When "Saturday Night Live” premieres its 45th season, it will be without Shane Gillis, the hired-then-fired cast member who gained fast notoriety over the past two weeks when his “boundary pushing” brand of comedy was revealed to just be him mocking Asian accents and gay people.
The short (and thus, only worthwhile) version of the story is that Gillis was one of three new cast members (along with writer/comedian Bowen Yang, and improv and impression specialist Chloe Fineman) until not-so-secret episodes of his “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast” were found to be light on actual jokes, but heavy on plain-spoken bigot-banter against a wide range of targets.
Unbeknownst to anyone new to Gillis’s oeuvre, these extended white grievance confessionals were the comedy. Ohhhhh! As Gillis elucidated in a non-apology that only served to highlight that improv is not his forte: “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries,” he wrote, seemingly serious with this garbage. “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually mad,” he continued, saying he never intended to hurt anyone, but edgy comedy such as his requires “taking risks.”
Once he was fired, another missive followed, regretting he’d become a “distraction,” respecting “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels’s decision, and throwing in that he “was always a Mad TV guy anyway.” (“Is that because you’ve both been canceled?” sang the Greek chorus of Twitter.)
This much ballyhooed comedic lust for risk may have played a role in why Michaels took such an uninformed shining to Gillis. The saga gained an epilogue this week when Variety reported that Michaels had been “actively looking to cast a comedian for its new season who would appeal to more conservative viewers” as a way to “counteract the appearance of a liberal bias on the show.”
Whether Michaels was actually wise or particularly dim to the nature of Gillis’s comedy, his reported thirst for conservative comedy demands the question: What is conservative comedy? What does it sound like? Where does it happen? Who makes it? Is it funny?
I hate it when questions like this spring up because it means I have to go find out.
Scroll through an informally assembled Ranker-ranking of the best conservative comics of all time, and you’ll find some familiar names, mostly male, mostly alive, and many who long ago drifted from the halls of Studio 8H into more politically-informed (if you can call it that) careers, such as Norm Macdonald, Dennis Miller, and Victoria Jackson — one of just two women who made the top 20 (with Kathleen Madigan at #19).
But also on the list are some familiar floaters in the conservative comedy tank: Larry the Cable Guy (a master of low-hanging pants and fruit), Jeff Dunham (whose racist puppets tickle racist dummies), and “Home Improvement” star Tim Allen, who emerges from his mancave every so often to trigger a laugh track with a grunt. Oh and “you might be a redneck” generator Jeff Foxworthy.
But what of the new school of conservative comedy? Who are the fresh young things of unyielding grievance? Well, on this list you can find heatseeking conservative firebrands like Owen Benjamin, an alt-right podcaster who had shows canceled because of his anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks, and was outright banned from Twitter after speculating aloud about (teenage) Parkland survivor David Hogg’s pubic hair. Here’s a thing he said, and since he’s the comedian, I guess it’s up to us to figure out which joke boundary he’s pushing here:
“Gays and Jews were considered the worst of the worst. Why? Because if they get power, they will destroy your entire civilization. Has anyone not seen that happening?”
He sounds like a riot. (Like, an actual riot.)
And then there’s Steven Crowder, whose “risk taking” comedy earlier this year took the form of an organized harassment campaign against Vox journalist Carlos Maza. Maza’s campaign in response to get Crowder removed from YouTube only elevated the latter’s profile (and made him into something of a bully-martyr). YouTube’s refusal to take action amounted to validation of his abuse errr I mean jokes!
But even outside of these “ranked” examples, the conservative comedy movement seems arthritically locked into a defensive position (despite conservatism’s firm position on political power). A recent comedy tour called “The Deplorables,” headlined by Michael Loftus and Steve McGrew (who imagine themselves “punk rockers” of comedy, and no I don't have the room to explain why that is the best joke of them all), set out on a mission of “transcending politics” and “unabashedly mocking liberals” — because, see above, transcending politics.
Perhaps the purest sample of conservative comedy in action can be found on “Huckabee,” the erstwhile governor’s eponymous political variety show and attempted public transition to Carson-of-the-joyless on TBN. Putting aside Huckabee’s own weekly deluge of half-baked dad jokes about P.C. boogeymen, his roster of stand-up acts reliably specialize in facepalms and faceplants. Rather than deftly slaloming between the hazards of what they deem P.C. culture (the way any skilled comedian might) most of Huckabee’s comics opt to crash headlong into it and treat their injuries as the punchline.
Last year, Infowars contributor and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson issued a tweet heard ’round the comedy world: “The right is starting to get better at comedy and it’s making lefties nervous.” It was a strange claim, seemingly based on nothing (apart from a clip of comic Allie Beth Stuckey’s lackluster attempt at a “Randy Rainbow”-style interview using edited footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and it may be the best gag a conservative comedian has come up with yet (though I’m not certain Watson identifies as such).
Central to much of this self-designated conservative comedy, though, is the underlying belief that the changing world is the real joke, and the role of “comics” is to drag their feet (and the libs) to help slow it down. It’s a fundamentally regressive approach to what has always been a (lowercase-p) progressive art.
Across this cruelly boring board, the challenge facing most of the conservative comics I watch seems to be a fundamental uncertainty over what, exactly, it is they’re up there to do, apart from protect the jokes they told in high school from ever having to grow up. They uniformly have difficulty discerning “punching up” from “punching down,” and the result looks a lot more like flailing.
Still, if the conservative comic movement plans to tap into its new momentum, it’s going to need a better name for its big tour. I think “The Monsters of Tragedy” is still free.