It should have been a slam dunk.
On Thursday morning, NBC announced the addition of three new cast members for Saturday Night Live’s 45th season. Among the trio was Bowen Yang, an SNL staff writer whose promotion to the cast makes him the first full-Asian series regular. Yang’s appointment quickly became a trending topic, with congratulatory messages pouring in from around the world and Asians exulting the notion that they would finally see a relatable face on the popular late-night program. For a few glorious hours, Yang was the talk of the town.
Until he wasn’t.
Thursday afternoon, footage surfaced of fellow new hire Shane Gillis making derogatory remarks about Chinese immigrants on a September 2018 episode of his podcast, “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast.” The footage, which was uploaded to social media, shows Gillis adopting a fake accent to mock residents of New York’s Chinatown, while using the slur “chink.” Other episodes reveal him making disparaging remarks about women, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. The celebration over Yang’s hiring had been hijacked by news of Gillis’ bigotry. And NBC executives, who had been so vociferous in their praise for Yang, had suddenly gone mute.
“It’s frustrating that every time we make progress, we’re reminded that we still have a long way to go,” says Peter Ash Lee, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Asian-American arts and culture magazine Burdock. “My hope is that SNL will have enough respect for the Asian community to do the right thing.”
As of this writing, SNL had yet to address the controversy, and it’s not clear whether producers knew of Gillis’ past comments when they hired him. But as the iconic variety show fumbles its way into its 45th season, the lack of an immediate response to Gillis’ explicit racism demonstrates that it’s still trying to figure out how to navigate a longtime diversity problem. (Editor’s Note: After this story was published, SNL announced that Shane Gillis will not be joining the cast after all.)
Since SNL premiered in 1975, there have been exactly zero full Asian cast members and only four Asian hosts (six if you count the Pakistan-born Kumail Nanjiani and Indian-American, Aziz Ansari). When the actress Awkwafina hosted last fall, she used her monologue to pay tribute to Lucy Liu, who up until that point had been the only other Asian woman to host the show — a full 18 years earlier. Sandra Oh hosted an episode this past March, and Jackie Chan hosted way back in season 25. And while former players Rob Schneider and Fred Armisen are part-Asian, as white-passing actors, their “Asian-ness” was never addressed, nor promoted.
Yang’s hiring is a solid first step in bringing forth more representation, but with NBC’s failure to condemn Gillis’ comments right away, the network is simultaneously undermining any efforts to move the needle. For Asian-Americans so used to being left on the sidelines, a moment of pride and accomplishment has once again been marginalized by the actions of white America.
Posting on his Twitter Thursday night, Gillis offered to “apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said,” while noting that he’s “a comedian who pushes boundaries.”
“My intention is never to hurt anyone,” he continued, “but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”
Not everyone was buying the apology. “Don’t make yourself some sort of martyr of comedy dude,” tweeted Simu Liu, the Chinese-Canadian star of Marvel’s upcoming Asian-led film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. “Own up, face the music and make a more genuine apology.”
Silicon Valley and Crazy Rich Asians star Jimmy O. Yang called Gillis’ words “truly disgusting” and “just plain racist.”
Even Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang chimed in on Twitter, writing, “Shane – I prefer comedy that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots. But I’m happy to sit down and talk with you if you’d like.” (Gillis had referred to Yang as a “Jew Ch-nk” on a different podcast in May). In a subsequent tweet over the weekend, he questioned whether other minority groups would have received the same non-response from the network. “Anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable,” he wrote. “If Shane had used the ‘n’ word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.”
While Gillis’ fate is still up in the air, some Asian-American advocates believe NBC can at least try to right the ship by giving Yang a prominent role on the show. “His presence won’t really be felt,” says Lee, “unless he is seen.”
Put bluntly, it’s not enough for SNL to promote Yang’s name in the opening credits — they must also put him on stage and give him something to do.
“I expect SNL to take two approaches,” says William Yu, the L.A.-based creative strategist and screenwriter who sparked larger calls for representation when he created the viral hash-tag #StarringJohnCho in 2016. “Utilize Bowen in ‘colorblind’ sketches that will ultimately fall flat because of their lack of specificity, or pigeonhole him into bit roles that put his ethnicity on display — say, playing Andrew Yang 100 times.”
The preferred alternative: to use Yang as the foil — not the punch line — to tired tropes and stereotypes.
Those who know Yang say they’re excited for him, with one writer (who preferred to remain anonymous as she works at NBC) calling it a “relief” to know that Yang will continue writing too. “He’s not just being handed a script and being told, ‘Do this!’ which feels like a cheap, flimsy model of diversity that Hollywood so often sells,” she says.
Others caution that the pressure of representing for an entire culture is not a realistic expectation for any one person, let along a 29-year-old television newcomer, to bear. The best way for NBC to really support diversity, they say, is to give Yang a shot to win — and to keep giving him, and others like him, opportunities, even if some of their projects occasionally miss the mark.
“As Asian actors, we want to be given a chance to succeed, but we also want to be able to fail without retaliation,” says Hank Chen, a stand-up comedian and actor. He cites the one-season run of the 1994 ABC sitcom All-American Girl, which starred Margaret Cho as the outspoken daughter at the center of an Asian-American family in San Francisco, as a damning test case: “When All-American Girl was cancelled, [Asian-Pacific Islander] talent were relegated to supporting roles and working behind the scenes for two decades, because networks and studios were afraid to take a chance on Asian-led projects. It makes me sad thinking of all the great stories and ideas that were suppressed and lost during that time. No doubt some would have been award-worthy and brilliant, but some might have just been mediocre, barely profitable, and that should be OK, too. Please give us the opportunity to try and try again.”
For his part, Yang has stayed out of the fray over the past several days, and his manager did not respond to an interview request for this article. Over the weekend, he used his Twitter to comment on Hustlers, and posted photos on Instagram from the set of his upcoming Comedy Central show with Awkwafina (above), which wrapped shooting on Friday. He is set to join the SNL cast next week for rehearsals, ahead of the show’s season premiere on September 28th. (While the episode will mark Yang’s official cast debut, it wouldn’t actually mark his first appearance on-air. He acted in one SNL sketch last season — playing Kim Jong Un.)
In an interview with NBC News in June, Yang said he always loved SNL growing up, but had trouble imagining himself on the show, because he’d never seen people who looked like him associated with the series. If he’s given the opportunity to actually appear in the season premiere, he’ll be, for millions of viewers, the validation and example he was seeking as an SNL fan all those years ago. And maybe — just maybe — Bowen Yang will be the talk of the town once again.