All this is front and center because late last week, “Saturday Night Live” announced the hiring of stand-up comedian Shane Gillis. Then, after footage began to circulate of him mocking and slurring Chinese people on his podcast, and when the magazine Variety reported that he was widely known in comedy circles for his anti-gay and anti-Muslim language, SNL announced that he wouldn’t be joining the cast after all.
Gillis tried to defend himself as a comic who “pushes boundaries,” and a host of other comedians rushed to his defense. Conservative (and a few liberal) media outlets convened panels to discuss whether “cancel culture” had gone too far. Even presidential candidate Andrew Yang chimed in with a message of support for Gillis.
But the arguments that critics of cancel culture make tell on themselves.
“It’s almost like there’s a mutated McCarthy era, where any comic better watch anything they say,” Sarah Silverman told the Los Angeles Times. Oh no, a public performer whose act is based on words is now forced to consider his own words. The horror.
“This is just cancel culture. The guy shouldn’t have been fired,” declared stand-up comedian Jim Jefferies. “Are we going to get rid of every sketch that SNL has done that involves race? I remember John Belushi dressing as an Asian man with a samurai sword. That was the whole sketch.”
Sure, in 1975. Today, we generally agree that someone standing around in yellowface is not exactly the height of comedy. I’m sorry Jefferies misses the good old days, but is it too much to ask for an ambitious young comedian to read the room? “Chinese people talk funny!” is no longer daring comedy.
One suspects that many of those defending Gillis are worried that one day soon, they, too, might get tagged for trading in the same kind of lazy bigotry. At the heart of the anger over “cancel culture” is the fear that you might get canceled yourself — combined with the indignation that someone might ask you to change. But to make their griping seem noble — instead of just lazy — these anti-canceling crusaders declare that in fact it’s the culture that’s attacking them. Virtues like “accountability” and “courtesy” are recast as “authoritarianism” and “giving in to the mob.”
Not every “cancellation” is justified. We live in an unprecedented post-Internet moment: Most of us weren’t expecting our past statements to be readily searchable at all times and might have been more thoughtful if we had. And I’m not defending that woker-than-thou minority that really does exist, one which gangs up on others to highlight their own perfection. What used to be private reprimands now often take place in the public domain, and public dressing-downs rarely work as well as we would hope.
But social mores change, and so does humor. An accidental misstatement is one thing, a persona based on bigotry another. Condemning racism is just common decency. And at the end of the day, we would do well to note that most of the so-called victims of cancel culture are, in fact, totally fine.
Billy Bush, “canceled” after being caught giggling about pussy-grabbing with Donald Trump, is already hosting a new show. Roseanne Barr, literally canceled after a string of racist tweets last year, is still worth $80 million. Even Louis C.K., canceled in 2017 after accusations of sexual misconduct, is on tour again and selling out show after show. Gillis will be fine. A job rescinded by “Saturday Night Live” is a setback, not — as comedian Rob Schneider would like us to think — an “intolerable inquisition” that is “destroying someone.” In fact, due to new publicity in a polarized climate, Gillis’s profile will likely be much higher than before. I, personally, cannot wait until he’s canceled into a Netflix comedy special. Dave Chappelle was never even canceled, but he’s made complaining about “cancel culture” into the most profitable phase of his career.
God does cancel people, and society will survive if we sometimes do, too. Maybe Gillis can use his time on the outs to come up with some new jokes.