Shane Gillis’s SNL hosting gig is an unearned rehabilitation (2024)

In 2016, three years before comedian Shane Gillis was hired and then immediately fired from Saturday Night Live, he told an interviewer that he was experimenting with his comedy to see what he could get away with. “You can be racist to Asians,” he said. “That’s what we’re finding out.”

He was confronted by the absurdity of this claim in 2019, when SNL fired Gillis for calling other comedians “f**got comics” and referring to Chinese people as “f*cking ch**ks” on his podcast the year before.

Yet since then, Gillis’s fame as a comedian has only grown. He’s been a repeated guest on Joe Rogan’s hugely influential podcast. His own podcast boasts over 80,000 Patreon subscribers who reward him to the tune of at least $180,000 a month, making his show the most-subscribed show on the Patreon platform. He’s garnered support from contrarian comics like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais. Last year, he even landed his own Netflix comedy special.

Now, in what could be considered a comedy coup de grâce, Gillis is returning to Saturday Night Live this weekend — not as a cast member, but as a host.

This about-face on the part of SNL might have its viewers believe that Gillis has atoned for his past sins. But Gillis hasn’t shown any interest in atonement. Quite the opposite, actually: “I definitely wouldn’t have changed what we did, our podcast,” he said in 2021 when asked what he’d do differently. Instead, he’s continued to use his comedy to be openly bigoted toward marginalized groups, continuing to engage in racist, anti-trans, anti-gay, antisemitic, and arguably white supremacist statements. He has, if anything, doubled down on his beliefs while comedy fans, advertisers, and media types moved on — including, it seems, SNL producer Lorne Michaels.

In other words, what we’re “finding out” is that in 2024, Gillis’s brand of racism is more palatable than ever.

When Shane Gillis tells you who he is, believe him

Shane Gillis is a 36-year-old guy from Pennsylvania who was chasing a fledgling standup career when he began making inroads in 2016 through the medium of comedy podcasting. This included a stint hosting a show called A Fair One for Compound Media, a podcast network created by Anthony Cumia, a notoriously offensive shock jock known for his own racist comments. Compound Media also hosted Gavin McInnes, the white nationalist who rallied other members of the network together to form the Proud Boys, the extremist group that played a major role in both the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and the January 6 insurrection.

Compound Media was the platform on which Gillis dropped the racist slurs that ultimately got him dropped from SNL. But it wasn’t the only medium in which he aired his views. In his independent comedy work and other projects, he was not shy about voicing repugnant views. As one Philadelphia comedy club noted in 2019 in a since-deleted tweet, “We, like many, were very quickly disgusted by Shane Gillis’ overt racism, sexism, hom*ophobia and transphobia - expressed both on and off stage - upon working with him years ago.”

In 2019, the comedy critic Seth Simons first drew attention to Gillis’s podcast racism after the announcement that SNL had hired Gillis. In February 2024, in response to the announcement of Gillis’s return to SNL, Simons compiled a list of discomfiting evidence for the LA Times supporting the idea that Gillis isn’t even being “ironic” about his use of racism in comedy — that he is, rather, plainly and truly a racist person. As Simons notes, the jokes Gillis made before he was famous, which included a litany of racist and antisemitic slurs and stereotypes, are so awful that “they should horrify us not because they are hateful but because they are full of joy.” As if all this wasn’t enough, Simons points out that alongside the rampant bigotry, Gillis has also voiced his unironic enthusiasm for McInnes, claiming that McInnes “crushes” his opponents in debate.

Simons then goes on to explore all the offensive views Gillis has continued to share since his fame took off in 2019 following his SNL hiring-and-firing. These have most often been tucked behind the paywall of Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, which he hosts with fellow comedian Matt McCusker for the aforementioned 80,000 Patreon subscribers. These include a parade of unapologetically racist stereotypes and mockery, as well as ableist slurs and a whole array of anti-trans sentiments.

With all of this context as background, Gillis’s cultural rehabilitation seems artificial, to put it mildly. A 2022 New Yorker profile glossed over Gillis’s self-described affinity for Trump, portraying him as “conciliatory” toward left-wing audiences while taking a “jovial but firm” approach in downplaying the unironic support of his right-wing fans.

Gillis’s fans, including more liberal comedians like Jerrod Carmichael, seem to believe that rather than being actuallyracist, Gillis is consciously cultivating his offensiveness purely for the purposes of his comedy work. This view is as old as comedy itself, but in the current cultural era, it’s evolved into what NPR’s Eric Deggans has called “bigotry denial syndrome.” The thinking goes that a comedic project has a certain level of importance and purpose, the level of which should both justify the offensive material and completely negate any suspicion that the comedian truly believes what they’re platforming, let alone that they deserve consequences for the offensive material.

In Gillis’s case, it seems more accurate to say that he’s not performing ironic racism at all — he’s coasting on other people’s good faith belief that he must be acting totally in jest.

Moreover, Gillis claims to use his comedy to draw attention to what he believes to be other people’s hypocrisy — but not in the way you might think. In that 2016 interview with Gillis, a portrait of him in the years well before he was famous, he claimed to be running experiments on his audience: “It’s funny what people will laugh at, compared to what they’re so eager to prove that they’re not laughing at.”

Now, a full “cancel culture” cycle and legions of fans later, Gillis seems to have little need to bother being discreet. “If the blood rushes to my head, all my blood’s racist,” he said in a paywalled 2022 podcast episode, per Simons’s report.

With all this in mind, the question then becomes: What the hell, SNL?

SNL’s ambivalence toward Gillis ignores the harm this kind of comedy can cause

According to Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker piece, SNL producer Michaels “was and is a fan of Gillis,” despite all the racism and anti-LGBTQ remarks and everything else. At the time SNL fired him, Michaels described Gillis’s previous comedy as “offensive, hurtful, and unacceptable.” However, Sanneh attributed Gillis’s firing not to his behavior but to “panic” on the part of NBC higher-ups.

The conclusion we’re left with is that all that panic, as it so often does whenever someone is supposedly “canceled,” has subsided, likely to have dissipated in the wake of Gillis’s continued success. Vulture put forth two reasons for the hosting gig and its timing: that perhaps Michaels is trying to remain apolitical during an election year, and wants to do that by opening up a platform for comics who appeal to the right, and that “Michaels lives for the drama.”

It’s worth noting that SNL's long history of racism is well-known; it took the show until 2019 to welcome a Chinese comedian in the form of Bowen Yang, who ironically was hired alongside Gillis.

The reality is that this plausible deniability around bigotry is exactly what has enabled the spread of extremism throughout the last decade. It simply is not the case that you can perform racism for entertainment without catching real bigots in your net and affirming to them everything they want to believe — which is that these views aren’t just acceptable, they are mainstream — after all, they’re being voiced by a celebrity. Even if the celebrity disavows the worst of his fans in public, when he steps behind a paywall and then, for example, repeatedly platforms Holocaust deniers, those previous apologies and denials become irrelevant.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, every time another comedian like Gillis, Chappelle, or Louis CK gets welcomed back into the fold of mainstream comedy culture (if they were ever expelled to begin with), it becomes harder to convince detractors that bigotry is bigotry, no matter what kind of “humor” it’s wrapped in. When someone like Gillis can successfully promote the idea that of course we’re all secretly laughing at his bigoted jokes, his lack of remorse, together with his industry’s willingness to look the other way, becomes a broader form of gaslighting — appearing on America’s premiere network comedy show, live from New York this weekend.

Shane Gillis’s SNL hosting gig is an unearned rehabilitation (2024)
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