It is a hot summer night at the truck warehouse that is home to Magooby’s Joke House, and 2014’s Baltimore New Comedian of the Year is in need of another cold Bud Light.
Shane Gillis, the Pennsylvania man who was nowhere close to a household name until he had the misfortune to be fired by Saturday Night Live in 2019, and then the follow-on great fortune to become famous for being incredibly funny, does not love the impression he gives as the apex predator of beer-drinking. But he is a week removed from leaving fellow comic Ari Shaffir, no lightweight himself, passed out in intense liver pain on the studio floor of The Joe Rogan Experience because he dared come at the T. rex.
“So who is your trainer? Your trainer has to be incredible.”
“My dad. He’s an alcoholic.”
Gillis smiles, then looks around the comedy backroom crammed with bric-a-brac and pauses for a moment, as if thinking how his dad will feel.
“Nah, he’s just a drinker. But I do have a trainer; I have to work out. Because when you do comedy, all you do is drink. And you can’t just drink. I want to be known as ‘that guy who’s good at stand-up,’ not ‘that alcoholic who goes on Rogan every couple weeks.’”
Gillis talks a lot about his dad, Phil. His father is at the center of his YouTube special, which has more than six million views, as a typical “Fox News Dad.” “A Fox News dad is good,” Gillis tells the Austin audience. “You don’t want an MSNBC dad, complaining about renewables… but a Fox News mom? She smokes in the house.”
The laughter is an acknowledgment of so much of Gillis’s humor — he is able, give where he comes from, of saying the things that hipster Austinites may find themselves incapable of admitting. It’s an acknowledgment that this broad-shouldered, lumbering white guy, birthed by Trumpian Republicans and raised in a place no hipster would be caught dead in, might have a point about the times we live in, who we are and where we are going.
Gillis is actually training at the moment. He’s healthy, he has a hot girlfriend, he trimmed his weight to prep for a world tour as though it’s a prize fight, not just an opportunity to drink a lot of free beer. The old athlete tendencies are coming back to the guy who was recruited by West Point to play football and still puts position players on a pedestal. As a kid, he was a fan of hard-nosed troublemaker defensive tackle Warren Sapp, and nowadays of Quenton Nelson, an extremely talented old-school offensive guard for the Indianapolis Colts. A Notre Dame fan through and through, as a comic he takes the stage with the swagger of Jerome Bettis, the oversized Fighting Irish running back who bullied defenders for the Pittsburgh Steelers for years — he may be fat, but he runs skinny.
It’s fitting, given his potential role at SNL was as a position player — rotating through sketches, fulfilling roles as needed, but never deemed capable of shining on his own. Instead, he’s taken center stage in sketches for his YouTube show with John McKeever, Gilly and Keeves, that are more hilarious than anything SNL has managed in years.
A 2019 sketch produced by the Blaze, where Gillis plays a heroic fireman canceled on live TV, reads as a shortened amalgam of his own experience — his performance in the heat of the flames set aside quickly as a reporter confronts him for confusing a family of Guatemalans for Mexican, using racist language in a text message and, worst of all, footage of him drunkenly saying “I love Donald Trump.” He’s doxxed by the network and let go on the spot by his boss, who prefaces the firing by saying he did a great job.
Gillis’s career since his real-life hiring and firing has done everything to indicate the power of a position change: instead of opening for name comedians, he has become a name comedian himself. Still at the club stage of his career, he joined showman Bert Kreischer’s summer tour, performing for thousands at baseball stadiums across the country in a modern rendition of a comedy showcase. His colleagues were names, firmly established in the industry, but it was Gillis who shone as a comic associated with a specific line of argument about untouchable topics and jokes that offend.
The comedy industry has always had to navigate this balance, since the days of Lenny Bruce and his frequent arrests. But the po-faced lecturers who deem certain topics, words, accents and imitations unacceptable tend to be on the losing end. Some comedians — Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Louis C.K. — are able to marshal the “f-you money” that enables them to do whatever they want, haters be damned. Gillis lauds all of them as members of his Mount Rushmore, along with the late Norm Macdonald, his favorite SNL cast member. Macdonald, who died unexpectedly after an undisclosed illness last year, is an inspiration for Gillis — he recites Norm’s bits from memory and confesses that he wept at a documentary about the comedian, famous for rejecting the guidance of The Suits for his own comedic path.
Gillis holds no resentment toward SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels, whom he views as an advocate caught within a dynamic outside his control. Michaels saw Gillis’s capabilities and what he could bring to the vaunted program — even today, Gillis’s pitch-perfect Trump impression kills every time. It’s miles better than Alec Baldwin’s duck-lipped parody. Gillis’s approach, unique among those who parody Trump, seems to appeal to both sides.
“The thing about Trump is that when he does something funny, the left or Democrats or anyone who doesn’t like him says, ‘that’s reprehensible behavior, that’s why we hate him.’ So if I’m making fun of it, they think that’s anti-Trump,” he explains. “Meanwhile, the right, the Republicans, are like: ‘That’s funny, that’s why we like him. That’s what we liked about him.’ So if I’m making fun of it, both sides are like, ‘Yeah, we get it.’”
