Today at about 1pm, Saturday Night Live released the news that they were adding three new featured players to their roster for the new season: Shane Gillis, Bowen Yang, and Chloe Fineman. Less than 5 hours later, one of those three became a headline across every major entertainment publication. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can google it but the short version is that in just a few hours, publications had unearthed recordings where Gillis used inappropriate racial language on a podcast. The internet quickly deemed Shane to be unacceptable. Not that the joke was unacceptable, he was.
I was thrilled when I found out about the new cast, and wrote as much in a post sharing the news. I was thrilled for Bowen Yang, a really bright young star who represents a side of comedy that Saturday Night Live has not always promoted. He’s talented, he’s funny, and he’s going to bring a lot to the table. I confess I’m not as familiar with Chloe Fineman, but I look forward to finding out what makes her a stand out. I started to research her career and her history, and saw some of her great Instagram Posts and accomplishments. I look forward to learning more about her. It never occurred to me to start looking for any dark spots on the careers of any of these three young performers. Not even for a second did I think- let me see if I can dig up something on one of them that makes them look bad. And if someone had handed me some “dirt” I certainly wouldn’t have rushed to publish it as fast as I could because god forbid someone in comedy ever said anything off-color.
I was most excited to see Shane Gillis’ name in the announcement.
As someone who is tightly tied into the New York and Northeast comedy scene, I’ve seen Gillis rise in the field..and rise fast…at least by stand up standards. The first time I saw him, he was a stand out in a strong field of contenders at Helium’s Philly’s Funniest competition. In the few years since then, he moved to New York and moved so fast into place hanging with, and accepted by New York’s strongest performers. Audiences love him, comics love him. And yes, he is shocking and edgy and dark- something that in this business has always been celebrated. Comics who choose to go in that direction take big risks- experimenting with where the line is, saying crazy shit to get a laugh and sometimes going too far, particularly if you were to take a few choice quotes and put them in print without knowing anything about the guy who said those things. This year Shane’s popularity has exploded and with great reason. He’s a great comic. He’s been vetted by every part of the industry that vets who is up and coming. Comedy Central (he was picked for their Up Next comedians to watch), Just for Laughs (he was one of their new faces this year), Lorne Michaels, and other comedians (51 Comedians Tell Us Who Will Be the Next Big Thing in 2019). That says a lot.
Comedy does not “vet” its up-and-comers by scouring their history, searching deleted recordings and doing detective work to find out if they’ve ever said anything fucked up. If they did, your comedy stages would be empty. Even the most careful squeaky clean comics couldn’t survive the scrutiny if every quote on every podcast and radio appearance were searched thoroughly. Just the idea of searching out someone’s past looking for bad behavior feels as dirty and wrong as the words that are the subject of the controversy.
Is this what we do now as members of the media? Who is it that thinks their job is to race to see if they can be the first person to destroy a career before it even starts? Is it worth the clicks you get on that article being the first person to find something naughty or shameful and rush to bring it to light? Did you hope to destroy a career as fast as you could before even stopping to figure out is this someone who deserves to be outted, to be ruined, to be crushed?
Comics say shitty things. People say shitty things. Some of them say shitty things because they are shitty people. But plenty of people say offensive things to get the laugh that comes along with saying something “wrong.” Particularly young comics eager for laughs.
I don’t agree with everything I’ve ever heard him say, but I’ve seen Shane on stage and on the sidewalks outside of clubs and at the comics tables. I’ve seen him hanging out with other comics shooting the shit and when I found out he was chosen as a featured member of SNL, I thought holy shit! I can’t wait to see what he brings to the show.
Do we want to start calling for heads to roll based on clips? Or maybe we can wait a beat or two and figure out if someone is actually worthy of career execution before we pull out the torches and attack.
There are plenty of entertainers- in comedy and elsewhere- with squeaky clean public records (and squeaky clean acts) who are unworthy of their positions for reasons far worse than using a bad word.
I’m tired of having comedians ask me if I can edit a story because they’re afraid something they told me, or something I observed might be taken the wrong way by a writer looking for headlines. It’s great to be mindful and watchful. And yes, please, let’s be progressive and tolerant toward people of all races, sexual preferences, religions, and genders. Our culture is shifting rapidly and N words and F words and R words are becoming words we don’t find so funny anymore. And that’s actually pretty great. But putting someone in a stockade because their progress hasn’t happened as quickly as yours is not great. And hunting it down like it’s the plague, particularly while our lawmakers and leaders are permitted to escape consequences for far worse, is just plain embarrassing.
Even more embarrassing is to have publications that supposedly support culture and entertainment (and comedy specifically) suggest that our funny tv shows need better “vetting” of their performers before hiring them. Gross.
And the speed at which this occurred is alarming. Back in December we thought the attack cycle had reached a fever pitch when Kevin Hart was excoriated after the Oscars had dared to invite him to host. But today’s speed attack beats that one by a country mile.
Hopefully Saturday Night Live will not let the media tell them who to hire and how they should be “vetted.” SNL’s responsibility extends what they choose to put on the air, not with the full unabridged transcript of their performers pasts. And hopefully as a society we don’t think that we need to “vet” our entertainers to make sure they’ve never said an off color thing anywhere, anytime. There are better places to focus your attention.