Developing a live set with stand-up comedian Shane Gillis

Shane Gillis

Since that time in 2019 when stand-up comedian and sketch artist Shane Gillis was let go from Saturday Night Live due to past indiscretions (jokes touched by ethnic and sexual orientation slurs taken out of context), it has been nothing but net for the Mechanicsburg, PA native. Along with four-hours-worth of YouTube bits in collaboration with fellow cancelled comic Louis CK (their history of U.S. presidents is hilarious), Gillis co-hosts the highly-rated Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast (with pal Matt McCusker),  wrote for Comedy Central’s Delco Proper and YouTube’s Gilly & Keeves, dropped his self-funded, debut comedy special Shane Gillis: Live in Austin on YouTube – so far viewed 7+ million times – and Gilly & Keeves: The Special. Soon, he’ll co-star in his first mainstream sit-com in the upcoming 2023 season of Peacock’s Bupkis with Joe Pesci, Edie Falco, and – oddly enough – Saturday Night Live alum Pete Davidson.

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In a 2022 feature in The New Yorker, author Kelefa Sanneh went on to state that “for a provocative comic, losing the job of a lifetime was the beginning of a second act.

Beyond that weird, full circle, post SNL effect, what has made Gillis am underground/quickly overground wild success is his stand-up routines, sets that benefit from his willingness to go not-so-subtly un-woke in its telling of frustrations when it comes to frightened white men and being (as he tweeted when released from his SNL employ) “a comedian who pushes boundaries.” American history, sports, family, sex and sexuality all come under the rubric of Gillis’ no-way-politically correct comic lens with jokes that Gillis springs on his (pretty much all Caucasian) audiences with a nod and a wink, as if “this isn’t ME talking, I’m speaking through these bigoted characters.”

The New Yorker’s Sanneh wrote to this effect that, “To anyone who thinks that comedians ought to prioritize non-stigmatizing language, or to be reliable allies for marginalized groups, Gillis might seem strikingly unreformed. He is, even now, the kind of straight guy who sometimes uses “gay” as a mild pejorative. But he excels at winning over skeptical audiences. When a joke gets a muted reception, he likes to look around the room and spread his hands slightly, in a “Ta-da!” gesture; the point is to acknowledge—and thereby shrink—the gap between what he thinks is funny and what the crowd thinks is funny.”

Shane Gillis

To that common denominator, one that Gillis relishes, “he has found a way to be thoroughly and recognizably himself onstage: he makes audiences feel that he’s not pretending to be any better or worse than he actually is,” by Sanneh’s estimation.

One thing that I was happily privy to, divided into two events within the last five months, was watching Gillis develop his latest tour set – one that commenced on April 29 at Bensalem’s Xcite Center at the Parx Casino before going on to additional sold out shows and several day stretches such as May 5’s Balboa Theatre in San Diego, May 12’s Playhouse Square in Cleveland, May 13’s Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, May 19’s North Charleston Coliseum in South Carolina and beyond.

In December, 2022, during a special Christmas event at Helium Comedy Club where Gillis hosted several of his favorite stand-up comedians in a holiday party-like atmosphere, Shane riddled his host gig with new patter, crafting the genesis of the set I witnessed on Saturday night, with embryonic versions of many of the jokes I heard at Parx.

Along with a spot-on vocal impersonation of then-President Trump improvising a 40+ minute speech upon the violent 2019 execution of Islamic militant/ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (“He died like a dog” – that is exactly what Trump said. Check the transcript”) at the hands of US Navy Seals, Gillis went on to remind the Parx audience that his current live-in girlfriend used to sleep with a Navy Seal – thus causing feelings of sexual inadequacy in Gills who toys with his digital manipulation skills, frustratedly.

Shane Gillis

Helium jokes made at the expense of his Fox News watching father and how no one was born to be a Republican (it sneaks up on you, he said, watching television and wondering why every television commercial only features Black actors and how he misses the original State Farm guy) were dutifully refined and exquisitely timed for the Parx show, as was a lengthy bit on when White people stopped being cool: when Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate and knocked out a home run to the amazement of wise-cracking, fast talking, Edward G. Robinson-yakking sports casters. “Yeah, we can’t use that voice anymore,” joked Gillis.

An uncomfortable bit that he did at Helium, poking fun of himself looking/seeming as if he had Downes Syndrome, got newly-wrapped into a lengthy Parx routine about visiting George Washington’s ancestral home, dealing with American Revolutionary-era reenactors (including a Black gentleman portraying a slave), ending up in the first President’s horrid slaves quarters and the grotesque of finding out what 6 feet 2 inches, red headed George Washington’s false teeth were truly made of ( I’ll leave that bit for future Gillis fans in Pittsburgh, etc. to find out).

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Newer Parx routines not previously witnessed at Helium were freshly topical – like Gillis poking fun at himself for wearing a goofy hat while on tour in Australia and getting dissed by a Goth kid (with the ludicrousness of a doom-and-death obsessed Australian accent in the works). And one new bit, purely driven by current pop cultural circumstance and audience interaction, made certain that Gillis’ improvisational skills were fast and furious. When Gillis requested a Bud Light from one of his stage hands, a Bensalem heckler yelled out that Gillis was “trans,” to which the stand-up comedian responded with a “that’s not cool” shrug – a nod that showed off how truly liberal Shane Gillis was in opposition to the lout-ish persona his stand-up act often portrays.

    • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

      A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and WPPM.org.

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