This month, Shane Gillis returns to Saturday Night Live with his head held high. The comedian and first-time SNL host is less a prodigal son than a prodigal guy-you-met-at-a-party-once – Gillis was infamously hired and then fired by the popular NBC variety show within a matter of days. This was back in 2019, after offensive jokes involving racial slurs he had made on a podcast the year before resurfaced on social media. Gillis’s return to the show, as its star for the week (alongside musical guest 21 Savage), represents a considerable eating of humble pie by SNL – and a smaller, markedly less humble slice of pie for Gillis himself, who once joked that he would shoot himself in the head on live TV were he ever to be invited back.
News of Gillis’s comeback has caused some degree of discomfort among SNL devotees. Certainly, there’s an element of inconsistency to the sketch show’s decision-making: what has really changed since 2019? Gillis, now 36, remains a comedian who wantonly trafficks in bad taste. His first Netflix special, last September’s Beautiful Dogs, contained button-pushing jokes about topics such as race, 9/11 and people with Down’s Syndrome, while he has continued to appear as a frequent guest on Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast. What’s changed is that Gillis is now considerably more successful, and his fractious history with SNL will likely work in the show’s favour when it comes to luring in casual viewers. Is it a cynical move from the SNL producers? An act of hypocrisy? Arguably. But anyone getting too worked up about the Night of Gillis needs to take a breather.
The furore around Gillis speaks to a specifically 21st-century myopia when it comes to comedy: the conflation of taste, politics and morality. After his initial firing by SNL, Gillis was championed by many on the American right as a victim of “cancel culture”. Some have gone further, imposing political beliefs onto Gillis – such as a support of Donald Trump – that he’s never personally espoused. “As soon as they decide you’re a bad guy, you’re just alt-right now or something,” Gillis said at a show in 2019, clarifying that he had not voted for Trump.
Watch Gillis’s shows, and you can’t deny his material is liable to offend: he doesn’t shy away from certain slurs and makes crass jokes about sensitive topics. But in the world of comedy, this is hardly disqualifying. From Bill Burr to Frankie Boyle, there are plenty of precedents – liberal or left-wing or centrist comedians who are more than willing to throw around offensive words or ideas for the sake of a laugh, or to provoke a reaction. Louis CK, the now disgraced standup whose creative influence is unmissable in Gillis’s style, was once adept at this: taking an objectionable or distasteful thought and carrying it on stage to its natural extreme.
To some extent, the question comes down to intent, to whether or not the comedy is hateful or simply problematic. Look, for instance, at Gillis’s routines about Down’s Syndrome. There are things in there to object to – generalisations, patronisations and dehumanising metaphors (likening people with Down’s syndrome to dogs and autistic people, contrarily, to cats), all done with gleeful awareness of the taboo. But within the same material, there are also affectionate and seemingly well-intentioned observational jokes about a family member with Down’s syndrome. To brand it outright hate speech would take a black and white, deeply unpragmatic view of the world. Comedy can be harmful without being hateful, and some jokes are more harmful than others.
Besides, Gillis is far from the most problematic guest to grace SNL. In the last several years, SNL has welcomed scandal lightning rods Trump and Elon Musk as hosts. Just last week, much-criticised Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley reared her head in a sketch that turned her don’t-mention-slavery controversy into a satirical mea culpa. Next to these sort of appointments, Gillis’s inclusion is positively tame. Expect some sparks to fly during the opening monologue, but this is more likely to be a burying of the hatchet than a resumption of grievances. At the end of the day, Gillis has always seemed less interested in scoring political points than in simply going for the laugh – at whatever cost.
‘Saturday Night Live’ airs at 11.30pm ET on NBC, and can be streamed on Peacock the next morning. In the UK, new episodes are available to watch on Sky and NOW.