Kareem Abdul Jabbar weighs in on the Shane Gillis/SNL issue

The basketball star who has become one of the sharpest social analysts has an excellent take on the firing of comedian Shane Gillis from Saturday Night Live soon after his hiring was announced, when it was revealed that Gillis’s past comedy routines indulged in sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

I will excerpt just two paragraphs to whet your appetite to read the whole thing.

It’s tempting to open this column by repeating Shane Gillis’ homophobic, anti-Asian and misogynistic slurs that got him fired from Saturday Night Live to show just how desperately unfunny, derivative and dripping with flop sweat they are. But their level of funniness is not the point. Comedians have the right to be unfunny sometimes, just as athletes have the right to lose games, and actors to be in bad films. But when a comedian makes hate-based comments, as Gillis did on his podcasts, we do have an obligation to take a closer look to see whether they are insightful provocateurs of culture and the human condition, or just another middle-schooler blowing milk out their nose for a quick laugh, not caring who they spatter with milky snot in the process.

He says that in evaluating these situations, we need to look at three factors: When were the offensive remarks made? Has the person changed their attitude to reflect the current times? How sincere is their apology?

He says that Gillis fails on all three counts and that his defenses are the kinds one sees trotted out on every reality show ever.

The weakest of all defenses in his case is that he’s a “comedian who pushes boundaries.” He’s right that artists push boundaries of cultural conventions. Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor were all boundary pushers. The difference between an artist and an artisan is the artist’s willingness to poke at the audience’s comfort level in an effort to unveil weaknesses, discrepancies and hypocrisies. Not everyone appreciates having their values questioned. That’s why it’s important that we give artists plenty of leeway to sincerely explore their interpretation of humanity. The goal of the artist is to bring people together by showing us our similarities through our weaknesses, even when we are reluctant to acknowledge them. At the same time, we are under no obligation to financially support self-proclaimed “artists,” like Shane Gillis, whose work promotes hatred toward groups based on ethnicity, gender identity and religion. Gillis’s humor doesn’t so much expand boundaries as shrink them back to where they were in the 1950s.

As Abdul Jabbar says, “Racism isn’t an artistic risk, it’s just an expression of cultural ignorance and professional laziness.”

Great stuff.


  1. says

    Most “shock” comedians fade quickly because audiences tire of their schtick. The only “attack” comedy that stands the test of time is attacking stupidity or human foibles, things everyone can relate to and don’t attack people for being who they are. The joke that was voted the World’s Funniest Joke is one that transcends borders, cultures, and even language translation because everyone can appreciate and picture the stupidity involved.

    “Anyone who drives slower than me is an idiot. Anyone who drives faster than me is a maniac.”
    -- George Carlin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *