The genius of Justin Timberlake

How an ex-boy band Britney survivor dodged all the punchlines and got the last laugh

The genius of Justin TimberlakeJustin Timberlake was a global brand when he showed up on Saturday Night Live in December 2006 with a cheap suit, cheesy beard and a strategically placed cardboard box. But in two minutes and 37 seconds, the pop star reached a whole other level. In addition to an Emmy and more than 35 million downloads, the skit, a holiday music video parody, in which Timberlake advises dudes on the perfect gift to give your lady—a “d–k in a box”—was crude, but earned the former Mouseketeer a lot of cred. He also proved that night to be one of SNL’s best hosts in years by appearing in . . . no, by being the funniest part of nearly every skit. Fast-forward to November 2008: Timberlake shows up on SNL again, this time in heels and a leotard, dancing with Beyoncé to Single Ladies—another instant Web sensation. After that turn, some New York media types pleaded with Lorne Michaels, SNL’s producer, to hire the pop star full-time. Timberlake, who now has a standing invite whenever he’s in NYC, is hosting SNL on May 9. Chances are, by the time you read this, his latest skit has already gone viral.

The fact that anyone is even talking about Timberlake is remarkable. This is, after all, a guy who spent seven years with ’N Sync and dated Britney Spears, the kind of credentials that might guarantee someone a spot on the The Surreal Life. And yet, several years since his band broke up (and 14 since he and Mickey Mouse parted ways), Timberlake has positioned himself atop a respected pop culture empire that spans music, film, TV, even fashion (his latest collection earned industry nods at New York Fashion Week in February). He’s a boyfriend to beautiful women—the latest, Jessica Biel—and in crowning him America’s most stylish man, GQ credited him with single-handedly bringing back fedoras, sweater vests, three-piece suits and beards. He’s the modern-day equivalent of the Rat Pack, all rolled into one skinny-jean-wearing guy from Memphis who used to have frosted tips.

That he has better comic timing than most of SNL’s cast shouldn’t come as a shock. Even when fronting ’N Sync, he always seemed in on the joke, and so somewhat resistant to the punchlines. And he possesses George Clooney’s rare crossover appeal: women want to be with him; boyfriends and husbands wish he was their best friend. His music, and increasingly suggestive dance moves, helped him grow with his once-tween fans. His appearances on ESPN cement his place with guys (and he isn’t all talk: he’s an avid basketball player and a six handicapper who can drive a golf ball 280 yards). Plus he shows up on Oprah and performs duets with the likes of Reba McEntire, for all the moms out there.

Even hipsters—and members of the anarchist punk music scene, according to the New York Times—can’t help being impressed. The month his most famous SNL skit landed in everyone’s inbox, Pitchfork, an online indie-music-nerd favourite, declared Timberlake “the new King of Pop.” He’s maintained his cred among music heavyweights with his songwriting and collaborations—he’s the go-to guy when another star needs a career boost (ask Madonna, whom he joined in a video for 4 Minutes). And despite the fact that, having beat the boy-band curse with a catchy blend of pop, hip hop and R & B, he hasn’t released an album since 2006.

He’s done all this without courting scandal (even Nipplegate, which killed Janet Jackson’s career, did little to cramp Timberlake’s style). “[Justin] and Leo DiCaprio have pretty much written the book on going from child to adult stardom relatively unscathed,” says Elaine Lui of and CTV’s etalk. If they have any secrets, she says, they’ve done a great job keeping them private. He and his handlers are masters of product (read: Timberlake) placement. With nothing to promote, Timberlake popped up on Ellen last fall to surprise singer Taylor Swift after she admitted her crush on him. The two sweet on-air minutes only added to his nice-guy persona. Calculated, sure. But if you thought it was all an act, watch The Love Guru. If there’s been one knock against him, it’s his acting, at least in that film.

His comic turns on SNL prove there is, with good writing, plenty of talent to mine. He’s helped create some of the show’s best recurring characters in recent memory: Robin Gibb, the Cup O’ Soup mascot. And though Lui’s not a fan (she refers to him as “Pipsqueak” on her site), even she thinks viewers would be best-served if he joined the cast for an entire season. YouTube won’t complain.