Shane Gillis was reportedly hired as a conservative cast member to counter the belief that Saturday Night Live has a liberal bias. But if you closely examine SNL's history, it's been far from progressive. "If you’ve made the conscious choice that your target demographic is instead triggered snowflakes who are super-sad the entire world does not revolve around them and their dumb ideas, sure — a guy like Shane Gillis makes sense," says Mary Elizabeth Williams. "It certainly makes sense if you’re SNL, a show whose edginess has always been a clever facade for its far from progressive environment. This is a show, after all, that has had Donald Trump as its host twice — including once while he was running for president. Other auspicious SNL hosts include Andrew Dice Clay, Steven Seagal and Steve Forbes." If SNL was so liberal, she says, it wouldn't have had only four openly gay players -- including new addition Bowen Yang -- out of 150 cast members in 45 seasons. "If you want to make the case for SNL as a venue always open to making jokes at the expense of politics and power, sure, that’s embedded in its DNA," says Williams. "But right there mixed in with that has always been a strong streak of conformity with the status quo, regardless of who gets thrown under the bus in the process. And even without the addition of Shane Gillis to its opening credits when the new season premieres next weekend, Lorne Michaels' legacy is still plenty safe from any real threat of 'liberal bias.'"
It's worth asking why SNL has a disappointing record in setting the terms and limits of cultural discourse: "TV’s oldest and biggest sketch comedy show does not make basic diversity strides 45 seasons in by chance," says Seth Simons, who uncovered Shane Gillis' racist jokes. "It does not cater to the reactionary right by chance. It does not spout transphobia and run interference for Aziz Ansari and nix jokes about Harvey Weinstein's downfall by chance. These values reflect the people running the show; they are the show’s values. Yes, good funny people who make good funny comedy work there too, and the reason their sketches dominate weekly conversations about SNL is that they are departures from the norm. These people deserve to work on a show where the norm is good comedy. That SNL is not this show—and is instead a show that regularly subjects the nation to Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump—and that accidentally or knowingly hired a gleeful racist—then waited four days to decide what to do about him—is also, say it with me, not by chance. One of the strangest parts of the last few days has been the widespread refusal by comedians and fans to acknowledge that comics mean what they say. But they do. It's very simple. Shane Gillis said all the cruel and ignorant things he said because he believes them. That’s who he is. This is true on the larger scale too. SNL has shown us again and again, through everything I’ve mentioned and more, what it is."
Making Lorne Michaels the king of comedy was a mistake: "As the years pass and questions around the relevance of SNL arise, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much power we gave Lorne Michaels and how bestowing such authority on him has ultimately been bad for pop culture," says Kayleigh Donaldson, who adds: "It’s not just Michaels’s long-held status as the kingmaker of American comedy that is so baffling either. Due to the nature of SNL and its politics-adjacent status, the show and its creator have long been positioned as an unimpeachable voice of satirical authority and societal reason. Turning to comedy for ‘the truth’ has always been an iffy strategy for life and political understanding, and it’s one that imbues its speakers, wilfully or otherwise, with a moral authority that can be smothering to deal with. Check out how Jon Stewart spent years being a better political commentator than the majority of the chattering classes but would renounce any power he wielded by insisting he was ‘just a comedian.’ For Michaels and SNL, this responsibility has been an accessory they have chosen to wear and remove at their luxury. However, they have also gifted themselves with another kind of kingmaking ability as it pertains to politics, and frankly, it’s not been good for anyone."
It's telling that big-name comedians who defend Gillis aren't criticizing Lorne Michaels and NBC executives: "To attack the executives at NBC and elsewhere who are making those decisions would be biting the hand that feeds them," says Miles Klee of comedians like Bill Burr and Sarah Silverman who slam "cancel culture." "These comics also do serious heavy lifting to suggest that what (Dave) Chappelle calls 'celebrity hunting season' is unprecedented, as if stars didn’t rise and fall on the vicissitudes of public opinion before the internet. SNL was well aware of Gillis’ schtick; they axed him because he was immediately and hugely unpopular. If we’re going to condemn mass media that caters to the audience’s taste, we may as well not have any."
Like his favorite MADtv, Gillis picked Asians to mock because they are an easy target for racial jokes: "As with Stephen Colbert and the Oscars, when it was time to make fun of a racial group, a comedian picked the Asians because they assumed there could be no meaningful blowback. Gillis was just too stupid to be clever about it," says Jeremy Gordon. He points to Gillis saying in a statement Monday that "I was always a mad tv guy anyway." As Gordon notes, MADtv has a history of mocking Asians, like with Alex Borstein's MADtv character, Ms. Swan, who was originally called Ms. Kwan. "To anyone of Asian descent," he says, "Ms. Swan was painfully recognizable as a crude stereotype. She had a severe bowl cut; her porcelain skin was flushed with rouge; she worked at a nail salon; she wore the sexless muu-muus of many grandmothers; and her accent immediately evoked every callous impersonation of an Asian woman."