A Comedian Reflects on Their 2019 SNL Audition

SNL’s Studio 8H. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The cast and writers of SNL return to their offices at 30 Rock next week to get to work on the season 45 premiere, but the excitement surrounding upcoming hosts and new cast members has recently been overshadowed by the news of new featured player Shane Gillis, who was fired on Monday after multiple racist and homophobic remarks he made on podcasts as recently as May 2019 began to circulate online. It was a four-day whirlwind from hiring to firing, and SNL’s statement on Monday confirmed one thing that fans of the show had been wondering about: the audition and vetting process. “We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier,” SNL’s statement read, “and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.”

To get a new perspective on the controversy, Vulture recently spoke with a comedian who auditioned for the show this year to get their take on the Gillis fiasco as well as some insight on how the SNL audition process works in the era of Twitter and podcasts. The comedian, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, offered up some very candid answers.

A lot has been written over the years about the SNL audition process, like the New York Times piece in 2013. But I was hoping you could run me through what it’s like now, because, thanks to stuff like Twitter, we’re at a very different place than we were then.
I’ve showcased a couple times, where you just do a show in front of the people who work there. It’s usually about 15 comedians. You go up and you do a five-minute set. I’ve done that a couple times and I’ve never gone on from there.

But then this last time I showcased, a couple weeks later, they asked me to go test for it. They changed the date around a couple of times, and then they fly you out to New York. You go wait in a hallway, or I guess they give you a green room, but nobody wants to wait in their green rooms because everybody wants to see how it went for the last person. You can’t really hear or watch — you can barely hear the other person’s set, the people onstage.

I was there for probably five hours before I went up. And then it’s the classic story: You go onstage, everybody’s sitting in chairs or standing up. And there’s some laughs, but mostly not. You do a punchline that you’re used to killing, and it’s just people going “Ha ha ha. Ha ha.” That’s kind of about it.

My test didn’t go super well, but I really didn’t want it. It’s just never been a real dream of mine to be on Saturday Night Live. When they asked me to test for it, my initial thought was dread, but it was immediately followed by I’m going to be the biggest star on Saturday Night Live ever, I can do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to change everything at Saturday Night Live and it’ll become a really funny show again! All that stuff. And I kept thinking about how my life would change if I had to be on SNL. I went through the Rolodex of friends that I have who work there, thinking, Okay, if I had to work there, I’d at least have so-and-so there, and so-and-so there, you know?

But I mean, you would take the offer if you got it, right?
Yeah, I would. Also, you have to. If you agree to go test out there, you can’t turn it down without, like, legal issues. The women walk around SNL and they make you sign a contract, and everybody jokes you’re signing your life away. But it’s true! I think [with] the contract, you gotta be there as long as they want you there for the first five years or something like that.

Okay. Interesting. 
It’s a wild contract. They’re sort of in charge of what you’re able to go do, and it’s funny because they’re so interested in what you’re able to do while you’re on SNL. They’re in charge of your projects that you work on outside of the show and all that stuff, I imagine, because they don’t want to mess with the integrity of Saturday Night Live. But they didn’t really care about what people did before SNL! [Laughs.]

Do you consider yourself an SNL fan?
No, not really. I mean, I like a lot of stuff on SNL — I have friends who have written some really funny sketches, some people who’ve been in some really funny things. The things that I think are really good are things that are so insular; it’s so specific to the person who wrote it or is in it that it’s not necessarily an SNL sketch, it’s a that-person sketch.

Were you around when Shane auditioned?
Yeah, I was there.

Did you meet him?
Yeah, I did.

Was there any sort of vetting process for you that you were aware of?
No, I don’t think there really was — for me. And I make fun of SNL a lot. There’s tweets and stuff where I’m making fun of it.

Do you think it’s possible that one of the reasons you didn’t get the job was because of those tweets?
I think I didn’t get hired because they didn’t think I was right for the show. I think whatever I’ve said about SNL in the past isn’t a big enough reason to not hire me. But I don’t think there was really much vetting at all. Going into it I was very aware I didn’t have red-state appeal, which is something they’re always looking for …

You knew they were looking for that?

Oh, really?
Yeah, that’s something that they’re always looking for, the last few years.

How do you know that?
I started hearing the term “red-state appeal” a few years ago only in regard to SNL. Red-state appeal has been a thing that SNL has been looking for since Trump got elected. I imagine it’s because they want to appeal to people in the middle of the country who they feel they’ve alienated with all their left-leaning political sketches. It’s just something that I’ve heard from comedians and reps. It’s a term that has gotten thrown around a bunch in the last couple years [in regard to SNL]. I imagine that’s why they’re always trying to go for the “bro” — the guy with the brown hair and the, you know, the face. [Laughs.]

