On Monday night, Mike Pesca kicked off The Gist’s Comedy Week with a live show at the Bell House in Brooklyn, including a roundtable discussion of the state of comedy featuring Pesca and standup comedians Hari Kondabolu, Marina Franklin, and Khalid Rahmaan. Inevitably, the discussion turned to Shane Gillis, the comedian who was hired by Saturday Night Live last week, then fired on Monday after recordings of him using anti-Asian racial slurs on his podcast circulated online. The following has been adapted from their discussion and edited and condensed for clarity.
Mike Pesca: So today, Saturday Night Live has three new, or had three new contributors, and one was essentially asked not to be on the show because an excavation of his past podcast performances reveal that he had engaged often, not just once, in racial slurs, mainly focused against the Chinese. But he used charged language, he used epithets, and he was … well, he would probably say “not woke enough,” but I listened to about seven of his interviews, and this guy, Shane Gillis, would frequently transgress in a way that I think Saturday Night Live didn’t want to be associated with. It seems to me there are two sides to this, and yet at the same—
Well, I just want to ask you guys, as comedians who believe in the First Amendment and definitely want to have free speech, and don’t want people to misinterpret their words, yet at the same time you don’t … you know, getting on Saturday Night Live is one of the great rewards in the business. What do you make of the stuff that happened with SNL, do you think?
Khalid Rahmaan: I mean, I listened to the clips of what he said. I’ve heard them on other podcasts that I listened to, and I think the mistake he made was … obviously, saying all that horrible stuff was the biggest mistake.
Hari Kondabolu: Being racist was a mistake.
Rahmaan: That was the big mistake. Well, the other big mistake I just kind of identified was like, it seemed like he was treating his podcast like it was a group chat. Like it was a private thing where he could just say crazy stuff to his friends back home in Pennsylvania, but it’s like actually people recording and listening to it.
Pesca: And not Snapchat, which disappears in 20 minutes.
Rahmaan: Yeah, that was the vibe that I got from those clips, at least.
Kondabolu: Laurie Kilmartin wrote a tweet that I really like and I’ll paraphrase. It’s just how it’s not a smart career move to treat your career like you’re never going to be famous. You can’t just go about it thinking it’s always going to be in a void, no one’s ever going to see it. It wasn’t much of an excavation, do you know what I mean? Like he was saying that stuff a month ago.
Kondabolu: It wasn’t like it was years and years ago. This is the same—he was probably in the middle of auditioning when he said it, like that’s not long ago.
Marina Franklin: It’s a difficult one though, because I do know Shane. I like Shane a lot. I’ve had moments with Shane where I’m like, “I don’t think he knows that he just said the wrong thing.” But I’ve had that with a lot of white guys in comedy. He’s not the only one out there. And here’s the thing, is like, he’s a young comic. And young comics do make very horrible mistakes and now they’re on podcasts. And so yeah, it made sense that that happened. But I will say it’s very difficult to even talk about Shane like this, because I do feel the responsibility to protect comics. I will not trash another comic because I know, I know I am not perfect in any way. I’ve never said anything, I don’t think, that was horribly racist. But you never know when you offend someone. What offends one person may not offend another. Now obviously what he said, I think that’s obviously offensive, but if you go digging in my podcast, there may be something I said that makes a lot of people … and I’m torn by it all. That’s the thing that you don’t hear comics saying when they address a comic that is offensive, is that we’re also very torn by it because I know how my soul is. I know how I feel about things. But as a comic, a lot of times I see some real fucked up shit.
Rahmaan: And we all realize we could say the wrong thing on a podcast or on a video.
Kondabolu: I’m not so torn about it.
Pesca: Hari’s not so torn.
Kondabolu: I just feel like there’s a difference between us misstepping, taking an approach, making a mistake, and using racial slurs against … repeatedly over the course of years, and as recently as a couple of months ago. To me, I understand that he’s a young comic, but that, to me, gives him less of a pass—
Franklin: I just won’t—
Kondabolu: —Because he knows how things work, and he knows what’s happened in the past, and he knows how things go back. He’s aware of it, and yet he’s either so oblivious or so privileged, he doesn’t even realize, “Oh, I probably shouldn’t say this, at the bare minimum, for self-preservation.” And I love comedy. It’s not like I don’t love comics.
Franklin: No, I know you do.
Kondabolu: But it’s—
Pesca: It seems like there are these competing tensions, right? One tension is what you just articulated, that many of these comments weren’t really in the subject, in the pursuit of humor, per se. They weren’t reversals, putting the joke on him. They were just trying to maybe get a laugh out of the three guys he was joking with, based on using an ethnic slur. Terrible. On the other hand, this competing tension is, you guys are all comics. It’s an art form. People, you can’t be held to the standard of … you shouldn’t be held to the standard, for your sake and the art form’s sake, to the standard of never making a mistake and never misstepping.
Pesca: So it is a conundrum, I think a legitimate conundrum.
Kondabolu: A track record is different, though, than a singular mistake. If it keeps happening over and over again, and a comedy club banned—it’s like … at a certain point, I feel like … I hate when people dig through tweets and find the two things, and the person is a much different person than seven years ago.
Kondabolu: I feel like, well, come on, like … we’re all trying to navigate a space where we put our thoughts online and there’s certainly things in my old notebooks from when I was 18 that I don’t want people to read, you know? And now that same thing that was in my notebook at 18 is on the Internet, which is unfortunate. So that’s … so I sympathize with that. But that’s different than saying things verbally, being banned from a comedy club, saying slurs like it wasn’t even like I’m trying to do a clever spin on a thing.
Kondabolu: Just saying like … he called, what did he call Andrew Yang? A Jew, and then the slur for Chinese people? Maybe I don’t get the joke, but that seems pretty—
Franklin: I don’t think it was a joke. I think that’s the problem.
Franklin: It was a podcast—
Pesca: Right, you can defend jokes, but—
Franklin: Right. But it was a podcast, like you said. And you know what we saw was someone being very comfortable with saying those things. No one’s fooled by that moment, like nobody … we can all see it and recognize what that was. The problem that I really have is that Saturday Night Live still fights for getting a white guy in there.
Franklin: And when you see that, you go, “So there was nothing in his performance that showed you that was who he was?”
Kondabolu: But I’m starting to feel like no one vets anything.
Pesca: That’s true.
Kondabolu: Seriously, like we had—we had Sarah Palin. You know what I’m saying? We’ve had … it’s crazy.
Pesca: I put this dude’s name into the Listen app. Three of his last five appearances have this sort of material, on a podcast.
Rahmaan: Yeah. I don’t think there’s any vetting that goes on in show business.
Kondabolu: I mean, there is some vetting. Historically, they vet people of color out.
Franklin: Oh, absolutely.
Kondabolu: So there’s that kind of low-level … like we’re not even in the mix. Like we were talking about this backstage, we know so many people of color, so many—
Franklin: Yeah, you came up with … yeah, I mean …
Kondabolu: They just had an Asian person—
Franklin: It’s so hard to talk about comics, I know. But it is … we know at least 10 really funny people of color who—not that it necessarily has to be, but it should—that they could have looked at.
Kondabolu: Who definitely haven’t said racial slurs in the last two years.
Pesca: They meet that high bar.