One of the first comics to publicly come to Gillis’s defense was Schneider, who joined “Saturday Night Live” as a writer in the late 1980s and was a cast member from 1990 to 1994. “As a former SNL cast member I am sorry that you had the misfortune of being a cast member during this era of cultural unforgiveness where comedic misfires are subject to the intolerable inquisition of those who never risked bombing onstage themselves,” he tweeted.
Schneider, who in recent years has been critical of the show that made him famous, suggested a suspension might have been more appropriate for Gillis. But it was unclear how much of Gillis’s podcast commentary Schneider — who has been criticized for employing racial stereotypes in his own comedy — had heard.
Most of the comments that found Gillis under fire last week did not take place in a stand-up setting but on “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,” which the comic co-hosted with his friend Matt McCusker. Controversy erupted after a journalist shared a clip of one 2018 episode that featured the duo using racist slurs against Chinese people and mocking their accents. Gillis has also been criticized for remarks he made as a guest on other podcasts — one of which featured him using an anti-Semitic and racist slur to reference Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Yang notably defended Gillis after Vice reported the comic’s repeated use of the slur in a May podcast recording. He tweeted that he did not support Gillis losing his job and offered to meet with the comic. Hours after SNL said Gillis would not be joining the show’s upcoming 45th season, Yang tweeted that the meeting may soon take place. The presidential hopeful has faced some criticism for his approach to the controversy. “He’s trying to let Shane Gillis off the hook so he can cater to other voters that he needs to get to the White House,” Jenn Fang, creator of the Asian American advocacy blog Reappropriate, told the New York Times.
Norm Macdonald, who spent five seasons on SNL in the 1990s, made it clear he was unhappy with the decision. “Of course you know, this means WAR,” the former “Weekend Update” anchor tweeted alongside a Variety article about Gillis’s eclipsed SNL debut. He also tagged Gillis in an apologetic tweet.
Sasheer Zamata, who quietly left SNL in 2017 after four seasons, told BuzzFeed’s AM2DM that comedians should be able to say what they want — with a caveat: “Say whatever you want, but you also have to know that the audience is going to feel how they feel, and they also have a right to say what they want to say.”
On his Comedy Central talk show Monday, fellow SNL veteran David Spade said he preferred “to stay out of the fray,” deferring to two of his “Lights Out With David Spade” guests: comedians Jim Jefferies and Bill Burr.
“This is just cancel culture. The guy shouldn’t have been fired,” Jefferies said. “It’s just a couple things back in his history — are we going to go back through everyone’s history? Or are we going to get rid of every sketch that SNL has done that involves race?”
Jefferies referenced Samurai Futaba, a character John Belushi played in the mid- to late ’70s. Belushi spoke mock Japanese and made exaggerated use of a katana for the recurring role, which was also referenced by some social media users who saw a double standard in SNL’s decision to fire Gillis.
SNL has indeed rankled viewers with questionable racial humor over the years. Ching Chang, a caricature Dana Carvey debuted in 1986 but performed as recently as 2000, was also cited. In a more recent example, the show infamously tapped Fred Armisen — who is of Venezuelan, German and Korean descent — to play President Barack Obama, darkening the comedian’s skin for the role. Another sketch, which aired in 2013, featured Armisen and Nasim Pedrad speaking in stereotypically accented English while portraying Chinese laborers.
But as many SNL fans noted last week, those sketches made Season 45′s original casting announcement all the more poignant. One of the comics hired alongside Gillis was Bowen Yang, a Chinese American comedian who writes for the show. Yang was widely celebrated as SNL’s first cast member of East Asian descent, though many news stories noted the partial Asian heritage of both Armisen and Schneider, who is of Filipino descent.
SNL’s lack of Asian American representation on screen has long been an issue — even when it comes to the show’s celebrity hosts. When Awkwafina hosted the show last October, she became only the second Asian American woman to host the show. (Her predecessor, Lucy Liu, hosted in 2000.) Korean Canadian actress Sandra Oh, who hosted SNL in March, was among those who supported SNL’s decision to fire Gillis. “Glad 2 see @nbcsnl decision NOT legitimize/give platform 2 purveyors of racist homophobic content,” the “Killing Eve” star tweeted.
Burr referenced SNL’s poor track record during his appearance on “Lights Out.” “If you say something like that, you can’t work in a sketch show, but, like, it’s okay for what, he can work at a lumberyard? He’s certainly going to meet more Asians there,” he said to awkward laughter from the audience.
Burr, who notably riffs on cancel culture in his latest Netflix special, “Paper Tiger,” offered a clarification: “Than on SNL! It’s a joke about how SNL’s not hiring Asians."
“Jesus Christ,” he added. “Now I’m in trouble?!”