As ‘Saturday Night Live’ Host, Shane Gillis Draws Predictable Outrage

At the end of Shane Gillis’ monologue last night on Saturday Night Live, he made a “so-so” gesture with his hand. The stand-up comedian, who was hired by SNL in 2019—then fired a week later because of resurfaced clips of anti-Asian and homophobic jokes—had quite the mountain to climb. Firstly, mainstream crowds have no idea who he is. (He begged the audience not to Google him.) Secondly, those who had heard of him were probably busier tapping away on social media than listening to his set.

(l-r) Bowen Yang, surprise guest Brent Faiyaz, musical guest 21 Savage, surprise guest Summer Walker, host Shane Gillis, Ego Nwodim, Devon Walker, Punkie Johnson, Andrew Dismukes, James Austin Johnson, Colin Jost, and Kenan Thompson during during the Goodnights & Credits on Saturday, February 24, 2024

Photo by: Will Heath/NBC

Two polarized camps promptly emerged on Twitter during the show. One was the angry white bro libertarians who love Gillis for having been fired by a liberal media elite institution, and took last night as an opportunity to lambast Bowen Yang, whom they wrongly blame for taking Gillis’ place. The other was Bowen Yang fans, who micro-analyzed his every expression during any sketch that paired him with Gillis—and waited to see if he would again stand miserably to the side during cast goodbyes, as he did recently when Dave Chappelle hopped on the stage. The fact that Yang and Gillis follow each other on social media and were going in for a handshake when the feed dropped during cast goodbyes was irrelevant. People’s appetite for outrage is enormous, and the opposite of funny.

Anyway, how was the monologue? So-so. The headlines today are going to reduce Gillis’s material to the fact that he used the word “retarded,” in anticipating how a playground bully might insult his niece with Down syndrome, and that he did a bit about pretending to be gay for his mom when he was boy, showing how he used to dance mincingly with her in the car to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” It was hard to tell if his occasional flop sweat was genuine or part of a bit to keep himself deliberately framed as the outsider. “Look, I don’t have any material that can be on TV, alright,” he said at one point. “I’m trying my best. Also, this place is extremely well lit. I can see everybody not enjoying it.” That got a whoop from the audience. “Hey,” Gillis complained with a sheepish grin, “don’t clap now. Shut up.”

It was uncomfortable. And while stand-up comedy is not supposed to be comforting, the problem for me is that confrontation in the name of provocation and humor needs more than just a kernel of truth at its core. The real payoff comes when the subjects of the joke are the comedian and his audience. See, for instance, Gillis’s discussion of Down’s syndrome in his family, which he began by joking that he looked like he could have the condition himself. “It almost got me,” he said. “I dodged it, but it nicked me.”

The whole bit was a send-up of the general population’s anxiety and discomfort around people with Down’s. He also discussed his niece’s three older siblings, Black children adopted out of the foster care system: “I think it’ll be a nice thing, for the whole country, I would say, when my niece is in the 5th, 6th grade, and some white kid says, ‘Hey you’re not allowed to play with us, you’re retarded.’ Then three Black kids come out of nowhere and start wailing on that cracker.” That joke got the biggest laugh of his monologue, which Gillis noted. “Yeah, I said cracker.”

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