Shane Gillis hosting SNL sparks conversations about offensive comedy

I believe Shane Gillis is a good comedian and I’m glad he’ll be hosting Saturday Night Live (SNL) later this month. Having said that, I equally believe there’s a lot to be discussed about the ethics of comedy and when offensive jokes should be accepted.

Gillis was initially chosen as a cast member for SNL in 2019 but was subsequently given the ax after controversial material from his podcast resurfaced, including jokes targeted at Asian Americans as well as the use of slurs. Recently, the nearly 50-year-old sketch show announced that Gillis would be returning on Feb. 24 to host.

Some things should immediately be established above all else. In my opinion, many of the jokes Gillis made which sparked the initial controversy were done in poor taste and I don’t have any desire to defend them. I also believe his initial response that he’s “a comedian who pushes boundaries” was very weak and did a poor job at meaningfully addressing the situation.

Another detail from the situation which I disapprove of is conservatives’ adoption of Gillis as a right-wing “canceled” comedian. To my understanding, Gillis satirizes both sides of the political aisle equally and, while he definitely strays into edgy and offensive territory, it would be a stretch to label his political views as right-wing.

So how is Gillis’s comedy in regard to marginalized groups any different? Well, when looking at Gillis through the same lens as Chappelle, I do not see this same bigotry or ignorance evident.

Gillis himself never embraced this label, either. The whole time he was “canceled” in 2019, he always affirmed that he understood and accepted SNL’s decision. Additionally, while many comedians in recent years have adopted a shallow and unfunny “anti-woke” persona, Gillis has never leaned into this territory, instead choosing to focus on his own personal brand of comedy.

My main argument is that there is a meaningful difference between Gillis and a comedian like Dave Chappelle, who I unequivocally disapprove of along with many of the same people criticizing Gillis. Chappelle, who has had a legendary comedy career, has in recent years traded his past brilliance for uninspired jokes of the lowest-common denominator which would’ve been unfunny even five years ago.

The key difference between Gillis and Chappelle is that the latter’s jokes seem to come from a genuine place of ignorance. Chappelle has overtly displayed his negative opinions on transgender people and has pushed back against any criticism on the subject, stating in his new stand-up special “I love punching down.”

Those who defend Chappelle and similar comedy acts will say that while these jokes seem bigoted, they result in great comedy. They’ll often throw around vague blanket statements like “it’s the job of a comedian to offend people,” which I think is a hilarious misrepresentation. In my opinion, the primary job of a comedian is to be funny, and I genuinely am unable to believe that anybody in good faith could think Chappelle’s recent special was good comedy.

I’m a believer that good comedy is incompatible with any comedian who earnestly prioritizes “offending people” over actual clever and funny jokes. There exists a reactionary desire among conservatives to deem any offensive comedy as good comedy, which is simply not the case. I’m all for offensive, edgy and boundary-pushing material; in fact it’s this type of humor that often results in the funniest jokes. But these jokes can only be done by someone willing to make them in the pursuit of good comedy, not in the pursuit of “punching down.”

So how is Gillis’s comedy in regard to marginalized groups any different? Well, when looking at Gillis through the same lens as Chappelle, I do not see this same bigotry or ignorance evident. While some of his jokes are done in poor taste and miss the mark, Gillis doesn’t appear to be someone who wants to capitalize off of being offensive, rather someone who is willing to go into risky territory, sometimes wrongly, for the sake of humor.

In my opinion, the ideal comedian is someone who can take the worst forms of bigotry — racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc. — and flip them on their head, thus effectively making fun of the bigotry itself and the people who embody it. I believe this is the critical difference between whether offensive material should be acceptable or not: Does the comedian stray into offensive territory while pursuing the task of satirizing these social ills, or do they embody the social ills themselves at face value?


Featured photo courtesy of Netflix, Instagram