I used to have a joke where I said the word “faggot.”
I wasn’t trying to be hateful. It was a kind of cheap joke where I said the word in the voice of the bigot. In my comedy act, I would talk about how in Texas the state motto was, “Don’t mess with Texas”—the only state where the motto was a threat. I then would imitate the meeting they must have had when coming up with it, and then conclude, “If that’s the motto they went with, imagine what they rejected.”
Cue southern drawl.
“How about…‘Texas! You better back the fuck up, faggot!’ ” Laugh laugh laugh. I’m hilarious.
I had a large LGBT audience and talked a ton about same-sex marriage. (This was when George W. Bush was still in office. I was woke when being woke meant fighting for people’s rights, not trying to stick someone’s head on your Twitter trophy wall.) The joke always got an applause break, and no one thought I actually was the type of person who used the word “faggot” at face value. So it wasn’t really offending people. I was using shocking language for a punch line. Not shocking language to terrify my gay fans.
One time after a show in Chicago, a kid came up to me and told me that when I talk about gay rights it really meant a lot to him. But just so I knew, when he hears the word “faggot,” he freezes up.
He was nice. He was nervous. He said he loved the rest of the show. I think we hugged. He bought a CD and left.
At first, I probably said something to myself like, What does this little gay kid know about what hurts gays?! I’m hilarious and that’s all that matters. But then I thought about it. Realized I didn’t want to hurt that kid, surrendered and took it out of my act. I can write another joke.
I don’t think that interaction would have happened today. He sincerely wanted me to be better. He didn’t try to get me fired, he didn’t send all of his Twitter friends after me, and the sincere words didn’t come with a bullshit hashtag chaser. It was a thoughtful interaction between two people.
That kind of goodwill has disappeared—the kind that led him to see me as a human and vice versa. Now we have all become expendable avatars.
The latest avatar to be canceled in this way is Shane Gillis, who was fired last week from Saturday Night Live.
We’ve seen this so many times before that I barely need to tell you want happened. Gillis is a comic. He got hired by SNL. People looked up his old stuff. They found that he has used the word “faggot” and “chink” on a 2018 podcast. And it wasn’t masked behind a stupid joke about Texas. At one point, Gillis also put on a fake Chinese accent and made fun on Chinese food and Chinatown architecture. He also dismissed sensitive male comedians as “white faggot comics” and “gayer than ISIS.” So SNL un-hired him.
Did I cringe when listening to parts of Gillis’ podcast? Yeah. Did I agree with all of it? Nope. Do I think he should have been fired from SNL? It’s up to SNL.
What I really hated was the glee people on my side of the aisle exhibited after they’d “won.” I’m a liberal in my political outlook. But the joy that other liberals are taking in this kid losing the biggest opportunity in his life is gross.
We don’t root for redemption anymore. We don’t actually care if people change. We don’t want them to become better. We want to watch them burn so we can sit back and temporarily feel better about our own shitty lives. This isn’t a huge problem when people are kicking up, as with the roasting that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is getting now that we know what a big-time blackface enthusiast he was back in the day. But usually, it means kicking down (or at least sideways) at someone like Gillis. Or de-platforming someone like Kevin Hart over ancient social-media posts, which had every sane person wondering, Who the fuck has time to find 10-year-old tweets to boot a guy out of an Oscar-hosting gig?
Unlike most of Gillis’ critics, I didn’t just listen to the podcast that cost him a dream job. I started watching Shane’s stand-up and really liked it: unique, funny, self-hating and clever. The way the Internet was describing him, I expected him to come out like a real-life version of that crude Texas redneck stereotype I played for laughs on stage. Instead, he talked about how, because of the way he looks—a superannuated frat dude from a midwestern college—people are shocked he didn’t vote for Trump. It was really good.
But thanks to the way Google works, it’s hard to find his stand-up online anymore—because it’s buried under 50 terabytes of videos titled, Racist Comedian Levels Planet’s Asian Population With His Mouth Words. Gillis’ actual art has been bumped into the Internet’s back office. But hey, shame sells.
Based on my own experience as a Twitter mob lieutenant, I’m fairly confident that many of the folks who got Shane fired don’t actually give a fuck about racism. They don’t give a fuck about homophobia. They aren’t out marching or signing petitions, let alone actually getting off their ass to assist refugees or homeless LGBT youth. They wake up, get their marching orders from some blue-checked level boss, and then pretend to be mad.
Some people were sincerely hurt, including some of the SNL fans excited to see another brilliant comedian, Bowen Yang, perform as the show’s first Asian hire. That young gay kid who came up to me in Chicago because he recoiled when he heard the word “faggot”—there are plenty of Asian people who had analogous reactions (by which I mean real reactions, not the fake hash-tag Tweeting-from-Starbucks version) to the words Gillis used. But like I say, a lot of the people celebrating Shane’s canceling are whiter than a pumpkin latte crossed with a Keith Haring coffee-table book.
You always have to inhale deeply and think carefully before you defend someone who’s made genuinely offensive comments—because you know the world is then going to stick those words in your own mouth. But if we don’t take that risk, then comedy dies, because the art of being funny relies on pushing boundaries, which sometimes is going to mean violating them.
In that 2018 podcast, which featured Gillis riffing with co-host Matt McCusker, Gillis may have been giving voice to genuine racism. But the far more likely explanation is that he ramped up his language because there are plenty of comedy podcasts out there, and the ones that get listened to usually are the ones that feature the most gonzo content. Plus, edgy, shocking words sometimes also are funny words. (Always remember that one of Louis C.K.’s funniest bits—this is before he was denounced as worse than a masturbating Hitler—is about kids dying from peanut allergies.) Sometimes shocking words are not funny words, even when the comedian is skilled at his trade. But if there’s no leeway for mistakes, then we’re back in the era of jokes about mothers-in-law and TV dinners.
As Dave Chappelle’s brilliant new Netflix special shows us, comedy comes from pain. It comes from growing up in a messed-up household—the humiliation of counting out a handful of change to gain admission to a grade-school dance. We are the sad drunk clowns trying to fit back into our tiny car. As Shane admitted, sometimes the clown stumbles into the gutter as he’s fiddling with the car door. We could all let that person get back up, but instead we stomp his clown head into the pavement.
I wish the liberals high-fiving each other over the prospect of Gillis being relegated to fast-food work remember what happens when one of their own screws up. Remember when James Gunn got canned from the latest Guardians of the Galaxy because he tweeted weird jokes about pedophilia? Or maybe you don’t—because you were too busy congratulating yourself for getting Roseanne Barr fired. Good times.
It’s easy to join a Twitter mob. You take zero risk if the takedown doesn’t work, but you pretend you’re Rosa Parks if it does. What that kid in Chicago did to me, on the other hand—that takes genuine guts. It also takes bravery to remember that we have all done something fucked up that we would never want to trend on Twitter. We have all had thoughts that embarrassed us, said stupid things when trying to be funny, and been forgiven for it by our friends. Remember that the next time you feel compelled to ruin someone’s life over their own failed comedy routine. Otherwise, you’ll know exactly who to blame when your favourite comedian gets replaced by a guy in a pussy hat telling intersectional knock-knock jokes.