Me no love Shane Gillis long time
“Saturday Night Live” (“SNL”) recently made history by hiring its first-ever Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, who previously wrote for the show and also happens to be a gay man. While this should have happened much sooner in the show’s 44-year history, it felt like a small victory for the Asian American community nonetheless.
But this victory was sullied when the bigoted comments of fellow “SNL” hire Shane Gillis went viral on social media. This was not an “unearthing” of bigotry, as many outlets have framed it – Gillis made such comments on his own highly public podcast as recently as September 2018. In what was probably the most viral incident, he referred to Chinese people as “ch-nks” as he and his co-host discussed how “fucking nuts” Chinatown is and how disgusting they found Chinese food to be. His co-host even invoked the good ol’ “MSG is a fake chemical poisoning our food” trope, an idea that has long been debunked as racist nonsense. This is, of course, only one instance of many slur-heavy public comments Gillis has made.
After catching heat, Gillis defended his choices as those of a comedian who “pushes a lot of boundaries” in a classic Notes-app-screenshot statement. Even after getting fired from “SNL” a few days later, he refused to apologize for his comments, instead stating that he was “more of a Mad TV guy” anyway. Because we live in 2019, this meant that the entire Internet exploded, decrying “cancel culture,” the “woke mob” and the fact that you “can’t make jokes about anything anymore.”
The last point may be true: These jokes have always existed in comedy, and it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to make them. I fail to see why this is a bad thing, and I also fail to see how Gillis thinks he is in any way “pushing boundaries.” His anti-Asian comments in particular have a clear lineage; one example of this that I can call to mind is the character of the Japanese landlord Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” as played by the Scottish Mickey Rooney. In other words, Gillis’ “comedy” (which doesn’t come off as comedy so much as genuine bigotry excused with humor) operates off tired stereotypes, and above all else, displays a total lack of originality. If you think you can’t be funny without punching down, you’re probably not as funny as you think you are.
Many also seem to be missing a crucial component of “free speech” when they bemoan its supposed downfall: It goes both ways. You have the right to say whatever you want, and people have the equal right to criticize you, even call for your firing. “SNL,” as a private employer, had every right to fire Gillis – no one is entitled to any particular job, especially not one as highly coveted and easily replaceable as a cast member on “SNL.” It’s not as if Gillis’ livelihood is in danger. If anything, I’m positive that his “cancellation” will only lead to further engagements, if Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. are any indication. And we all know that we’ll be seeing the “Shane Gillis Comeback Special: RAW, UNFILTERED and UNCENSORED” on streaming platforms in approximately six months anyway.
There are valid critiques to make of movements like #MeToo and other cancel culture-affiliated entities. Generally, I believe in restorative rather than punitive measures when it comes to dealing with instances of harm. But considering that it took “SNL” nearly half a century to cast an Asian person and considering that Gillis seems not to have learned anything, I believe justice has been served. It is an unequivocal good that unapologetic racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries are no longer entirely consequence-free, and it is frankly unbelievable that this even needs to be said.
The truth is that the outrage over cancel culture is really just anxiety over the destabilization of the social order. People who have lived their whole lives in positions of privilege are threatened by the very idea that marginalized voices might finally have some power, and by the idea that their words and actions may finally have consequences. To which I say: good. You should be afraid.
James Factora is a queer Asian who likes to make jokes on Twitter @james_factora. They are also the op-ed editor of the Chronicle.