Cancel culture for dummies

Case study: Shane Gillis and Saturday Night Live

Tyler Palicia

Shane Gillis, a recently hired cast member for the upcoming 45th season of “Saturday Night Live,” was recently fired from the show for making racially insensitive comments in leaked footage from his private podcast. I will not replicate Gillis’ comments because it would deprive them of context that only the ear’s perception of verbal nuances can capture. Gillis’ “apology” will not be discussed in this article because it was made after his firing and therefore could not have informed the decision made by “Saturday Night Live.”

I would be remiss if I did not remind the reader that Gillis’ remarks and subsequent cancellation make up a small ripple in a raging current of controversy and divisiveness that plagues this country. I should add that I do not condone the comedian’s remarks, which were in poor taste at best and deliberately racist at worst. Many people who are familiar with the broad context of Gillis’ actions would likely reject the latter sentiment. In this article there will be no attempt to defend Gillis’ comments because what he said is indefensible. The concept I will ponder is whether someone who has made indefensible comments should be permitted to rejoin the public discourse.

Should Gillis have been fired from his dream job at “Saturday Night Live” in the first place? You can listen to the audio and decide for yourself, I suppose. In any case, there is no need for me to feign the moral authority to make such a judgement. But there are people who do have such moral authority, or at least claim to. These people can be found in droves on Twitter.

A volley of unenlightened attacks and equally unenlightened rebuttals have been traded across Twitter over the Shane Gillis incident. Our country, once again, has been spared any reasonable dialogue over what degree white comedians should be punished, if at all, for the use of racial slurs in their performances. The Gillis incident forced us to turn attention to another instance in a long line of instances in which comedians have been subjected to cancellation campaigns over “triggering” remarks.

Of course, it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the more reasonable individuals who have added their nuanced opinions to this debate. Rob Schneider, a stand-up comedian and actor, offered his solution over Twitter. He suggested that “Saturday Night Live” should put Gillis on temporary suspension rather than fire him for his grievous comments.

Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang added his hesitant support for Shane Gillis. “I think that he deserved another chance to keep his job, but folks at NBC obviously felt differently,” Yang said to reporters. He also stated that “as a society, we have become unduly punitive and vindictive about people making statements that some find offensive or distasteful.” Yang has announced that he will be personally meeting with Shane Gillis to discuss the event that has rocked the comedian’s life and set off a melee of controversy across the online landscape.

It is incredibly unclear where the supposed “line” is that makes a comment or action cancel-worthy. For example, would you agree that wearing blackface and acting in a stereotypical animated portrayal of a black person should disqualify someone from hosting a late-night talk show in 2019? Because both Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have done exactly that and not faced any repercussions. In his breakout Comedy Central program, “The Man Show,” which ran from 1999 to 2004, Jimmy Kimmel impersonated NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone. In the sketch, Jimmy Kimmel applied black makeup to the visible regions of his body, donned a basketball uniform, and went on to speak in a broken vernacular.

The clip, which is far more outrageous than the written description, can be found by searching, “Flashback: Jimmy Kimmel in Blackface Mocking Black Athletes.” Yet Jimmy Kimmel has not received any noticeable online scrutiny for his portrayal of Karl Malone.

Jimmy Fallon wore blackface in 2000 on “Saturday Night Live” in his impersonation of stand-up comedian, Chris Rock. He spoke in a stereotypically mocking manner to complete the schtick. I am not suggesting these hosts should be fired for their past “performances” which were not regarded as inflammatory at the time, because that would make me a hypocrite, however, I am suggesting that it is peculiar for the show to disavow Gillis’ mistakes while willfully turning a blind eye to its own recent history. Furthermore, it is a bizarre fact that Shane Gillis has been fired from NBC over a single comment that was most likely a failed attempt at humor while the same network is paying Fallon $16 million a year. There is obviously an unclear standard as to what actions constitute the loss of someone’s job and how far back internet trolls can comb through a person’s history in the witch hunt for “problematic” material.

I don’t believe that NBC or “Saturday Night Live” genuinely disavow Shane Gillis’ racially insensitive comments, because if so, the network and the show would surely offer an apology the show’s long history of “politically incorrect” attempts at humor. Instead, I believe it is more likely that the network regards Shane Gillis as guilty of nothing more than being a victim of today’s cult of outrage, and would rather fire him than deal with the financial burden of honoring their contract and keeping him in the cast lineup.

