SNL's Shane Gillis Flip-Flop Comes as No Surprise (2024)

Saturday Night Live is a fickle platform. Many successful comedians, from Damon Wayans to Jenny Slate, famously bungled their stints at 30 Rock and got fired in their debut seasons, before launching careers outside the Lorne Michaelsverse. Then there’s Shane Gillis, who didn’t even get to take the stage at Studio 8H after the show introduced him as a new cast member on Sept. 12, 2019. Four days later, following the revelation that he had used Asian and gay slurs on his podcast, SNL announced it had rescinded his job offer, calling his remarks “offensive, hurtful and unacceptable.” Fast-forward to 2024, and Gillis is set to host the program on Feb. 24.

If you don’t follow comedy, this might seem like a baffling development. But, like so many so-called cancellations, Gillis’ was extremely temporary. By 2021, the Pennsylvania-born comedian had released his first stand-up special, Shane Gillis Live in Austin, on YouTube; as of this writing, it had been viewed more than 24 million times. Its popularity led to headlining gigs at events like the New York Comedy Festival and, last fall, the hit Netflix special Beautiful Dogs. Gillis is now a big name in stand-up. Of course SNL was going to give him a second chance.

Because that’s what SNL does. The show thrives on controversial bookings. The obvious example is Donald Trump, who was allowed to play the good sport in a 2015 hosting gig widely criticized for normalizing the far-right candidate. (Nearly two decades earlier, then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani made his first of three appearances as host. The show has, in fact, offered politicians a place to burnish their reputations since 1976, when Gerald Ford's press secretary Ron Nessen hosted an episode.) Since then, it has welcomed Dave Chappelle, Kanye West, and Elon Musk. Musical guest Morgan Wallen got bumped from an October 2020 episode for flagrantly violating COVID safety protocols, then poked fun at the incident in an SNL sketch just two months later (and, as it turned out, two months before TMZ would publish a video of Wallen saying the n-word).

On SNL, the buck stops with creator and executive producer Michaels, so it seems fair to presume that these choices reflect some combination of his tastes and what he and his team believe viewers want to see. And to hear him tell it, he never stopped being a fan of Gillis’ work. As he explained in 2022, the hasty severance of SNL’s relationship with the comedian was the result of pressure from network executives. “NBC was in something of a panic,” Michaels told the magazine. “It was, like, ‘They’re going to boycott these sponsors!’”

Lost in the kerfuffle was any sense of Gillis’ personality or comedy, both of which were relatively unknown to the public when his name started trending on Twitter in 2019. (Who could blame a person for learning that a white guy they’d never heard of had been dropped from SNL for using slurs and declining the opportunity to further investigate his oeuvre?) Gillis didn’t help his case, either, at first. His immediate response to the controversy invoked some of comedy’s moldiest sorry-not-sorry clichés. “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries,” he tweeted, amid an escalating outcry. “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.”

It was, as Gillis later admitted, a weak statement. Reflecting on the incident in 2022, in an interview with Andrew Yang (who had, in 2019, condemned Gillis’ language but argued that he should keep his SNL job), he said: “I understood both sides of the argument… he should be fired or he was just joking.” Furthermore, he did not view himself as a martyr or his firing as a witch hunt. “I’m not a victim,” he told Yang. “There’s a video of me using a slur. There’s gonna be some backlash.” This might not seem like much—it certainly isn’t an apology—yet it is remarkably rare to hear such a clear-eyed articulation of his own predicament from a comedian who’s faced consequences for his words or actions. More often, they double down, refashioning themselves as free-speech warriors, railing against cancel culture, and ultimately embracing an audience friendlier to their brand of bigotry. Some, most prominently Louis C.K., have issued apologies and disappeared for a while, only to resurface with material geared toward reactionary fans.

Gillis’ comedy is similarly unusual at a moment when so many stand-ups—on the right, the left, and in a smug center occupied by guys like Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais—position themselves as righteous truth tellers. Self-critical above all, Gillis can be refreshing in that he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers or be an exemplary human being. In his jokes, he casts himself as ugly, bad at sex, objectively inferior to his girlfriend’s Navy SEAL ex; Live in Austin opens with the comedian roasting his own hair. Then he advises an overwhelmingly white, male audience: “If you’re white, don’t get a Dominican haircut. You end up just looking more racist.” He also does a brief impression of the Dominican barber. It’s a bit of a punchline overload. Who is actually the butt of this joke—Gillis, Dominicans, racist white people with their stupid haircuts?

