On September 12, 2019, Saturday Night Live announced the hiring of its three newest cast members, Chloe Fineman, Bowen Yang, and Shane Gillis. Four short days later, SNL reversed its decision to hire Shane Gillis due to a resurfaced podcast episode revealing Gillis making racist and homophobic remarks. During the 2018 episode in question, the show’s two co-hosts take turns mocking Chinatown in lousy accents and tossing racial slurs.
An SNL spokesperson explained, “We hired Shane on the strength of his talent as a comedian and his impressive audition for SNL. We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days.” The spokesperson described Gillis’ language as “offensive, hurtful and unacceptable.”
It seems SNL’s hiring team did little to no research because according to a Philadelphia comedy club owner, Gillis has a longstanding reputation for his offensive remarks. The club owner has banned Gillis for the “racist, homophobic and sexist things he’s said on and offstage.”
After SNL comedian Bill Hader accepted an Emmy for his performance in Barry on September 22, the press questioned his thoughts on the issue. Hader admitted some jokes made six or seven years ago wouldn’t be acceptable today “for good reason.” Referring to his own comedic career, Hader commented, “I’m never interested in upsetting anybody.”
If that’s the case, what is the line between hilarious and hateful content? I know I’m not the only person who’s watched a plethora of cringe-worthy stereotyping on SNL, a show based on satirizing and exploiting people.
Let’s not forget Samurai Futaba, a 1970s SNL character portrayed by John Belushi, who mocked a Japanese accent and carried a Samurai sword while working odd jobs at a delicatessen and hotel front desk. A more recent, and maybe more concerning, example would be Fred Armisen darkening his skin to portray President Barack Obama.
In a tweet, Many fellow comedians, including previous SNL cast members, are not happy with SNL’s decision. Rob Schneider, 1980s SNL writer and later cast member, suggested a suspension may have been more appropriate. In a tweet, he described today as an “era of cultural unforgiveness where comedic misfires are subject to the intolerable inquisition of those who never risked bombing onstage themselves.”
Comedian Jim Jefferies also made a comment on SNL alum David Spade’s Comedy Central show. He questioned, “Are we going to go back through everyone’s history? Or are we going to get rid of every sketch that SNL has done that involves race?”
With SNL broadcasting its own racist jokes on national television, you may ask why Shane Gillis was axed from the cast so quickly. It’s possible SNL executives felt pressure from a rising media issue, that Asian stereotypes “support the white status quo.”
Asian stereotyping is a frequent theme in American comedy, and many members of the Asian American community feel they are treated as punch-line punching bags. In fact, Shane Gillis demonstrated this when asked by a journalist what kind of jokes he feels comfortable making, to which he responded, “You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out.”
SNL has a deep-rooted lack in Asian representation in both cast members and hosts. Lucy Liu was the first Asian American woman to host the show in 2000, and Awkwafina became the second in October of 2018.
Amid this chaos, the media has failed to report the uplifting side on the matter. Bowen Yang, hired at the same time as Gillis, is the first Asian American full cast member on SNL in the show’s history. It’s nearly 2020, and Bowen Yang’s significant feat in Asian representation has been completely overshadowed by a middle-aged white guy who looks like he could very well still live in his parents’ basement.
In the end, SNL has the right to do whatever it sees fit for its company and brand. As Bill Hader alluded to, there seems to be a higher standard today in what you can and cannot say to people than there was years ago. I think Shane Gillis is definitely an asshole, as many comics are, who was held to a standard that many have previously sidestepped. Gillis showed no remorse or desire to make amends by tweeting, “I’m a comedian who was funny enough to get SNL. That can’t be taken away.”
Personally, I think SNL will continue on just fine without him. What do you think?