Shane Gillis Bombs on ‘SNL’ With Down Syndrome and Gay Jokes


There was one big elephant in the room when Shane Gillis walked on stage to host Saturday Night Live this weekend, and he addressed it straight away. “I was actually fired from this show, a while ago, but you know… Don’t look that up,” he told viewers. “Please. Don’t even worry about it.”

Gillis then quickly pivoted to a set about how he should probably have become a high-school football coach, followed by a joke about his dad being a volunteer girls’ high-school assistant basketball coach, which did not go over well. “I thought it was great, never mind,” he laughed. “Thought that was gonna be a big hit here.”

This was the recurring sentiment throughout the monologue. Although the lack of laughs may not have seemed that noticeable to viewers at home, we know from previous episodes that it often sounds a lot worse from the performer’s point of view.

Gillis certainly seemed to be feeling the heat as he went into jokes about being his mom’s “gay best friend” as a kid—before he discovered masturbation. He also talked about having family members with Down syndrome, repeating bits from his recent Netflix special. Most of the humor is exactly what Gillis fans have come to expect, and most of his jokes—especially the bit about how happy people with Down syndrome tend to be—is a lot more empathetic than his reputation might suggest. But unfortunately for Gillis, it seems like the comedy his regular audience enjoys just doesn’t work quite as well at 30 Rock.

“Look, I don’t have any material that can be on TV, all right?” he joked at one point. At another he used the word “retarded” in a joke—the silent response was still deafening. But Gillis seemed to take the lukewarm response in his stride. To any fans or critics expecting bitterness on his exit in 2019, Gillis offered nothing.

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Gillis’ monologue comes at the end of several weeks of criticisms around his hosting gig, from both his critics and his fans. Many have expressed their disappointment over SNL choosing to bring back someone whom they famously let go for making racist and homophobic comments, not to mention using his podcast to passively promote holocaust deniers and 9/11 truthers. It seemed like SNL was engaging in its yearly cynical ratings ploy of platforming a controversial right-wing figure, regardless of what its regular audience members think.

As for Gillis’ fans, the news of his hosting gig was received as much-needed vindication, as an admission by SNL that it was wrong to fire him in the first place. Many of Gillis’ most vocal fans have celebrated the news as a victory against “woke cancel culture,” an ultimate moment of sticking it to the libs as a humbled SNL crawled back to Gillis to beg his forgiveness. (Gillis, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that he understands the show’s decision and doesn’t hold a grudge.)

Inexplicably stuck in the middle of this controversy throughout the past month has been SNL cast member Bowen Yang. Yang’s only crime is that his status as the show’s first gay Asian cast member made Gillis’ initial hiring alongside him feel even more egregious, considering Gillis was under fire for using homophobic and anti-Asian slurs. With Yang’s incredibly mild displays of disapproval over some of the show’s recent guest appearances, he has unwittingly become a figurehead of the supposed social justice warrior snowflake that the anti-woke crowd hates the most, at least in the minds of many Gillis fans.

“Bowen Yang on suicide watch,” joked a top comment in the Shane Gillis subreddit when his hosting gig was first announced. “He’s gonna stand so angrily in a corner,” said another reply. This is all despite the fact that Yang has never actually done or said anything against Gillis. The two follow each other on Instagram and Yang’s liked a couple of Gillis’ posts; by all accounts the conflict between the two is a figment of the internet’s imagination.

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Gillis’ willingness to play nice in his monologue shouldn’t be a huge surprise to those who’ve watched his popular Netflix special, Beautiful Dogs. It’s a special that confirms that when Gillis is on stage, he has little interest in being a provocative culture warrior against wokeism, whatever that term means. His special includes a segment where he mocks America’s inaction on gun control, dismisses right-wing fearmongering over queer people in the military, and delivers a whole extended bit about George Washington filled with damning reminders that the guy was a slave-owning weirdo. He may have a right-wing aesthetic and a penchant for edgy phrasing—which sure sounds to his fans like he’s sticking it to the libs—but the substance of his jokes would fit right at home on Michael Che’s side of the “Weekend Update” desk.

So, does this monologue have the same victory lap vibes of Norm MacDonald’s 1999 monologue after he was fired? Not quite, because it doesn’t seem like there was ever any real beef between Gillis and the people running the show. As Gillis explained on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2021, Lorne Michaels was initially resistant to the calls to fire him. “[Lorne] was like, ‘If we just get you to the first episode, people will see you’re not a piece of shit person,’” Gillis revealed.

Perhaps if the criticism hadn’t kept growing as it did, Michaels would’ve kept Gillis on, regardless of whatever racist or homophobic thing he’d said in the past. This is the same guy who let Donald Trump host in 2015 after all, despite the cast’s obvious discomfort.

Despite its reputation among conservatives as a hardcore liberal institution, SNL has always been run first and foremost like a business, even if this conflicts with its cast members’ or audience’s values and beliefs. In the end, there was no need for Gillis to get in jabs at the show’s expense in his monologue, because SNL was never really against him in the first place.

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