"Saturday Night Live" Executive Producer Lorne Michaels believes athletes are well-qualified to host the show.
"They're used to being in front of large groups of people and not knowing how it's going to turn out," Michaels said.
Eli Manning certainly fits those criteria. The Giants' quarterback, however, has a knack for leading his team to a favorable outcome. So on Saturday, three months to the day after winning his second Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award in a victory over the New England Patriots, Manning will host the long-running NBC show from Manhattan.
Michaels said he has pursued Manning for years to step on the stage at 30 Rock.
"I think he's both charming and radiates a certain kind of intelligence and I don't know how to say this, but you sort of believe that he doesn't take himself that seriously," Michaels said today on a joint conference call with Manning. "I think he takes his work very seriously, but there's this sort of essential modesty to him and I think that plays well with what we do. If the host is spending a lot of time protecting an image, it's exhausting, particularly for us."
Manning's reply: "I'm blushing, Lorne. Thank you."
Manning's first priority is always football. The Giants are in Week 3 of their offseason conditioning program, and Manning was willing to host the show only if it did not detract from his preparation for the 2012 season. Once he was satisfied that was possible, Manning was all in for Saturday night. The players are off today, so Manning was able to spend extra hours at NBC.
"It's worked very well," Manning said. "Before I committed to doing 'Saturday Night Live' I got a full schedule. I didn't want to miss anything. I didn't want to leave anything out. I didn't want to have to be going in and out in the same day. I wanted to be totally committed to it if I was going to decide to do it. So I got a schedule of when all of the meetings and all of the times that I would need to be at rehearsals and doing things for the show. I looked at that. I looked at what our work week was going to be this week for the Giants and saw that I would not miss any workouts. I would not miss any time. I'd be able to fully commit to my weightlifting, my meetings, my on-the-field stuff that I'm doing with the players.
"Monday and Tuesday I went over to NBC studios, to Rockefeller Center, and met the cast and the writers and started hearing some ideas of what the writers will be pitching. This afternoon, when I go in it will be the first day where I really have to rehearse and go through some reads of possible skits and try to figure out what makes the show, what's funny enough to be included in the live show."
Manning will be the 35th sports figure to host Saturday Night Live since its inception in 1975 (the first was a former Giants quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, on Jan. 29, 1977). The list includes Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Derek Jeter, Joe Montana, LeBron James and Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Michael Phelps, the most recent luminary from the sports world to host, on Sept. 13, 2008.
Manning was in attendance when his brother Peyton took the SNL stage as host on March 24, 2007, soon after leading the Indianapolis Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI. Eli Manning was approached a year later, after he was named Most Valuable Player in the Giants' victory over New England in Super Bowl XLII. But Manning was uncomfortable with the timing.
"One of the main reasons I did not do it was (because) Peyton had done so well the previous year," Manning said. "I thought it might be a little fresh in everyone's mind. I didn't want to have to go up against tough competition and the great job that he performed. It just didn't seem like the right time for me. I wanted to keep working on my football. I had some success, but hadn't really proven myself as much as I wanted to and knew I had some more work to do during the offseason.
"When I got the invite this year I definitely wanted to try to make it work. I knew I wanted to do it at one time and I kind of remember saying, whether it was to Lorne or maybe it was the message that got back to him, 'I do want to do the show at one point. I just want to do it maybe after my next championship.' So when this opportunity came up again and we won a championship this year, if they ask I would definitely want to jump on the opportunity if the timing worked out and it's all worked out. So I'm looking forward to this week."
Eli and Peyton discuss a wide variety of subjects during their frequent conversations. So it's perfectly natural that Peyton had some advice for his younger brother about hosting "Saturday Night Live."
"The main thing he said is, 'Just enjoy the week,'" Manning said. "'It is a lot of fun. It is work and you're doing something you're not quite used to doing.' But he said, 'The one thing you are used to doing is live. That's something you do every week during the football season.' But he said, 'Just enjoy being with the writers and try to hang around as much as you can and work with them and just follow their guidance. They're the ones that are funny and know how to do this.' He said, 'That's the fun part of the week, is really the time working with the writers and the cast and getting to know them.' That's why today I'm very excited for … when I get the different scripts and start reading through them and rehearsing and seeing what's funny and get to test out my acting skills, in a sense, or see what happens. That's kind of the main piece of advice.
"(Fifteen) minutes before I got on this call John Madden called me and he hosted the show back in the day (Jan. 30, 1982). He really gave me the same piece of advice. He said, 'The fun part is during the week and being with the cast.' He was asking if they did things the same way and the same schedule, routine and it is. It's really similar to when he did it many, many years ago. I've listened to both those two people and both had the same advice in saying to just enjoy every moment during the week and working with the cast and stay up with them and just have a blast doing that."
With two Super Bowl titles and three consecutive 4,000-yard seasons, Manning is one of the NFL's very best quarterbacks. But he is eager to use different talents in a new venue.
"I think that's a good thing about 'Saturday Night Live,' is that you can come in and express a different side that people don't see," Manning said. "Maybe that's not you at all times, but for this night you can kind of let loose. I think that's one thing I would say about Peyton and I, we don't mind making fun of ourselves or letting jokes be at our own expense. I think it's important to have that attitude when going into this week. I enjoyed watching Peyton do the show and being there to experience that and to see how it works and talking to him afterward. It's something that growing up we were always great fans and have been watching "Saturday Night Light" for a long, long time. It's one of those things that I'm excited for.
"My teammates, at workouts they've been talking about it – asking what's going on and excited for me and said they're planning to watch it together. I think it's going to be a great experience and great fun, looking forward to getting deeper in the week and find out what I might be doing. Right now, I'm probably more anxious than anything just to try to figure out what is in front of me and what I will be asked to do."
Peyton Manning, who has appeared in several commercials that were well-received, was widely praised for his "Saturday Night Live" appearance. Now that Eli will deliver the opening monologue and act in several skits, the comparisons between the two brothers will inevitably begin.
So, Lorne, who's the funnier Manning?
"We won't really know that until Saturday," Michaels said. "It's been great so far. In about three hours we'll read 40 to 45 pieces, looking for 12 or 13 (as candidates for the show). We won't really know what we're going to be choosing until after that, because no matter what we thought of it, if it isn't playing we don't move forward with it. This show's built around Eli and you just want to make sure that we have the best possible things for this week's show. No one really trusts it until we read it. So we'll see what that's about. People have been working right through the night and as I said, we'll read 40 to 50 pieces. We'll know more in about six hours. We'll have made all of the choices in about five or six hours. Then we will still be about a half hour long and everything will then go through rewrites. Then we will rehearse about half of it and the music with Rihanna tomorrow. By the time we leave on Friday, around midnight or one o'clock, we will have done everything a couple of times in its rewritten form."
Manning, of course, is accustomed to performing in a high-pressure environment in front of demanding audiences. He excels in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. In short, Manning seems to have all the qualities necessary to deliver a memorable performance under the hot stage lights in Manhattan.
Michaels is confident he has the right man for the job.
"We don't really know until dress rehearsal what's beginning to work and what's not working," he said. "Then there's a lot of course correction. You go, 'Well if we do this, this way it might work better.' There's still some risk involved, but we know how Eli reacts both under pressure and with changing things quickly. I don't think that we're making any other kind of concessions because it's an athlete over an actor or a comedian or a singer - or a politician, for that matter."