Yang’s tweet lent the highest voice yet on the debate and anger raging on social media this weekend, focusing attention on Yang’s identity as a man of East Asian descent running for the highest office in American politics.
The tweet prompted a response from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, the first Asian American in the role for a major presidential candidate.
“Thank you for your leadership, sir!” tweeted Lau. “This is absolutely f’ed, but I agree that this can and should be a teaching moment. We can and should be better than this.”
The SNL controversy started just hours after NBC announced Thursday the hiring of Gillis as one of three new cast members. One of those three new members was Bowen Yang, the first full-time cast member of East Asian descent.
The celebratory mood on social media among Asian Americans over Bowen Yang’s hiring quickly soured when freelance writer Seth Simons tweeted a two-minute video clip of Gillis’ podcast, ‘Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,’ recorded last year.
With fellow comedian Matt McCusker, Gillis says on the video, “Let the f—ing ch–ks live there,” of Chinatown. Gillis also mocks a Chinese accent, the language barrier and says, “Chinatown’s f—ing nuts.”
The video recording of the podcast episode has been deleted from YouTube.
Variety reports the comedians also, in that deleted episode, mock Muslims in the episode. In another deleted episode, Variety reports the comedians joke about “hot Southern boys” being raped during the Civil War, comparing it to “having gay sex in jail.”
Gillis responded on Twitter to the criticism, posting a statement. “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss,” reads the statement. “If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you’re going to find a lot of bad misses. I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually been offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”
In a May 2016 interview with Philadelphia’s Billy Penn, Gillis talked about the boundaries he pushes with his brand of comedy.
“You throw stuff out there and you get to see them react to things, like yea or nay, what’s funny and what’s not,” Gillis is quoted as saying. “You can be racist to Asians. That’s what we’re finding out,” Gillis told Billy Penn.
Political commentator Kurt Bardella, an Asian American, tweeted his disgust at the SNL member’s video clip, saying the word “ch-nk” is, “to people who look like me, using that slur is the equivalent of calling a person of color the n*word.”
“I think racism against Asian Americans is one of the more under-reported or under-estimated components of racism in America,” In Bardella told CNN, To those of us in the Asian American community who have been the targets of racism, there is nothing funny about it.”
About an hour after offering to meet with Gillis, Yang followed up with a second tweet saying he didn’t think Gillis should lose his just-announced job. “We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive,” Yang tweeted.
Bardella adds in response that “as someone not burdened with all that comes from running for President, my tolerance for such blatant racism is not on par with Yang’s. I think he should lose his job as it is clear from his statement that he simply does not fully understand how egregious his brand of ‘comedy’ is to the Asian American community. If this were a white comedian caught on tape using the n*word, we wouldn’t even be entertaining the conversation of whether or not he should keep his job.”
Yang himself is a complicated figure to highlight the racist comments. At Thursday’s Democratic debate, Yang cracked an off-color joke as he discussed healthcare and the mounting paperwork doctors face.
“I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” quipped Yang.
The joke landed like a thud with some on social media, with Asian American commentators accusing Yang of leaning on the “model minority” Asian stereotype.
It’s an accusation that’s not new to Yang, who has leaned into the model minority Asian stereotype. At a campaign stop in Seattle, he called his campaign “the nerdiest presidential campaign in history.” Merchandise on Yang’s website include a hat with “Math” on it and notebooks with a picture of Yang as an awkward teenager.
But those both in and outside of politics noted Yang’s wading into the pop culture fray with Gillis. Phil Yu, the blogger behind “Angry Asian Man,” told CNN that Yang, like most Asian Americans, has certainly been the target of the racial epitaph Gillis used.
That Yang waded in, believes Yu, speaks to the importance of representation for the fastest growing racial group in America.
“People are listening to what he has to say,” says Yu. “He’s using his platform for what it is. It’s not insignificant and I’d add this– it’s not just Asian Americans who are paying attention. It amplifies the issue more.”
For Yu, the ultimate judgment of whether Yang’s tweets mean anything outside of the Asian American community will be, what happens to Gillis on SNL.
“Are we headed into an era, that just like our President, where anyone can say anything racist about anyone? Are we really in a place where racism is just a difference of opinion? If there’s no response at all from NBC, I think’s that pretty weak,” says Yu.