Man Too Racist to Join SNL Cast Set to Host SNL

Comedy Features Saturday Night Live
Man Too Racist to Join SNL Cast Set to Host SNL

This weekend Saturday Night Live announced that comedian Shane Gillis would be hosting the show’s next episode on Feb. 24. If that surprises you, it’s probably for one of two reasons: either because you don’t know who Shane Gillis is, or because you remember that he was hired by Saturday Night Live in 2019 and then promptly fired before that season began due to a number of racist and homophobic comments in his recent past. And if you do remember the latter, you’re probably wondering how this guy goes from an immediate shit-canning to somehow getting the keys to the kingdom in under five years. If you’re familiar with how Lorne Michaels or SNL operate, though, the answer’s pretty clear.

On Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, Gillis was announced as one of three new SNL cast members for the 45th season, alongside Chloe Fineman and writer-turned-cast-member Bowen Yang. That same day, journalist and former Paste assistant comedy editor Seth Simons tweeted clips from a 2018 episode of the podcast Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast where Gillis and his co-host Matt McCusker derided Chinatown and Asian people, including Gillis using the slur “ch*nks” and making fun of Chinese accents in the exact same way your racist uncle would do. Megh Wright of Vulture followed that up with more clips from the same podcast, where Gillis said that comedians who talk about their feelings, specifically naming Judd Apatow and Chris Gethard, are “white f*ggot comics” who are “gayer than ISIS.” By the end of the following Monday, Gillis had been fired from the show before the season even began, no doubt destined to go down in comedy history as the answer to the trivia question “who had the shortest run on Saturday Night Live?”

Except, obviously, that last bit didn’t happen.

Gillis’ notoriety helped him become even more popular among comedy fans who think being “shocking” means being hateful and who think “pushing boundaries” means relying on the oldest, laziest stereotypes in comedy. He pops up regularly on podcasts with names like “Legion of Skanks” and “The Real Ass Podcast” alongside openly alt-right comedians, and is a regular guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast. His stand-up career continued to grow during the pandemic (a time that, as Simons argues in a recent edition of his Humorism newsletter, disproportionately advantaged right-leaning comics who were less concerned about the risks of Covid), leading to a high-profile stand-up special on Netflix in 2023. He’s become one of the biggest touring comics on the scene today; anecdotally, as a comedy editor, I’ve had more acquaintances mention Shane Gillis as a favorite new comic than anybody else over the last 18 months or so. Most of them aren’t even familiar with his SNL firing when I mention it. 

Just to be clear, Gillis’ stand-up act doesn’t consist of him just standing on a stage spouting racial slurs and insulting gay people for an hour. Yeah, he says things that echo conservative and far right talking points and endear him to that crowd, but often with a mocking air that can come off as irony. He also often deflates some of those statements immediately after making them, and some of his fans see it as a performance similar to a Danny McBride character—basically saying “how could anybody actually believe what I’m saying?” Of course, McBride’s characters are living cartoons and it’s beyond obvious that they’re not to be taken seriously or agreed with. Gillis is careful not to alienate the audience that would take him at face value. It’s hard to tell how ironic Gillis intends to be, but it also doesn’t matter if he’s completely insincere and trying to make fun of racist attitudes, as ironic racism is still fundamentally racist, accomplishing the same goal as sincere racism by perpetuating and legitimizing racist ideas.

Despite all that—or, really, given the state of the world today, because of that—Gillis is far more popular today than when Saturday Night Live cast him as a relative unknown back in 2019. The show has also made more of an effort to bring in current stand-up comedians as hosts, often to critical acclaim; Nate Bargatze’s hosting debut last year remains the most popular episode of the current season, and John Mulaney has become one of the show’s most beloved repeat hosts. So it’s not a major surprise it would reach out to a comedian with the burgeoning profile of Gillis. Of course Bargatze avoids politics and it’s usually not a major part of Mulaney’s sets, and neither of them resort to the kind of hoary, hackneyed, racist and homophobic material Gillis used in those podcast episodes from 2018.

Inviting Gillis on to host can be filed under another part of Saturday Night Live’s culture, which is its apparent love of bringing in controversial people, even if their comments and actions directly harm or dehumanize some of the show’s own cast members. In the last decade you can trace that from the show’s infamous platforming of Donald Trump in 2015, well after he had become openly and undeniably racist while testing the waters for his eventual presidential campaign; to the seemingly open hosting invitation for transphobe and “Alphabet people” ridiculer Dave Chappelle; and to just this past weekend, with a cameo from Nikki Haley, the supposedly “responsible” Republican alternative to Trump who refused to mention slavery as a cause for the Civil War during a Republican town hall in December. This isn’t new, of course; Lorne Michaels has either willingly courted controversy or turned a blind eye to his own cast and crew’s discomfort over certain hosts for decades. When Andrew “Dice” Clay and his comedy made up exclusively of witless misogyny was brought on to host in 1990, long-time respected cast member Nora Dunn refused to work that week, and was fired from the show. 

So this once again brings us back to the true problem at Saturday Night Live: creator/producer Lorne Michaels and the culture he’s created at the show. Michaels is an old, out of touch, rich white guy who apparently doesn’t care how handing his show’s massive spotlight over to comedians who think it’s funny to demean people for their race, sexuality and gender might impact the people who work on and watch the show. It sends a bad message to viewers and other comedians to have Gillis host, a bad message to all cast and crew who might have felt offended by Gillis’ comments, and it also sends a bad message specifically to Yang and Fineman, who worked hard for years, and reaped a fair amount of mainstream praise for their work on the show, only to find themselves backing up and supporting the hack who got hired at the same time as them and then fired for saying racist, homophobic bullshit.

Gillis is hosting SNL despite being fired by the show for his racist comments for one reason: because Lorne Michaels thought it was a good idea. And that just shows, once again, how unfit he is to run a major network show in 2024. 

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, and anything else Paste asks him to. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin