I will admit that I have not been a regular viewer of Saturday Night Live for a long, long time. In my opinion, it has been about 15 years since it was consistently funny and featured cast members that I actually like. But I do still keep track of what they do occasionally, and will check in once and a while to see whether or not they’ve turned a page and it is worth my watching again.
So it was with interest that I saw the recent announcement of three new cast members joining SNL: Bowen Yang, Chloe Fineman and Shane Gillis. Perhaps a time to give the show another shot?
Maybe, but there are now only two new cast members to breathe new life into SNL.
Gillis, a 31-year old stand up comedian with an edgy persona, was fired almost as quickly as his hiring had been announced. His crime was engaging in an offensive conversation during a podcast.
Of course, we all know this system by now. Someone becomes famous, and keyboard warriors look for dirt on that person. They find something. They call for the person’s career to be destroyed. The nervous, risk-averse, terrified corporation decides to cut ties.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat. And so was the case with Gillis.
His jokes on the podcast, to be fair, were pretty pointless and unfunny. Gillis, for instance, said that it was a “hassle” to speak with a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, and he used a racial slur to refer to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I listened to the bit, and it wasn’t funny and the part about Yang was cringe-inducing.
But so bad as to be fired? Apparently.
Gillis, for his part, didn’t engage in the usual self-immolation that people in these situations typically do. Usually you’ll see a person desperate to salvage their reputation and their career flog themselves mercilessly, hoping to convince the world at large that they “get it” and that they deserve a second chance.
Not Gillis. “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries,” he began. “I sometimes miss. If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you’re going to find a lot of bad misses. I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”
Now, I don’t know Gillis at all. I’ve never seen his stand up act, nor do I know anything about him. But I am willing to guess that, as a young, early-30s comic who lives and works around New York City, he is probably a politically progressive person, and is not a racist. Probably quite the opposite.
I don’t know that, but I think it is a reasonable assumption given the limited things we do know about the guy.
Which begs the question, why would someone who is — if I am right — politically aligned with and sympathetic to a group of people say things like that about them?
A good question. And to find the answer, go right to Gillis’ statement, and his statement about taking risks.
Richard Pryor. Bill Hicks. Chris Rock. Lisa Lampanelli. Dave Chappelle. Bill Burr. These are names of comics who achieved great fame and success by taking dramatic risks, and having acts which contained horrifically offensive content.
In almost every instance, those comics proved able to thread a needle between “actually offensive” and “offensively funny,” which isn’t easy.
Often times, comics confront uncomfortable subjects, and unspoken truths — in a way only comedy can — by making you wince, and saying things you would never hear out of the mouth of a person in your everyday life.
Comedy must dare to risk to be funny, otherwise it will just end up producing nothing but dad jokes and bits about inane, safe topics.
Is that really the place we want our society to be? Terrified people making mediocre jokes about generic topics, desperately hoping not to offend anyone?
Risks are not safe, and they often result in failure. When a comic tries risky content, they often miss. It doesn’t work. They end up not being funny.
But should the punishment for that be career and reputational suicide? Or should we be, perhaps, a bit more forgiving?
Interestingly, the aforementioned Yang thinks the latter. “For the record,” said Yang, “I do not think he should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human.”