According to sources, the long-running NBC comedy show and series mastermind Lorne Michaels were actively looking to cast a comedian for its new season who would appeal to more conservative viewers. This was meant to counteract the appearance of a liberal bias on the show, given that it has seen a major resurgence in popularity in recent years with Alec Baldwin regularly portraying President Donald Trump while other cast members and guest stars have played members of his administration and those in his orbit.
“SNL” typically recruits cast members from improv troupes like The Groundlings, Second City, and The Upright Citizens Brigade, with the belief that even though they may lack onscreen acting experience, their time onstage with those groups would prepare them for the rigors of “SNL’s” weekly schedule. Auditions for such performers usually consist of character bits and celebrity impressions. It is believed that Gillis, who has no credited onscreen acting experience, auditioned using a portion of his stand up routine.
But Gillis didn’t get in trouble for his stand-up — his offensive language and racist comments came on his podcast, which isn’t a honed, developed routine. Podcasts have grown in popularity among comedians, but involve filling hours and hours with off-the-cuff remarks — and in the case of Gillis, filled with racist comments and impressions.
Gillis’ casting was also announced just three weeks prior to the launch of the season in keeping with the show’s habit of making last-minute hiring decisions. This likely contributed to the show not performing a more thorough examination of his past material before announcing he was joining the cast. It also likely precluded anyone from going through the many hours of Gillis’ podcast material that was available before he began scrubbing past episodes from the internet.
Many of those who spoke with Variety agreed that “SNL’s” vetting process was “severely lacking” in this case, as Gillis was well-known in comedy circles for using the type of language and remarks that ultimately led to the show cutting ties with him before he ever made it to air. Michaels took the weekend to gather information before making Gillis’ firing official on Monday. This was clearly a learning lesson, and one that will lead to a much more extensive vetting process, insiders added.
Representatives for “SNL” did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.
“SNL” announced in a statement Monday that it was cutting ties with Gillis before the start of the show’s 45th season. He was one of three new cast members announced last week. But shortly thereafter, clips began circulating from Gillis’ podcasts and other media in which he repeatedly used racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language. In a widely-shared clip from “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,” Gillis and co-host Matt McClusker are discussing New York’s Chinatown when Gillis says, “Let the f—ing ch-nks live there.” He later recalls a restaurant being “full of f—ing Chinee [sic] in there.”
In a separate podcast, “Ep 144 – A.I. is Racist,” Gillis and McCusker make fun of Asian accents about 22 minutes and 20 seconds in, referring to the video game “Clash of Clans” as “Crash of Crans” in a mock Chinese accent.
A little more than 21 minutes into “Ep 146 – Live from Shane’s Parent’s Basement,” while talking about the Battle of Gettysburg, Gillis refers to soldiers yelling as “so gay.” About 29 minutes into the podcast, Gillis uses the word “retard,” and “f-ggot,” and shortly afterward he and McCusker joke about “hot Southern boys” being raped during the Civil War, comparing it to “having gay sex in jail.”
Gillis, in describing women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the war, refers to them as “flat chested f—ing bitch[es].” He issued a statement last Thursday addressing the situation, writing in part, “My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”
He followed that up with another statement following the announcement he would no longer be an “SNL” cast member, stating in part, “I was always a mad tv [sic] guy anyway.”
Gillis’ comments have drawn mixed reactions from the comedy community. People like Jimmy O. Yang and W. Kamau Bell have publicly condemned him, while David Spade, Bill Burr, and Jim Jefferies defended him during a panel on Spade’s Comedy Central late-night series on Monday night.