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Shane Gillis Hosts ‘SNL’ Not With a Bang But a Meh: Analysis

Shane Gillis acknowledged the elephant in the room right away – sort of.

“Yeah, I’m here,” said the comedian, who seemed as bemused as anyone else that he was actually hosting Saturday Night Live. “Most of you probably have no idea who I am. I was actually fired from this show a while ago – but don’t look that up, please. If you don’t know who I am, please, don’t Google that. Don’t even worry about it.”

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For those still unaware, I’ll respect Gillis’ wishes and save you a search: In 2019 Shane Gillis was hired and then four days later famously un-hired as a new SNL cast member after clips from his podcast resurfaced in which he uttered anti-Chinese and homophobic slurs. (A closer reading of the podcast utterances that got him fired reveal that the exchange in question was a bit gray: Was he channeling the type of bigot who would use a slur, or was he speaking as himself? Does it matter?)

In the years since, Gillis has found an alternative path to success, with his podcast (the same one that got him yanked from SNL) comfortably sitting at the top of the Patreon Creators chart with more than 83,000 paying listeners. After the SNL incident he was taken up by some as a martyr of wokeness gone amok, and those fans may have tuned in Saturday night eager to see his vindication, Julia Roberts-in-Pretty Woman style, while others lamented his invitation to return as a sign of cultural regression.

But the Gillis that showed up to Studio 8H was less defiant than chastened. Admitting he was nervous during his shaky monologue (and yet handling his bombing in real time with more grace than Jo Koy), he clearly struggled with tailoring his anything-goes podcast humor into something appropriate for broadcast television: “Look, I don’t have any material that can be on TV, all right?”

Fortunately for him, the SNL writers know how to deploy a Gillis type, and he amiably played Average White Joes in most of his sketches, including a The Floor contestant desperately trying to convince others that he actually can identify famous Black people (just not under pressure) and Forrest Gump’s former bully who peaked in high school. He gamely played self-deprecating characters, most notably a sex doll pitchman for “below average looking men.” A fake movie trailer digital short put his very good Trump impression to good use, while I found the first sketch of the night surprisingly sweet. Gillis, playing an Ohio Catholic dad who drags his family to church while vacationing in Jamaica, catches the spirit (and a pretty decent patois) and the whole sketch ends with a literal crossing of the aisle as the white tourist family jams alongside the Jamaican congregation. (Big ups to Father Lawrence, played by cast member Ego Nwodim, who keeps getting better every season.)

The reality is that for all those who wanted to embrace Gillis as their edgelord and savior, the man himself has resisted joining the cancel culture wars. Profiles in both The New Yorker and The New York Times over the last two years have discussed how the comedian nimbly plays off both the right and left wings. That clearly has brought him great success, but it shouldn’t be surprising that it can also lead to a literally mid SNL episode.

After the show aired Saturday night, Bowen Yang began trending on social media. He and Chloe Fineman were the other newcomers who were part of that 2019 SNL new cast announcement, and as the show’s first fully Asian American cast member, he immediately became associated with the Gillis controversy. He has never commented on the situation, even as he hasn’t been shy about subtweeting other SNL booking decisions. Any speculation that Yang might boycott Gillis’ episode in protest was clearly debunked by the third sketch, in which the two appeared together.

Eagle eyed viewers also spotted, just before the telecast ended, the two sharing what looked like a sincere embrace onstage. (It should be noted that Yang was also observed standing as far away as possible from Dave Chappelle during the sign-off when the latter appeared on the show last month.) Not that Bowen Yang, as a gay Asian SNL cast member, should shoulder the burden of representing not one but two entire communities in deciding whether to absolve Shane Gillis, but to me the exchange was a reminder that alongside laughter, sometimes extending a hand is also the best healing medicine.

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