Congratulations, Racists

Revisiting Shane Gillis.

Congratulations, Racists
Image via YouTube/Gilly and Keeves.
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Hello: I am using this little box to give you a heads up about the newsletter you are about to read, which contains a number of long excerpts of racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, and all-around disturbing podcast content. I have opted to over-quote in a number of these passages for several reasons: 1) to create a textual record of audio content, 2) so you don't have to listen to that audio content, although 2.5) I've included clips if you want to, and 3) to adequately contextualize the worst parts of what you're about to read, lest there be any doubt about whether they are JUST JOKES. That said, in most cases I think you will generally get the drift without needing to read the whole thing. Please skip around as you see fit.

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In an episode of the podcast Perfect Guy Life released earlier this year, co-hosts Sam Hyde and Nick Rochefort, whose short-lived Adult Swim series Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace was canceled in 2016 amidst controversy over its use of racist messages and Nazi imagery, complain about Saturday Night Live. “It is the worst show ever, and it is the dream of arguably everybody in this room before it got full toilet,” says Rochefort. “Before I had to look at fucking Leslie Jones and fucking Cecily Strong be a fucking maniac.” A couple minutes later, he complains about Lorne Michaels’ Israeli citizenship. “That dual citizenship with fucking Lorne Michaels fucking bothers me. Why is he a dual citizenship of Israel? What did Lorne Michaels do to get dual citizenship in Israel?” Hyde, who in 2017 pledged to donate $5,000 to a legal defense fund for Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, chimes in with a comment that’s bleeped out in the recording: “Fucking [censored].” Their guest, comedian Shane Gillis, nods his head. “That’s what I thought we were gonna be doing,” he says. “That’s more what I was preparing for.”

Gillis, whose second standup special Beautiful Dogs premiered on Netflix this week, admits later in the episode that he’s intimidated by his hosts. “I’m a big fan,” he says. “I’ve been watching your shit since, like, when it started.” This echoes what he told Hyde in a September 2020 episode of Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, which he co-hosts with Matt McCusker. “We’re both huge fans, me and Matt have been watching your stuff since day one,” he says, a few minutes after Hyde remarks that he’s “been calming down with the anti-Semitism lately.” (“Nice,” Gillis responds.) In the Perfect Guy Life episode, Gillis enjoys a comfortable rapport with Hyde and Rochefort, talking shop about standup and commiserating with Rochefort about their experiences as car salesmen. When Rochefort recalls a phone call Hyde received from former KKK leader David Duke sometime in the leadup to the 2016 election, Gillis grins and responds “No, no,” in apparent disbelief. Hyde doesn’t remember the call, so Rochefort fills them both in:

I remember being on the way home from the tour in Philly, when we were in Philly, and you were like, "David Duke emailed me." And I was like, "Dude, don't fucking reply to that.” I’m always like the mom. I'm always like, "No, that's gonna get us in trouble." And then after it's over, I'm always like, fucking, "Yeah! Fuck 'em!" But David Duke called, emailed you. He was like, "You're doing good work." He told you you were doing good work.

Hyde laments his bad memory, which Rochefort blames on his weed habit. Gillis asks Hyde, “You smoke pot?” and the conversation shifts toward their respective vices. The episode carries on for another 25-ish minutes after the revelation that David Duke is a fan of one of its hosts, a fact that doesn’t seem to make any particular impression on its guest.

You may be familiar with the (perhaps apocryphal) saying quoted a few months ago by Rage Against The Machine frontman Tom Morello: “If 9 people sit down at a table with 1 Nazi without protest, there are 10 Nazis at the table.” What do we make of an industry whose members are, almost uniformly, either friends with fascists or friendly with the friends of fascists? This is what comedy is; this is what comedy has been for a long time. It is the status quo nearly every working comedian has accepted, either because they don’t know what to do about it or because they know but don’t want to. The better part of a decade has passed since Gavin McInnes created and evangelized the Proud Boys on a comedy webcast, though it only took four years for his creation to participate in a coup attempt. His friends and collaborators in comedy include some of the industry’s biggest names, like Joe Rogan, who last hosted McInnes in 2017 and has since gone fully down the right-wing rabbit hole. The long-term effect of Rogan’s influence is that everyone who has ever come through his podcast is one degree of separation from honest-to-goodness fascists like McInnes, Alex Jones (last JRE appearance: 2020), and Dave Smith (August 2023), a spokesperson for the Libertarian party’s far-right Mises Caucus, who angrily declared trans identity illegitimate earlier this year: "You can live your life however you want to, but if we're actually going to have this fucking conversation, no, it's not a real thing."

That Smith said this on a podcast hosted by Ari Shaffir, a Holocaust survivor’s son who hosted a Comedy Central series before carving out his own space in the right-wing media landscape, shows just how normal it has become for popular comedians to use comedy platforms in the service of far-right ideologies. They’re not bothered by hate speech; they don’t even recognize it. Perhaps this is why it has been so easy for Shane Gillis—who in recent years has performed with Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, and Joe Rogan, the most popular comedians of our day—to build a successful mainstream career after his 2019 firing from Saturday Night Live over racist and homophobic podcast clips. (Yes: I posted clips that led to this firing, as did others.) In retrospect, his only mistake was that he hadn’t yet proven himself the sort of person allowed to violate our culture’s only remaining taboos: a great comedian.

Over the last few years, I have observed some curious rewriting of the circumstances that led to Gillis’s SNL firing, namely the idea that his use of a slur for Chinese people was 1) taken out of context, and 2) made somehow less egregious, or even acceptable, by the fact that he said it in “in character” as a racist white person. (In reality it was fully contextualized beside his complaints about Chinese food and Chinese people, never mind the separate clip in which he said the slur multiple times in his own voice.) From this revisionism emerged the notions, exemplified in a New Yorker profile of Gillis last year, that 1) his use of this slur was somehow divorced from his character, and 2) he has since grown into a different, more respectable comic—this despite his associations with confessed sexual predator Louis CK and anti-trans activist Dave Chappelle, and his penchant (oddly glossed over in the profile) for using “gay” as a pejorative.

It is very easy to dispense with both of these propositions. Before I do so, I would like to be clear that I am not trying to cancel Shane Gillis. I have no delusion that quoting episodes of his podcast will in any way impact his career. (His podcast is currently the highest-ranking on Patreon, with 26,000 more subscribers than the influential left podcast Chapo Trap House.) I write this because the historical record of that career, largely thanks to a credulous New Yorker profile that seems to lack a working theory of what race and racism are, does not reflect the full picture of Gillis’s work before it reached a national audience. I am not here to indict Gillis. I am here to indict the industry that embraced him.