Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the news that Shane Gillis no longer will be joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
Last week, Saturday Night Live announced the hiring of stand-up comic Bowen Yang as one of three new featured players for its forthcoming season. Yang, the child of Chinese immigrants, is the first Asian-American to join the cast of the comedy show, which is starting its 45th season.
SNL also announced another, far more controversial new hire: Shane Gillis, who, it was quickly revealed, has a long history of making racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks.
“The first Asian cast member and the first openly racist cast member,” comedian Aparna Nancherla mused on Sept. 15. “Two history-making moments.”
Nancherla was speaking on a panel of comedians at the New American Festival in Manhattan, a weekend-long event created by the immigration reform organization New American Economy. When an audience member inquired about the Gillis controversy, the panelists offered their insight into why SNL likely hired Gillis in the first place—and in the process, offered a broader lesson for organizations of all kinds when it comes to ideological diversity.
The pitfalls of “reaching across the aisle”
Reporters didn’t exactly have a hard time discovering Gillis’s penchant for racist slurs and other offensive comments, as noted by Jaboukie Young-White, a comedian who has been a correspondent for The Daily Show on Comedy Central since 2018. “So many headlines said ‘they unearthed,’ ‘they dug up,'” he said. “No, the wind lightly blew.”
Freelance reporter Seth Simmons, who broke the story, flagged a September 2018 recording of Gillis using racist slurs against Chinese and gay people and adopting a mocking Chinese accent. Then Vice highlighted an audio recording made in May 2019 in which Gillis did more of the same. The co-owner of a Philadelphia comedy theater told New York Magazine’s Vulture that the theater had stopped working with Gillis, who previously lived in Philadelphia, “because of racist, homophobic, and sexist things he’s said on- and off-stage.”
The ease with which all this information was brought to light suggests that Gillis’s bigotry wasn’t an open secret; it wasn’t a secret at all.
This leaves two possibilities when it comes to SNL’s hiring: Either the show doesn’t vet its new cast members with even a cursory Google search, or, in Young-White’s words, Gillis’ record of offensive remarks was “part of why he was hired, not in spite of it.”
Update at 4:20pm: According to SNL, it was the former—a vetting issue. Here’s the full statement we received late in the day on Sept. 16 from an SNL spokesperson, speaking on behalf of show creator and producer Lorne Michaels:
After talking with Shane Gillis, we have decided that he will not be joining SNL.
We want SNL to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we hired Shane on the strength of his talent as comedian and his impressive audition for SNL. We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.
Young-White theorized (correctly, the statement from SNL suggests) that SNL had brought on Gillis in an attempt to be perceived as “reaching across the aisle” and spotlighting someone with “edgy” humor. In the Trump era in particular, the show has faced some criticism for having an overtly liberal bias. And so its leadership may have been interested in bringing on a cast member who could represent an alternative political perspective.
But while most comedians are on board with the idea that comedy sometimes involves pushing boundaries, the issue here is that Gillis isn’t actually funny, Young-White argues, suggesting Gillis’s remarks—for example, calling filmmaker Judd Apatow and actor Chris Gethard ““white f*ggot comics”—don’t actually rise to the bar of a “joke.”
Young-White observed that in the aftermath of Trump’s election, some left-leaning comics have come under fire for resorting to “clapter“—that is, for leaning into political commentary that will resonate with an anti-Trump audience instead of trying to be funny. Comics like Gillis, he said, are doing the same thing, “but for racism.” It requires no wit whatsoever to say an offensive word repeatedly; the people who enjoy it when Gillis does so aren’t fans of his talent, but of prejudice.
“There’s no joke structure, it’s just antagonizing Asian people and minorities,” said Young-White. “Aside from being racist, it’s just shitty craft.”
Here’s what Gillis had to say about his brief attachment to SNL:
is probably was doomed at SNL
SNL and its network, NBC, did not immediately comment on the controversy over Gillis. But the comedians at the New American Festival suggested his days on the show would be numbered.
“No one succeeds in a vacuum” on the show, said Nancherla. Citing the experience of several friends who have worked at SNL, she noted that it’s a generally a collaborative environment, where writers and cast members tend to pair up on crafting sketches. It doesn’t bode well for Gillis.
“You can’t survive as a sole agent,” Nancherla said, “and he’s going in with bad blood.” Yang, meanwhile, worked as a writer on SNL last season. “Everybody loves Bowen,” Nancherla added.
A case study in hiring for ideological diversity
It’s understandable that SNL might want to diversify the political viewpoints the show has to offer. But if Gillis’s comedy involves dehumanizing others, Young-White asked rhetorically, “Is that a viewpoint that needs to be represented?”
That’s a question all organizations should ask themselves when thinking about ideological diversity—whether the issue involves a potential new hire, corporate culture guidelines, or a controversial guest speaker.
In the age of political polarization, some institutions are exploring ways to introduce a mix of ideological perspectives so that people can better learn from one another and engage in productive debates. It’s a fair instinct. One study of Wikipedia entries, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, suggested that political diversity can lead to stronger overall performance, finding that “ideologically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than teams of ideological moderates.”
But there’s an important caveat to that finding: The study’s authors note in an article for Harvard Business Review that Wikipedia’s well-known and rigorous editorial policies “constitute a culture by stipulating appropriate social conduct, such as how editors treat one another in talk-page debates, and even how we, as researchers, needed to engage with the community.” In other words, the researchers suggest that ideologically polarized teams on Wikipedia were able to work together productively because their exchanges were grounded in respect and governed by shared guidelines.
Is there any path forward in which Gillis’ SNL co-workers can engage with him productively? In which he can walk back comments that already have revealed his lack of respect for people from a variety of marginalized groups? In which SNL can quickly gin up guidelines for how to work with a fellow cast member whose invective feels deeply personal? (Update: Apparently not.)
Certainly organizations can benefit by hiring people who are comfortable expressing a variety of viewpoints. But it would be unfair for SNL, or for any organization, to put any of its employees in a position where they would feel that their own humanity is either up for debate or fodder for feeble “comedy.”