Inside NBC's Comedy Event Held on Same Day 'SNL' Fired Shane Gillis

NBC hosted an event in Hollywood on Monday night to highlight the "past, present and future" comedy stars as the network was dealing with a crisis involving racist comments made by a hired-then-fired 'SNL' castmember.
Evans Vestal Ward/NBC
Poppy Liu, Samba Schutte, Kal Penn, Kiran Deol, Moses Storm, Diana Maria Riva and Joel Kim Booster of 'Sunnyside'

There was the peacock, placed like an art installation on a block platform and rotating 360-degrees with six feathers — yellow, orange, red, purple, blue and green — lit up in neon, all aglow against a grassy-looking backdrop. It was the first object for eyeballs to settle on as guests stepped inside NeueHouse’s main event space Monday night for a special event hosted by NBC. But there was a lot to talk about.

The network inspired hundreds of headlines this week and many focused on that logo, the “Peacock,” which is now the official name of NBCU’s steaming platform. This event, however, was dedicated solely to NBC’s comedy offerings for fall on broadcast TV and it arrived with its own title: “Comedy Starts Here.” According to the invite, it was put on in “celebration of the past, present and future of NBC comedy.”

NBC’s standing in comedy has been the subject of the rest of the headlines published in recent days, especially after the hiring and subsequent firing four days later of Saturday Night Live castmember Shane Gillis, whose racist and homophobic remarks on a podcast went viral within hours after it was announced that he was joining the long-running sketch comedy series alongside Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang. For his part, Yang, a gay Asian man, joined the cast from the writing staff, a historical promotion for someone of East Asian descent. 

“We want SNL to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we hired Shane on the strength of his talent as comedian and his impressive audition for SNL. We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable,” the spokesperson said on Monday, just hours before NBC, which has aired SNL for more than four decades, hosted comedy actors from shows including Will & Grace, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore, Indebted, Perfect Harmony and Sunnyside. (Also represented but curiously so were stars from tear-jerker This is Us.) 

Though the night was designed to celebrate and promote the direction of its comedy lineup in 2020 and beyond, it was impossible to ignore where it had landed in the previous week. Not everybody wanted to talk, though. 

SNL star Beck Bennett was in the building and could not have been any more gracious in politely declining to talk on the record about it. Plus, he was there also as a supportive husband since his wife, Jessy Hodges, is one of the stars on Indebted (alongside former SNL face Abby Elliott). Superstore star Nico Santos agreed to weigh in. 

“I think they made the correct decision,” Santos told The Hollywood Reporter. “Obviously, I’m not part of that process and the heads of the network are going to do what they’re going to do, but it’s hard within comedy because I certainly don’t want anyone to get censored. Yet, what Shane said was not in the context of a joke. It was a conversation and that’s the difference.”

Speaking of, Santos was quick to say he’d rather have a conversation about how talented his friend Bowen Yang is, rather than Gillis. “I want to celebrate Bowen. The fact that Bowen is the first East Asian person to be a full-fledged castmember is amazing. It's a huge win for the show,” he explained. “You have Bowen on SNL, Joel Kim Booster on Sunnyside, coming this fall, and me on Superstore — three queer Asians on television on the same network. I honestly didn’t think that was ever possible or going to happen. And we’re so different from one another. That is an amazing thing to celebrate.” 

Booster was also in a mood to focus on the positive. After grinding it out on the stand-up scene and proving his chops, he’s landed on Sunnyside, his first network series regular role. “It’s wild,” he told THR. “We were all on set shooting today talking about doing this thing tonight. I imagined events like this as goofy and as nerdy as that sounds because, not only have I been a fan of comedy, I’ve been a fan of the industry. I know what The Office writers room looked like and who was a co-producer and who was a story editor on particular seasons. I have been following entertainment press for so long that it’s now weird to have arrived here. It's not until people ask me questions like this that I’m able to step back to think about who I was a decade ago, like, oh my god, this is the life you imagined for yourself when you were living in a studio apartment in Chicago unable to buy f------ dinner because you had student loans to pay off.”

Booster also waved away the cloud of Gillis’s firing from what should be a party to celebrate comedy but also representation in comedy. “There’s always going to be little ways that people try and take away space for you in this industry,” he said. “That’s something I’ve been dealing with my entire career — the last decade of my life basically. Arriving at this moment now, I feel like I’ve prepared myself for it. I learned a long time ago that my successes will never be the same as everyone else. You have to work twice as hard and deal with the question of whether or not you made it because of your minority status.”

Now that he’s made it on NBC’s comedy lineup, meaning officially a part of the future generation — at least for fall 2019 — Booster could not ignore the past. “When I was studying dramatic writing in college, I wanted to be a playwright and actor. I was drama, drama, drama only and not someone who grew up thinking comedy was for me. But I watched NBC’s OG Thursday night comedy lineup and loved shows like The Office, Friends, Will & Grace and later 30 Rock, Parks and Rec. I was like, ‘Oh, shit, that is what I want to do.’ It was a real paradigm shift for me in what I thought what comedy was and what I thought it could accomplish. It’s really interesting how full circle it feels to be here now.”