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Shane Gillis Works As The Unlikely Ambassador Of Boyish Charm

Shane Gillis’ ‘Saturday Night Live’ appearance was a well-deserved olive branch, but fell short of showcasing the range of his comedic charm.

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Saturday night, comedian Shane Gillis brought his weird and ineffable charm to Studio 8H — no small feat given that just four years ago, Gillis was hired as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member, then fired just days later. The firing was prompted by podcast episodes that resurfaced where Gillis used racial slurs.

So SNL’s invitation to host was surprising to say the least. Unfortunately, the same lack of nuance that prompted his firing seemed to haunt his inaugural SNL appearance. 

In his opening monologue, it was clear that Gillis and the SNL audience were a little uneasy with each other. They were reluctant to follow him into one of his regular talking points: having family members with Downs syndrome

Gillis tried to break the tension with an affable and self-conscious disclaimer, “Look, I don’t have any material that can be on TV. I’m trying my best. Also, this place is extremely well lit. I can see everyone not enjoying it. This is the most nervous I’ve ever been…don’t clap now, shut up.”

And though the audience was definitely on his side by the end, the episode belied the talent of its cast, writers, and host. Shane Gillis’ “Saturday Night Live” appearance was a well-deserved olive branch, but ultimately fell short of showcasing the nuances of the comedian’s charm.

SNL Went for the Low-Hanging Fruit

Gillis is often compared to a kid we all knew in high school. One of my favorite descriptions of him says that he “gives off post-jock energy.” For better or worse, SNL took this idea and ran with it. In most of the show’s sketches, Gillis played some variation of a clueless, well-meaning oaf. 

Forrest Gump’s high school bully. The coworker who visits strip clubs on his lunch break. A game show contestant afraid of saying something racist.

The sketch that gave Gillis the most credit featured him as an uptight dad from Ohio who insists on bringing his family to church while they’re on vacation in Jamaica. As the kids complain, he insists that “Church is church no matter where we are in the world.” He is soon proven comically wrong by Ego Nwodim’s patois-spouting, reggae-preaching, Adidas sandals-wearing priest, Father Lawrence.

Gillis gives a resounding “Amen,” which prompts his wife (Heidi Gardner) to ask him what he’s doing. With only a slight break in character, Gillis shoots back in patois, “Hush now, child! Me trying to hear the good word!” 

Unexpected Non-Toxic Masculinity

Gillis’ hiring and firing from SNL is regrettable, but in all likelihood, SNL was probably never going to give him the freedom to really showcase his talents. And although Saturday’s episode pigeon-holed him, the stereotypes he played hint at what makes Gillis so talented: he’s just a regular dude.

Painting him as a high school jock or clueless bro betrays something inherently easygoing and familiar about him. There’s a boyishness and good humor about his comedy that sets him apart from today’s comedians like Pete Davidson. Comedians like Tom Segura, Bill Burr, or Bert Kreischer are similarly gut-punchingly funny. But anger, bitterness, and cynicism are part of their signature.

Somehow, though, Gillis manages to touch on the crushing realities of adult life without losing his lightheartedness or sincerity. Even when he’s offensive, he’s not malicious. Sure, he gets an immature kick out of saying outrageous things. But he’d probably be crushed if something he said genuinely hurt someone’s feelings. 

His performance Saturday reflects that Gillis is smart and confident, but he cares whether or not you like him. Gillis’ star is on the rise because, for a lot of American Millennials, he’s a memory of something easy in a world that’s been really hard. 

For men, he reassures them that it’s okay to think and act like guys. He’s saying out loud at the offensive, embarrassing, childish — but not mean-spirited — thoughts that guys hold back from their wives and coworkers.

For ladies, he makes us blush and cover our face in embarrassment for laughing at his jokes. He delights in grossing us out the way that boys with crushes on us used to do in high school. His immaturity, warmth, and absurdity give us a safe space to be idiot kids again, too. It’s the treasure we didn’t know we needed in a world of seemingly apocalyptic news cycles.

His appearance on “Saturday Night Live” is an encouraging sign that his talent is being taken seriously and, Lord willing, there are many more cringey, astute laughs to come. 


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