Congratulations, Racists

Revisiting Shane Gillis.

Congratulations, Racists
Image via YouTube/Gilly and Keeves.
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.

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 citizen 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.

A funny thing happens in conversations about racist comedy. Its defenders will tell you that you can’t call someone racist unless they use outright slurs, then when someone uses outright slurs, it turns out those slurs don’t reflect racism in their heart. Even in the years before their podcast was exposed to a wider audience, Gillis and McCusker were indeed savvy enough (…generally) to avoid slurs; the very first episode, for instance, features Gillis’s father telling a joke about Barack Obama whose punchline is completely censored. The comedians were much less savvy about everything else, however. Consider a May 2017 episode, “To Catch a Prophet,” in which they discuss Hasan Minhaj's Netflix special Homecoming King:

"It was a fucking Indian dude, Pakistani pretending to be a Black guy."
MCCUSKER: I think it might’ve been one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.
GILLIS: That was the fucking, that’s like the definition of virtue signaling. Like, [Effecting an effeminate voice:] “I loved Hasan Minhaj’s new special”—it was fucking terrible.
GILLIS: It was a fucking Indian dude, Pakistani pretending to be a Black guy.
MCCUSKER: Yeah. Literally.
GILLIS: It was terrible.
MCCUSKER: And the guy was like, the whole basis of it is this hard immigrant experience he had. It’s like, dude, his mom’s a fucking doctor, his dad’s a scientist, he grew up in Irvine, which is fucking Orange County, California. And he’s like, “Yeah, I’m like, it’s like immigrant, my dad like, I don’t know if you white kids know, but like brown people, we hit our kids.” It’s a stock Black joke.
GILLIS: I love that he’s taking that.
MCCUSKER: And it’s like, all right, your dad, your fucking pussy chemist dad hit you?
MCCUSKER: It’s like dude, I would have fucked your dad up when I was 12 years old.
GILLIS: For sure.
MCCUSKER: I would’ve beat your dad—he came out with soft little microscope hands, like, [Effecting an Indian accent:] “Oh, stop that!” He would have hit me, I’d have like “the fuck out of here, pussy.”
GILLIS: Dude, you would’ve put him in the crab.
MCCUSKER: Yeah, I would’ve fucked his dad up.
GILLIS: You would’ve sent his ass packing.
MCCUSKER: Oh, dude.
GILLIS: I’d have fucking Torture Act him.
MCCUSKER: I would’ve fucked him, and then fucked his mom.
GILLIS: You would’ve fucked his family? You would’ve fucked his dad?
MCCUSKKER: If that was my dad, I would’ve beat my dad’s ass—
GILLIS: Did you just say you would’ve fucked his dad?
MCCUSKER: Whatever, fucked him up.
GILLIS: You would’ve fucked him, dude.
MCCUSKER: I would’ve fucked him, yeah. I would’ve fucked him. I would’ve dominated him.
GILLIS: Yeah, that special was really hard to watch.
MCCUSKER: It was horrible.
GILLIS: That was tough. I don’t know, fuck it.
MCCUSKER: It was fucking ret—ded.
GILLIS: People like it.
MCCUSKER: Do they? Do they really like it?

GILLIS: Yeah, I don’t know. Him being like, “You know, brown people? We do this.” It’s like dude, don’t fucking lump yourself in with Black people. That’s what they’re doing. Everybody’s trying to hitch their ride to the cool train. The coal train. [Possibly “Coltrane”—not great either way.] They’re trying to fucking hitch their wagon to it and be like, “Yeah, we’re minorities, duh! It’s fucking tough for us! We’re cool!” Like, why don’t you just let Black people have that? Let it go. You’re not Drake. You’re a fucking Indian.
MCCUSKER: Your dad’s a doctor.
GILLIS: Be an Indian.
MCCUSKER: Yeah. Exactly.
GILLIS: Do your fucking Bollywood dance. Have fun. [Indian accent:] Be a slumdog. Be a slumdog millionaire. We don’t need you to be Drake.

