No conservative caricature of Saturday Night Live in the Trump era would be entirely inaccurate. For every introspective sketch skewering the #Resistance, there are at least a couple cold opens featuring Alec Baldwin’s one-man show: Orange Man Bad. In what appears from the outside to be a politically homogenous environment, Shane Gillis might be considered something of a diversity hire. Bringing him on board immediately backfired, though.
Gillis is a man in his early-thirties who came from what he has called a “white trash” town (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania) before moving on to Philadelphia and eventually New York. In his recent stand-up, Gillis comes off like a New York naif who sees his bubble-bound neighbors through Trump Country eyes, but is possibly learning a little about himself from them as well. This narrative might have been a line drive of a sitcom pitch for the network that gave Roseanne Barr a show in 2018, but in real life it sort of turned out the same way as that whole mess.
Immediately after the announcement of Gillis’s hire, comedy reporter Seth Simons unearthed a recent podcast clip of the stand-up using racist slurs against Asian-Americans, with a side order of homophobia. Further damning material soon surfaced, this time from an even more recent podcast—one from May 2019. Within three days, the comic was fired from SNL, a decision that many observers on Twitter agreed with but which inevitably prompted a still-brewing backlash. To those who find the penalty too harsh, I have to ask: How much racism would have been an acceptable amount for a professional comedy writers room?
Although Gillis appears to be the first newly minted cast member dismissed for racist material, he’s certainly not the first to be vetted by the public and red-flagged. The show had back-to-back Twitter-based controversies from hires in 2015 and 2016. First, there was Jon Rudnitsky, who had some misogynist jokes about women in his timeline, including one that suggested whichever team won the Super Bowl that year (2013) would receive group sex with Destiny’s Child as its prize. Not great! The following year, Melissa Villaseñor came under scrutiny for some five- and six-year old tweets many deemed racist, including one that simply expressed fear at the idea of being set up romantically with a black man. Oof! In both cases, the controversy quickly blew over, and while Rudnitsky only lasted one season, Villaseñor remains on the show today.
Gillis’s defenders will surely demand to know why those two got a pass while Gillis did not. I have a feeling the question will only be a rhetorical one, and they won’t be interested in the actual difference, but here it is: Gillis didn’t merely have problematic tweets in his past. It wasn’t that he’d been “pushing boundaries” in his old comedy, as he notoriously put it in a half-baked non-apology, en route to some ostensibly enlightened present state. Shane Gillis very recently used a racial slur that has been off the table for decades (inasmuch as it ever was deemed acceptable by some) to voice negative commentary about Asian-Americans. He did it in such a way where one of his podcast cohorts in either instance called out the racism in a faux(?)-celebratory way, as though doing so rendered the statements ironic. That’s not playing with race to comment on deeper societal truths or whatever. It’s being a bigot.
Getting fired from the most high-profile TV comedy gig in America for your racist views isn’t censorship, it’s just good HR sense. The same way that Kevin D. Williamson’s new coworkers during his brief tenure at The Atlantic shouldn’t have had to share meeting space with someone they knew considered abortion an offense punishable by hanging, nobody at SNL needs to attend dress rehearsal with someone who publicly uses racial slurs to slag off cultures he doesn’t understand.
Some past cast members on the show disagree. Within hours of Gillis’s ouster, both Norm MacDonald and Rob Schneider tweeted their support for the now-unemployed comic. They “can’t imagine how [he] must feel” and are “sorry that [he] had the misfortune of being a cast member during this era of cultural unforgiveness,” respectively. Their bewilderment around the decision only exposes their own cultural blind spots. Gillis publicly used a racial slur for Chinese people in 2018 while describing his disdain for Chinatown. (And he publicly used the same slur again in 2019.) If he had used an antisemitic slur for Jews while describing a Hasidic community, would they still question the decision? If he had used a racial slur for black people while describing a majority-black part of town, would that do the trick? If not then, when?
America is a free country, and the First Amendment guarantees that its citizens can legally say anything they want. It doesn’t guarantee anyone a job at Saturday Night Live, however, while they figure out in real time, the hard way, that racism has social and professional consequences. There are literally thousands of other eligible comedians capable of delivering a Gillis-caliber performance who haven’t recently used racial slurs on a podcast multiple times that can easily take his place, because truly that’s not much to ask. And it’s not as though getting fired will “ruin” Gillis’s life. He can ride his newfound martyr status out for years of inevitable Bill Maher appearances and Not Woke Enough for SNL club tours. Ironically, this is the best possible thing that could have happened for his Patreon podcast profits.
Shane Gillis getting fired is not a free speech hill to die on. This is not a case of Trump-era political correctness gone wrong, the triggered libs using an outrage cycle to cancel nonconformists. It’s merely proof that when you push the boundaries of racism, sometimes they push back.