Commentary: Shane Gillis, who was fired by ‘SNL’ over bigoted remarks, is hosting. What changed?

A man in a black T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers holds a mic onstage and has an arm raised.
Comedian Shane Gillis at Madison Square Garden in New York during Dave Chappelle’s 50th birthday celebration in August.
(Evan Agostini / Invision / AP)

The comedian Shane Gillis, who will host “Saturday Night Live” this week, has described himself as racist. That’s the term he uses in a 2017 episode of his podcast, “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,” currently the most popular show on Patreon. Chatting with his co-host, Matt McCusker, he recalls a crude impression of a Chinese person that he performed at a Philadelphia comedy theater the previous night. “I like to open with a bad racist joke,” he says. “Make sure everyone knows I suck.”

The bit visibly offended a group of Asian women in the audience, Gillis recalls. He later mocked them from the stage, then offered a halfhearted apology after the show. Stewing over the incident, he tells McCusker he will “stop making fun of Asians.” Then he seems to suggest he already tempers himself in his stand-up, if not in his unscripted material. “All you have to do is listen to any one of our podcasts and be like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s pretty ra—.’”

He cuts himself off, but his meaning is clear. More interesting is what comes next: “I tone it down so much onstage, compared to this.”

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When “SNL” hired Gillis as a featured player in 2019, the venerable comedy series quickly discovered what exactly he was toning down. Within hours of the casting announcement, journalists uncovered racist, homophobic and transphobic comments Gillis made on his podcast the previous year, including a slur for Chinese people and lengthy gripes about the same. (I published several of these clips, though I cannot take credit for finding them: a comedian sent them to me.) Days later, “SNL” fired him and condemned his remarks. The 31-year-old declined to apologize, instead issuing a statement praising himself for getting hired. In conversations with stand-up comedians like Artie Lange and Theo Von on their podcasts, he defended his jokes, saying he wouldn’t change anything about them.

Shane Gillis has been fired by “Saturday Night Live” just days after his hiring was announced. The show says its vetting process “was not up to our standard.”

Sept. 16, 2019

It is perhaps unsurprising that when TMZ recently published even more clips of Gillis making bigoted jokes in 2018, featuring the n-word and a slur for Jewish people, the news made barely a ripple. After all, everyone knows he used slurs on “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast.” Who would be surprised that he also used them on “A Fair One,” his show on Compound Media, the comedy network founded by Anthony Cumia — who in 2014 was fired from SiriusXM after he posted a series of racist tweets — where Gavin McInnes originated the Proud Boys in 2016?

No, I suppose it’s not revelatory that Gillis used even worse language than was previously reported. Still, it is worth dwelling on his “A Fair One” era — which spanned from 2018 to 2019 — before considering his more recent material. Implicit in his return to “SNL,” and his broader ascension to stardom, is the idea that he rose past his self-described racism to become a true comedian, with hit specials — like Netflix’s “Beautiful Dogs” — and the respect of peers like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle. There can be no doubt he’s a true comedian. What about the other part?

A man holding a mic stands on a stage in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
Shane Gillis at Netflix Is a Joke Festival in 2023.
(Phil Provencio/Netflix)

Conveniently, I found full video episodes of “A Fair One” in the form of unlisted uploads on a YouTube fan playlist; they correspond with episodes still available behind the Compound Media paywall. [The Times has reviewed the videos and verified the statements made by Gillis on the podcast.] Let’s start at the beginning.

In one “A Fair One” segment, Gillis uses the n-word, ostensibly quoting his father’s nickname for a childhood prank: “[n-word]-knocking.”

In another, taking a cue from a racist caller, he describes comedian Ian Fidance, a frequent “A Fair One” guest, as “a k—-faced bitch.”


In a third, he performs a crude impression of someone with Down syndrome before telling his co-host and guest that their “hook noses” make them look Jewish. Later, he expresses skepticism of the idea that some homophobes are in the closet. “I hate Black people; I’m not Black. I hate Jews; not a f— Jew bone in my body.”

In a fourth, he complains about the “CNN Jew s—” playing on the studio’s television, asking that it be changed to Fox News.

In a fifth, he praises his co-host’s “Black voices” before performing his own racist caricature. Then he effuses over the founder of the Proud Boys. “I’ve watched Gavin McInnes videos and been like, ‘Hell yeah, dude,’” he says. “I’ve gotten drunk and watched f—ing Gavin McInnes, like, highlight reels of him debating people, which he f— crushes people. He crushes.”

This is Gillis before he was famous, performing for an audience he knew was small and ideologically aligned. These are not the sort of jokes he tells onstage. They are the jokes he tells among his friends. As with much racist and antisemitic comedy, they should horrify us not because they are hateful but because they are full of joy.

During the 2019 controversy, Gillis defended himself as “a comedian who pushes boundaries.” Rául Pérez, a sociologist who studies racist humor, suggested that comedians like Gillis do, in fact, push an important boundary: the one delineating what level of racism is acceptable in the public square.

“They’re trying to signal to society, ‘Hey, we know we have this boundary where we can’t use this word, but just go along with me for a little bit,’” said Pérez. “’Let’s imagine a scenario where we can. And see, you’re all laughing. No harm, no foul.’”


“Then the bar gets raised. Now it’s not just one or two comedians that can use the racial [or antisemitic] slur if they’re not part of the group. Now it allows for others to do the same. And then, of course, people in the audience are like, ‘Well, Gillis can do it. Why can’t I do it?’”

Gillis hosted “A Fair One” years ago, before he learned to channel the darker parts of his psyche into great comedy. Now he’s at the top of the class, praised for his ability to play to liberals and conservatives alike. His stand-up flirts with racism but deviously avoids taboo, toying with the audience’s assumptions about him as a boorish white man. According to a 2022 New Yorker profile, he even makes a point of chiding fans who approach him to repeat the slurs he once used. Is he still toning things down, as he said in 2017, or has he truly evolved?

