The triumph of Shane Gillis

The cancelled comic’s return to Saturday Night Live was a righteous blow against the pearl-clutchers.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture USA

Last night, stand-up comic Shane Gillis hosted Saturday Night Live – America’s premier, if long-past-its-best, sketch-comedy show – a little more than four years after he was fired from its cast, in one of the swiftest and most savage cancellations the industry had ever witnessed.

Gillis’s opening monologue, more of a club set than the usually tightly scripted fare, blew through a mix of material, new and old, about his relatives with Down’s syndrome, high-school football coaches and how young boys are essentially their mother’s gay best friends. He nodded briefly to his sacking, but as the sketches began – with Gillis playing a sex-pest co-worker who goes to the strip club at lunchtimes, before reprising his first-rate Donald Trump impression – it was like he’d never been away.

So, the man deemed morally untouchable, unworthy to be in SNL’s regular, week-in, week-out line-up just a few years ago, returned to host an episode of his own – one of American entertainment’s most coveted guest spots, usually occupied by Hollywood A-Listers. Is cancel culture’s brittle grip beginning to crack? For all our sakes, let’s hope so.

Gillis’s fall and rise is a reminder of how brutal cancel culture can be – and how spectacularly it can backfire.

When he was named as a new SNL cast member in 2019, Gillis was unknown beyond the stand-up circuit. Within days of him being handed the opportunity of a lifetime – alumni include Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Tina Fey – a journalist dug up a clip of him using the racial slur, ‘chink’, on an old episode of Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, a podcast he does with fellow comic Matt McCusker. While Gillis was, he says, impersonating a white racist when he said it, saying it was enough to damn him.

As Gillis puts it, he went from having it made to being cancelled during one train ride. He was heading into Manhattan to do stand-up, from Queens where he then lived. Each time he pulled into a stop and regained reception, he received another torrent of messages. ‘I got gradually cancelled, every stop.’

It was all over, before he had taped a single episode. SNL briefly tried to ride out the controversy, before unceremoniously dropping Gillis. A statement described the language in his previous work as ‘offensive, hurtful and unacceptable’.

What happened next is a quintessential example of the Streisand Effect, when the attempt to suppress something only ends up pointing a giant spotlight on it. We might as well rechristen it the Gillis Effect.

Gillis refused to issue a grovelling apology, nor did he refashion himself as a conservative culture warrior. He just kept making comedy. He put out a brilliant special on YouTube, Live in Austin, which currently has 24million views. He put out viral sketches. He toured what you might call the Joe Rogan circuit, the hugely successful, decidedly un-PC podcasts orbiting the 56-year-old comic-turned-podfather. Meanwhile, Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast exploded in popularity. It is currently the biggest pod on Patreon, with tens of thousands of paid subscribers.

Following his 2023 blockbuster Netflix special, Beautiful Dogs, Gillis is now on the verge of arena-act status. You can see why SNL came calling.

Notoriety alone doesn’t do this, of course. The now 36-year-old Gillis is also easily among the best stand-ups of his generation. His jokes unfold like sketches, his shit-talking, beer-swilling delivery belying immense polish and intelligence. It’s a style reminiscent of the best of Dave Chappelle, another comedian who has had his run-ins with the new pearl-clutchers. (Chappelle is a big fan of Gillis.)

He is also that rarest of things in the achingly right-on, superficially diverse but socially monocultural, world of modern American comedy: a child of Fox News-watching, lower-middle-class, suburban America. In the post-2016 age, Gillis is the imagined villain of the liberal elites and the living, breathing antithesis of all their deadening pieties.

Brought up in central Pennsylvania, Gillis was a high-school football star turned army and college dropout. He looks and talks and jokes like someone’s older brother from ‘back home’. He says ‘gay’ and ‘retarded’ with abandon – but largely to mock his own meat-headed tendencies. He’ll send up his new, woke Brooklyn friends – whose every social-media post boils down to ‘See, I’m not racist…’ – just as much as he does his conservative, somewhat dysfunctional, family.

Indeed, Gillis’s material on red America is easily more incisive and funnier than anything the Daily Show writing staff could produce in a hundred years. Not least because it comes from a place of huge affection. His material about his dad, watching Fox News every night until he is too drunk and / or outraged to continue, is a wonderful case in point: ‘Fuckin’ Mr Potato Head is trans? I’m going to bed.’ ‘Fox News is basically black church for old white dudes’, Gillis observes in Live at Austin, as he watches his father vigorously agreeing with absolutely everything the anchors say: ‘Mmmm, hmmm… preach, Tucker!’

So it is with his routines on The Donald. Gillis has some of the best Trump material you’ll hear, precisely because he isn’t blinded by anti-Trump fury. He gets how funny – intentionally and unintentionally – Trump is; his outrageousness, his bizarre tics and cadences. Gillis has a great joke about why Trump would be the funniest president to be assassinated, which simply wouldn’t work coming from a hair-trigger liberal.

But nor does he serve up endless pronoun gags and tirades against the Dems and SJWs. Gillis says he didn’t vote for Trump, although he has joked that he has ‘early onset Republican’, given he’s a history buff. (‘If you’re a white dude in your twenties and thirties and can’t stop reading about World War II, it’s coming, brother’, he says in Beautiful Dogs.) For him, it seems, agitprop of any flavour is creative death.

There are plenty of people who are unhappy that Gillis has been re-embraced by the mainstream entertainment biz. His SNL rehabilitation ‘proves how effortlessly the comedy industry forgives racism’, reads one typically breathless Vox column. But you can’t help but feel that those kinds of people are becoming more shrill precisely because they know they are beginning to lose ground.

The triumph of Shane Gillis reveals that there is a vast ecosystem of platforms and shows that can outstrip the reach of the dwindling mainstream. (An episode of The Joe Rogan Experience reportedly reaches twice as many people as your average edition of Saturday Night Live.) And now some of the old gatekeepers are beginning to realise the talent – and the viewing figures – they can miss out on when they confuse the mob for the country.

It seems that, four years after sacking him, SNL needed Shane Gillis more than Shane Gillis needed SNL. Culture is healing.

Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture USA


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