What “Canceled” Comedian Shane Gillis’s Triumphant SNL Return Says About the State of the Culture War (2024)

Wide Angle

The recentSaturday Night Livehost’s comedy is broad, affable, and far from edgy. So why is he hailed as an “anti-wokeness” warrior?

By Luke Winkie

What “Canceled” Comedian Shane Gillis’s Triumphant SNL Return Says About the State of the Culture War (1)

As far as celebrity cancellations go, Shane Gillis appeared to be an open-and-shut case. In 2019, the comic—who was not nearly as famous then as he is today—was hired to be a featured player on Saturday Night Live. On the same day as the casting announcement, a clip surfaced from the podcast Gillis hosts with fellow comic Matt McCusker in which he deploys the racial slur “chink” and chortles through a few juvenile stereotypes about the quality of Chinese cooking. You can imagine what happened next: After issuing a not-quite-apology on the platform formerly known as Twitter, Gillis was fired by NBC within the week, and that was that—this little misadventure came to a tidy conclusion. And yet, this past weekend, five years after the ousting, audiences were treated to an epilogue. SNL issued an informal mea culpa to Gillis, wreathing him with a dedicatory hosting slot, as it often does with its jilted former collaborators. Gillis’ name was emblazoned high on the marquee; it was vindication served on a spotlit platter.

It is rare for a comic to make a lauded institution like SNL eat sh*t on live television a few scant years after what could’ve been a career-ending turn. But on Saturday, nobody—not Gillis, or NBC—really addressed the elephant in the room. Gillis’ monologue opened with a quick, awkward riff about how he didn’t want the audience to Google the nature of his termination; it would turn out to be the first and last reference to the controversy on the broadcast. He spent the rest of his set falling back on the material that has made him one of the most successful stand-ups in the country: a more trenchant version of the same humor you might find around middle-school cafeteria tables across the country. That is to say, a lot of well-crafted, good-natured gags about the differences between races, genders, and sexualities.

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Contrary to popular opinion—or what you might assume from that one ignoble podcast clip—Gillis has never been a MAGA comic. He is unburdened by the pickled grievance that defines an Adam Carolla or a Ricky Gervais, and I’ve never heard him utter the word “woke” on stage, in spite of the “anti-woke” descriptor that all manner of outlets and commentators frequently append to his name. His monologue included a joke about how prepubescent sons are their mother’s “gay best friend” and a trite quip about the charmed lives of those born with Down syndrome. It is red state–friendly, if not red state–exclusive, the kind of thing that socialist Brooklynites can savor alongside their Fox News–watching dads. The punchlines weren’t delivered with any real invective, or from a specific moral vantage, but they did underscore Gillis’ broader credo: The world is funnier when he doesn’t need to think about what he wants to say.

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That may explain, in part, how Gillis was able to rebound so quickly after his initial SNL debacle. Frankly, Gillis is a talented comic, armed with an easy affability in front of a microphone and a preternatural ability to win over mixed crowds. His schoolyard hom*ophobia and casual deployment of slurs might turn you off, but there are other riffs in his repertoire that showcase his persona—an amiable oaf from central Pennsylvania—in a better light. (I’m partial to his observation that the assassination of Donald Trump would be, by far, one of the funniest television events in American history.) But it’s also undeniable that Gillis has been backed, to the point of martyrdom, by those who aren’t likely to consider using a racial slur to be an immediately fireable offense—and who, in fact, perhaps feel like such a measure is a schoolmarm overreach. After his fall from grace, Gillis became a star among fans of the post-ironic leftist comedy collective Cum Town, the far more right-leaning Barstool Sports content empire, and, of course, The Joe Rogan Experience—three dominions of cultural capital that don’t have much more in common other than a combined distaste for a certain brand of earnest, identity-based liberalism commonly associated with people who aren’t edgy white men.

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But Gillis, in spite of his regular presence within the orbit of such leading intellectual luminaries, has rarely asserted a political identity of his own. If he does possess a sharply drawn worldview, then he has kept it a mystery. (This ambiguity was the subject of a lengthy 2022 New Yorker profile, which examined the comic’s surprising rise from the ashes and his ideologically diverse suite of supporters.) The American public hasn’t demanded further clarification, either. Gillis’ first Netflix special was released last year to raves from mainstream critics, the streamer just acquired his six-episode sitcom, and his podcast—yes, the one that originally got him booted from SNL—is raking in oodles of cash on Patreon.

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It appears that Gillis has successfully threaded a rapidly winnowing likability needle during a ridiculously partisan age, which is no small feat indeed. His initial firing from SNL provided an easy off-ramp to the sort of canceled-guy bellyaching that has become so common (and profitable) among besieged comedians, but, in a surprise twist, Gillis has insisted on telling his same old jokes, his same old way, aiming for broad tastes and broader appeal rather than for drama. (One of his best bits has Gillis watching coverage of the Iraq War and finding himself relating more to the scrappy, and routinely annihilated, Taliban, rather than the icy precision of the U.S. coalition.) It worked; Gillis is now mighty close to being a household name, and, with an SNL hosting gig under his belt, it’s clear that he has been welcomed back into the mainstream enclave.

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There’s only one thing that could get in his way now: For all that Gillis himself has eschewed railing against “woke” culture, his more reactionary post-cancellation boosters sure haven’t. They will happily wield his success to validate their instincts, subverting his own supposed nonalignment. In the absence of Gillis’ voice, they’re ready to break the silence. Case in point: Some of his fans noticed that, during Gillis’ monologue, a woman who plays guitar in the SNL band, lingering under the darkened backdrop, did not appear to be laughing at his material. One user snapped a photo of her and posted it on X, writing in a now-deleted tweet, “Gillis can feel the rage behind him.” Later, the same user unearthed the guitar player’s Instagram account, highlighting a post she had made in support of Black Lives Matter as further grounds for humiliation. This was far from the only Gillis fan to interpret pearl-clutching offense from what may have been just been apathy; beneath the monologue clip that SNL uploaded to YouTube, the comments section is filled with laugh-crying emojis and gleeful taunts about the apparent reactions (or nonreactions) of the band members in the background. Over the course of a single segment, one woman was transformed into an avatar of overreaching wokeness, cowering in the face of its conqueror, all because she didn’t outwardly laugh at a couple of middling jokes. Such is the malleability of Shane Gillis, and the line between the Bidenites and the Roganites that he so carefully treads.

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In the aftermath of the SNL monologue, I noticed other Gillis fans celebrating, to the point of ecstasy, his usage of words like “gay” and “retarded”—the punchlines, mild as they were, weren’t nearly as relevant as the glacial nudges to the Overton window. Gillis has played the game perfectly. He has managed to parachute back into mainstream consciousness while still—intentionally or not—holding on to some sly, anti-woke bona fides, and that appears to be scaffolding for a long career. But at his current pace, the comic can only elude the culture war for so long. We shouldn’t have to demand that anyone who performs onstage disclose their exact brand of politics for our edification, but the reality is this: If Gillis continues to be opaque and diffident about his moral and ideological leanings, engaging in a wobbly tightrope of catering to all possible sides of the conflict, then of course his most vocal fans will do the fighting for him. The conflation of comedy, free speech, and so-called anti-wokeness is a cause, and whether Gillis likes it or not, he has been elected as one of its campaigners.

  • Comedy
  • SNL
  • TV

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What “Canceled” Comedian Shane Gillis’s Triumphant SNL Return Says About the State of the Culture War (2024)
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