As it turns out, you need only listen to his podcast, especially the paywalled episodes, to learn that Gillis never stopped making fun of people who aren’t like him. He’s generally steered clear of outright slurs since 2019, but he’s continued using crude Asian accents and pejoratives like “the Japanee” and “the Chinee.” Not only has he referred to Jewish people as “the Jays” and his agent as “my Jew agent,” he’s employed stereotypical Jewish American accents and mocked “retarded Jews.” In 2022, he even participated in an earnest discussion about whether Jewish people control the media. He has used the term “trap” to refer to trans people, routinely uses “trans” as both a noun and a verb — “a trans,” “he transed”— and repeatedly misgendered the Wachowski sisters in an episode last year. (“I didn’t even know the f— Matrix brothers transed.”) He has also speculated about parents “forcing [their] kids to trans” and pondered whether some trans people transition out of horniness, reinventing the pseudoscientific concept of autogynephilia.

The Comedy Store’s “Potluck” open-mic night has a few ground rules: Buy two drinks, no heckling and absolutely no digital recording of any kind.

Sept. 27, 2019

It may be tempting to excuse these tendencies, consistent in his work over a period of years, as offhand riffs that don’t reflect his values. But while Gillis has presented himself as politically in the middle — in his Netflix special, he says he’s not a Republican, though he feels the pull of grievance politics — his podcasts reveal this to be a pretense. In a five-hour election livestream in 2020, Gillis and his friends fervently yearned for Donald Trump’s victory, and he twice explained how much he wanted the left to lose. In 2017, he remarked to McCusker that the night of Trump’s 2016 win was “our Super Bowl.” In 2022, he identified as conservative in a segment praising Ted Cruz when the senator was a guest on “The View” for “doing battles with those f— yappy bitches.” That same year, he told Joe Rogan about a trip he took to Mar-a-Lago at the invitation of a group of fans who worked there. This past July, he met Trump at a UFC event and posted a picture with him on Instagram. (“That was pretty sick,” he told McCusker of the experience.) Throughout it all, he has released numerous podcasts with far-right comedians and Holocaust deniers.

Crucially, Gillis at times acknowledges his racist language as racist, just like he did in 2017. “You hear me laying down, the game’s on, I’m just gonna be a little racist and have a little bit of fun,” he says after making fun of Jewish people in a 2022 Patreon-exclusive episode. “If the blood rushes to my head, all my blood’s racist. I do have racist blood.”

Do I think Gillis shouldn’t host “SNL” because of all this? Trick question: I don’t think anyone should host “SNL,” because I think “SNL,” which exerts a monopolistic chokehold on American comedy, should not exist. But it does exist, and despite its waning relevance, it still plays an important role in popular culture — both as a talent pipeline and as a public relations machine for the famous and powerful. That makes it important for us to observe what’s happening here: a level of offstage but on-mic bigotry that “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels deemed unacceptable in 2019 is fine and dandy in 2024. As of publication, a spokesperson for “SNL” did not comment after several requests to explain why the show chose to have Gillis host despite having fired him for his remarks.


If “SNL’s” decision to book Gillis stirs controversy within Studio 8H, it would not be the first time. Michaels hired misogynistic comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay to host in 1990, leading cast member Nora Dunn to boycott the episode. “Lorne said, ‘Andrew Dice Clay was a phenomenon worth examining,’” Dunn later recalled, though she resisted the notion that “SNL” “examines” its hosts: “You’re there to make them look good.”

Former “SNL” head writer Colin Jost echoed Dunn in his 2020 memoir, “A Very Punchable Face.”

“Once a host arrives — even one you’re ambivalent about — you do your best to make them look good or at least minimize how bad they make you look,” the “Weekend Update” anchor wrote.

In 2022, a number of “SNL” writers reportedly boycotted an episode hosted by Chappelle, protesting his recent pivot to anti-trans activism. Cast members Bowen Yang, Sarah Sherman, and Molly Kearney notably did not appear in the taping. So far, there have been no rumblings from within the show about Gillis.

I know better than to seek moral consistency from a show that airs comedy sketches in between television commercials. What I would like instead is an honest reckoning with the fact that Gillis represents the dominant sensibility in American stand-up — he was a regular in New York’s comedy scene until he moved to Austin, Texas, and has several shows coming up at Radio City Music Hall. His firing in 2019 inspired heated backlash from many of his peers because they peddle all the same wares, from cruel racist invectives to naked transphobia. Today, many comedians in his class have followed him down the road paved by Chappelle and Joe Rogan to become the most popular in the world.

It would be naive to pretend their success has nothing to do with their bigotry, or that the mode of their bigotry somehow strips it of ideological force. As Gillis is fond of observing, it’s Donald Trump’s facility with humor that makes him such an appealing figure. Whether deployed by politicians or entertainers, comedy’s power is to needle deep into the subconscious, forming an emotional bond that transcends reason. To laugh is to feel pleasure. How can pleasure be wrong? No, whatever makes us laugh must be good, otherwise we wouldn’t be laughing. Right?

The people who make and enjoy racist comedy often defend it on the grounds that comedians should not be held to the same standards as politicians. It’s true: they shouldn’t. But we should all be held to high standards when it comes to bigotry, and the standard for “don’t be a bigot” is actually quite low. As with its booking Nikki Haley, who has opposed marriage equality and demonized trans people,“SNL’s” olive branch to Shane Gillis reflects a dangerous failure to learn from the hate movements that blossomed during the Trump era. We have seen what happens when racism’s popularity is mistaken for legitimacy. I’m not sure it’s a mistake we can afford to keep making.


Seth Simons writes Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in comedy.