by Tim Sweeney

After the resurfacing of past racist and homophobic remarks, comedian Shane Gillis was recently fired from Saturday Night Live before ever taking the stage. Many people, especially comedians, are defending Gillis, saying that this is a culmination of “Cancel Culture” gone too far, another one of many social justice campaigns that threaten free speech. Comedians Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr both take aim at over-sensitivity in their latest Netflix specials, warning us that outrage culture has put comedy itself in peril. I hear it all the time— in personal conversations, the news, comment sections—“Nobody can take a joke anymore.” But at what point does comedy simply become a flimsy, translucent veil one can carelessly drape over a marble statue of bigotry?

Following Gillis’ hiring, a recent podcast was uncovered by comedy reporter Seth Simons, in which the comedian can be heard saying of NYC’s Chinatown: “Let the f*cking ch*nks live there”, as well as doing a mocking impersonation of a stereotypical Asian accent. 

Another clip emerged of Gillis calling presidential candidate Andrew Yang a “Jew ch*nk”, as well as other clips in which Gillis uses slurs against homosexuals. Three days after the comments came to light, Gillis was fired. This, of course, has stirred heated debate between the left and right. I say good riddance.

Honestly, I’ve never been a social justice warrior, in fact probably far from it. My close friends would probably tell you that I’m an asshole, through and through. But Jesus, I’m tired of watching these right-wing, “nothing can hurt my feelings”-types whine and moan like a bunch of petulant children. I’m sick of listening to millionaire comedians preface every joke with “I’m not allowed to say this, but…”, as if the Gestapo are knocking on their doors. Meanwhile, they’re being paid millions by Netflix to be on stage, and somehow they’ve unwittingly become the very thing they stand against: bastions of victim-hood. The whole incident essentially has a bunch of adults acting like those kids in middle school who’d ask why they “can’t say the n-word.” Guess what, you morons? You CAN say the n-word! But that’s not what you’re asking! The actual question is: “Why can’t I say the n-word without facing any consequences?” Well, unfortunately for you we live in a society in which people are not only free to speak, but also free to react to what’s being said. Oh, and also unfortunately for you, people are smart enough to know that you can’t just tack a clown nose and some make-up on a blatantly racist statement and call it a joke.

But that’s exactly what a lot of these “shock jock” comedians want to get away with. They don’t want freedom of speech (which they have), they want freedom from consequences, which they think the guise of comedy grants them. So long as a statement is “just in jest”, then we should just ingest it, right? I mean, if it doesn’t offend them, why should it offend you?

Because it’s okay to be upset. It’s okay to stand up against something you think is wrong.

What’s funny to me is this growing sense of pride among “tough guys” patting themselves on the back for being perpetually “unoffended”. Look, I’m not a sensitive guy by any stretch, but I’m certainly not touting that fact as something that puts me on some feeling-less pedestal. I mean, is it really that impressive when a person who isn’t black isn’t offended by the n-word? Or is it a commendable feat of mental fortitude if a straight person isn’t personally offended by a slur used specifically against homosexuals? Forgive me if I withhold my applause and gold stars. Or give me one more white dude who’ll proudly boast his invulnerability to the word “cracker”, as if his emotional immunity to that word somehow invalidates the feelings of someone else. I’m not going to go into historical weight each phrase holds, though in the past when I have attempted to do so, I’ve typically been met with a willful and feigned ignorance. I sit back and laugh as I watch these types turn into the same quivering snowflakes they berate the instant someone shows a little backbone. It becomes a cycle of being offended at people being offended. One persons tears evaporate into a cloud for the next to cry from. There’s a name for the hellish place where the overly-sanctimonious left and right meet, a place my girlfriends’ dad likes to call, “The Political Anus”. He drew a diagram; I’ll have to dig it up sometime.

Of course, comedy has always been political, and has always set to push boundaries and expose the absurdity of social norms and customs. But Gillis’ racist diatribe disguised as comedy doesn’t enlighten anyone, and maybe even worse, it wasn’t funny. I can clearly remember when Dave Chappelle did his infamous Clayton Bigsby bit on The Chappelle Show, in which he depicts the story of a blind, black Ku Klux Klan member who doesn’t realize that he’s black. The skit contained racist slurs strewn throughout, but the bit worked because it was exposing the absolute ridiculousness of racism itself. There is no satirical “ah-ha” moment in which Gillis exposes his own racism as foolish, it’s just him and a buddy having your average, run-of-the-mill, intensely racist conversation that they didn’t think would see the light of day. Of course, it could have been a long con, because he sure looks foolish now. In response to his firing, Gillis gave this statement:

If you plug that opening statement into Google Translate, and set the languages to translate from Whining Child to Adult English, it actually reads: “It feels ridiculous that I’m being held accountable for my words.”

What’s perplexing to me is seeing comedians simultaneously defend comedy as this untouchable golden sword of truth, a noble art form so pure that we ought not sully it with feelings, while at the same time treating it like it has no power at all. The truth is that people are influenced by the things they hear and see through media. There is power in comedy, and there is certainly a level of scrutiny that comes with that power when you put yourself in the public eye. In Gillis’ defense, many comedians have come out and said that comedy requires risk. It’s as if they don’t realize that that statement in itself is admitting that there should be consequences in comedy. If there aren’t any consequences, then what exactly is the risk?

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that everyone that has ever said anything wrong should lose their job, or be forever exiled from society. I should probably thank God every day that Twitter didn’t exist when I was in 7th grade. Gillis’ made his “jokes” less than a year ago, and now he and his defenders want to blame the audience for his bit failing— an easy scapegoat any comedian can keep in their back pocket. I guess the truth is that even as an Asian guy, I’m far less annoyed about the actual words Gillis’ said, and far more annoyed at him and other comedians trying to weasel their way out of any semblance of accountability.