Shane Gillis is a 31-year-old comic from Philadelphia. I’d never heard of him till last week, when Saturday Night Live (which I hardly ever watch anyway) announced that he would be among the new members of its cast this fall. Within hours of his hiring, social-media users posted clips of Gillis recording a podcast in which he did some bits on Chinese people that indulged in some woeful stereotyping, mocked Chinese speech and used the word “chinks.” Of Chinatown, he said, “Let the f***ing chinks live there.” In other bits on Matt & Shane’s Secret Podcast, Gillis used the word “gay” in a derogatory way, e.g. “that’s so gay.” Gillis has also made some other questionable remarks. We don’t use his kind of language around here but you can read more here.
Last week a lot of journalists, activists, and lower-tier comedy professionals joined a Twitter mob calling for Gillis to be fired. One of them was Jimmy O. Yang, which surprised me because Yang is best known for his character on HBO’s Silicon Valley, in which Yang, through his character Jian-Yiang, does an absolute merciless stereotypical Chinese accent. (If you don’t know his other work, you may be unaware that Yang normally speaks without a foreign accent.)
“After talking with Shane Gillis, we have decided that he will not be joining S.N.L.,” a spokesperson for the show said today in a statement.
“We want S.N.L. to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we hired Shane on the strength of his talent as a comedian and his impressive audition for ‘S.N.L.’ We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.”
Gillis’s bit was pretty awful. He shouldn’t have said what he said. It also wasn’t funny. On the other hand, firing someone is a drastic step, particularly for someone at this stage of his career. Gillis, had he made it to the SNL cast, would have overnight become one of the most recognizable comics in America. As it is he may find himself having difficulty getting work in the future. (Indeed one or two comedy clubs have reportedly already barred him, finding his material offensive.) The stakes here for this young man are considerable. Should his life be turned around over some random dumb jokes?
To his credit, the entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted, “For the record, I do not think he should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human.” Yet SNL is now creating a precedent: Hey, comedians, in the course of your attempts to be funny, ever said anything offensive that was recorded? This is now, according to SNL, a fireable offense. Given that a good part of comedy is devoted to feeling your way around the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable to say out loud, and given that a lot of young people routinely say dumb stuff that gets recorded, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people currently on the SNL team have said things that are offensive. If I were a comedian on SNL or anywhere else, I’d be nervous — unless I had reached the level of Bill Burr or Ricky Gervais or Dave Chappelle, none of whom needs an employer to approve their thoughts.
SNL didn’t fire Gillis right away, which made me think the show was going to do the wise thing and not set this new standard, but here we are. Far wiser, I think, would have been for SNL to open the season with a sketch in which Gillis and his offensive comments on Chinese people were made the butt of the joke.