In case you have any doubt that this fantasy about attacking Hasan Minhaj’s family is rooted in genuine anti-Indian and anti-immigrant sentiment, here’s what happens when they return to the subject a few minutes later:

"The Rise of the Indian Comic"
GILLIS: Well yeah, Hasan Minhaj’s special was garbage.
GILLIS: Actually, I just saw an article today on Reddit that was like, “The Rise of the Indian Comic.”
MCCUSKER: It's been going on forever.
GILLIS: It was like, Naparna? Whatever her name is? Aparna?
MCCUSKER: I don’t say those kinds of names. [Laughs.]
GILLIS: You don’t even speak those names, dude. You’re so fucking American. I love it. Yeah, but it’s all the same thing. It’s all this like, “I’m an immigrant, so it’s really hard.” Like fucking what’s his name, dude from Silicon Valley. I watched his commencement speech, it’s fucking crazy.
MCCUSKER: You get a lot of people being like, “Well I’m an immigrant.” It’s like, you’re from—“Well, no, no, my parents came”—
GILLIS: “My parents are from Pakistan.”
MCCUSKER: Or “my grandparents.”
GILLIS [Effecting a Pakistani accent]: “My parents are from Pakistan.”
MCCUSKER: Yeah, your parents are immigrants. Bro, you’re a fucking American. You’re a spoiled little bitch.
GILLIS: You’re just, yeah. You’re not proud to be an American. Right now your colors are running. My colors don’t, dude.

I often see people in comedy write off this sort of material, which expresses naked contempt for immigrants, as unserious. If it were serious, that would be too terrible to accept; if it’s just joking around, that’s more palatable. The thing is, much of this is unserious speech. There are jokes in here, and they are racist jokes. It is not normal to fantasize about raping a comedian’s father because you don’t like the comedian’s depiction of the immigrant experience; this is actually quite fucked up. At the same time, the jokes are mixed in with serious commentary, which is also super racist. In both segments, Gillis and McCusker make cognizable arguments that second- and third-generation immigrants do not have a legitimate claim to the immigrant experience. One can certainly make the case that these arguments are harmless or perhaps funny, but there is no denying the purely factual matter that they contain antagonism on the basis of race.

Potent Weapons
Two passages of interest.

It is very helpful when comedians make straightforward ideological claims like these. They dispel the notion that so-called casually racist jokes are somehow divorced from ideology, revealing instead that such jokes are a means of communicating ideology. Hundreds of comedians and millions of their fans would like you to forget this basic fact about language: words convey meaning. As much as they like to trot out terms like “satire” and “irony” in their defense, most comedians are unfortunately not clever enough to obscure their meanings. On the contrary, they are more often prone to acknowledging them openly, perhaps believing that this will inoculate them from criticism—their racist jokes somehow defanged by their confessions. Consider a few segments from an August 2017 MSSP episode, “Racist Werewolf,” in which Gillis and McCusker discuss their distaste for "Asian porn":

"I watched Asian porn the other day."
MCCUSKER: The girls, I can get down with them if they're not blurred. I can't watch fucking Asian dudes drop dick.
MCCUSKER: It just, I'm sorry, it doesn't turn me on.
GILLIS: No, it's gross.
MCCUSKER: Asian guys boning, and again, I'm sorry, but this is my sexuality.
MCCUSKER: I can't get hard for them, dude.
GILLIS: Well, they're also very spindly, slender, gross, skinny-fat, fucking weird dudes. It's hard to fucking get it going.
MCCUSKER: Well, they get aggressive, dude, and the Asian boys are like… [Racist vocalizations]… And the girls... [More racist vocalizations]…
GILLIS: Yeah, dude, the girl noises are crazy.
MCCUSKER: Well, I think, I am totally spitballing, but I think in Japanese culture, it turns Japanese dudes on if the girl's acting like she's totally regretting her decision the whole time during sex. So she's like... [Racist vocalizations]…
GILLIS: Well I mean, who's not turned on by that?
MCCUSKER: If they're like, "No, please." I don't fucking like that shit. I hate that.

And then, about 15 minutes later, McCusker brings up the son he and his wife are expecting:

