Live on demand, from American Netflix accounts, it’s Shane Gillis!
The 35-year-old comedian from central Pennsylvania released his second stand-up special, and first for Netflix—Shane Gillis: Beautiful Dogs—on Tuesday. Gillis has topped the streaming platform’s daily TV rankings for American viewership each of its first two days. He’s more popular than One Piece, Who Is Erin Carter? or anything else on Netflix.
Where Gillis’ rising star takes him from here is hard to say. But would he have even gotten this far if he’d never been fired (or un-hired) just four days after being announced as a would-be new cast member for Saturday Night Live in 2019?
A quick recap: NBC had announced Gillis as a new SNL hire on Sept. 12, 2019, alongside Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman. Within hours, old podcast clips of Gillis making disparaging marks, including ethnic and gay slurs, started to make the rounds online. NBC, SNL and Lorne Michaels made it clear that they needed an immediate apology out of Gillis. Instead he posted this to Twitter that night: “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss. If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you’re going to find a lot of bad misses. I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.”
SNL cut ties with Gillis four days later. So how has he reached such great heights since then?
It started with Gillis being able to mock himself for his predicament in the moment, telling anyone who’d listen on podcasts or onstage that SNL was right to let him go. He was even onstage making jokes at his own expense at The Stand comedy club in New York City on the very night he should have been making his SNL debut on September 28, 2019.
From there, Gillis focused on his stand-up and built up a loyal fanbase for the same podcast that derailed his SNL ambitions, the ironically-named “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast.” The Gilly and Keeves YouTube channel, on which he and buddy John McKeever post original sketches, boasts more than 488,000 subscribers. And Gillis’ debut stand-up special from 2021, “Live In Austin,” has racked up more than 14 million views. His podcast, via Patreon, has grown its membership from 9,000 in November 2020 to 69,346 members today. At levels ranging from $1/month up to $50/month, he’s already banking millions without factoring in his touring income.
In July 2021, Gillis made his first appearance on Spotify’s “The Joe Rogan Experience,” where he acknowledged that he didn’t think much of his podcast riffs when he was so unknown that his listenership was only in the hundreds. “I get it. I said something fucked up. This is a corporation,” Gillis said of NBC. “Now if it wasn’t me, I’d probably be defending me.” He has since returned to Rogan’s den in Austin 11 more times.
On stage, Gillis has by turns leaned into his anti-woke reputation and taken pains to subvert it. In his 2021 YouTube special, Gillis made fun of his father for being a “Fox News Dad,” and took the American South to task for its long standing racist traditions. For Netflix, Gillis described his love of history as a sign of “early onset Republican,” as if it were a disease: “You’ve got to fight it every day, like a werewolf.” He jokingly suggests that old conservative dads probably never decided that they wanted to grow up “to be a prick about everything.”
Throughout his stand-up career, Gillis has joked about how he looks like someone with Down syndrome. In Beautiful Dogs, he defends what could be seen as an offensive stereotype by sharing loving stories about his Uncle Danny, who has Down syndrome. Gillis confides that having a relative with special needs is “very scary at first,” until you realize that that person is perhaps your best and most lovable family member.
Gillis has also maintained his love of Donald Trump but couched it in terms of Trump as a funny personality, and not as a politician or president. He employs a slick and funny Trump impersonation, one that could have landed him at the center of the country’s most popular sketch show after Alec Baldwin stepped down from his guest-starring perch.
Would that weekly TV presence have made Gillis a bigger star than he is now? Even the best comedians sometimes have less than stellar track records on SNL, as the size and structure of the show doesn’t always make room for everyone to shine (see: Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Chris Rock, or Rob Riggle, whose style and profile perhaps matches Gillis most similarly). And had Gillis stuck around as an SNL cast member, what would that mean for James Austin Johnson who landed the coveted Trump role in 2021? Since Johnson does a great Joe Biden impersonation as well, that left one less reason to keep Alex Moffat around in 2022, even though Moffat had just won the Biden role after Jim Carrey’s ill-fated cameo came to an end following the 2020 election.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Gillis didn’t deliver the apology Lorne Michaels and NBC demanded, nor did he think to purge his problematic podcasts from the internet before NBC announced his hiring.
Some critics have suggested he’s not entirely to blame, either—that perhaps SNL and NBC should’ve done a more thorough background check and avoided any whiff of tabloid fodder. Even some former SNL greats think so. Just last month, Gillis appeared on the Fly On The Wall podcast hosted by Dana Carvey and David Spade. Carvey not only reminisced about his own past problematic characters (including at least one racist Asian caricature he did on SNL), but also suggested what the show could do to avoid another potential cast member getting canceled before their debut.
“If you have a problem with someone, don’t let them audition,” Carvey said.