By Brian Chu
We were so close. So close to having a genuinely positive and momentous news story about Saturday Night Live hiring its first cast member of Chinese descent in its 45-year history. And then, Shane Gillis ruined it. Ruined it with his reminder that no matter how much we like to think America has progressed in addressing diversity, the undercurrent of racism is never far behind.
I didn’t want to write about this. Or rather, I wanted to write about how proud I was when I heard that Bowen Yang was just named as the first cast member of Chinese descent on SNL. But now, I can’t write about that without at least acknowledging the racist elephant in the room.
Shane Gillis, a Philadelphia-based comedian, was also tapped as a new cast member, and not minutes later, video of him surfaced from a podcast he did all the way back in… September 2018, where he made multiple racists slurs including, “chinee” and “chinks.”
His subsequent “apology” about his past remarks was equally hollow.
So let me get this straight. I have to find Shane Gillis and personally ask him for an apology? Okay, so what’s his phone number? Is there even an apology in his statement? Or rather an explanation (and a really terrible one at that). He mentions that he pushes boundaries. I’m sorry, but trotting out tired old stereotypes like replacing L’s with R’s and talking about MSG is about as trite and hackneyed as it gets. It wasn’t particularly clever when Mickey Rooney did it 50 years ago in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and it certainly isn’t now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some triggered millennial looking to pick a fight. I can take a joke. Even one about my race. But I mean, at least TRY. Don’t just go, “Oh me so solly” and try to pass that off as somehow taking a comedic risk. He can’t even chalk this up to being an isolated incident. He’s made a career out of saying racist and homophobic comments as part of his act. He can’t now pass this off as something he was experimenting with.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about this whole situation is it completely overshadows the real news of the day. The fact that Saturday Night Live, the springboard for so many of today’s comedy stars, just hired Yang. A staff writer for SNL last year, Yang has been elevated to featured player for the upcoming season. It’s a great story. An important one. One that should be an inspiration to the many Asians who want to pursue comedy, yet find so few role models in their chosen field.
Yet I can’t talk about one comic without the other. Because to do so would be to ignore the insidiousness of Gillis’ statements. He’s happy to apologize to anyone who is “actually offended” by anything he’s said. As if he’s incredulous that someone could possibly be offended by what he’s said. As if he’s the aggrieved party. Read that sentence out loud. You can practically taste the incredulity on the lips. “Oh, you’re ACTUALLY offended?” Yes. Yes I am. But I’m more offended by Gillis’ lack of ownership for his offensive words. His lack of empathy.
Which is why it is all the more problematic if SNL doesn’t do something to address this issue. The “easy” solution would be to just ride out the backlash. But this would only reinforce the notion that taking cheap racial potshots on people is okay. Which further normalizes a culture where this sort of behavior is acceptable, even rewarded. Gillis needs to take time to reflect a bit more. Think about what he said and why it was wrong. Not dash off a haphazard apology on Apple Notes and assume the matter is behind him. Until he does, he should not be setting his foot anywhere near the hallowed comedic halls of Studio 8H. If he refuses to do so, then Saturday Night Live should address it directly. What we can’t do is simply accept Gillis’ halfhearted apology and put the whole matter to rest.
Yes, comedians should push boundaries when it comes to comedy. It’s the only way for the form to evolve. But comedy is done a disservice when we equate comedic innovation with lazy racism. While society is done a disservice when we don’t hold people accountable for things they say, especially when it’s their job to say them.