At the start of his new special “Beautiful Dogs,” Shane Gillis, a bulky comic with the mustache of a Staten Island cop, announces that America is the best country in the world and that all the others suck. His crowd roars. Then he says he’s only been to three other countries and when he boasts about his home abroad, they ask about mass shootings.
“There’s really not a good comeback,” he says, shifting from swaggering to struggling, then exclaims, using a profanity: “What, are we going to give up our guns like a bunch of gay guys?” His tone flattens into resignation: “No, we’re just going to have shootings all the time.”
This opening bit, which celebrates and satirizes rah-rah American jingoism in the style of “South Park,” encapsulates the Shane Gillis experience. It’s got the amiable idiot swagger, plus the trolling offensive spin. Then there’s the satirical overlay that subverts the perspective. It’s dumb and smart, cocky and self-mocking, homophobic but relentlessly self-aware.
Since getting fired from “Saturday Night Live” in 2019 after videos surfaced of him using Asian and gay slurs on a podcast, Gillis has built perhaps one of the fastest growing comedy careers in America. His debut special, released on YouTube in 2021, racked up a staggering 14 million views, and he’s the most popular podcaster on Patreon with more than 71,000 paying listeners. “Beautiful Dogs,” his second special, has been lodged in Netflix’s Top 10 most popular shows since the streamer released it on Sept. 5. He regularly sells out theaters. Don’t be surprised if he becomes an arena act.
Getting fired paid off. It made Gillis a martyr to some, and he was savvy enough to embrace those fans without tediously obsessing over cancel culture. He has said he understood the criticism of his comments, offered a halfhearted apology, then doubled down on lumbering through the china shop of cultural sensitivities. A comic who tells the crowd he has no female friends isn’t looking to appeal to everyone.
There’s an element of shock jock to his persona. Onstage, his bits are more controlled and agile than they seem, and he’s skilled at winning fans in unexpected places. Speaking in an admiring 2022 New Yorker profile of Gillis, the comic Jerrod Carmichael, who came out as gay in his last special, called him one of the few truly funny comics working today. “His material still feels dangerous,” he said.
Gillis, a 35-year-old former football player from central Pennsylvania, often holds the microphone with two hands, more like a singer than a stand-up. His attitude is less telling you the truth about the world than stumbling through the mess of his thought process. His appearance telegraphs rumpled ordinary guy, not polished entertainer. And he speaks to crowds as if he were messing around with friends. Few comics do more with the word “dude.”
To fully understand his success, you must use a word taboo in certain comedy circles: conservative. Many comics who rail against cancel culture tend to flinch at that one. Call Joe Rogan one and you will hear umbrage and a list of his liberal policy positions. And look, no one likes to be pigeonholed. But there is a political valence to Gillis’s comedy and the way it fits into the evolving meaning of what it is to be right wing.
Being conservative in the age of Trump is not as much about opinions on free markets or foreign policy anymore; now it can mean projecting a certain attitude, alternatively nostalgic and contemptuous, fixated on the supposed oppressiveness of liberal norms and bluntly giddy about transgressing them.
That posture sits comfortably in the comedy scene. It’s no accident that two prime-time hosts on Fox (Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld) cut their teeth doing comedy, of sorts. Part of the reason Gillis is such a phenomenon is clearly political. (The title of the special is a Trump quote.)
Right-wing media adores him. The Spectator called his success a major turning point in the resurgence of comedy. But unlike comics who are primarily animated by caricaturing and picking apart the left, Gillis lands a broader crowd by focusing on an affectionately mocking insider perspective of the half of the country that voted for Trump (which isn’t to say he did, though there’s no question he finds the politician hilarious).
There are MAGA-like identity politics at the center of some of his bits, as when he describes the story of the first baseball game played by Jackie Robinson not as a civil rights landmark but as the moment when white people stopped being cool. “I know what I look like,” he says. “I got the body type of the guy who says, Let’s look at the rest of the body cam footage before jumping to any conclusions.”
His last special lovingly poked fun at his “Fox News dad,” who goes to bed angry every night. In “Beautiful Dogs,” he describes himself as a bit of a history buff, which he calls a sign of “early onset Republican.” He levels with his audience: “If you’re a white dude in your 20s and 30s and can’t stop reading about World War II, it’s coming, brother.”
The assumptions here are that being a Republican makes you a beleaguered outsider. He compares the pull of it to that of a person turning into a werewolf. “I’m not a Republican, but I can feel it,” he says. “It grows.”
Gillis, who lives in New York, regularly works clubs here, and there’s a way that his comedy is pitched as an explanation of a red state sensibility for a blue state audience. Some of this can feel forced and far below his intelligence, tipping over into Larry the Cable Guy territory.
He uses a hack sexist line, only to draw attention to how bad it is. His punchlines about porn cover well-trod ground, and his contrarian joke about terrorists is similar to the one that got Bill Maher fired from his ABC show after Sept. 11. Gillis can get stuck in his own bubble, drawing some familiar or easy laughs. His new special has more sex jokes than his last, some about his own grossness (“coughing during sex is funny”) and others about the hopelessness of being competitive with the Navy SEAL who previously dated his girlfriend.
His most ambitious bit in the new hour involves a trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon during the racial upheaval of 2020. He describes the absurdity of the historical re-enactors, but also the gruesome detail of the slave quarters, mapping how he vacillated between hero worship of our first president and denunciation of our country’s original sin.
Not unlike his opening bit, Gillis moves back and forth on his feelings about our country through the narrative of Washington, his military exploits, his lore. “I was trying to be cool and liberal and hate him,” he says. “Couldn’t do it.”
Interestingly, he includes a joke that is identical to one John Oliver recently told mocking the idea that we are more divided than ever by bringing up the Civil War. Of course, in the 19th century, we couldn’t express our dislike for one another as easily. But what hasn’t changed is that people remain curious about those different from them, even those they dislike or hate. It may be human nature or strategy. (Know thine enemy.)
Partly people watch Shane Gillis for the same reason some liberals binge Fox News — to see how the other half thinks.