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Saturday Night Live: controversial comedian Shane Gillis struggles to make an impression

<span>Shane Gillis hosting Saturday Night Live.</span><span>Photograph: YouTube</span>
Shane Gillis hosting Saturday Night Live.Photograph: YouTube

Saturday Night Live opens in Washington DC, at a post-South Carolina primary victory celebration for Donald Trump. Over drinks and appetizers, Republican senators James Risch (Mikey Day), Marco Rubio (Marcello Hernandez), Tim Scott (Devon Walker), and Lindsey Graham (James Austin Johnson) lament the personal and professional humiliations that Trump has heaped upon them – killing Risch’s Ukraine funding bill, dubbing Rubio ‘Little Marco’ and making fun of his egregious sweating, endangering Graham’s life by doxing him – even as they continue to endorse and grovel before him.

Their quiet moments of self-hating reflection are good for a few chuckles, but as with so many promising political cold opens, this one ends before it even begins, amounting to nothing but a cup of weak tea.

This episode of SNL comes with lots of baggage: in 2019, comedian Shane Gillis was tapped to join the cast (alongside new members Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman), until an episode of his and co-host Matt McCusker’s podcast (Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast) resurfaced, featuring a number of jokes deemed racist (specifically towards Asian people) and homophobic. At the time, it was reported that had Gillis publicly apologized, he would have been allowed to stay on the show, but because he refused, he was dropped before the start of the season.

In the intervening years, Gillis would go on to establish himself as one of the most popular stand-ups in America, thanks in no small part to the notoriety he received from the whole debacle. He became (and remains) a cause celebre amongst pop culture reactionaries, his reputation bolstered by his frequent appearances on the podcast circuit (including those of the alt right and “dirtbag left” variety).

In the lead up to tonight’s episode, his fanbase has been taking a victory lap online, making sure to spew plenty of disgusting vitriol towards SNL – and, in particular, Yang, who hasn’t said anything about Gillis publicly and in fact follows him on Instagram – all while outraged liberals have made sure to loudly complain about how this case of attempted cancellation didn’t take.

What’s ironic about all of this is how Gillis’s actual comedy doesn’t gel with either narrative. Certainly, his persona is that of a meat-headed conservative bro, but his material, for as edgelord-y as it can be, more often than not ridicules that demographic, and with far sharper accuracy than ostensibly left-leaning comedy (including and especially SNL). Anyone who’s seen his recent Netflix special, Shane Gillis: Beautiful Dogs, and is being honest with themselves recognizes his talent, even as his web series Gilly and Keeves suggests that he’s a mediocre sketch comedian at best.

For his opening monologue, Gillis very briefly covers his tainted relationship with the show (“Please don’t Google that”) and then totally avoids it by talking about his family, particularly their history of Down Syndrome (“It almost got me … I dodged it, but it nicked me”), which, as his fans are well aware, he devotes a lot of time to. If there are any said fans in the studio audience, they aren’t the majority, and if Gillis doesn’t quite bomb, neither does he kill. It’s hard to imagine that this muted monologue will impress his fans or enrage his detractors. Again: weak tea.

In the first sketch, Gillis plays an Ohio father dragging his bored kids to Sunday mass while on vacation in Jamaica, where the spirit of the lively congregation overtakes him. Soon, he’s speaking in Jamaican patios, which he pulls off surprisingly well.

This is followed by a commercial for a new sports betting app that allows you to bet on whether your “degenerate gambler friend will finally hit rock bottom.” A solid blast of dark comedy, this sketch gives a glimpse of the type of material Gillis would likely have contributed to the show had he joined it.

During a mandatory meeting, corporate HR representatives attempt to explain office dating protocol to a group of very confused male employees, very uncomfortable female employees. The biggest laugh comes from Hernandez showing off his ass in inappropriate booty shorts.

Next, Gillis stars in the new film White Men Can Trump as a hopeless loser who finds a magic pair of Trump’s gold sneakers that transform him into the man himself. Gillis gets to show off his excellent Trump impression, which is second only to James Austin Johnson, who shows up so the two can have a brief Trump-off. Whereas Johnson specializes in recreating Trump’s rambling idiocy, Gillis nails the way he bulldozes through truth and decency by simply refusing to acknowledge the slightest failure.

The Floor is a game show hosted by Rob Lowe where contestants compete to correctly name pictures. During one round, Gillis’s challenger racks up points guessing historical figures, before bricking it when asked to name famous black examples – at least until he correctly names Cleavland from Family Guy (and, for the punchline, Basquiat). A clever idea, the superfluous bookends distract and thus undercut the premise.

Following the first performance from musical guest 21 Savage, it’s time for Weekend Update. The first guest is a frozen embryo (Hernandez) who chides the Alabama supreme court for their outrageous ruling on IVF treatment: “I’m surprised they stopped at embryos. Why not say sperm are people too, put some caution tape around the washcloth in Michael Che’s dressing room? That’s a crime scene, brotha!”

Later, Colin Jost welcomes on Truman Capote (Yang). Ostensibly there to talk about his love of women, Capote instead hurls hurtful barbs at the likes of Amelia Earhart (“terrible what happened to her: she’s the reason we don’t have female pilots”), Betsy Ross (“There were only 13 stars on the flag because that’s as high as she could count”), and Eleanor Roosevelt (“She pushed FDR down the stairs, kicked him with her lesbian shoes”). It’s a nice change of pace to see Yang actually attempt an actual impression for a change. It’s a pretty solid one, too.

At an 80s high school reunion, Gillis’s hot shot jock Ricky Monroe returns to crow about his success as a used car salesman, only to be upstaged by the guy he used pick on: Forrest Gump. Monroe is completely unaware of Gump’s adventures and triumphs. He tries to big dog Gump by making fun of his mama, best friend Bubba, and sweetheart Jenny, only to look like an even bigger jerk when he learns they’re all dead. Like the earlier game show sketch, it’s a clever idea that never takes off (Day’s Gump leaves a lot to be desired).

Next, is a commercial for Fugliana, “the average-looking sex doll for less-than-average men”. The various models are played with awkwardness by Sarah Sherman, Heidi Gardner, Punkie Johnson and Fineman. The butt of the joke here is obviously pathetic men, but the jokes themselves are too dull to stick. Gillis noticeably flubs his lines at several points.

After the second set from 21 Savage, the show wraps up with a sketch about electronic surveillance. Gillis plays a Green Bay Packers fan who refuses to believe that companies are listening in on his personal conversations in order to sell him products, even as his phone is filled with advertisements for Packers-themed electronic butt plugs. This is just a toned-down version of a popular Sybian sketch from Gilly and Keeves.

For as much heated online discourse as Gillis’s hosting begat over the past couple of weeks, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling strongly about this episode one way or another. Gillis didn’t exactly make a case for himself as any great missed opportunity, let alone the iconoclast his most ardent fans were expecting. In fact, his reluctance to address his firing made him look soft, especially when you compare it to the 1999 episode that Norm MacDonald hosted one after his own ignominious termination.

But then, Gillis is no Norm.