned from years in the public eye. SNL tested just how game he was to risk humiliating himself in the name of a joke early in his first sketch, a parody of Frozen 2 that seemed to exist mostly just to make Watt sing about being “Big and Woke.” (He tries and does a fine job!) From there, the episode explored ways to tweak Watt’s squeaky-clean image, culminating in a parody of Rudy that could have been written for any football player who’s hosted the show in the 27 years since the movie was released.
It’s a funny sketch, cut from the same cloth as the Peyton Manning/United Way skit from Saturday Night Live‘s 2007 season. Overall, Watt’s episode relied on a few tried-and-true formulas the show has used with other athlete hosts—playing against type (in another sketch, Watt records dialogue for the next edition of Madden in which he apologizes for screwing up), using his size as a gag (in one, he played Bigfoot), and talking earnestly and uncomfortably about sex.
If that formula worked for Peyton Manning (who’s very funny) and Joe Montana (ehh), it’ll probably work for J.J. Watt—or any other athlete who hosts the show. The episode also let SNL cast members play off of Watt as a blank slate, meaning all he had to do was keep a straight face as things around him got increasingly absurd. We’ve seen that before, too—it got everyone from Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky through their hosting duties—and Watt generously served himself up as a canvas onto which the show’s female cast members could project their weirdness in a Bachelor parody called “Pilot Hunk.”
The episode mostly found those beats that worked for Watt, and then played them up. It wasn’t, as Saturday Night Live episodes go, an all-timer—but Watt held his own, and won’t go down in SNL infamy like, say, hosts Michael Phelps or Deion Sanders (whose sketches mysteriously end after seconds on the NBC website). Even if it’s not particularly specific to Watt, we might see the Rudy parody make the rounds for years to come, and that ain’t bad.
There’ve been occasional athlete/hosts like Manning or, say, The Rock who’ve proved themselves capable comedic performers in any context. But for the most part, sports personalities get graded on a curve when they host Saturday Night Live. And that’s fair. (Imagine Colin Jost rushing a passer!) Is J.J. Watt so funny that he’s got a career in comedy ahead of him when his playing days are done? Probably not. But he was game to play seemingly any part they wrote for him, took some chances, worked as a good teammate for the funnier people on camera, wore a whole bunch of wigs, and seemed to have a lot of fun in the sketches.
Those are most of the ingredients of a good SNL host, and Watt clearly put in the same hard work and affable spirit that we’ve come to expect from him elsewhere in his career, too. So is he funny? For a future Hall of Fame defensive end, definitely.