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New 'Saturday Night Live' Cast Member Has History Of Racist Remarks


"Saturday Night Live" likes to mock the news, not make it. But this week, controversy followed the announcement of three new actors joining the cast. The reason - well, it turns out stand-up comedian Shane Gillis, one of the three, had made a series of racist and homophobic remarks. In one episode of his podcast, he uses a racial slur and makes fun of Chinese accents during a discussion about Chinatown. And in another episode, he uses gay slurs to describe comedians he doesn't think are funny.

NPR arts reporter Andrew Limbong joins us now. Hey, Andrew.


CHANG: So I guess the first question I have is what is the vetting process at "Saturday Night Live" for a new hire? I mean, don't they go back and look at all the public material they can find about a comedian?

LIMBONG: So, yeah, we reached out to NBC to try to, you know, ask that very question, and they haven't gotten back to us yet. What we do know is that the hiring and firing process behind "SNL" is all very mysterious and, like, hard to see through. You know, we hear a lot of stories about people who didn't know that they were getting hired until somebody congratulated them, or they didn't know that they were getting fired until - like, you know, I didn't know I was getting fired until I read it in the newspaper. It's all very, like, weird and stuff.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIMBONG: What we do know about this sort of situation is that people tend to weather the storm. In 2016, Melissa Villasenor got hired, and she deleted a bunch of tweets that were racist. And, you know, she's still hanging around. And, you know, Michael Che always gets some heat online for things he says, and he's still the host of Weekend Update.

CHANG: Right.

LIMBONG: So they sort of just, like, bunker down and weather the storm.

CHANG: OK, well, tell us a little more about this guy, Shane Gillis. I understand you saw him perform at the New Faces showcase at the Just For Laughs comedy festival. You picked him out as a stand-out comic.

LIMBONG: Yeah, yeah.

CHANG: What was his set like?

LIMBONG: So, yeah, just for the people who don't know, New Faces is a place where, like, up-and-coming comedians can perform in front of agents and people who can, like, change their life essentially, right? So his set was 50% I'm bad at sex, I'm, like, kind of pudgy and I feel weird about it - right - and, like, very, very well-mined place for comedy. And the other 50% of his comedy was about how he's from Mechanicsburg, Pa., and he just moved to New York. And he's sort of, like, straddling the line between his, like, racist stuff - his uncle's posts on Facebook - and, like, the aggressively woke friends he's making now in New York and just sort of trying to traverse the two worlds.

And his set got - you know, I put him on the list because his set got a lot of laughs. He has great, like, timing. And, like, the aggressive energy that's in his podcast was sort of, like, shaved off just enough, you know?

CHANG: Did you hear him make any actual racist comments during his set?

LIMBONG: Every sort of, like, racist comments were sort of, like, couched in, like, oh, my uncle just hates Kaepernick - like, that sort of thing - like, in the voice of.

CHANG: Oh, like, not coming from him.

LIMBONG: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

CHANG: I see. So has Gillis responded to all of this anger that's coming at him now?

LIMBONG: He posted a statement last night saying that, you know, he pushes boundaries. He has a whole backlog of podcasts and jokes that he makes, and, you know, a lot of the times, they miss. But he's also trying to push the boundaries of comedy.

CHANG: Right.

LIMBONG: Whether or not that includes, you know, making racist jokes is...

CHANG: I notice that part of his statement was, if anyone is actually offended, I'm sorry.

LIMBONG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHANG: So he's not exactly saying that what he said was offensive.

LIMBONG: Or maybe he's, like, opening up, like, a hotline for people to call up and be like, hey, listen; I was - being very charitable there.

CHANG: Right, OK. And then meanwhile, while all of this is going on with Shane Gillis, another one of the new cast members who was announced this week for "SNL" was Bowen Yang, who's actually the show's first Asian American cast member, so this is kind of awkward timing.

LIMBONG: Yeah, it is kind of awkward. I mean, Bowen Yang being the first Asian hire at "SNL" was big news when the announcements were first happening. We should say that Fred Armisen and Rob Schneider are both, like, part-Asian, but he's their first - Bowen Yang is their first Asian full-time cast member. And what should be a time for some to celebrate has been sort of swallowed up by the Shane Gillis news.

CHANG: That's NPR's Andrew Limbong. Thanks, Andrew.

LIMBONG: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.

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