“Can we watch the new Dave Chappelle special?” I sighed, heavy with Sunday blues, and turned to look at my husband, who had something like impish glee lifting a corner of his mouth. We’d been staring at the TV, fifteen minutes deep into ‘What Shall We Watch’. It’s a dance I’m sure you’re familiar with, the sit-down dance of angry button pushing and endless scrolling that cohabitation requires we put ourselves through each night.

“Um...” I paused.

Staring up at the TV, I considered Dave Chappelle… I didn’t know a lot about him, but I knew his name, knew all too well the categorically bad buzzwords associated with him. I thought, isn’t he that intolerant, sexist comedian? A raging transphobe? And didn’t I see recently that he referred to himself as team TERF? (Meaning, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, the controversial faction of feminism that J.K Rowling infamously aligned herself with last year).

It was safe to say I. Was. Dubious.

Tweets, story shares, and articles whose titles I’d only glanced at flashed through my mind. It’s rare that I find stand-up comedy - or American comedy in general if I’m being honest - laugh-out-loud funny, so the only times Dave Chappelle had strayed into my social sphere had been in reference to his controversies, and that one time he played Bradley Cooper’s best bud in 2018’s, A Star Is Born. But evidently, during my internet trawling, my subconscious had been absorbing damning headlines like, “Dave Chappelle recycles tired tropes to hit trans athletes,” and “Dave Chappelle questions Michael Jackson’s accusers in new comedy special.”

Unconsciously, I’d already decided that I didn’t like Dave Chappelle. Not Dave Chappelle as the satirical comedian, the actor, the father, but as an embodiment of intolerance and hatred. We don’t like Dave Chappelle. And by we, I mean my corner of the internet - bookish, body-positive, vegan, liberal and inclusive. The general consensus across my socials is that he’s unkind. More than unkind; he’s told ‘jokes’ about every kind of ism there is. And despite the fact that I hadn’t heard Chappelle’s thoughts on transgendered athletes in context, that I hadn’t heard any of the comedic tension and set-up of his material on Michael Jackson’s accusers, I took the opinions of others as fact. The internet says Dave Chappelle is transphobic, so he is transphobic.

As a side note, I don’t intend to go back and watch Chappelle’s complete body of work either, I don’t care to. After watching The Closer, my personal opinion of him (keyword here being personal, now that I’ve consumed his content for myself and formed an opinion), is that he relies on shock tactics for laughs, doesn’t like being told when he’s wrong, miscommunicates the satirical nature of his comedy, has a bit of a victim complex. To me, his jokes just aren’t funny. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t for everyone, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t jokes. Offensive, provocative, ill-informed and close-to-the-bone jokes. But jokes all the same. Still, this also isn’t to say that all the backlash Chappelle and Netflix are receiving right now isn’t deserved. More on that later.

Back to Sunday night. I gave a half-hearted eyeroll, bored of staring at the, frankly quite insulting, ‘Top Picks for Amara’ section that Netflix was offering me. Spider-man 3 and something starring Jennifer Anniston called, Office Christmas Party - Netflix, do you know me at all?

Morbidly curious about Chappelle’s transphobic remarks, I relented, almost excited for the post-watch Insta paragraph I was already planning. Because once I’d heard Chappelle’s hideous opinions for myself, I could join in on the hate train and help get this guy cancelled, right? Deplatform him. Silence hate. #DaveChappelleIsOverParty.

“Fine, put it on,” I said. “But why do you want me to watch it?”

“Because I want to see your reaction.” And there it was again, that challenging, little smirk on my husband’s face.

I knew exactly what he was anticipating. Before we’d even pressed play I could feel it rising; that scorch of anger and injustice churning in me like acid reflux, a feeling usually only ignited in me by those intolerant people on the internet who lurk in comment sections with their faceless avatars and anonymous usernames. And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of that statement - friendly and tolerant of all, unless you yourself are unfriendly and intolerant. As you read on, I hope you’ll be able to recognise my efforts in acknowledging that everyone, Chappelle included, will individually experience the world in whatever way resonates with their personal truth. And even when those truths sound like lies spoken to my own core beliefs - of kindness, compassion, and love - I’m adapting my response not just to be explosively reactionary, but questioning and patient. Because in expressing my complete rejection of those who are intolerant of the LGBTQ+ community, I myself am being intolerant of them, their beliefs, and their own human experience. It’s a cycle of ignorance. Yep, there it is, I’m getting my hippyish, wellness blogger two cents in early. We are all learning. We are not all at the same level of acceptance and universal love for our fellow humans, but we can be. Because here’s the thing, I’m not sure if Chappelle is totally intolerant of queer people. He’s certainly no ally, but he is not the enemy.