"I'm gonna have a Black son, dude."
MCCUSKER: I thought about this, dude. I will have a Black son.
GILLIS: If you have a Black son, and I'm his godfather, when we baptize him, I'm gonna be like, "Oh, I bet you can't swim." I'm gonna be racist as fuck.
MCCUSKER: The priest would be dying and you'd be like, “Ha ha ha.”
GILLIS: The priest would be like, "That was pretty funny but, dude, chill."
MCCUSKER: The priest would pull his hand off his penis, like, "What'd you say, buddy?" My Black son's gonna be sick, dude. It's gonna be so funny, dude. I've really thought about strategies for how to navigate that, and that's gonna be a tough one.
GILLIS: What? Having a Black son?
GILLIS: You better hope this podcast gets erased from the internet.
MCCUSKER: Fuck him.
GILLIS: You've never been racist. You've never been racist.
MCCUSKER: Fuck him. I'd be like, "Dude, I won’t"—
GILLIS: You better hope you don't have an Asian—
GILLIS: You better hope you don't slip into some sort of Asian son somehow.
MCCUSKER: He might come out Asian.
MCCUSKER: He could come out Asian.
GILLIS: You do have all that MSG in you.
MCCUSKER: I'm saying, if I keep eating this MSG, I might have an Asian son.
GILLIS: You might have an Asian son.
MCCUSKER: That'll be funny. If I had a really good relationship with my Black son, he listened to this podcast and was like, "Fuck Uncle Shane dude, I'm never gonna see him ever again. Fuck him."

And finally, a conversation later in the episode, after McCusker laments that nobody’s proud of being white these days (Gillis: “Except me, dude”):

"White people are not proud of their culture. You're not allowed to be."
"Guess the race of a car in front of you."
GILLIS: I play this game, like most racists do: Guess the race of a car in front of you. Which is fun.
MCCUSKER: It is pretty fun.
GILLIS: Very fun. Gender and race. Age sometime. But you can almost always guess. I'm pretty good at it.
MCCUSKER: Yeah, you are. Shane is good. I've sat passenger and watched him work.
GILLIS: And there's one thing that'll throw you off hard though.
MCCUSKER: The Jersey plates.
GILLIS: It's the New Jersey license plate, dude. You can get—any race or ethnicity can drive like fucking dickhead if they have that.
MCCUSKER: He's about, I would say, driving long distances with him, which I have, in Pennsylvania specifically. You're probably like 85 percent.
GILLIS: Yeah, get me on my home turf, dude.
MCCUSKER: Yeah, you're 80 percent.
GILLIS: You can also guess by the car.
MCCUSKER: I actually played your game with Brittany the other day. There was a Dodge—or no, I think it was a Ford F-150. It was like, this is actually pretty interesting. It was at nighttime. When you drove past it, the paint job looked like a flame. So it was like a hologram that looked like the truck was on fire.
GILLIS: That's tricky. Because F-150 is a white guy, but that holograph flame is tacky enough to be a Black—
MCCUSKER: Dude, so here's what happened. So I'm like, "Who do you think's driving that?" And she was like, white guy, that's redneck shit. And I'm like, "That's definitely a Black guy." We pull up to him: Mexican.
MCCUSKER: I was like, draw. That's an honest tie. That's an honest tie.
GILLIS: That's an honest tie for sure.
MCCUSKER: It's an honest tie. I was like, we shook on it.
GILLIS: I should've known that. That's not a Black guy's car.
MCCUSKER: And I said it. I'm like, that's, to flame your truck out is pretty fucking Mexican.
GILLIS: For sure.
MCCUSKER: It might even have been like a Durango or something. I don't know.
GILLIS: Regardless. F-150 is a nice fucking vehicle, dude. That's a honky almost every time. Here's another good tip. It's funny too, 'cause a lot of these people are driving while they're listening to this. If it's a nice car, like a Lexus or a Mercedes that's fucking dented and beat-up, guaranteed Black person.
GILLIS: Guaranteed.
MCCUSKER: You're going on that.
GILLIS: I’m a hundred percent certain. If you see a nice Lexus that's just beat to shit. You're like, "All right, that's definitely a Black person.”

What’s notable about these conversations is they are both casual in tone and totally obsessive in content. They betray a preoccupation with racial hierarchy that appears to be a routine part of Gillis and McCusker’s daily lives. When they’re watching comedy, they’re thinking about racial hierarchy. When they’re driving, they’re thinking about racial hierarchy. When they’re eating Chinese food, they’re thinking about racial hierarchy. When they’re masturbating? You guessed it—thinking about racial hierarchy.

Perhaps this normal in the technical sense that it describes many people, but it is also definitionally racist—as Gillis and McCusker are clearly aware. Their winking references to their own racism may be ironic, but they are not exonerative of everything else they say in plain speech. What they reveal instead is how unbothered they are by what they’re saying.

