SNL’s Comedy and Cultural Awareness: A crucial balancing act

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Comedian Shane Gillis had his brief stint with Saturday Night Live come to an end after YouTube videos discovered Gillis making racial and sexist comments.  Photo from The Associated Press.

Comedian Shane Gillis had his brief stint with Saturday Night Live come to an end after YouTube videos discovered Gillis making racial and sexist comments. Photo from The Associated Press.

The wildly successful TV show Saturday Night Live has never shied away from pushing the boundaries or hid from controversy during its over forty years of entertaining skits that often elucidate serious societal problems. However, SNL has a limit, drawing a clear line between witty commentary and hate speech. On Sept. 16, the show fired its newest cast member, Shane Gillis, just four days after he was hired in response to public outcry about old YouTube videos wherein the comedian made racist and homophobic jokes

Gillis’ comments, which took place on a podcast called “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,” included racial slurs against those of Asian descent and a statement that women are at the bottom of the pyramid for who is actually funny, just under “gay dudes.”

While most applaud SNL’s decision, there has been some backlash, particularly from comedians who feel that the art of their craft is at stake. Comedians have enjoyed the ability to push societal boundaries with reduced risk of public outcry for centuries. Even back in medieval times, the court jester was able to use jokes to bring up concerns to the king that others would have been beheaded for attempting to address. Truly, as Mary Poppins said, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. 

However, if such opponents of SNL’s decision are calling racial and homophobic slurs “medicine” that is supposed to somehow keep the artistry of the craft alive, that is an outlandish delusion. While it is true that Americans have the right to free speech under the First Amendment, this does not mean that actions do not have consequences. If someone says something offensive, people have the right to be offended by it and respond accordingly. 

Some supporters of Gillis’ removal from the SNL cast point out that the decision makes sense not only from the lens of political correctness but also with respect to the culture and viewpoints reflected in SNL’s work environment. There are many women who have contributed to SNL and currently star on the show, and the cast just recently added its first Asian-American member, Bowen Yang, who is a gay mom. All of these factors would make it difficult for Gillis to fit into the workplace environment and likely cause the other cast members to feel uncomfortable. There is nothing unfair about SNL taking this into consideration. 

While it is true that everyone can make mistakes and people should be able to advance in their careers after a mishap if they have apologized for it, the sincerity of the apology and timing of the event in question should be taken into consideration. Gillis’ hateful jokes were made only a year ago, leaving very little time to indicate a change of heart. In addition, his public apology on Twitter does not feel truly remorseful and rather seems more concerned with the fact that Gillis is facing consequences for his words.  According to Gillis, he is a “comedian that pushes boundaries … I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually been offended by anything I’ve said.” When he was fired from SNL, he posted that no one can take away from him that he was funny enough to have been cast at all, and that he’s always been more of a “mad TV guy anyway.”

Ultimately, while it is true that people should be able to take risks in comedy and receive some element of forgiveness for when they go too far, comedians operate in a complicated world and are not entirely free from societal boundaries. Making a joke cannot come at the expense of belittling people and making certain groups uncomfortable. There is a difference between making an edgy joke and a hateful comment, and while the line can be a little vague in the context of our culture, it is comedians’, and everyone’s, responsibility to adhere to that difference as much as they can. Gillis may be right that he was funny enough to get on SNL, but this is not the only element that makes a great comedian. A truly gifted comic performs not only in the context of what’s funny but also with an awareness of how audiences will react to their comments.  


Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu.

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