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Since its inception with the dawn of Internet chatrooms and message boards in the 1990s, its metamorphosis into sites such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter in the 2000s, and its current form in the vein of dominance of the smartphone market, social media has played a key role in shaping our society. Armed with the ability to give a voice to everybody who has access to the tools and is willing to speak up—as well as to unite millions of users under one roof—social media could indubitably be touted as the greatest tool for businesses in the digital age.
Unfortunately, as with anything good, social media can be dangerous when not used in moderation. Twitter especially has earned the enmity of many and given reporters a field day with its pocket of users exploiting the platform to send messages of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. In the hypothetical Church of Twitter-Ignorant Celebrities, if Gilbert Gottfried is the Pope and Roseanne Barr is the deacon, then it appears they’ve found their new altar boy: Shane Gillis.
Before the premiere of its 45th season, NBC’s long-running sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live” enthusiastically announced the hiring of three new cast members. One of these plucky up-and-comers was Bowen Yang, a writer who finally saw himself graduate to featured player status and earn the honor of making history by being the show’s first fully East Asian-American cast member. However, this act of progression was widely overshadowed by the elephant in the room surrounding another new cast member—Shane Gillis.
Shane Gillis is a stand-up comedian who has been slowly but steadily gaining traction in the comedy industry for his podcast and satellite radio show appearances. However, mere hours after the announcement of his hiring, he was discovered to have used several racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic slurs in a collection of clips from his podcast and stand-up comedy on YouTube.
The clips range from slightly unfunny to downright appalling, with him poking fun at the “ch**ks” in Chinatown, using a cartoonish Chinese accent, referring to filmmaker Judd Apatow and fellow comedian Chris Gethard as “f***ing gayer than ISIS,” and defending his earlier derogatory remarks against Asians as “nice, good racism.”
It’s no secret that what is acceptable in comedy has always been subjective; blackface was once a wildly popular form of entertainment used to depict satirical, over-the-top caricatures of African-Americans but is now universally condemned and considered distasteful and offensive (unless you happen to be a governor, a former Fox News anchor, or the Prime Minister of Canada). The art of entertainment will continue to evolve, and the tastes of the public will continue to change as long as alcoholic divorced dads will continue to worship Def Leppard. However, one persistent facet of comedy is the willingness to continually push the envelope. It would be nearly impossible to find a comedian whose hands are clean of pushing boundaries; not even among the cast of the show that fired Shane Gillis.
One of the sketches that helped put “Saturday Night Live” on the map and dominate its television time slot involved Chevy Chase saying the “N-word” to comedian Richard Pryor in a heated game of Word Association. More recently, the show has raised eyebrows for seemingly trivializing—or even mocking—victims of domestic violence, the opioid crisis, sexual misconduct, and even the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shootings. However, these sketches—while undeniably controversial—simply cannot be accurately compared to the sense of humor conveyed by Gillis.
For a more fair and accurate comparison, look no further than the comedic stylings of one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the modern era: Dave Chappelle. To say that his brand of humor pushes boundaries would be the understatement of the century. The critical reception of his new Netflix stand-up special reflects his polarizing style perfectly, with the audience score of 99% nearly tripling that of the critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Emmy Award winner spares mercy for no one, poking fun at stereotypes from everyone on every side of the aisle, including East Asians. The topics used by Gillis and Chappelle may be similar, but comparing their content and delivery is like comparing fresh, juicy oranges to rotten apples.
Dave Chappelle’s mockery of people of other races—while it may be a step backward for some—is used to offer a unique point-of-view. Comedians have had their fun by exploiting stereotypes for years. Although they should open their eyes to the dark history surrounding some of these stereotypes, they are often trying to lighten the mood of audiences by trivializing such issues so conversations of them can seem less intense.
For example, Chappelle has used the “N word” in several bits, but never to spew racial intolerance. Rather to satirically mimic such blind hatred. In Sticks and Stones, his most recent stand-up special, he humorously examined the double standards surrounding males and females on keeping a baby. While neither of these routines bothered to walk on eggshells (rather, they sprinted full-speed across), they were thought-evoking pieces of commentary. They certainly walked the line.
But Shane Gillis merely uses his platform to spew hate speech and revolting racist rhetoric under the guise of “comedy.” And his apology only poured gasoline on the fire. Instead of using Twitter to extend an olive branch of remorse to the people whom he offended (Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, the target of some of his racial slurs), Gillis doubled down by proclaiming himself as “more of a MadTV guy anyways.”
Comedians like Gillis belong in the same remedial comedy courses as Kevin Hart. Last year, Hart experienced an almost identical incident when he lost his gig hosting the Oscars after a series of old blatantly homophobic tweets when viral. In one tweet, he professed his desire to beat his son if he played with dolls, by telling him “stop that’s gay.” Hart’s subsequent refusal to apologize only earned him more scorn.
One of the Greek gods of stand-up comedy himself, George Carlin once opined: “Comedy doesn’t work unless someone is getting offended.” Carlin is correct; comedians will always play with fire in their words, and always should. However, there’s a fine line between crossing the line and completely blurring the line between comedy and hatred. If the guise of comedy existed just to ward off backlash from using ethnic and homophobic slurs, David Duke and Richard Spencer would be the greatest stand-up comics of our generation. Being a comedian is not a “get-out-of-jail” card in Monopoly. Other contemporary comedians such as Daniel Tosh have also taken no prisoners in their comedic stylings, but comedians such as Tosh have always offered something new to the table.
Comedians like Hart, Gillis, and others cannot use comedy as a shield to hide behind when they are forced to face the past. It’s not so much the fact that the comedic stylings of someone such as Shane Gillis is setting us backward in the field of comedy; it’s that it isn’t real comedy. It’s blind hatred.
Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons