Photo: Bogomil Mihaylov via Unsplash.
Last week, “Saturday Night Live” hired Shane Gillis, a native of Mechanicsburg, PA, for their upcoming 45th season. Just a few short days later, the late-night show revealed they had fired him.
After the announcement of his hire, old clips from a podcast resurfaced, which showed Gillis using racist slurs and making fun of Chinese accents. More clips surfaced, one of which shows Gillis using gay slurs. Comedy clubs in Philadelphia stated that they had cut ties with Gillis over offensive jokes and language that he used a few years ago. To add insult to injury, announced alongside Gillis was Bowen Yang, the first Chinese-American cast member.
The separation between a toxic ‘cancel culture’ and a justified backlash against hate speech is when it becomes clear the person is unable or unwilling to apologize or learn from their mistakes.
In a statement released by a spokesperson on behalf of producer Lorne Michaels, they said that the vetting process for SNL was “not up to [their] standard.” However, should these past remarks have cost him his job? There are many criticisms against ‘cancel culture’ and its lack of room for growth and education about sensitive topics. Many came out in support for Gillis who found his firing unfair. Rob Schneider, a former SNL cast member, said in a tweet to Gillis that we are living in an “era of cultural unforgiveness.” In some ways, I think he’s right. We should allow room for growth after ignorant remarks. The separation between a toxic ‘cancel culture’ and a justified backlash against hate speech is when it becomes clear that the person is unable or unwilling to apologize and learn from their mistakes.
Gillis’s ‘apology’ statements were the nail in his coffin and proof that he still doesn’t understand the severity of his remarks. In one statement, he used a classic cop-out: “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.” Never in his statement does he truly apologize or acknowledge his wrongdoings. In the first statement he made, released after the clips surfaced, Gillis said being a comedian “requires risks.” He says he is a comedian who pushes boundaries and sometimes misses. In the second statement, after SNL fired him, he said, “I’m a comedian who was funny enough to be on SNL. That can’t be taken away.” What risks did he take by calling a comedian he didn’t like a gay slur? What boundaries did he push by making fun of Chinese accents? It all speaks to a much larger problem in comedy and in society in general: the use of “edgy humor” as an excuse to be racist, hateful and ignorant.
Try to call someone out on their lazy “joke” about a minority group, about their use of slurs or any other offhand ignorant remark disguised as humor, and you’ll likely get the same response every time: “It’s just a joke!”, “I didn’t mean it like that” or “People these days are so sensitive.” But the truth is, it’s not just a joke. Gillis didn’t take any risks when he used slurs and made racist comments. As a white man, he’s protected under the guise of comedy to be able to say what he wants and then pass it off as a joke that just didn’t hit the mark. For the minority groups being targeted with bad humor, it’s their risk and their safety that are put on the line. Racist jokes, even if you insist you don’t “mean it in that way” only normalize racism further.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying edgy humor should be completely eradicated. There are many, many comedians who are able to toe the line of edgy comedy without stepping over it. The difference between the two is what’s behind it. If you break apart your joke and all you have left is a stereotype about a minoritized group or some kind of slur with nothing of substance to say or nothing you’re actually commenting on—you’re not telling a joke or doing comedy. You’re just being racist. And if your joke is actually good, if you’re actually making a point, you don’t need to rely on stereotypes and slurs to get your point across.
You’re not telling a joke or doing comedy. You’re just being racist.
We’re all guilty of making a tasteless joke. Even more common is the way we let others pass when they make a tasteless joke or use a racial or homophobic slur. We’re afraid of being categorized as “snowflakes” and being labeled as overly sensitive. But the way we’ve let this pass for so long has given way to people like Gillis, who rely on hatred and ignorance and pass it off as just “missing the mark” when confronted about it. Don’t give your friends a pass when they make those little offhand jokes that rub you the wrong way. If you don’t say anything, you’re letting them know it’s okay to continue.
We should allow room for growth after ignorant remarks.
The way that racism and other usages of hateful language are a “shock factor” is so deeply ingrained in comedy, especially stand-up, it makes people like Gillis feel entitled and privileged enough to not take responsibility for anything he’s said and use his career as a comedian as a cop-out.
Good comedy should not rely on lazy, ignorant stereotypes of minority groups to get people to laugh. If you need to use slurs in your comedy as a shock factor to get people to react— your jokes probably just aren’t funny. If you use ignorance as a crutch in comedy, you’re just not as clever as you think you are. You’re just not funny.
Alison Roller is a fourth-year English major minoring in journalism. AR875447@wcupa.edu