Pop Culture
Sep 15, 2023, 06:28AM

Beautiful Dawg

Shane Gillis does a victory lap on Beautiful Dogs.

Where was shane gillis beautiful dogs filmed.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

As a child of parents who are split politically—one conservative and one liberal—I can appreciate how difficult it is to be caught in the middle, trying to please both sides. As our national culture becomes more polarized, one might reasonably deduce that the entire population is polarized accordingly, when in fact there are more people than ever stuck in that unfortunate middle-ground I found myself in during adolescence. In standup comedy—a profession that, to some extent, relies on pleasing everybody—this can be a maddening position to be in. Some comedians avoid politics altogether. Others pick a side and pander to its values and prejudices. And some play a balancing act, maintaining a sense of equilibrium by keeping any political tangents light, inoffensive (relatively speaking), and above all, funny. This tug-of-war—between the right and the left, club comics and alt comics, MAGA and DSA, proudly ignorant and quietly intelligent—characterizes the schizophrenic state of modern comedy, perhaps best personified by Shane Gillis.

I saw Gillis live back in August of 2019 at Gin and Jokes, Baltimore comedian Umar Khan’s now defunct show in the basement of Joe Squared. Gin and Jokes attracted a very specific kind of comedian: hard-edged, obscene, offensive, unrepentant. Local and touring comics could go to Gin and Jokes and feel safe getting spicy without humorless scolds loudly protesting in the middle of their sets, something that couldn’t be said for the nearby Crown (a punk bar in appearance only).

Among the comics who performed at Gin and Jokes, Gillis was neither the best nor the worst, neither the most offensive nor the least. He was very funny in a middle-of-the-road sort of way, a smart guy with a middle-class Pennsylvania background (rare in a profession that’s increasingly astroturfed with Ivy Leaguers and trust funders) and a genial, bro-ish demeanor. He joked about his liberal friends in his new homebase of NYC and their ignorance of those outside their bubble, including his Trump-loving dad, whom he made fun of as well. (His MAGA dad vs. MAGA mom bit, featured in his first special Live in Austin, is a modern classic.) He joked a little about politics but didn’t seem overtly political in what he had to say. His aim was primarily to make people laugh, something he did pretty effectively.

It came as somewhat of a surprise about a month later, when Saturday Night Live announced Gillis among its newest cast members. He passed the funny test, but it was unclear how he’d fit on the show. Gillis wasn’t known for sketch comedy—though he eventually went on to develop his own successful online sketch series—and his standup didn’t seem like the kind that would translate to the late night show’s sensibility. I also knew that he had a podcast and was a regular on other podcasts, many of which were pretty offensive, at least by the standards of people who still find SNL funny.

Therefore, it came as less of a shock when Lorne Michaels unceremoniously dumped Gillis after clips of him using Asian and gay slurs surfaced online. Seth Simons—a failed comedian who built a second career out of tattling on those funnier and more successful than him—led the online wave of outrage and sanctimony. (Apparently, Simons is still trying to draw blood from this stone in a newsletter where he polices comedy podcasts for “racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, and all-around disturbing podcast content.” His latest entry complains that Kelefa Sanneh’s complimentary New Yorker profile on Gillis “seems to lack a working theory of what race and racism are”; I sure hope Simons gets a chance to set Sanneh straight on race.) For about a week or two, Gillis became a punching bag for “online activists” (somewhat of an oxymoron), who made characteristically unfunny attempts at mocking him. Gillis’ friend/fellow comedian Nick Mullen joked that the fear of being perceived as un-woke prevented Gillis’ critics from making the most obvious dig at his appearance: that he looks like he has Down syndrome.

Gillis calls attention to this likeness more than once in his new special, Beautiful Dogs. He talks about having people with Down’s in his family, joking that he dodged the bullet but it nicked him and now he’s a “day walker.” When he talks about visiting George Washington’s plantation in Mt. Vernon during the pandemic, he surmises that none of the reenactors broke character because they thought that he had Down’s, which he admits wasn’t helped by his mask or sincere-faced questions regarding the whereabouts of George. He says he doesn’t understand people pitying the intellectually disabled, that his Uncle Danny is the happiest person he knows and the only good one in the family—a guy who sneaks grilled cheeses into restaurants in case they don’t serve them. (“I’m not makin’ ‘em at night!… I’m makin’ ‘em at night.”) He jokes that every guy with Down syndrome loves John Cena and tits, then steps out on a more precarious limb, joking that while he doesn’t think being gay is a choice, “every dude I know that can’t think fucking loves pussy.”

If this is the level of bear-poking that earns Gillis the reputation of bad boy provocateur—jokingly entertaining a homophobic premise to get to a punchline about mentally handicapped men being horny—then we’ve really turned into a culture of pearl-clutching prudes. Vultures like Simons resort to smearing Gillis and other comedians by association—with sex pests (Louis CK), racists (Sam Hyde), transphobes (Dave Chappelle), or other problematic figures—in part because there is so little to object to in their actual acts. Even when Gillis uses “gay” as a pejorative in Beautiful Dogs, the irony is thick enough to deflect any outrage (i.e., “First of all, being good at sex is gay”). When he delivers an undeniably lame, sexist joke about women folding laundry, he does so only to set up a much funnier riff about reinforcing the preconceptions that the women in the audience—likely dragged there by their boyfriends, he acknowledges—have about him. (“Some dumb ogre onstage like, ‘Women are dumb!’”) In doing so, he visibly wins over that not minor segment of the audience. It’s impressive, maybe even a little masterful.

When Gillis lost his spot on SNL, some predicted he’d defect to the far right and become a fixture of media outlets like The Daily Wire and Breitbart. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Gillis spent the next four years quietly building a reputation as a superlative talent, both as a standup and Trump impersonator (he waits until the end of Beautiful Dogs to break out his flawless impression). Not bad for a day walker.


Register or Login to leave a comment