With Shane Gillis’ return to SNL, Asians ask when they’ll stop being the punchline (2024)

Comedian Shane Gillis’ return to “Saturday Night Live” has reignited a discussion about the way Asian jokes have persisted in comedy.

Many are criticizing the sketch comedy show after it announced that Gillis — who was fired from the cast in 2019 after anti-Asian and hom*ophobic remarks resurfaced — will host the show this month. Asian Americans and others in the comedy community said that the move is symbolic of comedians’ refusal to move on from Asian jokes and that it sends a message that Asian Americans are still seen as an acceptable punchline.

“There is a feeling of it being swept under the rug — anti-Asian jokes being viewed as benign or not having real-life effects and consequences on people, when it’s not the case,” said Dylan Adler, a Los Angeles-based Asian American comedian.

Gillis is scheduled to host the show on Feb. 24 ahead of his stand-up tour later in the month. Gillis, who has been embraced by right-wing viewers for his “anti-woke” comedy, was fired from the “SNL” cast after freelance journalist Seth Simons shared a clip from a 2018 episode of his podcast with comedian Matt McCusker, “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast.” In it, Gillis and his co-host mocked Chinatown and its residents, used Asian slurs and attempted an Asian accent before he called the remarks “nice racism.” Gillis also used hom*ophobic slurs in the episode.

“Chinatown’s f---ing nuts,” Gillis said on the podcast. “Let the f---ing ch--ks live there, huh?”

Gillis declined a request for comment.

Simons said he felt it was critical to resurface the comments because of the onslaught of praise the show had received for its historic hiring of Bowen Yang, who in 2019 became “SNL’s” first Asian American full-time cast member.

“They hired Bowen at the same time as they hired this guy, who had a demonstrated distaste for Asian people,” Simons said. “Bowen is a tremendously talented comedian. … But it didn’t seem right to me that ‘SNL’ deserves the credit for this progressive stride forward.”

“SNL” did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the show addressed the incident at the time.

“We want SNL to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we hired Shane on the strength of his talent as a comedian and his impressive audition for SNL,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.”

The show airs on NBC, a division of NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of NBC News.

Simons said that when Gillis was announced as host, he felt many of the same, familiar feelings he did before.

“I just felt a deep well of disgust as I considered how, a week after bringing on Ayo Edebiri, a really beloved and talented young, Black comic, and having her give Nikki Haley an opportunity to apologize to liberals for not saying slavery caused the Civil War, they’re bringing on this guy who said a lot of racist stuff on his podcast,” Simons said.

For many Asian Americans, Gillis’ return seems to feed into a stubborn, continued use of racist Asian jokes in U.S. culture. In 2014, comedian Stephen Colbert prompted backlash and the viral #CancelColbert hashtag after the official Twitter account of his show, “The Colbert Report,” attempted to roast Dan Snyder, the former owner of the Washington Commanders, for creating a foundation that purported to support Native Americans instead of changing its previously offensive mascot and name.

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the C***g-C***g Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” the tweet read.

Then, during a 2017 episode of his show, comedian Steve Harvey poked fun at a self-help book, “How to Date a White Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men,” by cackling at the prospect of anyone’s being attracted to an Asian man. Harvey later apologized.

By the time Gillis’ comments resurfaced, Adler wasn’t necessarily surprised, he said. In his own career, particularly when he was performing at open mics, he said, he heard jokes being made at the expense of Asians at “almost every” show.

“There is an idea that Asians will take it and have to just be obedient and have a smile on our face,” he said.

But it’s difficult for Asian American comedians to speak out, Adler said. There’s little representation in mainstream comedy spaces, and many fear any criticism of programs like “SNL” could put their careers at risk, he said.

“I’m thinking about the ways that a lot of people of color have had to bend over backwards and hold their tongue just to have a spot,” Adler said.

Jes Tom, an Asian American stand-up comedian and actor, said the way some comedians cling to racist humor could be a reaction to a changing, more “cosmetically diverse” comedy industry. Some white male comedians could fear a loss of power, when, in reality, many of the decision-makers in comedy haven’t necessarily changed, they said.

“From 2018-ish to right now, casting became more diverse,” they said. “But because the image changed, it allowed people like straight, white men to believe that now, they’re the alternative voice. They’re the little guy who’s punching up against the ‘diverse powers’ that be.”

Ultimately, Adler said, the racist jokes are simply not funny.

“What comedy does is it’s supposed to surprise you,” he said. “When I hear that? That isn’t surprising. It’s not interesting, it’s not nuanced, and it does feel lazy to me.”

Given the continued scarcity of Asian hosts to grace the “SNL” stage, Adler said, the show should have considered giving an Asian celebrity the gig. Only a handful of Asian performers have been given hosting duties in the show’s 939-episode run, the most recent being actor Simu Liu in 2022.

“There’s so many talented, incredible Asian comedians and actors that they haven’t had on the show yet,” Adler said. “I can’t believe they haven’t had Margaret Cho host the show or someone like Michelle Yeoh.”

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Kimmy Yam

Kimmy Yam is a reporter for NBC Asian America.

With Shane Gillis’ return to SNL, Asians ask when they’ll stop being the punchline (2024)
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