I said earlier that this piece would dispense with two propositions, the first being that Gillis’s use of a racist slur in 2018 represented a departure from his true character—a comedic risk, as he put it in 2019. I think the above segments make clear that his pre-mainstream work—and life—featured sentiments so unequivocally racist that he readily acknowledged them as such. (If you’re unconvinced, I can direct you to Episodes 30 and 33 from June 2017, in which Gillis says he’s “fuckin’ down with the travel ban, who gives a fuck?” and uses the term “Muzzies.") The second proposition is that Gillis has grown into a more evolved person and artist since entering the mainstream. His New Yorker profile observes him resisting the impulse to say bad words, chiding fans who seem to like him for the wrong reasons, and pushing back against another comedian’s racist jokes. It marvels at his ability to win over skeptical audiences, citing Jerrod Carmichael’s belief that Gillis is “one of the few truly funny standups working today.” The idea seems to be that his work proves itself undeniable: that he has escaped his past and become a great comic.

“You Can’t Bury Your Head in the Sand”: Why Right-Wing Comedy Matters
An interview with the authors of That’s Not Funny.

To understand what this conclusion misses, we should take a moment to understand the milieu in which Gillis operates. In their 2022 book That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx describe the right-wing comedy ecosystem (of which Gillis is part) as a sort of suburban downtown. It's got restaurants, supermarkets, condos, movie theaters, the works. There are popular big box stores that serve huge sections of the community, and there are seedy shops that provide a more niche set of goods to more targeted clientele. People and ideas move freely throughout these businesses. They might leave the supermarket and stop at the bar for a drink, make a new friend and follow him to a gentleman’s club. The night rolls on.

This is how comedy works. A comic makes a name for himself online or in the club scene and gets booked on The Tonight Show or The Joe Rogan Experience or what have you. He heads back to his own podcast with thousands of new listeners. He goes out on a national tour and picks up hundreds or thousands of new fans who pore through his backlog, then his guests’ backlogs. He gets a Comedy Central half-hour or a Netflix special or does an episode with a more famous comic and his following gets even bigger. Maybe he goes on a smaller podcast, sending his newfound audience its way. Suddenly comics who had only a few listeners yesterday have thousands of paying subscribers. Suddenly the casual fan who turned on the latest Netflix special before bed is listening to an anti-vaxxer rail against the pedophile elite.

When I spoke with Kelefa Sanneh for his profile on Gillis, I asked if he was familiar with War Mode, a podcast hosted by Bill McCusker, Matt’s brother, and Andrew “Spud” Pacella, a friend of the McCusker family and Gillis. The two are recurring guests on Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast (as are Gillis and McCusker on War Mode), a platform that has undoubtedly helped them build their own following. Their Patreon, launched in 2020, currently has 11,232 members paying $27,750/month. (MSSP had 69,000 members; it had around 5,000 at the time War Mode launched.) What they receive for their money is full-on, Alex Jones-level conspiracism.

There are many examples I could offer, but let’s start with a 2019 episode of MSSP featuring the War Mode hosts. The following exchange (around 36:44) begins with Gillis complaining about messages he’s receiving from new fans with feedback on old episodes. Pacella then jumps in to complain about Alex Jones’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast a few days earlier.

"The 14th never happened."
GILLIS: It's fucking—I’ll get a DM from someone that's like, "Actually fascism's definitely right-wing and communism's definitely left-wing.” So it's like—
PACELLA: Dude, that's like a text message you get?
GILLIS: So it's like, "Yeah, my bad. I knew I was wrong an hour later."
MATT MCCUSKER: Yeah, fact checking is fucking lame, dude.
PACELLA: You know what fucked me up about the Jones thing was how over and over again he just keeps talking about how Sandy Hook never happened. [Correcting himself:] Or, how Sandy Hook actually happened. And I'm like, dude, the 14th never—
BILL MCCUSKER: 14th never happened.
PACELLA: He fucking knows the 14th never happened, dude.
UNCLEAR MCCUSKER: He has to say it.
GILLIS: Wait, he knows—
PACELLA: I know, but that whole song and dance was like—
GILLIS: Sandy Hook did not happen?
PACELLA: —was like a whole—
PACELLA: Dude, the 14th never happened.
BILL MCCUSKER: Got a brain, bro?
PACELLA: I got 500 pages to show you it was a FEMA drill, bro.
BILL MCCUSKER: Wolfgang Halbig.
PACELLA: Yeah. Wolfgang Halbig. I mean, dude...
GILLIS: I know all about that.
PACELLA: Yeah, yeah.
MATT MCCUSKER: Yeah, he's under legal duress, dude. He has to.
PACELLA: That was the only—
BILL MCCUSKER: The place was up for demolition.
PACELLA: It was good entertainment.
GILLIS: [Responding to McCusker, I think:] Sandy Hook was?

