Shane Gillis’ historically brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live” has turned into a referendum on an amorphous idea: cancel culture.
Shortly after Gillis was announced as a new featured player on “SNL” last month, clips of the comedian using racist language about Asians on a podcast recorded last year began circulating online — along with calls for him to lose his new job. He tried to explain himself as a performer who “pushes boundaries.” But “SNL” decided to part ways with him.
“This is just cancel culture. The guy shouldn’t have been fired,” comedian Jim Jefferies said on David Spade’s talk show. The Federalist, a conservative online publication, praised Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang for “refus[ing] to join cancel culture” when he offered to have a conversation with the comedian.
The concept has been around for a while. But what is cancel culture, which is simultaneously decried as everything that’s wrong with humanity (or liberals, or Generation Z) and condemned as a made-up term that helps people escape accountability for past wrongdoing? Here’s a step-by-step guide.
Canceling someone refers to shaming public figures for alleged wrongdoing, and advocating for them to lose access to their platform. It is a group effort, and it usually plays out these days on social media — although similar boycott campaigns predate Twitter hashtags.
Cancel culture can refer to wildly different things. Some people denounce it, pointing to instances of mob behavior and online infighting, or to situations where a career is jeopardized because of a bad tweet someone made as a teen.
But it also can be used to describe how traditionally underrepresented and oppressed groups harness the internet and social media to hold powerful people accountable when institutions won’t. That’s been the case with the #MeToo movement, the wave of many credible accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful figures.
Gillis, relatively unknown to a national audience, got a huge career break when the news of his “SNL” hire was released Sept. 12. The announcement also included fellow comedians Chloe Fineman and the show’s first East Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, a milestone that was widely celebrated. Then freelance comedy journalist Seth Simons tweeted a 2018 podcast clip of Gillis using racial slurs against Chinese people and making racist references to Chinatown.
Sometimes people who suddenly get a big job or become famous quickly try to get ahead of this public vetting, especially because there are plenty of recent examples of what happens when you don’t purge your archive.
Gillis’ comments were from last September. Someone had deleted past episodes of “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast” from its YouTube page, but there was still an active subreddit with a lot of content. Other writers dug around to see if those first clips were isolated or part of a pattern, and unearthed other racist as well as homophobic and sexist language.
Stand-up comedy, just like other art forms, has traditionally enjoyed an unspoken pact with the audience: Comedians can say pretty much whatever they want, and people in the crowd can feel however they want about the jokes. In live comedy, the power dynamics tend to favor the comedian who has the stage, spotlight and microphone. If a couple of people in the audience are deeply offended, the comic may never know about it.
But the internet changed this relationship. The audience can do more than heckle a live performance; they can talk back, at length, and get a lot of people to listen.
This shift has prompted a huge debate among comedians and anybody with opinions about comedy.
Where are the lines of decency? Is there room for forgiveness for old, hurtful bits? Gillis didn’t say that stuff in a stand-up set but on a podcast, so are these expressions of opinion, or jokes? Does the distinction even matter? Is the comedian’s intention relevant? Should a person who clearly felt it OK to say such things in any context be afforded a massive platform such as “SNL”? Does giving that platform serve as a tacit endorsement of the language? Is “it’s just a joke” an appropriate defense?
This debate soon became fodder for stories about the broader cultural wars.
Why? In part, clicks. Stories claiming that “left-wing mobs” are attacking people online have become a mainstay of conservative publications, for instance. And stories about the racist pasts of minor public figures also have an enormous potential audience online.
The content machines ran at full speed for an entire weekend until “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels said through a spokesperson that Gillis was fired.
The second career options
Canceling can cost opportunities; that’s what it’s designed to do. Roseanne Barr lost her show over her racist tweets, for example.
Some celebrities, national opinion journalists and political figures have taken to minimizing cancel culture as a way to paint accountability, scrutiny or social justice advocacy as illegitimate outpourings of mob rule.
Being canceled happens when there is a mismatch between the thing people said or did, and the ethical expectations of their audience. Those who face consequences for their past do have an alternative to silence and repentance: They can cater to the fans waiting to champion the canceled as one of their own.