Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on Dave Chappelle, Shane Gillis and the Art of ‘SNL’ Controversy

Controversy sells, but what about the comics who have to participate?
Kenan Thompson and Bowen Yang on Dave Chappelle, Shane Gillis and the Art of ‘SNL’ Controversy

Even when Saturday Night Live isn’t especially funny, it has a calculated way of finding itself in entertainment headlines. Take a three-show stretch from this most recent season, in which 1) lightning-rod Dave Chappelle showed up unannounced for the good-byes; 2) Republican candidate Nikki Haley got unpaid media time to stump for votes; and 3) Shane Gillis, fired from SNL for homophobic and racist podcast rants, returned to host the show. 

“I’m going to give Lorne Michaels some credit to that meta-narrative,” Bowen Yang told Variety. “There’s a story around the show now, and it’s his show. He gets to do whatever he wants.”

In theory, any publicity is good publicity but how does Yang feel about sharing the stage with comedians he might not not agree with? He got pulled into the headlines after he appeared to avoid Chappelle during that show-ending farewell. “I stand where I always stand on goodnights,” Yang said, finally clearing the air. “It was not a physical distance that anyone was creating.”

Then what about Gillis? He and Yang were hired at the same time, a particularly awkward circumstance given that news of Gillis’ racist remarks about Chinatown coincided with Yang becoming the show’s first Chinese-American cast member. “Anytime our names are in the same sentence, at least in a journalistic way, it always feels deleterious. It feels like one person is trying to undo the other,” explained Yang, who saw Gillis’ return as a chance to finally move past the controversy. “I think he and I have done enough things in our careers now to really not have that be the definitive beginning or the thing that casts a pall over everything else that we do going forward.”

Kenan Thompson dealt with his share of controversy after a 2023 sketch in which he played a goofy Mario Bros. character named Funky Kong. While Thompson and his SNL cohorts thought the idea was hilarious, “the world sees a Black man in a monkey costume, and it starts to go to that conversation — which is the furthest thing from all of our minds,” Thompson said. “I look at Planet of the Apes sideways, so I get it. But when do we advance? When do we leave that in the past and just allow ourselves to just have free-thinking ideas?”

Thompson has also been dragged into the Dan Schneider/Nickelodeon controversies, tarnishing positive stories he’s told about his All That and Kenan and Kel experiences. “I feel so guilty saying that,” he said. “All those things started happening after our tenure, because, I guess, no one would even dare. It wasn’t that kind of environment.”

Thompson now finds himself trying to decide if one can separate art from severely flawed artists, “a conversation (that) didn’t come into my life at all until recently. There was no need to do that,” he explained. “I think we’re all still figuring it out and navigating. Because the trauma is real, the victims are very real. I don’t want to gloss over that. We also don’t want to just throw really solid, creative things in the trash either.”


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