I’m glad SNL fired Shane Gillis. I hesitate to call it the right decision because the right decision was not to hire him. But it was the better of two options.
I agree, as many have suggested, that he is likely to spin his ouster into a lucrative career as a [gag] #CancelCulture martyr. He will probably make tons of money from standup gigs and a much larger podcast audience and whatever sinecures the reactionary grievance apparatus is doling out these days. His star may rise higher than it would have had SNL squirreled him into a corner for the season then cut him loose. But this is still the better option, the option where he is not working in close quarters for long hours with people for whom he holds demonstrable hatred.
I have many thoughts about the last few days that mostly aren’t distillable into anything but a long primal groan. It makes me very sad and angry to think Gillis is only one small product of a thriving subculture in American comedy. I spent most of the weekend—and this was just a terrible call by me, do not recommend—listening to his podcast and appearances on other podcasts, namely the Legion of Skanks. The truth is his language on the clips that went around is not exceptional. They are so standard as to be banal. Fake accents, slurs, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, misogyny—there’s a Skanks episode where, cackling with glee, the group watches a clip of a woman with cerebral palsy performing standup. There’s one where a co-host gleefully leads a chant about raping their producer; he sees her nodding along and riffs that it constitutes consent. It’s obvious why so many comedians got so furious at the possibility Gillis would face any consequences for what he said. This is normal for them. As my friend Charlie Walden once put it, there’s a whole class of comics that treat comedy as an ethical framework in which to say reprehensible things.
What does not seem obvious to me is why SNL would be unaware of Gillis’s “prior remarks.” The show’s statement said he was hired in part on “the strength of his talent as a comedian.” But as best I can tell his toxicity is a consistent, defining part of his comedy. (Granted, I cannot speak to the totality of his corpus because he pulled it from the internet, hmmmm.) The representatives who put him forward to SNL were certainly aware of it; their job is to get him jobs he’s suitable for. And it just does not stand to reason that SNL’s producers would be blind to the realities of contemporary standup: that a guy with a show on Anthony Cumia’s podcast network might share some traits with Anthony Cumia. Incompetence may be the simplest explanation for many great blunders, but in this case it doesn’t sit right. The Occam’s Razor scenario is not that NBC skipped the cursory background research on someone destined for intense publicity (and NBC’s money). It's that they did the research, and they knew who he was, and it was what they wanted, and they thought they would get away with it, because SNL is the show that gets away with it.
I think to myself, this is cynical. Then I think how it’s only been four months since a former SNL cast member made a credible allegation of sexual harassment against the show’s creator. He published it in a book and it went unremarked upon for weeks; NBC made a meaningless three-word denial and the story faded away. A month before that, one of the show’s head writers said critic Steven Hyden fucks dogs—just one of many critics, including myself, he’s commandeered his sizable Instagram following against—and faced no apparent repercussions. This is the same show that suspended one of its writers over a harmless tweet she swiftly apologized for; the same show that had Casey Affleck host years after he settled allegations he sexually harassed and verbally abused production staff on one of his films; the same show that had Donald Trump host months after he said Mexicans are rapists; the same show that swatted down an extra’s complaint about noted womanizer Chris Farley, a complaint made during what is widely considered one of the show’s golden ages. These are all institutional failures of varying natures and degrees, but their effect is to paint a portrait of a workplace where toxic people thrive: in other words, a toxic workplace. Sure, you could look at the Gillis hiring and see a long series of people dropping the ball. You could also see a company hiring an employee because it likes his work and thinks he's a cultural fit.
If indeed a process failure took place, however, the next step is not to forgive and move on. It’s to ask what the processes are and if they’ve failed before. SNL has been around for almost 45 years. It has employed hundreds or thousands of people, including interns who were not paid until this decade. It has vaulted many of its current and former employees to positions of near-unassailable cultural power. Only a very small fraction of these employees are ever exposed to meaningful public scrutiny. If a proud bigot could slip through the cracks and land one of the most coveted gigs in show business, who else has slipped through into less visible positions? What damage have they done? Who knew about it? Where did they go next?
These questions matter to those of us on the outside because SNL matters. Love them or hate them, pop cultural institutions help set the terms and limits of cultural discourse. (See: the last few days of people debating whether hate speech is bad.) SNL does not have a particularly inspiring record in this respect, and it's worth asking why. TV’s oldest and biggest sketch comedy show does not make basic diversity strides 45 seasons in by chance. It does not cater to the reactionary right by chance. It does not spout transphobia and run interference for Aziz Ansari and nix jokes about Harvey Weinstein's downfall by chance. These values reflect the people running the show; they are the show’s values. Yes, good funny people who make good funny comedy work there too, and the reason their sketches dominate weekly conversations about SNL is that they are departures from the norm. These people deserve to work on a show where the norm is good comedy. That SNL is not this show—and is instead a show that regularly subjects the nation to Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump—and that accidentally or knowingly hired a gleeful racist—then waited four days to decide what to do about him—is also, say it with me, not by chance.
One of the strangest parts of the last few days has been the widespread refusal by comedians and fans to acknowledge that comics mean what they say. But they do. It's very simple. Shane Gillis said all the cruel and ignorant things he said because he believes them. That’s who he is. This is true on the larger scale too. SNL has shown us again and again, through everything I’ve mentioned and more, what it is: the plaything of an unaccountable reactionary millionaire who suspended Katie Rich immediately after she made fun of the president’s family, and spent a weekend deliberating over the hateful ramblings of an unfunny bigot. Maybe now it’ll get the scrutiny it deserves.
Header image via the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Flickr.
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