The conversation spins into a mostly incomprehensible discussion of the Rogan episode, which I’m pretty sure is what Pacella’s referring to as “good entertainment” there. Wolfgang Halbig, meanwhile, is an InfoWars guest and Sandy Hook denier described by the New York Times as a “notorious tormentor of the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims.”

That was 2019. Let’s skip past the March 25th, 2020 MSSP episode where Bill McCusker declares he doesn’t believe Covid is real, says “it's almost like a certain group of people just want the stocks to go down so they can buy it for cheap and then get rich again, or even richer” (Gillis, knowingly: “What group?”), and later claims Covid is “a mutated version of HIV,” agreeing with Pacella that this means the two of them should be safe. (All the while, Matt McCusker is sick with what he thinks was Covid until he “killed” it by raising his body temperature with a hot bath. He admits that he’s still under the weather, though, because it’s “a biological weapon” that’s “gonna leave remnants.”) Instead, let’s turn to a War Mode episode released this past June, the day after the death of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski:

War Mode on the Unabomber
PACELLA: [Kaczynski] thought that the industrial revolution has been a disaster for the human race.
PACELLA: He advocated for a revolution against the industrial system. He said continuing scientific and technological process will destroy the freedom of the individual.
MCCUSKER: Gain of function research. Worldwide vaccine passports.
PACELLA [Quoting Kaczynski’s manifesto:]: “It will destroy your freedom to be an individual. Soon there will be no place left where an individual can hide from mind control, surveillance by supercomputers.” And if you go out to nature, it's a perfect ideal balance to get out of that. And “the sooner that the system collapses, the better it'll be for the future of mankind.”
PACELLA: I think he probably definitely did do this shit, like the bombs, but he considered it self-defense against the state.
MCCUSKER: I mean, dude, look what they did to him. That's the only thing you could do, is fucking bomb people. If they like—that's what I don't understand, how people didn't freak out more when Covid happened. Because people were taking away all your rights. It's insane that people didn't go on legit shooting sprees and flipping the fuck out.
PACELLA: Yeah. I mean, they have been doing this stuff from the Authoritarian Personality project, where they use the social scientists to mind-control masses. And they go in there and they—
MCCUSKER: Isn't that in the Adam Curtis documentary? Or Sigmund Freud and his fucking nephew or whatever?
PACELLA: Dude, these guys are utopians and they push for a world government. That's what they want. They don't think that there'll be world peace until America installs a One World Government, take down the idea of being a national citizen and you have to become a world citizen.
MCCUSKER: World citizen like Ken O'Keefe.
PACELLA: World citizen, yeah.
MCCUSKER: I mean, personally, it seems like if we really—if the Nazis were really fucking horrible, we wouldn't have taken 'em all in. From my perspective. I think it was the old world that they just tried to completely demol—like that shit in Germany. All the architecture, all the old churches.
PACELLA: Dresden.
MCCUSKER: GOAT shit. Firebomb the whole fucking thing. Like, "You are the worst people in the fucking world. We took all of your scientists and fake went to space."

Okay, so just a bit of casual Nazi apologia and conspiracy theories about mind control following some light endorsements of the Unabomber's manifesto. I don’t even know where to start with the section later in this episode where McCusker seems to suggest the moon landing was faked, so let’s move on to something else: the fact that that these guys are also raving racist transphobes who make Gillis and McCusker look enlightened. The following is from a 2020 episode of War Mode (major CWs, obviously):

