Racist jokes by new SNL cast member Shane Gillis prompt backlash — and a non-apology about “risks”

Shane Gillis performs in 2019
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Clusterfest

On Thursday, Saturday Night Live celebrated a milestone: hiring Bowen Yang as the first Asian cast member in SNL history. Yang, who is openly gay, is one of three new featured players — alongside Chloe Fineman and Shane Gillis — joining the show’s roster for its upcoming 45th season after serving as a staff writer last year. By Thursday evening, though, the excitement was dampened by a report that Gillis has a history of making racist and homophobic jokes and other remarks.

Freelance journalist Seth Simons tweeted that during a September 2018 episode of the comedian’s podcast Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast — available to watch and listen to on YouTube — Gillis and co-host Matt McCusker dedicated a pocket of time to discussing why they dislike Chinese and Asian people, Chinese food, and Chinatown (it’s unclear which specific Chinatown they’re referring to):

“Why do the fucking ch*nks live there?” Gillis asks, explaining why Chinatown disgusts him. “Get those ducks out of that window.”

The two have a conversation about how Chinese people make, in their words, “dishonest” food because it contains MSG, which McCusker erroneously says that Chinese people “invented.” In actuality, monosodium glutamate is a chemical compound that is sometimes added to food to enhance its flavor but also occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes and cheese. The idea that Chinese food relies heavily on “unhealthy” MSG has both been debunked and is theorized to have roots in racism and xenophobia, with non-Asian people believing that authentic Asian food is unclean.

Gillis and McCusker also pepper in purposeful mispronunciations like “noodre” and “dericious” to make fun of Asian accents, and Gillis has gripes about Asian people speaking and learning English.

“[An Asian trying to learn English] — that’s more annoying than any other minority playing music loud on their phone,” Gillis says.

As Vulture points out, Gillis did not limit his targets to Asian people. In a different podcast episode, Gillis uses homophobic slurs, calling director Judd Apatow and stand-up comedian Chris Gethard “white f*ggot comics” and “fucking gayer than ISIS” for their comedic style.

Late Thursday night, just hours after SNL announced that Gillis was joining its cast and Freeman publicized the comic’s offensive past, Gillis responded with a statement on Twitter. He didn’t apologize for the comments and jokes but instead explained that the slurs he used, like the racist way he spoke about Asian people, were part of his comedy.

“I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss,” he wrote. “My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”

It’s slightly ironic that Gillis considers himself a risk-taking boundary-pusher when the comedy in these podcast episodes was, among other things, unoriginal.

He employed shopworn tropes, racist and homophobic language, age-old myths about Chinese food, and ignorant attitudes about Chinatown and Asian Americans. Most Asian or Asian American people — likely including Gillis’s future co-worker Yang, who hasn’t commented on the matter — have heard these hurtful statements before. To many of his fellow comics, Gillis’s regressive sense of humor may be as offensive as his racism.

Critics have also observed that Gillis’s lack of apology (“I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended”) shows a lack of awareness and remorse. This response places the blame of anyone who’s offended by a slur on an audience he seems to believe just doesn’t understand his brand of humor. It’s not unlike the soft statements made by other comedians whose offensive humor or behavior led to backlash.

Additionally, considering how easy it was to find Gillis’s year-old comments, whatever vetting process SNL applies to its new cast members, if any, has left many of the show’s fans dismayed.

SNL has not commented on Gillis’s racist remarks or whether it will review Gillis’s position on the show. Gillis isn’t the first SNL cast member to come under fire for racism prior to their first appearance on the show. In 2015, freshly hired cast member Jon Rudnitsky drew backlash for tweeting racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks in the years prior to his debut. A year later, in 2016, cast member Melissa Villaseñor came under fire for her own past racist jokes, which were found after it was announced she’d be joining the cast.

SNL stood by both cast members, keeping them on the show despite the pre-season criticism. Rudnitsky was not asked back to the show after his single season; Villaseñor is still a cast member.

Saturday Night Live will debut its 45th season September 28 on NBC.

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