As SNL heads into season 45, there are some casting changes. We know Leslie Jones is leaving, and yesterday three new cast members were announced: Chloe Fineman, Shane Gillis, and Bowen Yang, who has been on SNL’s writing staff and was recently featured in The Hollywood Reporter’s comedy issue. Yang is SNL’s first Asian-American series regular—it’s embarrassing for SNL to be FORTY-FIVE seasons in and only just now hiring an Asian-American performer. However, Yang’s landmark casting is not the story right now. No, that would be the story of Shane Gillis getting Milkshake Duck’d the same day his casting was announced.
Gillis is a stand-up who has appeared at Just For Laughs and also has a podcast (who doesn’t?) with fellow comedian Matt McCusker. It is that podcast that is haunting Gillis now, as a segment from an episode just one year ago was highlighted by writer Seth Simons. Check it out:
today SNL announced the hiring of its first cast member of East Asian descent, and also this guy pic.twitter.com/0FAGJZJUkK— Seth Simons (@sasimons) September 12, 2019
Serious question for 2019, why are casting directors and/or producers not Googling the people they hire? Get an intern or a PA or literally any warm body to sit in a chair and vet potential hires for this sh-t and save everyone a headache. Or, if your intention is still to hire the person—no word yet on Shane Gillis’s status as an SNL cast member—then at least you’re prepared for when this stuff inevitably comes up. It’s not impossible to do, I worked a temp job as a teenager calling for references on behalf of HR departments. Consider it checking references for an entertainment job and get a temp to do it, this isn’t rocket science.
Comedians often get burnt by past material, as Trevor Noah did when he got the job taking over The Daily Show. Four years ago, I defended Trevor Noah’s right to crash and burn while writing jokes, because EVERY comedian crashes and burns at some point. You WILL tell a tasteless bad joke and the hope is that you learn from it and grow yourself and your act. The Shane Gillis situation is a bit different, though, for two reasons. One is that he used a straight-up racial slur. Telling a tasteless bad joke is not the same thing as using actual slurs. You can be plenty tasteless and objectionable and still not use a slur.
The other difference is that Shane Gillis was not telling a joke. He was shooting the sh-t on a podcast, but that is not the same thing as telling a joke. I have done stand-up, I have written jokes, and I have a podcast. I can tell you the difference—when forming material, whether written or performed, you are testing every word for its maximum value. If the joke is intended for performance, you sound it out to find the best rhythm; if it’s a written joke, maybe you play with punctuation or capitalization, in case those things add any value to the punchline. In both cases, there is labor involved, a process to formulate the best possible combination of words to elicit a laugh. You might even choose to be deliberately provoking, to tread a line you know is controversial or even outright offensive.
Consider Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special, which is controversial, but controversial by design. Chappelle’s new special is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor and deliberate choices. He is intending offense. His act, whether we like it or not (and many people don’t), is intentionally courting outrage, and the whole set is structured to garner it. Or consider the work of Anthony Jeselnik, who is famous for offensive material. Jeselnik created a stage persona befitting his role as self-appointed comedy devil, firmly grounding his offensive jokes in the realm of performance. In both cases, the work is calculated to get a specific response from the audience. It could be argued, then, that their jokes might not reflect their truest feelings, that they maximize certain things for greater effect on stage. (It’s definitely true in Jeselnik’s case because he has invented a whole persona for performing.) This is the common defense when comedians get called to the carpet for sh-tty material, that they said what they said to be funny, and offensive can be funny, just maybe this time they struck out and weren’t funny enough to make the material work.
But a podcast? The whole point is to be extemporaneous. A podcast is a lot more exposed. For comedians, it’s supposed to be the “real” you, versus the polished and prepared you that appears on stage. For comparison, here is a sampling of Anthony Jeselnik’s stand-up, and here is Jeselnik on a podcast, talking about how he developed his act. Of course, he is the same person, but there is a tangible difference between Anthony Jeselnik and “Anthony Jeselnik”. And that’s the problem for Shane Gillis. When he made those comments about Chinatown, he was being Shane, not “Shane”. Maybe he thought he was being funny, but he was not speaking in an organized, rehearsed performance, but in an off-the-cuff conversation. He was not telling a joke; he was sharing his thoughts.
You can come back from telling a bad joke, as Trevor Noah did, by evolving your act and proving that isn’t who you really are. It’s harder to come back from some racist sh-t you said because, well, it wasn’t a joke. It was just something you said, in conversation, one year ago. What is different about the you today from the you then? And do you have anything to say to Bowen Yang, who is Chinese-American? Yang shouldn’t have to carry water for Shane Gillis, this is not his problem, but you know someone will ask Yang about it. Let’s ask instead what Gillis has to say to his new co-worker, whom he has insulted. So far, Gillis is only offering a weak non-apology, saying he is “happy to apologize to anyone who was actually offended”:
So, not apologizing so much as he’s sorry if you’re offended. And in case you’re wondering what kind of boundary-pushing material Gillis does that requires so much risk, here’s a taste. Real groundbreaking stuff, talking about white people and country music and how he can’t relate to sexually aggressive rap lyrics. Wow, what a risk-taker. So brave to talk about not voting for Donald Trump. He’s practically the next Bill Hicks. Excuse me while I pick up my eyes, they’ve rolled out of my head.
I want you to remember that this was not a joke. A joke is something you construct, something you build. A joke is work. It might be bad work, it might be regrettable work. But it is something you considered, put effort into before speaking aloud, or publishing on the record. What Shane Gillis said took no work, no effort, no consideration. It popped out. It’s something he said and...perhaps… something he meant?