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Gillis’s comments exhibited the same kind of dismissiveness that I continue to witness in my life, and the lives of people of my race
By Alex Wong
Last week, NBC’s Saturday Night Live announced the hiring of three new featured performers for their upcoming 45th season: Chloe Fineman, Shane Gillis and Bowen Yang. For the Asian community, it was a celebration of a new milestone. For the first time, SNL would have a regular performer of Asian descent. Those feelings of pride were short-lived, however, as the internet soon unearthed a clip from Gillis’s podcast, Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast , in which Gillis used multiple racial slurs and derogatory language.
As everyone waited for NBC to issue a statement, Gillis himself tweeted out an apology, claiming he is simply a comedian who pushes boundaries. In taking those risks, he explained, sometimes he misses his mark. “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I said,” Gillis said.
It’s hard to read the response as anything other than condescending. The addition of the word “actually” minimizes the offense that an entire race of people might feel for being reduced to a stereotype and mocked with language that has been hurtful since its inception and understood to be racist for decades. It suggests that the only thing inappropriate about using racist language is the outrage it causes; not the terrible terminology.
This concept is familiar to other comedians. As public taste — especially in younger generations — has moved toward what is often unflatteringly referred to as a “politically correct” culture, comedians have bemoaned the sudden disregard for their more off-colour material. In fact, the increasing use of the catch-all term “cancel culture” to push back against this perceived evil of political correctness has become a part of their act.
It’s used as a constant crutch, not just as cover for using despicable terms, but as a way to justify tired jokes and make routines seem more daring than they are. To claim cancel culture as a danger is to mistake tailwinds for headwinds. It’s in the best interest of comedians to exaggerate the sensitivities of others so as to make the same old jokes feel rejuvenated.
Consider two recent Netflix specials from two of the most successful comedians currently active — Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr. Both spend an inordinate amount of time at the beginning of their routines complaining about the “current landscape” in which everyone is “triggered” and in need of a “safe space.” They establish a fiction in which they themselves are under attack by a mob of thought police. Then, when they tell their dated, distasteful jokes — mocking victims in Chappelle’s case, reinforcing misogyny in Burr’s — it comes across as daring to the audience instead of the same old punching down that marginalized groups have always received.
It’s actually quite clever how hard they work to engineer the context in which their jokes are told — all to deliver a lazy punchline. Of course, they’re not under threat. They exceedingly successful joke-tellers. Just like Gillis’s apology, they create the illusion that it’s inappropriate to be offended by their offensive material.
Of course, comedy is a tricky subculture to navigate. Some of the best punchlines are meant to make the audience uncomfortable because a really good joke can reveal particular truths about terrible things that happen in this world. But jokes like that require nuance, and an understanding between the comedian and the audience. There’s an argument to be made — whether I agree with it or not — that the examples above achieve some level of artistic endeavour — even if it is at the expense of often mocked groups — through Chappelle and Burr’s efforts to create a context.
George Carlin referred to the importance of context when he rattled off a list of racial slurs and observed: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves. They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad. The context. That makes them good or bad.”
Here’s where Chappelle and Burr’s sets differ from Gillis’s comments, though: He had no such context. It was blatant racism. He was like a toddler uttering obscenities for attention, only without the excuse of not knowing any better. To his mind, the words were funny because they were hurtful.
Personally speaking, the words also felt familiar. As an Asian immigrant growing up in Canada, I’ve had to deal with my share of racial slurs and being made to feel inferior in public settings. I’ve heard all of the stereotypical jokes (“Why can’t any of you drive?” “Why are all your eyes so small?”), sometimes at workplaces from co-workers under the guise of casual social ribbing. Laughing along with them always felt like an exercise in submission, an admission of their social dominance.
These uncomfortable comments are always around the corner. I’ve long given up on entering crowded elevators at my condo on Friday evenings, when groups of clubgoers will throw an Asian joke at you just to get a cheap laugh from their friends. A few weeks ago, two tourists posed by a street sign in Toronto’s Chinatown for a selfie while pinching their eyes to make them slanted. We made eye contact. They took the photo anyway, laughed and moved on.
Gillis’s comments exhibited the same kind of dismissiveness that I continue to witness in my life, and the lives of people of my race. When I take offense to these; when I voice my anger over racist terms, I have no thoughts about “cancel culture.” There is no joy in seeing someone lose their job or have their career ruined. There’s nothing exciting about having to revisit the stereotypes and racial slurs we deal with on a day-to-day basis. How ecstatic are we supposed to feel to be reminded once again that people like us are marginalized and viewed as inferior by others?
Earlier this week, SNL announced it was not moving forward with the hiring of Gillis. It’s hard to tell if the show’s motivation was a matter of principle or avoiding a potential distraction. Either way, the sentiment for many has been that “cancel culture” got another one.
For people who share this attitude, It’s difficult to understand at what point something is allowed to be offensive or inappropriate. In 2006, long before the term “cancel culture” was ever used, Michael Richards was filmed screaming an expletive-laced racist tirade at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles as part of his set. The public outrage was such that he retired from stand-up comedy and took a long break from television.
In the ensuing years, our tolerance for outright racist language has been muddied to the point that for some, referring to Asian immigrants as “chinks” — which is what Gillis did on more than one occasion — is less distasteful than voicing outrage over it.
Forget about suspicions that some may be feigning offense. Stop wondering how many people are gleeful over his potential downfall. Don’t worry about motivations. It is wrong to refer to people as that. Plain and simple. And it is actually offensive. It’s 2019, and calling racist language racist shouldn’t be that hard.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019