It’s everyone, as per usual in his stand-up. Like many comedians, Gillis sees our politically polarized discourse as fundamentally ridiculous; there is, undoubtedly, a heavy dollop of privilege baked into that assessment, which is demonstrably true but also shrugs off the real people whose fates hinge on the outcomes of the culture war. But unlike most of his peers, he at least owns his own role in the absurdity. “I’m a bit of a history buff—which, by the way, that is early-onset Republican,” he jokes in Beautiful Dogs, before launching into an anecdote about a visit to Mount Vernon that had him alternately revering George Washington as an American hero and writing him off as a slaveholder. Gillis leaves the cognitive dissonance unresolved.

His ambivalence reads as honesty, or at least a disarming reprieve from smarm. As the line separating right-of-center comedians from Fox News hosts blurs to nonexistence—and as Jon Stewart returns to rant against partisan myopia on The Daily Show—Gillis makes no claim to being wiser than anyone. Live in Austin includes the observation that the title city is failing to solve its tenacious homelessness problem. But after thinking about it for a moment, Gillis admits: “I don’t know what to do, either.” Callous as he is towards unhoused people, there’s something slyly subversive to Gillis’ suggestion that the harsh measures conservatives might euphemize as “cleaning up the streets” isn’t so simple or humane.

If his audience is as hom*ogenous as it looks in his specials, then there are moments when he’s surely pushing them outside their comfort zones. In Beautiful Dogs, he wades into a dicey bit about how Islamic militants are relatable in their incompetence. The punchline, more likely to elicit grimaces than giggles, is a stark portrait of high-tech American warfare: “You ever watch us kill people? I can’t relate to that at all. Some Black Hawk helicopter with night vision mows down like 40 people. Pilot gets on, he just goes ‘clear’ and just flies away. That’s a psycho.”

Jokes like these—and Gillis’ recent stand-up in general, not to mention the friendly chat with Yang and a largely favorable 2022 New Yorker profile that includes an enthusiastic co-sign from Jerrod Carmichael—could make you suspect that his harshest critics jumped to conclusions about him in 2019. That a more thorough review of the context surrounding the racist language that knocked him off a pedestal he'd just scrambled atop would reveal some lost nuance. This new material might even be enough to make you wonder whether SNL hadn’t been overly hasty in cutting him loose. Would a comic this perceptive really step off the stage and spew hatred for its own sake?

Unfortunately, yes. If an interest in history is a gateway to Republicanism, then Gillis’ stand-up might be a gateway to his partially paywalled empire of slurs, conspiracy theories, and all manner of other bigotry. Seth Simons, the writer who first publicized the comedian’s use of slurs on Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, has made a study of the things Gillis says outside of his aisle-crossing stand-up. In the Daily Beast, he offers a damning indictment of Gillis’ choice to platform Holocaust deniers (one of whom happens to be his podcast co-host Matt McCusker’s brother). Simons’ broader rundown of the comic’s recent utterances for the L.A. Times features n-words, antisemitic k-words, “a crude impression of someone with Down syndrome,” the misgendering of trans women, praise for Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, as well as that old standby, caricatures of Asian people.

In this case, additional context—something that just about every pop-culture controversy these days sorely lacks—only suggests a more nefarious dimension of Gillis’ rise. If he’s smart and self-aware enough to craft jokes that play savvily to the mainstream, then turns into a white-supremacist Mr. Hyde on his podcast, the latter can’t be dismissed as the edgelord fumblings of a green or untalented comedian using shock tactics to make a name for himself. It’s even harder now than it was in 2019 to convince yourself that this stuff couldn’t possibly represent Gillis’ earnest beliefs.

But that, it seems, is what SNL has decided to do. Maybe Michaels & Co. didn’t think anyone would bother to notice. Or maybe they didn’t do their due diligence—although when you consider the backstory, that would be public-relations malpractice. Details of his booking aside, Gillis is hosting SNL not because it’s taken a rightward turn or because cancel culture has finally been defeated (did it ever really exist?), as some have suggested, but because he has cultivated an audience big enough for Michaels to justify his presence to NBC. This is hardly the first time the show has thrown open the Overton window to a celebrity with hateful views, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

SNL's Shane Gillis Flip-Flop Comes as No Surprise (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Fredrick Kertzmann

Last Updated:

Views: 5877

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Fredrick Kertzmann

Birthday: 2000-04-29

Address: Apt. 203 613 Huels Gateway, Ralphtown, LA 40204

Phone: +2135150832870

Job: Regional Design Producer

Hobby: Nordic skating, Lacemaking, Mountain biking, Rowing, Gardening, Water sports, role-playing games

Introduction: My name is Fredrick Kertzmann, I am a gleaming, encouraging, inexpensive, thankful, tender, quaint, precious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.