With Shane Gillis’ return to SNL, Asians ask when they’ll stop being the punchline

Comedian Shane Gillis’ return to Saturday Night Live has reignited a discussion on the way Asian jokes have persisted in comedy. 

Many are criticizing the sketch comedy show after it announced that Gillis — who was fired from the cast in 2019 after anti-Asian and homophobic remarks resurfaced — will be hosting the show later this month. Asian Americans and others in the comedy community said the move is symbolic of comedians’ refusal to move on from Asian jokes and sends a message that Asian Americans are still seen as an acceptable punchline. 

“There is a feeling of it being swept under the rug — anti-Asian jokes being viewed as benign or not having real-life effects and consequences on people, when it’s not the case,” Dylan Adler, a Los Angeles-based Asian American comedian, told NBC News. 

Gillis is slated to host the show on Feb. 24, ahead of his stand-up tour later in the month. The comedian, who’s been embraced by right-wing viewers for his “anti-woke” comedy, was fired from the SNL cast after freelance journalist Seth Simons shared a clip from a 2018 episode of his podcast “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast” with comedian Matt McCusker. In it, Gillis and his co-host mocked Chinatown and its residents, used Asian slurs and attempted an Asian accent before calling the remarks “nice racism.” Gillis also used homophobic slurs in the same episode.

“Chinatown’s f***ing nuts,” Gillis said in the podcast. “Let the f***ing ch**ks live there, huh?”

Gillis declined NBC News’ request for comment. 

Simons said he felt it was critical to resurface the comments due to the onslaught of praise that the show had received for its historic hiring of Bowen Yang, who in 2019 became SNL’s first Asian American full-time cast member.

“They hired Bowen at the same time as they hired this guy, who had a demonstrated distaste for Asian people,” Simons said. “Bowen is a tremendously talented comedian … But it didn’t seem right to me that SNL deserves the credit for this progressive stride forward.” 

SNL did not return NBC News’ request for comment but a spokesperson for the show addressed the incident at the time. 

“We want SNL to have a variety of voices and points of view within the show, and we hired Shane on the strength of his talent as a comedian and his impressive audition for SNL,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.”

The show airs on NBC, a division of NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of NBC News. 

But Simons said that when Gillis was announced as host, he felt many of the same, familiar feelings as he did before.

“I just felt a deep well of disgust as I considered how, a week after bringing on Ayo Edebiri, a really beloved and talented young, Black comic, and having her give Nikki Haley an opportunity to apologize to liberals for not saying slavery caused the Civil War, they’re bringing on this guy who said a lot of racist stuff on his podcast,” Simons said. 

For many Asian Americans, Gillis’ return seems to feed into a stubborn, continued use of racist Asian jokes in U.S. culture. In 2014, comedian Stephen Colbert prompted backlash and the viral #CancelColbert hashtag after the official Twitter account of his show, “The Colbert Report,” attempted to roast Dan Snyder, former owner of the Washington Commanders, for creating a foundation that purported to support Native Americans instead of changing its previously offensive mascot and name.

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the C***g-C***g Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” the tweet read. 

Then, during a 2017 episode of his show, comedian Steve Harvey poked fun at self-help book “How to Date a White Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men,” by cackling at the prospect of anyone being attracted to an Asian man. Harvey later issued an apology for the comments. 

By the time Gillis’ comments resurfaced, Adler wasn’t necessarily surprised, he said. In his own career, particularly when he was performing at open mics, Adler said he witnessed jokes being made at the expense of Asians at “almost every” show. 

“There is an idea that Asians will take it and have to just be obedient and have a smile on our face,” he said.  

But it’s difficult for Asian American comedians to speak out, Adler said. There’s little representation in mainstream comedy spaces, and many fear any criticism of programs like SNL could put their careers at risk, he said. 

“I’m thinking about the ways that a lot of people of color have had to bend over backwards and hold their tongue just to have a spot,” Adler said.  

Jes Tom, an Asian American stand-up comedian and actor, said that the way in which some comedians cling to this racist humor could be a reaction to a changing, more “cosmetically diverse” comedy industry. Some white male comedians could fear a loss of power when, in reality, many of the decision-makers in comedy haven’t necessarily changed, they said. 

“From 2018-ish to right now, casting became more diverse,” they said. “But because the image changed, it allowed people like straight, white men to believe that now, they’re the alternative voice. They’re the little guy who’s punching up against the ‘diverse powers’ that be.” 

Ultimately, Adler said, these racist jokes are simply not funny. 

“What comedy does is it’s supposed to surprise you,” he said. “When I hear that? That isn’t surprising. It’s not interesting, it’s not nuanced, and it does feel lazy to me.” 

Given the continued scarcity of Asian hosts to grace the SNL stage, Adler said, the show should’ve considered giving an Asian celebrity the gig. Only a handful of Asian talent have been given hosting duties in the show’s 939-episode run, with the most recent being actor Simu Liu in 2022. 

“There’s so many talented, incredible Asian comedians and actors that they haven’t had on the show yet,” Adler said. “I can’t believe they haven’t had Margaret Cho host the show, or someone like Michelle Yeoh.” 

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