A lesson to be learned in Shane Gillis’ ‘SNL’ firing — if you’re going to be offensive, at least be funny

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Comedy has always been meant to push boundaries, to find humor in even the darkest of subjects. Because it is constantly toeing the line, comedy has always had a dangerous relationship with the recent trend of “cancel culture.” When an edgy joke is made, when is the comic wittily satirizing it and when are they giving it a platform by legitimizing it? It’s a gray area, which is why we have had many stories of celebrities, such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn and comedian Kevin Hart, facing backlash or even losing jobs due to poorly conceived jokes.

If you keep up with entertainment news, you may have heard about stand-up comedian Shane Gillis’ recent world record for “briefest time spent as a ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast member.” Gillis was one of SNL’s latest hires for the comedy show’s 45th season, along with improviser Chloe Fineman and SNL writer Bowen Yang. 

When the casting was first announced, “SNL” was lauded for finally hiring Yang, the show’s first Asian American cast member. But the praise was quickly overrun by criticism when snippets of Gillis making offensive comments on his podcast surfaced on the interwebs. Choice quotes included calling comedians Judd Apatow and Chris Gethard “white f—– comics” and “gayer than ISIS” and, when complaining about Chinatown, saying “let the f—— c—– live there.” And after checking off both homophobic and racist comments, not to leave out sexist comments, Gillis also commented that “white chicks are literally the bottom” of funny comedians.

Shortly after the internet outrage over Gillis’ comments, “Saturday Night Live” announced that Shane Gillis would not be joining the 45th season’s cast, bringing on an array of reactions from fellow comedians and celebrities. Former SNL alumnus Rob Schneider tweeted his sympathies for Gillis, expressing remorse that Gillis was a victim in “this era of cultural unforgiveness,” lambasting the way political correctness can seemingly censor comedy and free speech. Comedians W. Kamau Bell and Jimmy O. Yang expressed their disgust at Gillis’ jokes, stating that Gillis’ comments were not provocative humor but hateful words. Gillis himself put out a statement: In classic nonapology fashion, he explained that he’s a comedian who pushes boundaries, offering apologies to anyone who was offended by his statements. And then he added that he was “always a MadTV guy anyways.”

Many outraged citizens have framed Gillis as another victim of “PC culture” overly policing comedy, which is a subject that is often meant to be provocative. And, to play devil’s advocate, there is a contemporary problem with “PC culture” and “cancel culture” inadvertently censoring comedians.

But that is not the case here.

Firstly, take how these “jokes” played out. Gillis didn’t say these offensive statements during a stand-up set or in a formally comedic setting; he said them in a poor attempt at being funny while fooling around on his podcast. You can’t just use your position as a comedian to get away with saying blithely offensive remarks and then label them as misfired jokes when they don’t land. 

Even if you were trying to be funny when you said them, denoting hateful comments as poorly made jokes doesn’t take away from the fact that you used hateful slurs. Making tasteless comments and calling them provocative jokes that “sensitive millennial snowflakes” don’t get is not “edgy” humor in the same way a crazy person streaking down the street isn’t considered “provocative art.” It’s not the subject in question, it’s the execution. And if you think the pinnacle of humor is calling someone “gayer than ISIS,” then be a better comedian and get better jokes.

Secondly, take in the context. While many other celebrities caught in the web of “cancel culture” were outed for inappropriate or hurtful comments made years ago, Gillis’ comments were made from podcasts released in September 2018. The familiar argument that comedians shouldn’t be judged for comments in their past doesn’t apply as well here because they weren’t made a decade ago when he was a misguided youth; they weren’t made during a time when more problematic jokes were more acceptable. 

The topics Gillis so eloquently touched on are not off-limits in comedy. The issue is not that no white male comedian can ever even think about a joke revolving around women or people of Asian descent without immediately getting “canceled” on Twitter. Simply put, if you’re going to make a joke about a more contentious topic, make it a good joke. Look at John Mulaney’s Cha Cha Slide skit on SNL —  hilarious, revolving around Black culture and not so offensive that anyone had to be fired over it. A good joke revolving around a minority community can be funny. A bad joke is just offensive, both to the minority community and to comedy. You can be offensive and funny, you can be not offensive and funny, but you can’t be offensive and not funny. That’s just offensive.

So, don’t see Gillis’ firing as an affront to “edgy” humor — see it as an affront to bad humor. And don’t worry — “SNL” will probably hire three more straight white guys for next season anyway.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].