The Ringer Ranks Michael Phelps’ SNL as 33rd-Greatest TV Episode of the 21st Century

Sports and pop culture website The Ringer recently released its list of the 100 greatest episodes of television of the 21st Century. While you’ll find the usual suspects on the list–The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, and of course LOST–one entry came as a surprise: in 33rd place was the season 34 premier of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Michael Phelps.

Following his incredible 8-for-8 performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps embarked on a whirlwind media tour the likes of which no swimmer has seen before or since. On September 13th of 2008, Phelps joined the likes of other SNL athlete-hosts including Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning. In fact, Phelps’ season 34 opening marked the second season in a row that the premier episode was hosted by an athlete as LeBron James hosted the season premier for season 33 on September 29th, 2007. Phelps was accompanied by musical guest Lil’ Wayne, who at the time was a personal favorite of Phelps’, as well as the comedic trio The Lonely Island, who made a digital short dubbed Space Olympics, which featured Phelps.

In one sketch, comedian Darrell Hammond portrays Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi giving a pre-competition pump-up speech to a group of swimmers. In another, Phelps can barely keep a straight face as Bill Hader portrays a bumbling waiter attempting to take his order in a diner. Of course, as the episode aired during the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign, the SNL regulars make fun of the then-candidates, with Tina Fey’s debut impersonation of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin marking an iconic moment in her career.

Michael Phelps hosted, and Lil Wayne performed “Lollipop,” but all you really need to know is: Sarah Palin, as played by Tina Fey, can see Russia from her house.

WHAT IS THE EPISODE’S MOST ICONIC MOMENT? In 2012, a Public Opinions Quarterly paper found that watching this six-minute opening monologue—in which Tina Fey leans into her remarkable physical resemblance to Sarah Palin, and then eviscerates her—had a measurable effect in dissuading Republicans and independents from voting McCain-Palin. In other words, “I can see Russia from my house” helped elect Barack Obama.

HOW DID THIS EPISODE INFLUENCE THE FUTURE OF TV? In many ways, the Tina Fey effect has made for a weaker Saturday Night Live: The show now relies on high-profile cameos for increasingly ineffective political sketches. But this episode also features solid sketch work from Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, and Kristen Wiig, who would move on to BarryParks and RecreationBrooklyn Nine-Nine30 RockThe Last Man on EarthPortlandia, and an upcoming show on Apple. That’s quite a farm team for television as we know it.


Phelps’ absurd caloric intake also gets its own skit as a satirical diet plan which encourages people to eat upwards of 10,000 calories per day, and musical guest Lil’ Wayne delivers a stellar performance and even plays guitar during Lollipop.

Though Phelps has not hosted SNL since the season 34 premier he has gotten back into the world of television, notably by calling the Tokyo 2020 Olympics alongside Rowdy Gaines and Mike Tirico for NBC. In 2019, Phelps also hosted and executive produced a documentary on the mental health of Olympians titled The Weight of Gold for HBO. Though we may never see Phelps grace the stage of SNL again, it is possible we will get a biopic on Phelps in the next few years.

Season 4 episode 5 of the epic primetime drama LOST (2004 – 2010), titled The Constant, one of a precious handful of Desmond-centric episodes, took the top spot on the list as the greatest episode of television of the 21st Century, as it should. (Numbers play an important role in the mythology of LOST, and in The Constant we learn Penny’s phone number, the first four digits of which are 7946, which on a phone’s keyboard spells SWIM).

LOST can be viewed on Hulu, while the Phelps-hosted Saturday Night Live can be streamed on Peacock with a (premium membership).

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4 months ago

“…the likes of which no swimmer has seen before or since” – sorry, but Mark Spitz did this decades before MP. Spitz was on every talk show, public events, and even dabbled (badly) in acting.

Reply to  OldNotDead
4 months ago

Another swimmer who dabbled in the big screens was Weissmuller!! 🦍

Last edited 4 months ago by Sharkspeed
Reply to  Sharkspeed
4 months ago

And one more I’ll add – Gertrude Ederle. First woman to swim the English Channel (1926) after winning gold and bronze in 1924 Olympics. From her Wiki page – post Channel swim: “When Ederle returned home, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. More than two million people lined the streets of the parade route to cheer her. She made an arrangement with Edward L. Hyman to make a personal appearance at the Brooklyn Mark Strand, and she was paid an amount far greater than they had ever paid an individual performer prior.[11] Subsequently, she went on to play… Read more »

Coach Tom
4 months ago

The Phelps episode was great but I think the Swim Team Awards with Alec Baldwin still takes the cake for best swimming-related skit on SNL.

Fred Lewis
Reply to  Coach Tom
4 months ago

Thanks for making my day.

Reply to  Coach Tom
4 months ago

I laughed out loud at every single award. I’d never seen this but it was comic gold, Jerry, gold!

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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