They’re really hoping, I guess, that they’ll be able to do some stuff that appeals to Middle America or the South. They think of the South and Middle America as stupid racists, I guess. Maybe that’s kind of harsh, but this is a constant problem in Hollywood: The people who make things think their audience is stupid, when in reality they’re not.

And as far as Shane goes, I met him just in the hallway before the audition, and he was a really polite, nice guy. He didn’t hang out with everybody as much … There was a big group of people hanging out in the hallway, and he was mostly in his green room hanging out.

I wonder if Shane could’ve saved himself from getting fired with an actual apology instead of that statement.
Oh yeah, for sure, if he just said, “I’m sorry, I was being an idiot. What I said was really racist and I was a bully, and I’ve never been under such a magnifying glass, and it’s been good that now I actually have to think about what I’m saying and putting out there.” But I don’t think that that is within him. I think that he thinks he’s being a badass, which is why everyone made fun of that apology so much. [It’s] lacking any self-awareness. He just thinks, like, I’m a badass comedian who takes risks. He’s just begging to be made fun of for that. Taking that route is kind of cowardly and sort of egomaniacal. So why would SNL want to continue to have that person there?

But at the same time, I feel like SNL should keep him. It should be a lesson to them to not just hire anybody because you’re desperate for red-state appeal or whatever it is. You hired this guy, you’re stuck with him. Now you gotta deal with all this shit he said or might continue to say. But don’t just go “Oh whoops, we made a mistake!” and fire him.

These places shouldn’t be so desperate to appeal to a certain demographic in this day and age. They should just try to make comedy that’s funny and good. It just sucks nowadays that “red-state appeal” — having a person on a show who might be a bit more in the center than on the left or the right — also means that you’re running the risk of that person also being a racist. The floodgates have been opened, and it’s a really tricky line to toe. And it really bit them in the ass in casting Shane.

I’ve seen some people post videos of old SNL sketches that are pretty racist, or at least are playing off racist stereotypes, to argue that Shane’s firing is hypocritical. Do you think there’s a discussion to be had there?
No — I mean, it’s old!

It’s old shit! We’ve all said and done really inappropriate, bad things a long time ago. It’s only been recently that people from these different backgrounds — not just fucking white people — have said, “Hey, this really fucks with me and hurts my feelings.” And then people have had to go, “Oh yeah, shit.” It’s only been in the last 20 years, maybe.

Most of those sketches are from the early ’90s, and a lot of them are really fucking inappropriate and wrong for no real reason. And those comedians don’t do that anymore. So yeah, SNL maybe has always been a little bit backwards, and they’re trying to do a cool thing. Casting Bowen [Yang] was really exciting, because Bowen is so funny and strange and interesting. But at the same time, I just can’t stop thinking about how they made Bowen write for a year before they put him on the show, and then they just cast Shane right away. It still feels kind of weird. I don’t know, man.

Rich white people have always been bad; they’ve always done really fucked-up shit. It’s only been recently that they’ve been trying to change, and even asked to try to change. And so the fact that these people are going “It’s funny, I’m pushing boundaries” — it’s like, no, you’re not pushing boundaries! This is hack. I really think nowadays, something that is pushing boundaries is if Dana Carvey went onstage and sang “Choppin’ Broccoli.”

That’s more boundary-pushing than someone saying a bunch of racist shit about Asians. Because 50 percent of white-dude comics nowadays feel like they’ve got a hot take, which is the big problem. Shut up about your hot take. Be silly. That’s more interesting than anything.

What do you hope the show takes away from this?
I don’t really know what SNL should take away from this, because it’s run by a really old man. I don’t think he really is losing any sleep over any of this.

It’s just another year.
I think it’s truly just another year, and he’s just an old billionaire who stays up until 4 a.m. I really don’t know if they’re going to learn anything from this. They fired Shane, so now they’re just like, “Okay, it’s finished.”

What about you? Any interesting takeaways?
The funny thing that me and all my friends keep looking at is, with Shane’s apology, the only people who are in defense of Shane are white guys. It’s a legion of these white dudes who are going, “Oh, he’s making a joke! Cancel culture over a joke!” or whatever. But nobody is looking around and going, “Oh shit, we’re just a mob of white guys.” I just can’t believe that these people don’t see that. It feels really scary and gross.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

A Comedian Reflects on Their 2019 SNL Audition