Dana Carvey Reprises His Offensive ‘SNL’ Asian Character for Shane Gillis

Carvey definitely thinks Gillis deserves another chance, putting up a pseudo-defense for a certain brand of racist comedy. “I would do impressions of racist people but I was not the racist,” recalls Carvey. “It’s like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles. … He says the n-word probably 800 times so he may be technically the most racist human being in history if context doesn’t matter.” (Note to Carvey: Playing a racist buffoon character in a Mel Brooks movie and spouting racial slurs as yourself on a podcast might be the very definition of apples and oranges.)

If context was considered, Carvey argues, Gillis should have gotten more of a break: “I just thought you were doing a white racist guy. That was my impression of your impression.”

But if Carvey was trying to let Gillis off the hook, Gillis wastes no time putting himself right back on it. “I was doing an impression of myself,” he laughs.

Carvey and Spade, though, remained intent on cutting their guest some slack. Carvey, for one, hopes new vetting protocols are in place at SNL. “If you have a problem with someone, don’t let them audition,” he says, as if the problem wasn’t Gillis’ racism and homophobia but the humiliation he suffered after he was called out in public. 

Spade has his own theory as to why Gillis lost his job. “I wonder if it comes down to these corporations,” he reasons. “I know Lorne has a good sense of humor.” That implies producer Michaels surely found the racist material funny but just couldn’t convince those stuffed suits over at NBC that it was all in good fun. 

Carvey knows how getting called out feels. “I did an Asian character in the 1980s,” he says, “and I was called out for it being inappropriate.” He’s referring to Ching Chang, a recurring sketch that Carvey references often on Fly on the Wall as an example of the kind of comedy he’s not allowed to do anymore.

Carvey sets up the character: “I used to see this guy in his yard, a Chinese gentleman with a leash on a chicken, so then I had a flight of fancy. A character from China who opens a pet chicken store, maybe in Manhattan, but he loves the chicken so much that he talks people out of buying them so it wasn’t any sort of stereotypical thing.”

Agreed that a man being in love with his pet chickens isn’t stereotypically Chinese, but we can’t say the same thing for Ching Chang’s bowl haircut, shirt buttoned up to his neck and horn-rimmed glasses. Even worst was the heavy accent, which as Carvey promises, he performs for Gillis. “Oh, you don’t want that chicken! That chicken like dog but he not dog! You throw frisbee, he don’t even catch it! He poke hole in it one minute, you got frisbee next minute, you got spaghetti strainer because chicken make lousy house pet,” says Carvey in English so broken that Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Asian character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s would blush. 

The sketch ran three times, Carvey says, then guest host Candace Bergen appeared in a Ching Chang scene where she told the character he was a racial stereotype. “And that was the last one we did,” he says. “We acknowledged it.”

When Bill Burr was a guest on the podcast, he asked Carvey about his intent with Ching Chang. Was it to hurt? “To me, it was naivete,” Carvey said at the time. “I wouldn’t even understand that being offensive in 1986-87 and neither did anyone in the show. Nobody flagged it or talked about it.” And that might be why Carvey seems dumbfounded by the black mark that SNL made on Gillis’ career. “If people see your special,” Carvey tells Gillis, “it has its own edge to it, but you’re a very likable gentleman.”

Apparently, others agree since Fly on the Wall isn’t the first SNL-adjacent property to feature Gillis this year. He also had a sizable guest role on Pete Davidson’s Bupkis, which is produced by Michaels. Looks like Gillis isn’t canceled after all, at least when it comes to the SNL family of projects.

But what about Carvey? Will he get in trouble now that he’s performed Ching Chang on podcasts, if only for illustrative purposes? Carvey argues he’s too irrelevant and too old to nullify now. “You can’t cancel me!” he claims. “Life is canceling me!”

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