"The state's pushing this."
BILL MCCUSKER: This whole shit that is happening right now has already happened before, though.
BILL MCCUSKER: All this fucking weird hyper-feminism and hyper-sexuality, and let's fuck whoever we want and be whatever we want.
MATT MCCUSKER: But the state, it's not subversive anymore. The state's pushing this.
MATT MCCUSKER: That's why I think it's going to kind of win out.
BILL MCCUSKER: True. Yeah, we need a fucking strong party.
MATT MCCUSKER: The state's pushing this, dude.
PACELLA: Yeah, but dude, that Black Lives Matter shit of them making them into tr—nies. Fuck that.
MATT MCCUSKER: What do you mean?
PACELLA: Fuck that shit about how they—
GILLIS: That sounds like a Landshark sentence.
PACELLA: They're pushing fucking Black tr—nies everywhere. They want to cut their balls off, dude. Fuck that.
MATT MCCUSKER: Oh, so they're trying to make that synonymous.
PACELLA: Yeah. Fuck that, dude.
BILL MCCUSKER: Yeah. That's weird.
PACELLA: We need Black dudes. Strong ass Black dudes. Where the fuck are they?
GILLIS: Where are they?
BILL MCCUSKER: They want weaklings.
PACELLA: Yeah. They want them to be like, "Oh yeah, just trans it out. Don't worry about it."
MATT MCCUSKER: Well, I think that's trying to hitch your show on the hottest ticket in town. You're like, “Trans?” Because right now it's like the Black Lives Matter thing is the biggest, most discussed thing, so you're like, "Don't forget about trans." And people are like just hitching, that's hitching onto the card.
BILL MCCUSKER: But the people who run it are—
PACELLA: Dude, what a stronger card though if you're just promoting the Black family.
PACELLA: Strong as fuck.
MATT MCCUSKER: Yeah, that gets—
PACELLA: I mean, dude, this is subversive Marxist bullshit, when you get into trans stuff and the weird sex stuff. Then it's the bullshit—
MATT MCCUSKER: Marx is only strictly worried about production.
PACELLA: They're trying to destroy the family, dude.
BILL MCCUSKER: It's very evident that they're doing that right now.
MATT MCCUSKER: Well, that's what I'm saying. So right now, we're in an epic battle right now in terms of what we're gonna bow to symbolically.
PACELLA: I saw a fucking dude walking down the street with a dress on this morning when I was driving to work.
GILLIS: How'd that make you feel?
PACELLA: Fucking pissed—
GILLIS [Mockingly effecting an angry voice]: I didn't like it much. I said, "Get some pants on."
PACELLA: I didn't like it. Dude, could have been a regular ass dude.
BILL MCCUSKER: Yeah, they're not doing it because of their actual feelings though. They're doing it because—
GILLIS: How do you know, Bill?
PACELLA: And it's like, "Dude, get on the sidewalk."
BILL MCCUSKER: They're fucking losers. Look at them. They're doing it just to—
PACELLA: Get on the sidewalk.
GILLIS: You're calling transgender people losers?
BILL MCCUSKER: The fucking dudes who don't even try to look hot?
MATT MCCUSKER: True. That's fair.
PACELLA: This was a dude with a buzz cut.
BILL MCCUSKER: If you have a five o'clock shadow, suck my dick, you're an attention whore.
PACELLA: This was a dude with a buzz cut in a fucking dress.
GILLIS: I disagree.
MATT MCCUSKER: Look, I'm gonna say something. If you're gonna do something, you got to put your all up to it.
BILL MCCUSKER: Chop your bird off. I'll shut the fuck up. If you want to be a girl—
GILLIS: Trust me, I see them. I see them a lot in New York. For real just every day.
BILL MCCUSKER: But to sit there and put on your goggles and be like—
GILLIS: And I'm all for it.
BILL MCCUSKER: —“This is normal."
PACELLA: This is the new normal.
BILL MCCUSKER: It's not normal.
MATT MCCUSKER: Well, it only is if you even think about it. That's the thing.
BILL MCCUSKER: What do you mean?
MATT MCCUSKER: So you can't control a person's actions. All you can control is your reaction.
BILL MCCUSKER: But they're doing it to try to fit in. Dude, this shit—
BILL MCCUSKER: They're trying to fit in with all their weird friends, dude. Go to West Philly. They're doing this for attention.
MATT MCCUSKER: But that doesn't affect you none.
BILL MCCUSKER: It does when you start fucking pushing it on everyone else.
MATT MCCUSKER: They're not pushing it on anyone.
BILL MCCUSKER: They're pushing it on everyone.
BILL MCCUSKER: It's a weird thing to push on people and just say, "You can't say anything against this, or you're a horrible person.
MATT MCCUSKER: Yeah, but you could completely ignore that.
BILL MCCUSKER: But the thing is, when you ignore it keeps on coming.
MATT MCCUSKER: It's a valid hero system. These are men who have entered the marketplace and were just rejected early on. So now that's how they're gonna gain their—that’s how they're gonna win.
BILL MCCUSKER: Stop that. Don't fucking promote that.
MATT MCCUSKER: Well you've got to be a little more friendly. If you were to accept these guys—
GILLIS: Yeah, if everybody accepted them entirely, they'd go away.

