Shane Gillis is not the perfect martyr for comedy. Unlike, say, Dave Chappelle’s controversial new special, the jokes that got Gillis fired from “Saturday Night Live” weren’t funny. They also weren’t satire; they were cheap, angry jabs at the lowest-hanging fruit. I don’t think the clips reflect well on his talent or personal character, although I’m no expert on either.
But without the space to make mistakes, comedians might refrain from the kind of risk taking that leads to great work. This is where it gets tricky. Nobody should deliberately be made to feel inferior for his race or sex, but comedians should be able to make jokes about both. Gillis failed to thread that needle. But how do we create a genuinely healthy space that tolerates the mistakes while not endorsing them, and leaves room for great, risk-based satire?
Naturally, people called for Gillis’s head. I think that’s the most interesting part of this story. For defenders of comedy, it’s easy to rally behind someone like Chappelle. For his detractors, and for Gillis’s, it’s easy to cancel them. Media elites seem clearly to prefer the former, which is presumably why “SNL” opted to let Gillis go.
NBC faced both a moral decision and a business decision: a) Is it moral to employ the man who made these remarks? and b) Will it hurt our bottom line? Those questions are, of course, related, but firing Gillis is a bad answer to both.
Unlike Twitter’s coterie of blue-checkmark comedy police, “SNL” viewers don’t need their comedians to be politicians. It’s highly unlikely Gillis would have caused NBC enough bad press to affect the show’s ratings, but corporate executives time and again seem unaware those complaints emanate from a sliver of the public, and aren’t actually representative.
That said, the first question should take precedent. The two most useful reactions to the controversy have come from Andrew Yang and Rob Schneider. Both called for forgiveness rather than reflexive banishment.
I understand those who have another point of view on this. Obviously the folks at NBC are the real decision-makers. But if I can forgive Shane, as the guy he called a slur, I hope others can as well. I also hope Shane is open to learning. We are all human, we’re all fallible. 👍
— Andrew Yang🧢⬆️🇺🇸 (@AndrewYang) September 15, 2019
As a former SNL cast member I am sorry that you had the misfortune of being a cast member during this era of cultural unforgiveness where comedic misfires are subject to the intolerable inquisition of those who never risked bombing on stage themselves.
— Rob Schneider (@RobSchneider) September 16, 2019
“I think we have, as a society, become excessively punitive and vindictive concerning people’s statements and expressions we disagree with or find offensive. I don’t think people should be losing jobs unless it’s truly beyond the pale and egregious,” tweeted Yang, who plans to sit down with Gillis soon. Baked into that point is a subjective evaluation that Gillis’s mockery of Asian-Americans was not “truly beyond the pale and egregious.”
Yang and Schneider both agreed the jokes were bad, but resisted the reflex to cancel and presented a more nuanced path forward. Like the Academy Awards last year, “SNL” missed an opportunity to buck elite groupthink and create a solution that is forged less by urgent Twitter pressure and more by fair-mindedness.
That’s what makes this case study particularly useful. The reflex to cancel regularly takes down innocent entertainers, whose alleged wrongdoing wouldn’t even warrant Schneider’s prescribed suspension. But it’s when a situation demands more nuance, as this one does, that we discover how ill-suited our reflexive solutions are to addressing these problems as they play out in the public arena.