On September 13th, Saturday Night Live came under fire when it was discovered that one of the new cast members, Shane Gillis, had a long history of making racist, homophobic, and sexist jokes. Gillis lasted less than a week before he was fired, and the major question became why he was hired in the first place beyond a lack of adequate vetting. But it turns out that showrunner Lorne Michaels wasn’t completely ignorant of what Gillis would bring to the table in terms of audience appeal.
Sources tell Variety that SNL and “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.”
For starters, that’s an incredibly dumb way to run a show and it demonstrates the vast gulf between what Michaels thinks SNL is and what it actually is. SNL is rarely politically engaged in any meaningful sense. There’s no cutting satire or strong liberal or conservative take. The most “political” SNL gets is the cold open where they do impressions of an event that happened earlier in the week. It’s toothless comedy where you go, “I recognize the thing!” or “I recognize the celebrity!” For example, think of all the political angles on the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and the most SNL came up with was, “Let’s get Matt Damon to act angry and petulant.” And yeah, Kavanaugh was angry and petulant. But that’s not a political joke; that’s an impression.
Also, while SNL may claim that they were only familiar with Gillis’ stand-up routine and not his podcast where he made his offensive jokes, it’s telling that the state of “conservative” comedy is simply making fun of minorities and women for being minorities and women. Conservatives will always be at a comic disadvantage because they tend to side with the powerful, i.e. people who do not need protecting and already have everything. That’s what’s being “conserved”. So if you can’t make fun of the powerful, the wealthy, the white, and the male, that leaves minorities and women, and that’s not to say it’s impossible to make jokes about those groups, but Gillis’ “risky” comedy was simply a bunch of slurs that any 12-year-old boy could (and does) make.
The notion that Gillis was some way to reach out to conservative viewers was a boneheaded notion that missed not only what SNL was doing (toothless impressions that still irritate the President because he’s a bottomless pit of need), but also the limitations of what Gillis brought to the table. The hiring of Gillis, and more importantly, the reason behind his hiring, should make us consider how much we really need SNL anymore. It’s hailed as an institution, but decisions like these make the show seem like a relic.