It appears that punishment for these transgressions is fully dependent on whether the action garners a suitable amount of public attention and news coverage. Do we want our elimination of bigotry in America to be addressed based on which instances of alleged racism attract the most attention in the public domain? If so, that leaves a lot of room for real bigots to slip through the cracks.

Can anyone clearly offer an explanation as to why certain offenses pick up attention on social media when others do not? The Fallon/Kimmel blackface incidents prove that the cancellation of an individual is not incumbent on how abrasively offensive their act was, how well-known the person is who commits the act or even how many people witnessed the act. Because surely, two of the biggest figures in late night television having worn blackface on live television during their rise to fame is more up-front and offensive than Shane Gillis, an unknown comedian, making awkward comments that involved a racial slur on a private podcast. All that really seems to matter is that the Fallon/Kimmel incidents combined did not capture even a fraction of the online outrage that Shane Gillis faced. Anyone who ever watches Fallon or Kimmel again after reading this article and so much as chuckles while still maintaining the notion that people like Shane Gillis and Kevin Hart should never be allowed to work again is a hypocrite and a fake progressive. I say, let he who is without sin cast the first tweet, and as PC darling Justin Trudeau’s recently surfaced blackface scandal reveals, many of these people are simply putting on a front in a pathetic scheme to leverage power and influence.

It is a shame because not all PC Warriors are driven by malice (as much of the right-wing media wishes you would believe). Almost all the so-called “PC Warriors” I have met are well-intended individuals with a genuine interest in equality, but cancel culture is a gross misstep in the pursuit of that cause. I believe that no movement is without flaws worthy of correction, just as even the most expertly crafted sports car on the planet requires a tune-up from time to time. Cancel culture highlights a splintering of the left, between traditional leftists who were alive to vote for Clinton and a strong contingency of “woke” millennial leftists who generally put a higher value on cultural sensitivity than free speech.

This is my question: Do we want to live in a society where vigilante bloggers dictate who should be cancelled based off a completely random system that does not consider context or the intent of the offender? Because, in such a world, we concede the grounds of rational judgement, due process and a clear standard of what constitutes bigotry to a system that is most adequately structured for the commerce of funny cat memes. I wish this wasn’t a politicized topic, because I believe Democrats, Republicans and everyone in between should be frightened by this unjust metric of moral superiority. I would prescribe a more surgical method to remove the cancer of bigotry that has marred our country, rather than the social chemotherapy that is cancel culture.

Despite overwhelming support from his comic contemporaries, Gillis has been fairly criticized by prominent public figures beyond his vocational field. I felt that the substance of his defenders varied significantly, many of which even offered solutions. Yang wished to meet with Gillis, Schneider suggested he should be put on suspension, Norm Macdonald had no apparent qualms with his language and David Spade stayed mostly silent while using the platform of his Comedy Central Show to host a dialogue about the incident. Most importantly, both Bill Burr and Jim Jeffries acknowledged that even though what Gillis said was wrong, that does not make his words punishable by the destruction of his career. These comedians reject the puritanical and fear-mongering nature of cancel culture while recognizing the fallibility that comes with being a human.

To hijack a cliché, it is the best of times and worst of times for stand-up comics. The internet has graced the profession with a wide array of platforms to content to a massive audience of people who might not have ever watched comedy in the days when HBO specials (the only specials) were doled out to a select few of the most distinguished performers. The unintended consequence of the internet on the profession of comedy is that just as every comic can access everyone in America, the same can be said for the fans. And it only takes one blogger to set off an avalanche of public condemnation. Shane Gillis fell into that trap.

I fear that this system may not be self-correcting. I believe that, unlike any physical machine, internet discourse is a machine fueled and operated by the more bloodthirsty elements of human nature. Our treasured society may be spiraling helplessly into a Dark Age of social chaos propelled by a hierarchy of outrage and ruled by a caste system of victimhood. The system will inflate into a repugnantly gluttonous, putrid bile-oozing, foul-smelling, fire-breathing monster that feeds on the careers of those who either dare approach it or simply happen to be standing in its path. When we are confronted with this horrid spawn of our own collective outrage, I fear that we will have become powerless to vanquish it, or worse, too despondent and dull-witted to so much as recognize its existence. It may already be too late.