Do you see what I mean? These people are incoherent hate-mongering cranks totally detached from reality. It’s a comfort that their audience is small, but it's only a small comfort. No conspiracist builds their audience overnight. Alex Jones founded InfoWars in 1999, more than a decade before he would use it to torment grieving parents. The most effective time to give a shit about far-right broadcasters is when they have a limited audience; to wait until they have massive reach is to wait until they’ve done massive damage. Which is what makes it so dangerous to give them exposure, as Gillis and McCusker have done repeatedly.

Comedy’s Problems Are Everyone’s Problems
But what else is new.

Sanneh, the New Yorker writer, told me he was aware of War Mode. I guess it didn’t make the final cut. He asked me if I’d seen Gillis’s then-new special, Live in Austin, and encouraged me to watch it when I said I hadn’t. He found it very funny and wanted to know what I thought.

I thought then what I think now: who gives a shit? Dave Chappelle is funny and he’s also a hideous transphobe. Louis CK is funny and he’s also a serial sex abuser. Gavin McInnes isn’t funny and he still managed to create a hate group that stormed the Capitol. Dave Smith is one of the dullest, most humorless guys in comedy and he helped orchestrate a far-right takeover of the Libertarian Party. Joe Rogan has the mind of a schoolyard bully and he’s used it to inflict unquantifiable damage on the world. And you’re asking about jokes?

What Goes Up
On Chappelle.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the comedy industry today is that nobody in it seems capable of admitting there's more to being a comedian than being funny. There’s also being human, a very complicated thing that takes moral convictions, the ability to weigh one’s own interests against a greater good, a willingness to make sacrifices for others, and at the very least a baseline sense of empathy and compassion. One irreversible consequence of the digital era is a shattering of the mystique that used to obscure comedians’ true selves. For better or for worse, we now have graphic insight into who they are beyond their written material. This development has made a few people rich and driven almost everyone completely mad: those of us horrified to discover how little humanity is actually there, and those offended by the thought that anyone would even care about humanity. Faced with the knowledge that lots of people are incredibly racist, Gillis and his ilk—fellow comedians, bookers, agents, venue owners, and millions of comedy fans—seem to have concluded that racism must not be all that bad. The other conclusion, the human one, the one they can still make if they want to, is to make the world less racist.

Uncancellable Culture
Read to the end for some hot recs.

So no, whether this or that comedian is funny doesn’t particularly interest me. I care about what comedians do. What Shane Gillis has done since 2019 is release two specials, produce a sketch series with his friend, perform live indoor shows during a pandemic, tour the world, work with an unrepentant predator and a hateful ideologue, lend his platform to a pair of nakedly transphobic Sandy Hook (and 9/11) truthers, and sit down twice with an actual anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer who counts David Duke among his fans.

It makes little difference to me that Gillis is obviously cognizant that War Mode's hosts have problematic beliefs, or that he occasionally offers light pushback; he puts them in front of his audience regardless. (To say nothing of the fact that his own co-host is clearly off the rails.) Then there’s his association with Sam Hyde and Nick Rochefort, which I actually find rather frightening. A simple fact gets lost in debates about racist comedy: the ideas it contains have killed people. Wars have been fought and won against them. Public expressions of racism used to be unacceptable because people understood that ideas influence beliefs and beliefs inspire actions. They also understood that to express these ideas and to associate with people who express them are equivalent moral acts. Both represent a choice to align oneself with the side that lost the wars. This seems so obvious a child could grasp it, and yet the whole thing goes out the window when comedians are involved—perhaps because comedy is so often the refuge of losers.

You can understand, now, why I do not find it particularly credible, the notion that Shane Gillis has risen beyond his past. However careful he might be about what he says in public, there’s no ambiguity as to which side he’s on.

Good for him. He succeeded where so many lesser bigots failed. Like Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Joe Rogan, and Chris D’Elia before him, he’s proven that in comedy there is no religion but funniness, no god but the audience, and no sin that can’t be forgiven if you make enough people laugh. Congratulations, racists. The industry’s yours.

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