Why Lorne Michaels Can’t Quit Shane Gillis

The ‘SNL’ producer sees a kindred comedy spirit in Shane Gillis
Why Lorne Michaels Can’t Quit Shane Gillis

Like Jack Twist making a mournful confession to Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain, Lorne Michaels just can’t quit comedian Shane Gillis. Despite firing Gillis from the cast of Saturday Night Live before he could make his first homophobic joke on the 30 Rock stage, Michaels has continued to buy stock in the Gillis business, announcing the once-banished comic as Season 49’s next host.

A quick recap: Gillis, along with Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman, was announced as a new SNL cast member back in 2019. Cue the flurry of social media posts sharing clips of Gillis podcast appearances making homophobic slurs (he called Chris Gethard and Judd Apatow “white f----t comics”) and spitting on Chinatown (“Let the fucking c----s live there”). Michaels didn’t have much choice but to can Gillis, especially considering fellow new hire Yang was a gay, Chinese-American comedian. Hoo boy — iYang didn’t want to stand next to Dave Chappelle during the good nights last month, will he ditch the stage entirely when Gillis shows up in a couple of weeks?

But as Gillis’ stand-up star continued to rise, Michaels found ways to stay in touch. Just last year, he hired Gillis to appear in the Pete Davidson bio-sitcom Bupkis. A statement issued from the Michaels camp just a couple of years earlier damned Gillis for language that was “offensive, hurtful and unacceptable.” Apparently, that’s worth a two-year probation before getting a work-release gig on another Michaels show. Now Gillis is getting the ultimate “you’re back!” gift — a starring spot on the show that deemed him too repugnant to get featured-player scraps.

The easy answer to the question, “Lorne, why are you hiring the guy you fired?” seems easy: It’s attention, stupid. The two top trending subjects on my Twitter feed this morning were “Lorne Michaels” (partly because of Nikki Haley’s awkward cameo on the Ayo Edebiri show) and “Shane Gillis.” Do you know how hard it is for a 50-year-old television show to be the most talked about subject on social media? I guess it’s not that hard at all — invite radioactive comedians to the show then sit back and watch the fireworks. Maybe Louis C.K. will turn up for the good nights on the Gillis episode. 

I also believe Michaels sees something in Gillis that reminds him of himself. When I reviewed the comic’s Beautiful Dogs Netflix special last year, I marveled at the way Gillis played both his lovers and haters like a violin. Back then, I said Beautiful Dogs “is a certified hit, and it’s likely due to Gillis’ canny way of having his cake and eating it too. The special is full of the comedian throwing red meat to fans tired of what they see as PC bullshit, while at the same time letting us know he’s in on that particular joke. He’s not a reactionary conservative (although he does confess that he might be in early onset Republican) — he’s just a smart comic giving the people exactly what they want, all with a self-deprecating grin that says ‘Can’t we all just have a beer and chill?’” 

Michaels is cut from the same I-want-to-have-it-both-ways cloth, ripping conservative lawmakers in one week’s cold open, inviting conservative candidate Haley to crack jokes on another. Hey, I’m an equal-opportunity offender, but it’s all in good fun! Gags that cross the line aren’t offensive, they’re ironic — if Michaels and SNL can do it with an implied wink, the thinking seems to go, then the comedy is meta-commentary, not regressive pandering. 

So it’s no surprise that Michaels is welcoming his prodigal son back into the fold. Like a comedy Brokeback Mountain, the two comedy minds have a bond that refuses to be severed. 


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