It’s tempting to open this column by repeating Shane Gillis’ homophobic, anti-Asian and misogynistic slurs that got him fired from Saturday Night Live to show just how desperately unfunny, derivative and dripping with flop sweat they are. But their level of funniness is not the point. Comedians have the right to be unfunny sometimes, just as athletes have the right to lose games, and actors to be in bad films. But when a comedian makes hate-based comments, as Gillis did on his podcasts, we do have an obligation to take a closer look to see whether they are insightful provocateurs of culture and the human condition, or just another middle-schooler blowing milk out their nose for a quick laugh, not caring who they spatter with milky snot in the process.
The best way to assess the difference is to ask three questions: First, when were the offensive remarks made? We have to accept that historical context is a mitigating circumstance. All of us cringe at the hurtful things we may have said or done in our youth because it was acceptable behavior at that time, but today are thankful to be enlightened enough to feel guilty. Interviewers often ask me what advice I have for the younger me just starting out as a professional athlete. It wouldn’t be about sports, it would be about being a more charitable, compassionate and understanding person. However, Gillis made his offensive remarks just last year, long after the world had evolved past referring to the Chinese as “chinks,” and calling comedians like Judd Apatow “white faggot comics,” as he does.
The second question is: Has the person changed their attitude to reflect the current times? While a person may have made derogatory comments in the past, they might have learned from those mistakes, and that learning should be reflected in their current commentary. Yet, only last year, Gillis described women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War as “flat-chested fucking bitch[es],” which doesn’t show any shame, guilt or progress — just grumpy grandpa’s nostalgic longing for large-breasted women who know their place.
The third question is: How sincere is their apology? We are a civilization built on the concepts of redemption and forgiveness because we want to believe that people can learn from their mistakes and become better people. Had Gillis understood this, he might have survived with his integrity, if not his job. Instead, everything is wrong with Gillis’ “apology”: “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss. If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you’re going to find a lot of bad misses. I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”
This statement is distilled from every reality show ever. Let’s start with his willingness to apologize to anyone “actually offended.” This is what pretty much every Real Housewife grudgingly says on almost every episode when forced to apologize for bad behavior: “I apologize if you took offense.” This is not an admission of wrongdoing, but a disingenuous side-eye accusation that the other person took unreasonable umbrage. Gillis’ justification that to be the best he must take risks is what every chef, singer, fashion designer, etc., who competes on a reality show trots out to excuse their failures. Racism isn’t an artistic risk, it’s just an expression of cultural ignorance and professional laziness.
The weakest of all defenses in his case is that he’s a “comedian who pushes boundaries.” He’s right that artists push boundaries of cultural conventions. Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor were all boundary pushers. The difference between an artist and an artisan is the artist’s willingness to poke at the audience’s comfort level in an effort to unveil weaknesses, discrepancies and hypocrisies. Not everyone appreciates having their values questioned. That’s why it’s important that we give artists plenty of leeway to sincerely explore their interpretation of humanity. The goal of the artist is to bring people together by showing us our similarities through our weaknesses, even when we are reluctant to acknowledge them. At the same time, we are under no obligation to financially support self-proclaimed “artists,” like Shane Gillis, whose work promotes hatred toward groups based on ethnicity, gender identity and religion. Gillis’s humor doesn’t so much expand boundaries as shrink them back to where they were in the 1950s.
His failure does not mean subjects now should be taboo or that we should not have comedy that offends. Ricky Gervais is able to make comical fun of religion, Atlanta has poignant and hysterical observations about race, Sarah Silverman is riotous about sexual politics, Will and Grace and Tig Notaro are hilarious about the LGBTQ community. All of them offend some people. But they don’t offend through deliberate, malicious attacks. Their humor brings the culture into sharper focus through intelligent and often barbed observations.
We don’t have to worry about those kinds of observations from Gillis. After claiming he was grateful for the opportunity from SNL, he middle-fingered them with, “I was always a mad tv guy anyway.” Just like the teen who got turned down for prom shouting, “Yeah, well, I never liked you anyway!” Shane Gillis’s 15 minutes ends just as one would predict, not with a bang but with a whoopie-cushion whimper.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA Hall of Famer and contributing editor at The Hollywood Reporter.
This story first appears in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.