Comedy's Civil War: How an 'SNL' Firing Exposed a Growing Rift in Stand-Up
Illustration by Peter Arkle

Comedy's Civil War: How an 'SNL' Firing Exposed a Growing Rift in Stand-Up

While many cheered Shane Gillis' NBC dismissal four days after he was hired, a slice of the community sneered, revealing an increasing divide over what's legitimate envelope-pushing and what’s "just plain racist."

When Saturday Night Live fired Shane Gillis on Sept. 16 — just four days after he was cast as one of the latest Not Ready for Prime Time Players — the news was greeted with high-fives in much of the comedy community. Dana Gould tweeted that Gillis should strive to "be a better comic," while Silicon Valley actor Jimmy O. Yang posted that Gillis deserved to go because he was "just plain racist."

But not all comedians were rejoicing. On the contrary, the Gillis controversy — which began hours after his hiring, when podcasts surfaced of the 30-year-old Philadelphia comic calling presidential candidate Andrew Yang a "Jew chink" and spewing other racist and homophobic jokes — has become a flashpoint revealing a deep and widening rift in the comedy world. Like every other aspect of American life in the Trump era, stand-up is turning polarized, pitting comic against comic in an escalating civil war over what's acceptable humor and what's unfunny hate speech. "You millennials, you're a bunch of rats, all of you," Gillis defender Bill Burr snarled on David Spade's Comedy Central show. "None of them cares. All they want to do is get people in trouble."

If the pro-Gillis faction has a rebel base, it would be Gas Digital, a subscription streaming network (it charges $8.50 a month) based in New York's East Village and catering to alt-right sensibilities — or what others see as envelope-pushing, "anything goes" comedy in the vein of Lenny Bruce or Sam Kinison. Gillis was a regular on its airwaves (it's where he cracked his Andrew Yang jokes, as well as another in which he referred to Judd Apatow and actor Chris Gethard as "white faggot comics").

Says Gas Digital co-founder Luis J. Gomez, "It's funny, because when you said one side is very tolerant and inclusive, I was like, 'Yes, that's the side I'm on.' " Gomez, who co-hosts the service's popular Legion of Skanks podcast (it tallies half a million downloads per episode), insists any characterization of his network as "alt-right" is wildly off base. "We are on the side of funny," he says. "We're just trying to create freely. I think when you get off Twitter and Reddit and YouTube, you find people who aren't super sensitive about jokes."

But if Gomez — who is Puerto Rican and grew up surrounded by drug abuse and gun violence — distances himself from the alt-right label, he hasn't distanced himself from alt-right ideas or stars. In May, he invited the movement's poster-boy provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on his Skanks podcast, which led to a firestorm of protests and a change of venue after members of the left-wing Antifa movement threatened to storm the Long Island comedy club (The Creek and the Cave) where it was to be taped. "I don't pay attention to politics," Gomez says of booking Yiannopoulos, who's infamous for singing "America the Beautiful" to a roomful of sieg heil-ing Nazis and leading a vicious Twitter attack on SNL's Leslie Jones. "I just know that he's a flamboyant gay guy. He was married to a black guy. When people call the guy a Nazi, I'm like, that is the silliest thing I've ever heard."

Gomez has also engaged in freewheeling podcast talk with Gavin McInnes, the Vice Media co-founder turned right-wing leader of the neofascist Proud Boys. But he's also put his arms around some (slightly) less controversial personalities, like Louis C.K., who, in June, performed a surprise set at Skankfest, a three-day comedy festival mounted by Gas Digital in Brooklyn. "The energy when Louis C.K. walked into the building [was intense], everybody from the bartenders to the security guards to the fans. Everybody was stoked," says Gomez.

That Skanks festival (which began three years ago, around when Trump got elected) isn't exactly Woodstock — only about 3,600 attended this year — but it is a growth industry (it started with 600). Next year, Gomez will be expanding with one in Houston, and he says he's "in talks" to bring another to L.A. in 2021. Meanwhile, his various Gas Digital podcasts are getting about 1.5 million downloads a week (he won't reveal how many subscribers the company has). It's all part of Gomez's master plan to build a self-sustaining Skanks ecosystem insulated from outside forces. "I wanted to create a reverse safe space to create freely," he says, "a platform where [comics] can take chances without backlash."

Not that Skanks fans aren't adept at creating backlash of their own: They have made their objections to Gillis' firing extremely clear on Twitter and Reddit. Nor is it the first time Skankers and those like them have marched into battle over what they see as snowflake oppression: In late 2016, Adult Swim canceled Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, a sketch comedy show with alt-right leanings, four months after its premiere amid complaints from some of the network's comedy stars, including Brett Gelman and Tim Heidecker. Heidecker later revealed that he received death threats after the cancellation.

For now, the battle lines remain somewhat porous. (See THR columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's take.) Between Gillis' defenders ("To all the 'comedians' who wanted this to happen to Shane … you are the lowest scum on Earth," tweeted L.A. comic Tony Hinchcliffe) and his detractors ("Fuck that piece of shit," posted Crazy Rich Asians' Nico Santos), there's a neutral zone inhabited by comics like Dave Chappelle, who continues to poke at the transgender community (in his latest Netflix special, he likened their plight to being a Chinese man stuck in a black man's body) even as a central pillar of his act has always been identifying racial injustice. Even Janeane Garofalo, the pioneering alt-comedy feminist, performed at Skankfest this year. "She's a real free-speecher and she's also of the generation where 'boys will be boys,' " explains her longtime manager, Dave Rath. "She's thinking about how artists express themselves. Any restrictions to that is what she is reacting to."

Still, it's getting harder to play Switzerland. One well-known comic who asked to remain anonymous because he fears Heidecker-style retribution worries that the Gillis backlash is leading to further divisions and widening the civil war. "They really enjoy these online fights and have started making that the focus of their comedy and podcasts," the stand-up says of Gillis' supporters. "It's a growing rift, and it's a problem." Agrees Rath, "I think we're in this for a while."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.