Life after cancellation (2024)

A brisk March evening in Manhattan, and I am walking to the Circle in the Square Theatre on West 50th Street to see Succession star Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People. As I cross 6th Avenue, I weave my way through a crowd of at least a thousand people outside Radio City Music Hall where standup comic Shane Gillis is performing.

The wave of energy is palpable; you can feel the young crowd’s excitement laced with the spirit of good-natured rebellion. Strong, as you might expect, delivers a virtuoso performance as Dr Thomas Stockmann in Ibsen’s play. But, that night, the city belongs to Gillis.

If you haven’t heard of him, you soon will—because he is the most important comedian in the world today. In the first place, he has torn up what appeared to be the new playbook in the era of culture wars and identity politics. Born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1987, Gillis has honed an extremely funny and distinctive form of intelligent blue-collar comedy. In September 2019, he was hired as a featured cast member on Saturday Night Live—only to be fired four days later, after podcast clips surfaced in which he used politically incorrect language.

Having reached the pinnacle of success in mainstream comedy, he had apparently destroyed his prospects by failing to observe the new rules of social justice politics. Surely this was the self-inflicted end of a promising career?

Instead of complaining about cancel culture or persecution, Gillis apologised and got back to work. In his crumpled T-shirt and jeans, holding the mic with both hands, with the moustache of a hard-drinking TV cop, he persisted—with spectacular effect.

His 2021 YouTube special Live in Austin has clocked up 28m views; the follow-up set last year, Beautiful Dogs, was quickly one of Netflix’s top 10 shows, since when the streaming service has also hosted Tires, his sitcom set in a Pennsylvania auto shop (a second season is in the works).

Meanwhile, his podcast with long-time friend and fellow comic Matt McCusker, Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, is now Patreon’s most successful show (justly so: the duo’s improvised routine involving the young Kim Jong Un’s version of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is one of the funniest comic bits I have ever heard). With exquisite symmetry, Gillis was also invited to host SNL in February—an honour usually accorded only to the most revered of the show’s alumni. The irony was not lost on him.

Gillis is also one of a pack of top-rank comedians who have fled the coasts for Austin, Texas, following the lead of the world’s most successful podcaster, Joe Rogan, who opened a club, the Comedy Mothership, in the city. Tom Segura, Christina P, Tony Hinchcliffe, Brian Redban, Ari Shaffir and Gillis himself have made the Texan capital a hub of free-thinking, unrestrained comedy that interacts with but is not constrained by the old channels of New York and Hollywood culture.

More than any politician or commentator, Gillis has got to the heart of the Donald Trump phenomenon

This leads to the second reason why Gillis is so significant. More than any politician or commentator, he has got to the heart of the Donald Trump phenomenon. He is able both to understand and to mock the mentality of the Red States. In Live in Austin, he puts it thus:

Has enough time passed that we can admit that Trump was funny? Can we finally admit that? He was funny. [The audience cheers.] Well, hold on, I don’t like the tone on that, that’s not what I’m going for here: ‘Yeah, the great leader!’ He was funny. Now, whether or not that’s a great quality for the Commander-in-Chief, that’s definitely up for debate. But he was funny.

He follows this with a brilliant analysis of why the 2016 Republican debates were the reason Trump won (“He was just like, ‘Rand Paul is ugly!’ And the crowd was like, ‘Ohhhhhh! We didn’t know you could do that! In this! You can just do that as your thing?’”).

Gillis grasps that Trump’s resilient appeal is grounded in his intuitive understanding of today’s debased politics—now mostly a branch of the entertainment industry—and that millions of voters still like him precisely because he talks nonsense, precisely because he scorns the very system he wants to rule.

These insights are all the more effective because they are wrapped in self-mockery. Most of the jokes are at Gillis’s expense: the fact that he can’t compete with the Navy Seal his girlfriend used to date; his recognition that his love of history is a sign that he will eventually become a full-blown Republican; his Fox News-loving dad’s reaction to the 6th January attack on the Capitol (“Guys can’t have fun anymore?”).

Next time I’m in New York, I hope I get to see Shane Gillis.

Matthew d’Ancona is an award-winning editor and columnist. His most recent book is ‘Identity, Ignorance, Innovation’ (Hodder & Stoughton)

Life after cancellation (2024)
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