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From the Executive Director: I Watched Shane Gillis on ‘SNL’ So You Don’t Have to

By February 23, 2024June 18th, 2024No Comments

David Inoue

It has been five years since “Saturday Night Live” made headlines for the addition of Bowen Yang as the first Chinese American cast member, while at the same time Shane Gillis was hired and fired within a week’s time after clips surfaced of him using anti-Chinese slurs and mockery, as well as anti-homosexual attempts at comedy. This past weekend, Gillis made his triumphant debut on “SNL” as host, so you might be asking what has changed. The answer is nothing much, and you can thank me that I did watch his appearance so you don’t have to.

First, I must note that JACL receives funding from Comcast, the parent company of NBC Universal, which broadcasts “SNL.” I did also engage in conversation with people at Comcast and NBC prior to the airing of the Gillis episode to express my concerns about his hosting.

First, I will grant that the calls for Gillis’ head could have stood some further scrutiny and understanding of Gillis’ work. In his defense, he explained years ago that the skits in question were intended to be satire of racist attitudes toward Chinese people, typically of ignorant white people who forced them into the ghettos such as Chinatowns. At the most charitable, he was trying to shed a light on racism but fumbled the delivery.

This would be actually in line with much of his comedy since then that does often portray the ignorance of racism. I have listened to the main skit in question and can see what he might have been trying to do, but the banter between Gillis and his partner in particular leans more heavily into racist stereotypes. While Gillis may be looking to bring nuance, there was little nuance from his partner.

In viewing some of his material since, or at least what was easily available without the subscription streaming service, he does have some very good material centered around racism and also skewers what might be seen as the stereotypical white racist perspective. Some of his work might even be described as the anathema to his supposed core audience in representing a “woke” perspective. Ultimately, his comedy depends on his appearance as the average white male to both appeal to that demographic and to lampoon it in subtle ways.

But unfortunately, there is a lot more besides the stand-up shows available publicly on YouTube. In a Los Angeles Times article that came out just a few days before the show, Seth Simons dug deeper into some of the less public “comedy” of Gillis. He revealed regular use of slurs for Blacks, Jews and gays, as well as prevalent use of anti-Asian themes. As Simons notes, these shows are from a platform where Gavin McInnes had a podcast that gave rise to the Proud Boys.

Gillis has remained unapologetic, stating that he would apologize to anyone offended, but I’ve not heard him actually apologize to anyone, and there are many who were offended by the skit and especially his cavalier use of the word “Chink,” a slur that anyone who looks Asian has probably heard at some point in their lives and felt the dehumanizing effect the word intends to convey. He publicly stated in contrast to his use of the “C” word that he would never utter the “N” word, though apparently Simons found he has used the word in one of his less public podcasts. Even that supposed standard of not using the “N” word is broken down when he’s pandering to his base.

While what we see of Gillis today may be a much-sanitized version of what he has done in the past, it does not erase what he did previously. Because he was so swiftly dropped by “SNL” before, we didn’t have to do a lot more digging into his background, but it seems that his audience has continued to grow to the point “SNL” could not ignore his growing popularity. He appeals to an audience that they wanted to bring to the show, just like Bud Light is countering its past support of the transgender community through Dylan Mulvaney by now bringing Gillis into its marketing plan. Should we really expect any better from large corporations such as NBC or Anheuser Busch? They will do what suits their advertising or product sales the best. We can’t forget that NBC reignited Donald Trump’s celebrity with the show “The Apprentice,” and he was almost a regular on “SNL” as well.

You might ask why I didn’t write this before the airing of “SNL” or have JACL put out a statement in opposition. We did consider it. But to do so would have brought more attention to the show and probably more viewers curious because of the controversy. Perhaps that was a miscalculation on my part because had there been more viewers, a larger audience would have recognized Gillis to still be a comedian not ready for primetime, but ideally situated on the internet where he can be found by the likes of his Proud Boys audiences. What we saw of Gillis’ comedy was reminiscent of what might have been jokes told amongst my classmates at my all-boys Catholic high school. Of course, that group as adults is right in Gillis’ wheelhouse of his target audience.

Of course, it is that audience, and the material he does outside of primetime, that should be more concerning to NBC or Netflix for giving him the platform and legitimacy of appearing for a national audience. Just because he doesn’t say the ugly stuff out in public, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. That was and continues to be the lesson we are learning from former president and candidate Donald Trump. Gillis hasn’t gone fully public with some of his more hateful material like the former president has and continues to do, but he is now more legitimized because of his appearance on “SNL” and in his Netflix special.

David Inoue is the executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.