Saturday Night Live's Shane Gillis Casting Controversy Explained

Saturday Night Live Shane Gillis

Update: SNL has now dropped Gillis from season 45.

NBC’s Saturday Night Live announced Shane Gillis as a new cast member on September 12, but reports surfaced the same day about the comedian’s history of questionable behavior. Specifically, Gillis made racist comments about Asians, and also made homophobic/sexist remarks about fellow comedians. The controversy overshadows Saturday Night Live’s hiring of Asian comedian Bowen Yang, one of only two cast members of East Asian descent to be hired by SNL (the other being Fred Armisen, who is a quarter Korean).

During Gillis’ podcast with fellow comedian Matt McCusker ("Matt and Shane's Secret Podcast"), he casually and repeatedly makes racist remarks about Chinese people. While discussing the New York City neighborhood known as Chinatown, Gillis joked that people must have said "let the fucking ch*nks live there." In another clip he says that Asians trying to learn English is "annoying" and, after being congratulated by his co-host for his "hilarious" take, says “nice racism, good racism.” Vulture journalist Megh Wright uncovered a troubling subreddit associated with Gillis’ podcast, and reported that Gillis had made homophobic remarks about a current Saturday Night Live writer. On Gillis’ podcast, he refers to certain comedians as “white f*ggot comics.” Vulture also reported that Philadelphia’s Good Good Comedy Theatre stopped working with Gillis because of “racist, homophobic, and sexist things he’s said on and offstage."

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Gillis addressed the backlash on Twitter, but his five-sentence statement only fueled the controversy. The comedian cites “bad misses” over the past decade and acknowledges that he “pushes boundaries,” but those concepts don’t quite apply to casual conversations amongst friends, even if Gillis' podcast has a comedic premise. Gillis’ official statement likely won't resonate with people who make a clear separation between provocative stand-up comedy and casual racist remarks.

Gillis tellingly states that he’s willing to apologize to people who are "actually offended," implying that most or all of his current critics are only feigning offense. Moreover, some have taken issue with his framing of the controversy as being about his "10 years of comedy" when most of the offending comments are from less than a year ago. While the art of comedy is rooted in authenticity and truth, Gillis appears to be using his professional title as a way to shield any public criticism.

Lastly, Gillis’ past statements raise questions about Saturday Night Live’s hiring process. For one, Gillis wasn’t secretly recorded making racist statements, but rather offered them up during his own podcast. In addition, the controversy has revealed that information about Gillis' recent history of racist and homophobic comments can easily be acquired through a quick Google search. For Saturday Night Live, it’s not exactly a good look to hire a performer whose most provocative statements are delivered from a chair - in a contained room during a conversation with a friend - rather than on a public stage in front of a live audience. And even in a stand-up context, there are few (some would say zero) scenarios in which a white comedian throwing around racial slurs would be considered acceptable.

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