On September 12, 2019 it was announced that Pennsylvania native Shane Gillis would be joining the 45th season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. The long-running sketch comedy series has seen far better days and is teetering around an all-time-low in ratings and popularity. All the while, Shane Gillis–a writer, comedian and actor in his early 30’s–has been growing in recognition. From winning respected but often ridiculed Philly’s Phunniest in 2016, to growing his profile through performances and multiple podcasts of varying success, Gillis wasn’t an obvious choice for Lorne Michaels and SNL, but an inarguably interesting one.
There are undoubtedly plenty of comedians just as talented as Shane Gillis, and certainly almost infinite comics who wish they shared a fraction of his natural ability. So why was he chosen? An interesting question that we will surely never get an entirely straight answer to; but we’ll give SNL the benefit of the doubt and go with their answer: He, along with Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang, were the most hilarious and talented individuals brought before executive producer Lorne Michaels this year.
Saturday Night Live is no stranger to controversial hiring. In reality, the objective purpose for having a “featured cast” ensemble in the first place is to highlight a thoughtfully curated selection of stylistically diverse writers and see what they can come up with. I wouldn’t say Shane Gillis was used by SNL but he was certainly a guinea pig, as almost all “featured cast” members are apt to be. It seems that within this new batch, they selected an irreverent blue collar purple state white man in Shane, a flamboyantly and distractingly gay Bowen Yang as their first ever oriental cast member, and Chloe Fineman as…perhaps a personal favor to someone?
Regardless, they wanted to shake up the writers’ room with some new voices; maybe just to tell a smarter anti-Trump joke, or maybe to make a return to some kind of culturally resonant humor that invites more of middle America into their elitist gated comedy community. The reason is irrelevant, because just 4 days after the announcement was made, Saturday Night Live retracted their decision (a would-be 7 year contract, according to “experts” on Reddit).
What was the reason for this abrupt change of heart? There are countless hot takes and think-pieces written by a wide variety of ideologically identical Twitter-verified activists online that are easy enough to peruse; but simply put, individuals within and without the social justice comedy community made sure that the Saturday Night Live powers that be were aware that, from time to time, on various irreverent podcasts and stand up sets, Shane’s jokes included some mean words.
Perhaps the weirdest and most perplexing part of all the manufactured anger drummed up by strangers and his former colleagues was that almost none of them make the actual claim that Shane Gillis is an actual “racist” or even a particularly bad guy. Moreover, it was the fact that Gillis could get away with saying a few choice mean words in jest…and then subsequently have the ability to make such a significant leap in his comedy career.
It was a clear case, according to the perpetually begrudged and obsequious gatekeepers of comedy, that Shane Gillis had only gained this opportunity through toxic white masculine privilege. It didn’t matter that Shane wasn’t a hateful person, nor did it matter that he wasn’t an advocate for their Presidential nemesis. All that mattered was that the collective “they” could not abide a straight white male with a relatively short career of mounting success, managed to land the same gig as a gay Asian man, after having used mean words for gays and Asians while portraying a satirical version of himself in a comedic setting.
Within this new cosmically arbitrary cultural dynamic, it has become increasingly clear that unless you are in control of the boat, you either become subservient to the crew, or you will eventually be thrown overboard. And it’s forcing an entire generation (Zoomers, mainly) to learn how to swim early on.
Shane Gillis didn’t have to worry about his jokes. He was being celebrated for being engaging, funny, and original. He had a moderately successful podcast with his friend (and I dare say, mine as well) Matt McCusker called Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast. He gained further popularity in the New York comedy scene, along with some fellow Philly veteran comics, and a handful of successful appearances with the guys from Legion of Skanks. While the Philadelphia improv community, wise to his brand of few-holds-barred comedy, namely the PHIT Theater and Good Good Comedy Theater, were more than happy to throw him and his career under the bus, Shane was growing in places that were his:
His podcast, his stand-up, his sketch comedy and social media presence.
As many before him have learned, once you enter into an environment or circumstance that is out of your control, all bets are off. While it’s metaphysically unlikely that he will lose any ground with Compound Media or Legion of Skanks, it is not implausible that, after losing his shot as a writer and perhaps cast member on SNL, he could be barred from certain comedy clubs; not due to any judgement on his comedy style, but because those establishments would rather avoid the social media backlash from the pitchfork-waving cancel-culture mob.
Stranger still, even those who have played the largest role in destroying this specific opportunity for Shane have stated in tweets that they’re certain he will recover and be even stronger because of it. So, if we’re to actually take them at their word–what could have possibly been the intention here? To shake things up? Make sure he knew that the “watchers” were watching?
The pedantic and perhaps paranoid schizophrenic moderators and arbiters of the zeitgeist seem to be operating, for lack of a more poignant metaphor, like the proverbial dog chasing a car; never considering what their goal is or what they plan on accomplishing by the chase…other than that the car desperately needs to be caught. Even Shane’s attempt to humble himself and throw his body at the mercy of the mob obviously fell on deaf ears.
The irony inherent in all of this, which also must be addressed, is that a fair number of the comedians and entertainers rightly rushing to Gillis’ defense have–in the past several years–certainly not opposed to making declarative statements about other individuals being “racists” or “Nazis” based on jokes or conservative ideologies.
In fact, it was some time last year when Shane (along with other local Philadelphia comics) appeared in a YouTube sketch for a not-too-widely-known conservative comedy sketch writer, Victor Dweck. There was nothing particularly offensive about the sketch itself. It simply lampooned a culture that cared more about policing thoughtless language than about actual substance and behavior. The sketch was called ‘The Fireman’ and Gillis’ biggest crime was that he dared appear in the work of someone who may or may not be a supporter of the President. The newly opened Good Good Comedy Theater in Philadelphia turned their back on him, and anyone else who even considered it comical.
After the smoke cleared from his SNL firing, and all that could possibly be said had been spewed; veteran comics, politicians, comedians and journalists all having thrown in their approval or disapproval regarding the situation at hand, Shane released a statement:
“It feels ridiculous for comedians to be making serious public statements but here we are.
I’m a comedian who was funny enough to get SNL. That can’t be taken away.
Of course I wanted an opportunity to prove myself at SNL, but I understand it would be too much of a distraction. I respect the decision they made. I’m honestly grateful for the opportunity. I was always a MAD TV guy anyway.”
All of this vitriol and desperation to bury an individual whose self-expression fails to acquiesce to a certain radically self-important and impossible-to-meet series of ever-changing demands appears to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what comedy and entertainment are supposed to be. Comedy is not a club of like-minded academics and comic book nerds squirreling away in a low-rent Hobbit Hole in Chinatown where they can purge the wicked and reign supreme over their contemporaries.
Comedy is a dirty game of liars, entertainers and perverts who will fabricate stories about being in 9/11, alter their entire personality and value system to play social justice songs for barely literate TV hosts, and force buddies to watch them masturbate in hotel rooms.
Fortunately for Shane Gillis, he is so much better than all of those people.
But, unfortunately for Shane Gillis, being better just doesn’t truly matter much anymore.