NOEL KING, HOST:
"Saturday Night Live" has fired cast member Shane Gillis just four days after they announced he was hired. Gillis used racist and homophobic language on a podcast that he co-hosted. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans is on the line with me. Hi, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
KING: So what did "SNL" say about why it fired Shane Gillis?
DEGGANS: Well, a spokesperson for "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels said in a statement, in part, quote, "we were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable." And that's kind of a change for "SNL," which stood by cast member Melissa Villasenor when old tweets from her surfaced that were also racist. But her tweets were issued many years before she got hired by "SNL." Some of Gillis's comments were from just last year, and they included a lot of racial slurs about Asian people, including presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
KING: Eric, you know that some comedy fans have complained about what they call - or what is called now cancel culture in entertainment. So the argument is that people have gotten way too sensitive about things that offend them. Is that a fair argument in this case, do you think?
DEGGANS: I don't think so because Gillis' comments during his podcast, I mean, they weren't ironic or attributed to somebody else. I mean, they weren't even funny. In one stand-up set that he did for Comedy Central that's on YouTube, he had self-deprecating jokes about stereotypes regarding poor white people. But on the podcast that Gillis co-hosted with Matt McCusker, there were these instances where they used racial slurs, homophobic and misogynistic language, just in conversation. We've got a clip where Gillis talks about how he is annoyed by Asian people who don't speak English well in restaurants.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MATT AND SHANE'S SECRET PODCAST")
SHANE GILLIS: It's funny too 'cause that's more annoying than any other minority playing music at a restaurant loud on their phone.
MATT MCCUSKER: Do you think Asian...
GILLIS: An Asian trying to learn English bothers me more than someone listening to, like, Lil Uzi Vert while I'm trying to eat dinner.
MCCUSKER: That's hilarious.
GILLIS: Nice racism.
KING: That's gross.
DEGGANS: Yeah. Now, I didn't want to play clips where they cursed or they used slurs, but you get the gist. I mean, the racism is validated. It's presented like this acceptable, understandable way of thinking. We've seen throughout history how people have used entertainment to make stereotypes palatable and even fun, and I'm glad "SNL" didn't reward a comment (ph) who traffics in stuff like that with such a high-profile job, especially when the show's had its own problems with representation.
KING: Yeah. It certainly has. But the weird thing is, or the ironic thing is that this controversy over Shane Gillis overshadowed the fact that "SNL" hired its first Chinese American cast member, Bowen Yang, also just last week.
DEGGANS: Yeah. You know, the show has often been criticized for its lack of Asian representation. So Yang's hiring was celebrated as a big step for "SNL." He's also an out gay man. And let's not forget that just, like, five years ago, "SNL" responded to criticism of its lack of black women by hiring three black females, including Sasheer Zamata, who left the show in 2017, and Leslie Jones, who left the cast just this summer. I mean, "SNL" is a showbiz institution. You know, alums go on to become big stars in movies and other TV shows.
DEGGANS: So when people of color are underrepresented there, you get this major pipeline for talent that gets skewed. So these issues aren't about whether somebody's offended or not. It's about dismantling the language and the attitudes and the hiring practices that keep people of color from reaching their full potential in show business and even in modern life.
KING: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much for being here.
DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.