Update 9/16/19: This post has been updated to reflect new remarks from Gillis, news of his removal from SNL, and statements from Gillis and a spokesperson for Lorne Michaels.
Just weeks after news broke of actress and comedian Leslie Jones's departure from Saturday Night Live, the show announced yesterday that it would be hiring three new cast members: Bowen Yang, Chloe Fineman, and Shane Gillis. Yang's hiring sparked praise, as he'll be the show's first Chinese American performer; the addition of Fineman was also seen as well-deserved, given her history of incredible celebrity impressions.
But by the end of the day, anger had risen over Gillis's hiring, especially after a video made the rounds on Twitter of the stand-up comedian making racist statements and using slurs about Chinese people. The clip, posted by comedy writer Seth Simons, is from episode 98 of Matt and Shane's Secret Podcast, which aired in September 2018. In it, Gillis and co-host Matt McCusker disparage Chinatown, Chinese people, and Chinese food, and Gillis can be seen and heard mocking Chinese accents and at one point using a racial slur.
While SNL has yet to comment on the situation, Gillis posted a response to Twitter last night. "I'm a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss. If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you're going to find a lot of bad misses," he wrote. "My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risk." (9/16/19 UPDATE: SNL has since made a statement regarding Gillis's casting.)
It's a lot to take in, especially for anyone who doesn't keep up with comedy beyond SNL and for whom Gillis's name might inspire one big, "...huh?"
So, who exactly is Shane Gillis?
Shane Gillis, per his talent agency, is a New York-based stand-up comedian and a regular on Comedy Central Radio's The Bonfire. Before that, he lived in Philadelphia, where he won the title of "Philly's Funniest" by the Helium Comedy Club in 2016. He has written for the Comedy Central show Delco Proper, which is about blue collar workers in Philly. This year, he was named a New Face in comedy by the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal.
What's his deal?
In Gillis's most popular YouTube clip, his schtick is riffing on the fact that he's from, in his own words, the "white trash town" of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and ostensibly trying to appeal to people who resent 'wokeness' by lamenting political correctness and referencing camo outfits and country songs. He claims he didn't vote for Trump, despite how all of this looks. Gillis's delivery can be funny in its awkwardness, and viewers seemingly like him for his "great balance of confidence and self-deprecation."
Has he been controversial before?
As Vulture's Megh Wright reported yesterday, there are other videos and documented incidents of Gillis propagating racist and sexist humor, and at least one theater in Philadelphia stopped working with Gillis because of his rhetoric. “Good Good Comedy Theatre stopped working with him within the past few years because of racist, homophobic, and sexist things he’s said on and offstage,” Kate Banford, co-owner of the theater, told Vulture. Other sources in the local comedy scene told Vulture they were surprised by the news of Gillis's hiring, given his history of controversial commentary.
If the podcast is any indicator, these types of off-color remarks are common in his humor. In another clip from the same September 2018 podcast episode, Gillis and McCusker compare Koreans and Japanese people while continuing to imitate Asian accents. The clip ends with the two speaking in derogatory terms about Southeast Asian "ladyboys." An appearance from Gillis and McCusker on Cum Town earlier this year suggests a similar disdain for trans and, again, Asian people (particularly Chinese people).
In another episode of Secret Podcast that Vulture dug up, the two rank other comedians by race, gender, and sexual orientation. "In the pyramid it would be straight white comics, straight Black comics, Black chicks, George Lopez-es, then Indian dudes, then white chicks," Gillis says. " Later in the episode, they describe comedians like Judd Apatow and Chris Gethard, who talk about mental health struggles, as being "gayer than ISIS" and repeatedly refer to them using a homophobic slur.
But what if it's "just comedy"?
That's been Gillis's excuse for his remarks, and he makes this argument in both his Twitter statement and in previous interviews. In a May 2016 interview by local news site Billy Penn regarding his out-of-bounds jokes, the comedian claimed, "You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out. It’s just blatant hypocrisy though. [...] It’s funny what people will laugh at, compared to what they’re so eager to prove that they’re not laughing at."
That "anything goes" outlook has carried through to recent years. In a June 2018 article about comedy and taboos in the blog Philadelphian Neighborhoods, Gillis defended Louis C.K., who has been accused of sexual misconduct by five women. “It’s not like stand-ups were looked at as great members of society before all this stuff happened,” Gillis said. “No, I don’t think anything is affected. What? Just because Louis got caught… No, that’s changed nothing. He’s still the best.”
What else should we be aware of?
At this point, it's tough to tell. The subreddit for Gillis and McCusker's podcast has been set to private, rendering its posts unviewable to non-members without moderator approval. All episodes of the podcast have been removed from YouTube, though recent audio episodes are still available online.
9/16/19 UPDATE: As first reported by VICE, after this piece was published, comedy writer Seth Simons surfaced another clip of Gillis making offensive remarks from the podcast Real Ass Podcast. In the clip, which is from this past May, Gillis repeatedly referred to presidential candidate Andrew Yang as a "Jew c---k" and shared other impersonations and derogatory statements about Asians.
What happens next?
The response to Gillis's statement hasn't been great. SNL has yet to comment on the incident, but the way the show responds could set an important precedent for the industry.
9/16/19 UPDATE: As of September 16, Saturday Night Live has announced that Shane Gillis will no longer be joining the cast.
"After talking with Shane Gillis, we have decided that he will not be joining SNL," said a representative for executive producer Lorne Michaels, per a report from the Hollywood Reporter on Monday, September 16.
"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 comedian and his impressive audition for SNL. We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. 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 representative stated.
Gillis took to Twitter to make a statement about his ousting. "I'm a comedian who was funny enough to get SNL. That can't be taken away," he wrote. "Of course I wanted an opportunity to prove myself at SNL, but I understand it would be too much of a distraction. I respect the decision they made. I'm honestly grateful for the opportunity. I was always a mad tv [sic] guy anyway."