Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast reflects on the latest person to lose a high-profile job for having said terrible racist things, comedian Shane Gillis.
If you’re not familiar with the story, a recap. It’s about:
Saturday Night Live’s firing of comedian Shane Gillis, of whom videos surfaced showing him telling blithely racist jokes that caused controversy not even hours after he was announced as a new cast member on the sketch show. (That his jokes traded in boring, retrograde stereotypes of Asian Americans was all the more cringe-inducing given that SNL had just made history hiring its first-ever Asian cast member alongside Gillis, Bowen Yang.)
Gillis’s jokes were outwardly racist. They weren’t jokes about racism, or satire about race, or illuminating truths about the marginalized. They were racist jokes, and quite bland ones at that. People were pissed. Then people became pissed that people were pissed. Censorship! McCarthyism! Worst of all: Cancel culture!
As Fallon points out, it’s hardly cancel culture if the people who say the terrible things are almost always completely and utterly unaffected in any way.
It would take too long to list all the recent controversies involving celebrities who said something alarming enough to detonate social media outrage: Scarlett Johansson defends Woody Allen, Dave Chappelle mocks Michael Jackson’s accusers, Lara Spencer shames male dancers, a Queer Eye host rails against his critics, some Real Housewives are caught being casually transphobic.
Some of these celebrities apologized. Some didn’t. All were likely forced to consider the impact and the responsibility of their words, amid outcry and, in many cases, calls for them to lose their jobs. But none of them were fired.
Many people are building their brands on pretending they’re saying the unsayable, and saying it again and again and again. But on occasion, very infrequently, a tiny proportion of those people discover that their employers don’t want to have, say, massive racists, homophobes or transphobes on staff.
In the non-celeb world, employment contracts frequently have a clause where you can be fired for bringing your employer into disrepute. Clearly Saturday Night Live has something similar.
A job on Saturday Night Live is not owed to anybody. It is arguably one of the highest profile gigs in comedy. Fans, audiences, and critics are right to expect some sort of responsibility or awareness, a certain standard, from those who are given that platform. They are right to be upset if it comes out that one of those benefactors has a history of espousing racist views. Gillis, in turn, had a right to respond to those who were angered. His response didn’t satisfy those critics, nor did it satisfy his employer. So he was fired. That is how jobs work.