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The Big Five: Best athletes who have hosted SNL

Michael Phelps told The New York Times a few days ago that he isn't nervous about hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend. That means Phelps is either lying, or he truly is the greatest pressure performer in sports. All of his friends, according to the article, think he's either going to nail it, or it's going to be a disaster. And knowing Phelps a little bit, I'd say that's probably an accurate prediction. Phelps can be as wooden as a Fells Point roof deck when you get him in a big room full or cameras and reporters and stick a microphone under his chin, but get him in a smaller setting where he feels more comfortable and he can both clever and funny. His SportsCenter commercials are actually pretty funny, although they do play to his strengths, relying on his dry delivery instead of punchlines.

If nothing else, I definitely admire Phelps' willingness to take a risk. Rumor is, the cast actually loves having athletes host simply because they take coaching so well, and unlike actors, they don't feel like they're already experts at the craft, so they're willing to take a few risks and mostly play the straight man.

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It's probably not fair to ask Phelps to be on the level of Alec Baldwin or Christopher Walken (two of the show's best), or even Justin Timberlake (who has been very funny both times he's hosted) but we can certainly compare him to other athletes who have done the show. In today's edition of The Big Five, in anticipation of Phelps big comedic moment, we'll rank the five best performances by athletes.

5. Charles Barkey: This episode is probably more memorable for having Nirvana as the musical guest, but King Charles deserves credit for delivering in several excellent sketches. Unfortunately, most of the video has disappeared from online, but see if you can remember Charles dunking and elbowing purple dinosaur Barney in a game of one-on-one after reading this transcript here. Also, check out this sketch where Barkley himself doesn't appear, but instead features Kenan Thompson and Kristen Wiig as Barkley and Bjork in a promo for the Sundance Chanel show Iconoclasts.

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4. Derek Jeter: Even though most of us have been trained, almost from birth, to hate Jeter and all things Yankees with the white hot intensity of 1,000 suns, you have to tip your cap to the Yankees captain for his stint hosting SNL. No video of Jeter getting a massage from Chris Kataan to the soothing sounds of Enya seems to exist on-line, nor does the "Yankee baseball wives" sketch which featured Jeter's best line of the night as Mrs. Alfonso Soriano: "Jeter does not do it for me. He looks like the Rock had sex with a muppet." Still, I continue to laugh when I watch this fake commercial for Jeter's Nutley, New Jersey Mexican restaurant, Derek Jeter's Taco Hole. Best line? "And Wednesday, as always, is ladies night. Ladies, if you bring your own tortilla, there is no cover charge."

3. Joe Montana: Joe Cool's overall hosting performance was pretty lackluster, if we're going to be honest. He was a little awkward throughout most of his sketches, but he also delivered one of the most memorable lines in the show's history at the end of his "Sincere Guy Stu" sketch, a skit in which we could hear the internal monologue of all the characters. "Oh you won't disturb me," Montana told his house guests. "I'll be up in my room masturbating." (Sadly, despite hours of Google searches, no video seems to be available. Here is the transcript of the sketch.) 

2. Michael Jordan: It's hard to explain why Jordan was so funny during his stint as a host. He didn't deliver very many memorable lines or display particularly great comedic timing, but he did happen to be surrounded by one of the most talented casts of all time, and when most people think about athletes hosting SNL, they always bring up Jordan's sketch with Al Franken (as Stuart Smalley) where Jordan was forced to giggle his way through Smalley's daily affirmation: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" For some reason, that sketch isn't online either (although here is the transcript), but here is Jordan's appearance with Bill Swerski's Superfans, which is worth watching if only to see Jordan and Chris Farley dance in grass skirts at the very end of the sketch. "Da ... Bears, Da Bears, Bears, Da Bulls, Da Bulls, Da Bulls, Da Bears!" 

1. Peyton Manning: More than a year ago, Phelps got to hang out with Manning for a hour backstage at the ESPY Awards, and the two talked about life, fame, football and swimming. Phelps really appreciated the advice Manning had to offer. Even though Manning has his own worries this week at the Colts prepare to take on the Vikings, Phelps might want to give Manning a call and ask him for some advice again. Manning set the bar for future athlete hosting stints with his performance, mostly on the strength of his phony United Way commercial which is one of the show's most memorable skits in recent years. No matter what anyone says, watching little kids get drilled with a football is comedy gold. Manning was pretty funny elsewhere too, making fun of his willingness to pitch any product with "The Meatloaf Lover's Mercedes." His dancing at the end of a sketch about motivational locker room speeches was also hilarious, and he didn't have a problem poking fun at himself and his reputation for coming up short in big games. He was even willing to say ridiculous nonsensical things just to get a laugh. "I walked around with a piece of sliced ham in my pants for the past couple of days, just to have my own secret."

Honorable mention: Tom Brady, for his "Sexual Harassment Training Video."; Shaq and Will Ferrell (in a sketch that never aired) in a singing bit that's fairly hilarious; LeBron James for his "Solid Gold" parody, and for appearing in his hilarious Kanye West sketch about 106 & Park; Wayne Gretzky for Waikiki Hockey (transcript).

So that's what Phelps is shooting for. Seems like an impossible feat, but then, so did eight gold medals. At the very least, he's going to have fun introducing Lil' Wayne, one of his favorite rappers, and a frequent pre-race iPod pick during the Olympics.

Jordan/Franken: Handout photo

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