Skittish Shane Gillis Worked Overtime to Skirt Controversy on Last Night’s ‘SNL’

If you were looking for fireworks, you were going to be sorely disappointed
Skittish Shane Gillis Worked Overtime to Skirt Controversy on Last Night’s ‘SNL’

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Variety’s headline about Shane Gillis’ sort-of-return to Saturday Night Live — he hosted the show after being hired, then fired for numerous racial and homophobic slurs in his past — didn’t tell the whole story. The industry trade announced, “Shane Gillis Opens SNL Monologue By Addressing Getting Fired From the Show.” 

But did he?

Mentioning getting fired and addressing getting fired are two different things. Gillis had no choice but to mention the controversy, so of course it was the first topic of last night’s monologue: “Most of you probably have no idea who I am. I was actually fired from this show a while ago. But, you know, don’t look that up, please. If you don’t know who I am, please don’t google that. It’s fine, don’t even worry about it.”

Wait, that’s it? Yep, that was it.

On the face of it, Gillis’ nonchalance could be read as a sign of defiance: “I’m not apologizing for anything! Tonight, you’re getting the full Gillis!” But instead, the comic seemed to be running from the fire. Gillis is a genial, extremely assured stand-up presence — that confidence kept his career thriving after his SNL public humiliation, an indignity that should have sunk his career. But in last night’s monologue, he practically went Jo Koy on us, wondering aloud where the laughs were.

Gillis danced around edgy topics, explaining his “gay” relationship with his mother and joking about members of his family with Down syndrome. But his approach was downright wholesome, giving his angry critics little bait to swallow. Without shock on his side, Gillis tried out some tamer bits, like pointing into the audience to introduce his dad, who volunteers as a high school girls’ basketball coach. That fact (?) was supposed to be a punchline, apparently, but it didn’t get the laugh response Gillis was looking for. “I don’t know, it’s funny, right? You don’t think that’s funny — to bring my dad here to make fun of him for being a girls’ high school basketball coach? All right. I thought it was great. Never mind. Thought that was going to be a big hit here.”

When he began his material about family members with Down syndrome (recycled jokes from his Beautiful Dogs special), the studio audience hushed, perhaps unsure whether it was okay to laugh about the subject. “Look, I don’t have any material that can be on TV, all right?” he half-joked. “I’m trying my best. Also, this place is extremely well-lit. I can see everyone not enjoying it. Just the most nervous I’ve ever been.”

You’d almost feel bad for the guy if he didn’t bring it on himself. 

The rest of the night’s show was fine. Gillis fans expecting him to shake up the SNL status quo were likely disappointed, with the comic playing an Ohio dad at a Jamaican church, a spokesman for an app that lets you bet against your degenerate gambling friends and a clueless office worker who can’t process HR rules about dating. In my opinion, the night’s funniest sketch was cut for time, with Gillis playing straight man to a bad-ass emu.

Gillis and SNL chose to play it safe all night, a decision that didn’t yield much comic gold but at least didn’t get him in trouble. In fact, the show’s most shocking moment might have been the handshake and heartfelt hug he earned from Bowen Yang. 


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