For decades, comedy has been a vehicle for bonding communities through laughter. But when that laughter comes at others’ expense, it becomes a problem.
Take Shane Gillis for example. The stand-up comedian who has previously performed at Just For Laughs was hired by Saturday Night Live earlier this month along with Bowan Yang—the show’s first Asian-American series regular. Fans of the show were excited to see what the new cast members would bring to the show.
The celebrations were short lived when freelance writer, Seth Simmons, dug up year-old podcast videos of Gillis using slurs against Asians and the LGBTQ+ community on Twitter. In a video for one of his podcasts, Gillis can be seen adopting an accent while mocking Chinese people who are learning to speak English.
After the tweets went viral, Gillis was met with fierce backlash online. Twitter users condemned his racist language and called for him to be cancelled while comedians like Rob Schneider called Gillis’ words as a “comedic misfire.”
As people waited for NBC’s statement on the tweets, Gillis himself tweeted out a defense, claiming he is simply a comedian who pushes boundaries. In performing his art, he explained, sometimes he misses the mark. “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said,” Gillis said.
Gillis’ apology did not go over well as SNL fired him a week later, stating that the language he “used is offensive, hurtful, and unacceptable.”
This controversy has reignited debates about what constitutes as offensive and inoffensive in comedy, a genre where artists and audiences agree that performers have a certain amount of liberty to transgress boundaries of expression. What happens when a comedian goes too far? Who gets to decide the punishment, if any, the comedian should face? These questions are made more difficult in a digital age where everyone has an opinion.
Many comedians have bemoaned the rise of ‘cancel culture,’ where younger generations boycott celebrities who have shared questionable or offensive opinions. They say that ‘cancel culture’ is ruining comedy because it impedes their freedom of speech.
The problem with that argument is that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Gillis openly mocked the race and culture of his future colleague. SNL was justified in firing him.
Gillis’ backlash was also rooted in pushing for a culture of respect; not cancellation. Asians are often seen as easy targets in the media, whether it be jokes about their intellectuality or the way they dress. Gillis used this rhetoric to his advantage and didn’t think about the consequences of his actions.
It must be noted that comedians are often burnt by their old material. Trevor Noah was accused of being anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist when users on Twitter combed through tweets he made before joining The Daily Show in 2015. More recently, Kevin Hart was accused of making homophobic tweets and was subsequently fired from hosting the Oscars. Both of them have since apologized and vowed to learn from their mistakes and grow into better comedians.
There lies the difference between them and Gillis. Gillis’ apology seemed disingenuous and ignored the reason why people were upset with his words. The use of “actually” in his apology is condescending and minimizes the offense of Asians and their feelings about being reduced to a stereotype and mocked with language that has been understood as racist for decades.
Had Gillis sincerely apologized for his racism and acknowledged that his words were harmful, he might have salvaged his spot at SNL and a chance at forgiveness and redemption from audiences and tweeters alike.
It would be easy for Gillis supporters to blame ‘cancel culture’ for his firing, but what he said was inexcusable. His actions shouldn’t be conflated with ‘cancel culture’ because it undermines the severity of racism in society. Gillis was sharing his thoughts rather than telling a bad and tasteless joke.
It’s 2019. Calling out racist language from racists shouldn’t be that hard.