How controversial SNL host Shane Gillis won the culture wars

Shane Gillis performing in New York, 2023
Shane Gillis performing in New York, 2023 - Getty

Tonight, the US sketch show Saturday Night Live will open with a rushed political sketch, the cast will turn to the camera and shout “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” and the stand-up comedian Shane Gillis will take to the stage to deliver the show’s opening monologue.

The SNL opening monologue is a very particular US institution. It’s hard to think of an equivalent slot anywhere in the history of entertainment where the likes of Adam Driver, Steve Martin, Timothée Chalamet, Will Ferrell, Ana de Armas, Lily Tomlin, Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Taylor Swift, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy and Elon Musk have all had a bash at 10 minutes of stand-up in front of five million viewers.

So Shane Gillis is not unique – not even in the fact that he was previously fired from the cast of SNL. Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Robert Downey Jr and Sarah Silverman have all opened the show after unceremonious departures earlier in their career. But Gillis is unusual in that before he opens his mouth he’s launched a furious debate in the culture wars – either revealing SNL caving into a rising tide of Right-wing comedy, or showing how craven stand-ups will be if they get a chance, or just that the show’s longstanding creator and producer Lorne Michaels is an expert ratings booster.

Gillis – then a rising stand-up from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania – joined the cast of SNL in 2019. He told Joe Rogan that he hated SNL at the time and thought he’d never fit in. But his audition went well, and Michaels told him: “I’m going to use you, but I don’t know how.”

“They go through your social media, and I told them I had a podcast where I say things like gay and retard a lot,” he told Rogan. “They said that’s fine. Then three hours after they announced they’d hired me an article came out with clips of me saying some unsavoury stuff. And it didn’t stop. There were so many articles – I was eviscerated on Twitter for three days. I went into Lorne’s office. He said – if we can get you to the first episode people will see you aren’t a piece of s___. But I knew I was getting fired because there was so much that was worse out there.”

And he was duly fired – the killer quote was on Gillis’ podcast with his co-host Matt McCusker where they talked about how much they hated Chinese food and Philadelphia’s Chinatown. “It’s f______ Chinee down there,” Gillis said. “Let the f______ Chinks live there.”

He might have survived even this if one of the two other acts hired with him wasn’t Bowen Yang, the show’s first Asian American cast member. SNL has a long history of white performers playing Asians, including Mike Myers and John Belushi. Yang’s hiring was trumpeted as a response to this history. So it’s tempting to say it was just the word Chink that did for Gillis – although a deep dive into his early podcast episodes does make for uncomfortable listening. Most of the quotes are too laced with profanity to print here, especially some of the material on race, but Gillis does riff on a game he plays, “like most racists do: guess the race of a car in front of you.”

He explains that watching Asian porn is a turn-off for him with some vivid descriptions of Asian bodies, he mocks comedians with Pakistani backgrounds with some 1970s Jim Davidson accent work and he entertains – although does not agree with – guests who back the Unabomber and who believe Sandy Hook was a government conspiracy.

In the fevered culture war that’s been roiling America for the last two decades, comedy was an exclusively liberal territory. In 2007 Fox News, under the auspices of 24 co-creator Joel Surnow, created the ½ Hour News Hour as a Right-wing response to The Daily Show. It featured skits lampooning sexual harassment and global warming, but the jokes were clunky and poorly delivered, so it almost seemed like an SNL parody of Right-wing comedy.

In 2004, I interviewed a group of conservative Christian comics in the US including the Christian stand-up Brad Stine. He was sharp, thoughtful and – he told me – struggling with material while Bush was president. Comedy, Stine thought, had to punch up. “The court jester had the licence to mock the king and that’s the best comedy,” he explained. “I try punching up at the liberal elite but it doesn’t really play to small-town crowds and the city comedy clubs don’t want to hear it.” Since 2012, he’s largely focussed on acting – but looking at what happened to Gillis I can’t help feeling that if Stine had clung for a couple more years.

In 2017, two big-name comics – Dave Chappelle and Louis CK – suffered falls from grace in the eyes of some fans. Chappelle delivered 20 minutes of material aimed at trans people in a series of stand-up shows, while Louis CK was outed during the MeToo movement for exposing himself to female comedians. Both continued playing to huge crowds and adopted Gillis after his fall, gigging with him as well as creating a podcast (Louis CK) and online sketches (Dave Chappelle) with him. Suddenly there were Right-leaning comics in America who were actually funny… and Gillis cashed in on his “anti-woke” reputation.

Or rather, he sort of did. Gillis, who now sells out arenas across the US, defies easy labelling. He defends trans people, supports gay Pride and gleefully mocks Donald Trump. His sacking attracted an audience he did not enjoy – when he told them he didn’t vote for Trump, they booed. Audience members would yell “Chiiiiink” and he’d scold them from the stage. Fans would ask for selfie videos with him using homophobic insults and he’d always refuse.

He opens his first stand-up special with a routine about his Fox News Dad who “watches Fox every night until he can’t. That’s how long they watch. They watch every night until they get so angry they have to go to bed. My dad will watch for two hours and then out of nowhere, he’ll just stand up and be like, ‘Mr. Potato Head’s trans, I’m going to bed. This world’s going to hell.’”

Towards the end, he riffs on the desegregation of football in Alabama and concludes “If you want to get rights in America, you just gotta put together a good football team. Like, if the transgenders got together and put together just a f______ hard-nose, run-it-down-your-throat ball club, if the trans community could just somehow upset Alabama, everybody down there tomorrow would be like, ‘those are some tough bitches…’” In his last Netflix special, the very funny Beautiful Dogs, he talks of his love of history and declares it a sign of “early onset Republican… If you’re a white dude in your 20s and 30s and can’t stop reading about World War II, it’s coming, brother.”

Annie Marie Dougherty, Shane Gillis, Caroline Hirsch and Jimmy Carr in November 2023
Annie Marie Dougherty, Shane Gillis, Caroline Hirsch and Jimmy Carr in November 2023 - Getty

So what is that material? Conservative? Liberal? Or just a snarky pub wit from a former industrial town? In 2019, Variety reported that Lorne Michaels had brought in Gillis as part of an effort to “appeal to more conservative viewers.”

In a 2022 interview with the New Yorker, Michaels denied that but said that Gillis “does provide a different point of view. He’s from a part of the world that should also have a voice.” Michaels, it’s worth pointing out, has recently given an SNL cameo to Republican hopeful Nikki Haley. By that measure Gillis is barely political.

But the key question is, what will he say? Will he bait the libs? Or will he bask in the approval of the largely liberal cast? Gillis stands at a career crossroads – he could offer up career-changing offence for one side or the other. Or he could just do his dads-n-football routines.

Another question is, how will the Left-leaning SNL team react? Former cast member Tina Fey refused to appear in the same shot as Sarah Palin when she appeared on the show in 2008. In 2022 SNL representatives were forced to deny reports that the show’s writers refused to work with the “transphobic” Dave Chappelle. More recently, in January Bowen Yang – Gillis’s one-time colleague – was accused of looking somewhat displeased when Chappelle joined the cast on stage for a final bow, and later expressed his disapproval of Haley’s appearance on social media. It will be very interesting to see how much screen time Gillis and Yang share tonight.

Live from New York on this Saturday night history may be made. Or it may just be a few mid-Western ratings for a slightly uncertain comic who isn’t really sure why he’s serving in the culture wars.