‘Edgy’ or offensive? Shane Gillis controversy fans fierce debate among Philly comedians

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Shane Gillis (Phil Provencio/NBC via AP) and NBC Studios (Golden Brown/BigStock)

Shane Gillis (Phil Provencio/NBC via AP) and NBC Studios (Golden Brown/BigStock)

News that comedian Shane Gillis will no longer be joining the Saturday Night Live cast this fall is fanning a visceral debate in Philadelphia’s comedy scene over what’s pushing boundaries and what’s just offensive.

That debate is not unique to Philly. But the controversy surrounding Gillis — a Cumberland County, Pa. native whose rise to fame included time at the city’s open mics — has forced that dispute to play out among local comedians in real-time.

Four Philly comedians told WHYY this was the most divided the community had been in recent years.

Not long after SNL announced Gillis would be joining the cast, video surfaced on Twitter of Gillis using a racial slur for Chinese people and making fun of Asians learning English. The video was from a 2018 episode of Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, the show Gillis co-hosts with comedian and Delaware County native Matt McCusker.

Gillis also faced criticism for another clip from May in which he called 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang a racial slur on a different podcast hosted by two other comedians.

Gillis apologized for his comments on Twitter last week, saying he was a comedian who “pushes boundaries” and sometimes he missed the target.

“I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said,” he said.

SNL rescinded its invitation to Gillis on Monday afternoon.

Over the weekend, Yang condemned the comments, but said Gillis shouldn’t lose his job at SNL. Philly-based comedian Jesse Draham agrees.

“Nobody would stand up to this kind of scrutiny,” said Draham who has been in the scene for about five years and is familiar with Gillis’ standup.

Some of Gillis’ material included some “bad things,” said Draham, but what bothers him about the debate among his fellow comedians is that few of those working clubs nowadays can claim they haven’t made similar statements in their sets.

“A comedian should not be held seriously for what he’s saying. Everything you’re doing is for the joke, and sometimes for the joke, taking an extreme and offensive position is the big hallmark about it,” he said.

Still, Gillis’ material has cost him before. In Philly, Good Good Comedy Theatre cut ties with Gillis over his “overt racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia — expressed both on and off the stage — upon working with him years ago,” the club said in a Tweet last week. Philly Improv Theater was the other.

Still, Draham’s sentiments were echoed by dozens of members of a closed Facebook group for those involved in Philadelphia’s comedy scene — while just as many comedians fundamentally disagreed.

“Whether or not or not Shane Gillis is a good person or he’s a nice guy, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what he’s saying on that stage,” said Seth Fisher who performed standup in Philly between 2015 and 2016.

Fisher argues comedians need to be cognizant of the effect their words can have on audiences who don’t know them on a personal level.

“When you put this kind of stuff out there for a large audience, whether it’s racism or homophobia or whatever, it’s increasing that sentiment in society,” said Fisher, who said he is glad SNL fired Gillis.

But Draham says it’s more complicated than that.

He said there’s a market for this kind of humor, and plenty of people who still pay to see comedians who make much crasser jokes.

As evidence, Draham points to the two major comedy specials recently released by Dave Chapelle and Bill Burr.

Both comedians have faced criticism for their new material, but Draham says Chapelle and Burr are making millions of dollars, while some up-and-comers like Gillis have lost work.

“Bottom line is the comics who are making big money, who are filling out theaters and areas around the country, they’re doing edgy comedy,” said Draham. “If comedy is making a big change, that’s not what audiences are saying with dollars and cents.”

Greg Maughan is the founder and executive director of the Philly Improv Theater, one of two theaters who said they cut ties with Gillis over his material.

When the theater informed Gillis people were feeling hurt by some of his statements, Maughan said Gillis was receptive and “said the right things.” But Maughan said Gillis’ material remained the same and they stopped booking him in 2017.

Maughan offered another reason why this long-standing debate over what’s pushing the edge and what’s punching down is dividing the city’s comedy community: Comedians on both sides share a desire for Philly’s funniest to receive national recognition. They wanted the story to be that SNL picked the right person, someone who could cut it. As a reflex, some people stood up for the local guy.

“Also there were a lot of people who reflexively wanted to get rid of Shane because they didn’t want to see that Shane was the example of what comedy is in Philadelphia that was put forward nationally,” he said.

Still, Maughan said he’s heartened by SNL’s decision to fire Gillis, because it allows people to focus on the positive, including the hiring of Bowen Yang, the show’s first Asian-American cast member.

“That’s the kind of progress a show like SNL should be making and the kind of progress the whole world of comedy should be trying to make,” he said, “encouraging more voices, more diversity, more viewpoints.”

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