HomeAsian AmericansAnalysis: When comedy becomes cover for racism

Analysis: When comedy becomes cover for racism

By Ed Diokno Views from the Edge

The question is: When does a comedian’s jokes about a racial group cross over the line and he or she uses comedy — or freedom of speech — as a cover for racism?

The controversy over the hiring of so-called comedian Shane Gillis by Saturday Night LIve continues to heat up social media and it doesn’t look like its going to cool down soon with Presidential candidate Andrew Yang chiming in the fiery debate dived into the validity of  Asian/Black comparisons.

In Gillis’ free and seemingly common use of a racial slur — the c-word — against Chinese in a podcast, in interviews and in his routine, sparked off the social media criticism against the comedian and  his coveted SNL hire.

Fuel was added to the fire with another Gillis quote from a 2016 interview with Philadelphia’s Billy Penn, Gillis talked about the boundaries he pushes with his brand of comedy.

“You throw stuff out there and you get to see them react to things, like yea or nay, what’s funny and what’s not,” Gillis is quoted as saying. “You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out,” Gillis told Billy Penn.

“I think racism against Asian Americans is one of the more under-reported or under-estimated components of racism in America,” Korean American political pundit Kurt Bardella told CNN, “To those of us in the Asian American community who have been the targets of racism, there is nothing funny about it.”

A Thursday night tweet, after it appeared that the critics were not going to fade away, Gillis  offered a half-hearted attempt at an apology that failed to satisfy any of his critics. If anything, it fanned the flames.

Yang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, joined in the fray:

Please note. This is not an apology. Gillis is not admitting any accountability. He is not saying using racist slurs was wrong. And resorting to racist insults is not a risk; it’s resorting to the lowest base and appealing to and emboldening and cajoling White supremacists’ views.

In a followup tweet, Yang clarified that he’s not asking that Gillis be fired from SNL but the incident be used as a learning moment.

“I’ve experienced a lot of Anti-Asian racism throughout my upbringing. And it hurts. It is something that is very real,” Yang told CNN’s Jake Tappepr. “And I do think Anti-Asian racial epithets are not taken as seriously as slurs against other groups. 

“But at the same time, bigger picture, I believe that our country has become excessively punitive and vindictive about remarks that people find offensive or racist and that we need to try and move beyond that if we can, particularly in a case where the person is, in this case to me, like a comedian whose words should be taken in a slightly different light.”

Bardella responded to Yang’s step-back in a tweet: “as someone not burdened with all that comes from running for President, my tolerance for such blatant racism is not on par with Yang’s. I think he should lose his job as it is clear from his statement that he simply does not fully understand how egregious his brand of ‘comedy’ is to the Asian American community. ”

The second part of Bardella’s tweet stirred up a controversy of its own: “If this were a White comedian caught on tape using the n*word, we wouldn’t even be entertaining the conversation of whether or not he should keep his job.”

Others on social media said we shouldn’t equate the c-word with the emotional loaded and historic traumatic n-word.


Tapper asked Yang about the candidate’s own jokes referencing Asian stereotypes, Yang said by “poking fun” at such stereotypes it provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect on them.

“I would never claim that my individual experience would speak to the depth and breadth of our community,” he told Tapper. “At the same time, I think Americans are very smart. And that they can actually see right through that kind of myth and, if anything, by poking fun at it I’m making Americans reflect a little bit more on them.”

Comedian Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley, Crazy Rich Asians), said he usually sides with comedians on the free speech argument, but in this case, he’s calling for Gillis firing.

Actor Simu Liu, whose tweets have grown many-fold since he got picked to play Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first Asian superhero,  in an upcoming movie, tweeted:

Gillis use of racial slurs, particularly against Asians, apparently is a common part of his act and off-stage. 

A couple of comedy clubs in Philadelphia won’t hire him anymore because of offensive act. Dropping Gillis was a decision after “an internal discussion among the staff because he seemed to insist on working material that was racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and homophobic.” 

The Good, Good Comedy Theater tweeted that it had “deliberately chosen not to work” with Gillis because of his “overt racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia — expressed both on and offstage.”

Meanwhile, the calls for SNL to fire the newly hired Gillis continue to grow:

Unfortunately, the Gillis hiring by SNL has overshadowed the comedy show’s adding to its cast Bowen Yang, the first Chinese American comedian.

Despite the online furor created by Gillis comments, Saturday Night Live and NBC have remained silent. The cast — presumably with Gillis — is underway for the first show of SNL’s 45th season on Sept. 28.

Social media has given Asian Americans and other marginalized communities a means to voice their concerns and to share their comments with others. The AAPI community is the fastest growing demographic in the US and its growing economic and political influence should not be ignored. The outrage against a person who uses racist material for laughs is no laughing matter.

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