Becky Portman: No offense, offense taken

Monday, September 23, 2019 - 1:30pm

Shane Gillis

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Almost as quickly as he was announced as a new cast member, comedian Shane Gillis was promptly fired from Saturday Night Live ahead of the show’s 45th season premiere. Gillis was sacked from the historic sketch variety show for using homophopic, racist and overall offensive language as recently as this May. Let me point out first and foremost that I am troubled that the firing of a bigot like Gillis has taken the spotlight away from the first (FIRST!) Chinese-American performer in the show’s history: the immensely talented Bowen Yang. So before you read my tirade against the racist tendencies of “no offense” comedy and the white comedy boys who inhabit the controversial and toxic space known as stand-up comedy — please watch this sketch starring Emma Stone that Bowen wrote with my favorite shape, Julio Torres, and give him the credit and spotlight he deserves. 

In the most non-apologetic way possible, Gillis went to Twitter to non-apologize with this non-apology: I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss... I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said. What a hunk of bologna. Gillis is not “pushing boundaries” with his comedy or his unoriginal statement. He is saying “no offense.” 

We live in an era of “no offense” comedy. In other words, offensive language and slurs shrugged off as a joke. In the Trump Era, this kind of bully comedy has taken hold of the public and kept them in their grasp with promises of fighting political correctness and “pushing boundaries.” So, tell me, what about archaic biases and chauvinist chimings is “pushing boundaries?” What is so cutting edge about antiquated slurs? What in the hell is funny about picking on the vulnerable for the sake of one’s ego? Why are we defending bullies for the sake of bad comedy? 

Some former SNL cast members chimed in on the show’s firing of Gillis. Rob Schneider came to Gillis’s defense on Twitter saying: I am sorry that you had the misfortune of being a cast member during this era of cultural unforgiveness where comedic misfires are subject to the intolerable inquisition of those who never risked bombing on stage themselves. Schneider, in defending Gillis with the language of a Trump campaign, places himself alongside the Prejudice Protectors of comedy, the Racist Rangers of humor. How many male comedians have to swear that their comedy is not offensive rather, inventive, contemporary or transgressive? If you have to tell people it’s not racist/homophobic/transphobic/anti-semitic/sexist, it probably is.

On the other hand (and cementing my love for him even further), Bill Hader commented on Gillis in the most Bill Hader way possible. In a red-carpet interview at Sunday’s Emmy’s awards, the now two-time Emmy winner, and former SNL cast member was asked about Gillis’s firing. At first, Hader responded with a simple no comment, “No, I have no thoughts on that,” but quickly followed with, “I feel like you shouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings … I’m never interested in upsetting anybody.” Hader exemplifies the good in comedy. He made a comedy about an assassin — now that is boundary-pushing.

Yes, comedy has always been a craft that requires telling something new. Of course, humor thrives on fresh perspectives and unique observations. Certainly, free speech is everyone’s God-given right. But don’t you damn forget that making others feel inadequate or hated to get a cheap chuckle is unacceptable. Using dried up prejudices and calling it boundary-pushing is wrong. Making excuses for bullies and handing them a microphone, a job at SNL, an awards show, a gun or an oval office is no laughing matter.