If the woke media that covers comedy these days wasn’t interested in such skill, the general public sees in Gillis the same thing SNL’s talent scouts liked. Comics can coast on SNL prestige for the rest of their lives, but their appeal will always be limited to the quality of the show itself. Considering its limited relevance today, with skits little more than MSNBC-inspired improv, Gillis lucked out: he will forever enjoy the SNL pedigree while continuing to actually be funny in the real world, day-in, day-out.
The great irony of this Gawker, VICE, Cut-driven effort to drive Gillis from the mainstream of comedy is that it made him more mainstream than ever. He is perhaps the greatest rising comedian of the moment, speaking for an underserved audience but also separate from them. He is a bad Catholic, an avowed non-Republican, but by dint of his origin he understands Trump’s innate appeal and comic abilities. His critics saw a straight white guy from a place without a Michelin star for miles, and weaponized some dubious racial jokes in an attempt to get rid of a comedian from Mechanicsburg and Harrisburg, “the most boring places” at the center of the Keystone State.
But Gillis is more complicated than that: he has prints of Caravaggio, Goya and Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” on the walls of his apartment. Gillis went from West Point — he quit football there almost immediately — to Elon, then West Chester, getting a degree in history. He sold cars, then went to Madrid for two years, teaching English as a second language to kids three days a week to fund his nights at bars with old Spaniards, wandering the Prado and reveling in the camaraderie of Atlético Madrid crowds while he could barely manage Spanish. He went to Spain because, as he puts it, “I’m gay and like Ernest Hemingway.”
Gillis came home to a dead-end government administration job, before linking up with Philly’s Phunniest 2014 champ Matt McCusker. Together they created a comedy podcast, Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast — on the eve of Trump’s rise — that would eventually both doom his SNL dreams and provide the basis for a crew of paying supporters (“the DAWGZ”) who tune in to every episode; each launches with Philly’s own Will Smith’s rather ridiculous rendition of “Wild Wild West.”
The heart of Gillis’s smash YouTube special is the story of getting his sister off heroin — she’s an addict who also battled cancer and Covid, and is the main feature of a story which has her riding rollercoasters high as a kite at Hershey Park, decked out in the jersey of the Steelers’ great Hines Ward and wearing yellow Steelers crocs, as a preface to the final hard talk about sobriety that saved her life.
For a nation that has dealt with the crippling and deadly effects of an opioid epidemic too long ignored by the Acela corridor, Gillis’s jokes read as humor, but also an indictment of a class so divorced from any sense of place that they are comfortable with such a swath of death and destruction in communities right next door.
In a recent multihour podcast with Louis C.K., another “canceled” comic mounting an impressive comeback, Gillis was complimented for loving the targets of his comedy.
“You can only make fun of someone if you love them. If there’s love there and you know them. And you know, Seth fucking Meyers, and his ‘Trump ba da bip bip bip’… There’s no funny, their jokes are crafted, but I don’t give a fuck,” C.K. said.
“We probably disagree about almost everything, but I can’t get your sound anywhere else. I can’t get your sound of humanity anywhere else.”
Gillis’s guiding Light is Bud’s blue-labeled beer-water and its medieval mascot. But he doesn’t want to be defined by that. “I don’t want to be known for the guy who fucking chugs beers,” he says. “I want to be good.” So as his comedy takes on new character, as he navigates a world which goes beyond Magooby’s to clubs and theaters around the planet, he is conscious of the place he comes from, and what he represents.
The strange thing about cancellation in the comedy world is that it seeks to destroy that which offends, but also that which it doesn’t understand. When Gillis is asked about whether he is part of a resurgent Philly comedy scene that can save the genre, he says “I don’t want to be cocky.”
But it’s telling that the hordes of the online woke sought to cancel him so thoroughly, instead of the many other comedians who play arenas as household names, performing with beards and flannel as adopted cultural caricatures. It is similar to the attitude that leads the same crowd to repeatedly attempt the cancellation of Dave Chappelle, a man from a very different place with very different views. When it comes to SNL and Netflix, or a contrarian voice showing up in the pages of the New York Times, the woke crowd says: we own this. You’re not allowed to be here. Go away and die.
Gillis’s power as a comic comes in part because of the authentic indomitable power of his voice — deep, dry, very Pennsylvania — combined with the conventional look of his t-shirt-wearing physical presence. He looks like a man who should be taking your order in an Irish bar with a smile and a chuckle. Instead, he is as likely to head off in a discourse on the Catholic saints, or list the vice presidents from memory, or share a surprisingly insightful indictment of contemporary stupidity from a political commentariat divorced from reality. He may have been ejected from the high floors of glitzy 30 Rock, but as Bill Burr said to Gillis in a dark hallway after seeing a set at the Stand, “Ah, you’re funny, you’re gonna be fine.”
The role of the comedian is a greater burden in 2022 that it has been in the past. As one of the last categories of philosophical questioners who must remain immune from cancellation, resistant to it in all its forms even as it is indulged by every studio, streamer and theater, the modern comedian must be prepared to endure the platform denied, the opportunity never realized, the stature reduced to the truth-teller on the street.
Gillis bears little physical resemblance to Diogenes the Cynic, who declared allegiance to no place. But there are similarities to the philosopher who inhabited a barrel, defied Alexander the Great at Corinth, and spent his life searching the earth for an honest man. Decried as a dog for eating in the marketplace, he replied: “It is you who are dogs, for you all gather and stare while I am eating my breakfast.” For Gillis, it is chicken tendies and another Bud Light which guide the way to truth.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2022 World edition.