So, here goes. We pressed play.

Three and half minutes in and my jaw had already dropped. Chappelle had just used “Nigger-ish” as an adjective to describe his decision to opt for the Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine, the “third best” as he deemed it. “I’ll have what the homeless people are having,” he said, as I shook my head. Nigger-ish!? Hard R!?  At this point, I could feel my husband’s eyes on me, watching, waiting for me to pause the show and start ranting, as I’m wont to do. For context, it probably took us about a month to get through Tiger King. I’m sensitive, ok. I once nearly walked out of The Book of Mormon for being racist… even as a long-time South Park fan; I’m gullible, and have a hard time differentiating between satire and genuine bigotry. You could say my sensitivity is as soft and delicate as a single melting drop of snow on a withering rose petal, but I’m working on it. And I only mention my quick-to-trigger sensitivities because, watching Chappelle’s extremely triggering set, I was truly shocked that this time… I wasn’t.

“Well, it’s not funny, but he’s obviously just making edgy -” cue exaggerated air quotes, “- jokes,” I said.

Within the first ten minutes, Chappelle had buoyantly delivered close-cutting comedy that could offend black people, Covid sufferers, victims of anti-Asian hate crimes, the homeless, victims of molestation, and Jewish people. The jokes that got an audible gasp out of me in Chappelle’s opening warm-up included an anecdotal tale of child sexual abuse, where Chappelle states he “used to get a kick” out of ejaculating in the preacher’s face who molested him, and Chappelle’s description of his idea for a sci-fi movie named “Space Jews”. Like I said, audible gasp. It shocked me - assaulted my moral compass - but rationally, I knew that Chappelle’s intention for the joke was to mock the oppressors in those situations and to make light of the injustices that befall Chappelle as a black American.

In response to the slap-in-the-laugh track that was “Space Jews,” Chappelle addressed the quieted, uncertain laughter with a warning to his audience that, “it’s gonna get way worse than that,” referring to the last ten minutes of reeling off offensive one-liners targeting various marginalised groups. I saw this warning as preparation, a chance for me to turn off the TV, because if you don’t like him at “Space Jews,” your piss is probably going to be boiling later at his comparison of transfeminine bottom surgery to “Beyond meat vaginas.” Still, I stayed, because I hadn’t been offended yet, and I was supposed to be offended.

Already anticipating the backlash that was to follow the special’s release, Chappelle stated that he knew The Closer would be his last special “because I have an objective tonight,” going on to explain that he hopes to clarify his stance on issues such as feminism and trans rights that have been called into question after his previous Netflix specials. Though 2018’s, Equanimity, won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special, and 2019’s, Sticks & Stones, helped Chappelle secure the annually awarded Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, their reception was still shrouded in controversy. But just before I get to my thoughts on Chappelle’s insensitivity towards the trans community - the part I’m scared people will be waiting for with bared teeth dripping with bigot-blood (the way I was when I went into watching The Closer) - I’d like to include the comments of Deborah Rutter, President of the Kennedy Center, who presented the Mark Twain Prize to Chappelle. Rutter asserted, “Dave is the embodiment of Mark Twain's observation that 'against the assault of humour, nothing can stand'...” cementing my own belief that Chappelle’s content, though I’d describe it with all the P’s - problematic, provocative and poorly judged - is meant to be taken as satire.

But how, I hear you ask, the hell can you not think Dave Chappelle is intentionally, inherently transphobic when so many of his punchlines are a direct punch down on the trans community? Here’s how. Chappelle is a boomer, but he’s also scathingly self-aware, and a cunningly clever provocateur. I’m genuinely unsure if he’s stubbornly ignorant on the simple difference between gender and sex, or if he’s intentionally inciting the dogmatism often displayed by fanatically woke social justice warriors, and purposely pissing gasoline onto the flames of his own cancellation to prove a point. Because, how do you think all this controversy, all the news headlines, hashtags, and tweets, has affected the number of times The Closer has been streamed? At the time of writing this there have been 650 new tweets written about Chappelle in the last hour. It’s even possible that Chappelle is subverting the nature of cancel culture to promote The Closer’s layered narrative surrounding free speech.

What I do feel sure of however, is that underneath the clickbait, shock tactics of Chappelle’s material on the LGBTQ+ community, lies just cause for the comedian’s misdirected sense of injustice. Here, I’ve attempted to unpick what I found to be, on the surface, the most disrespectful stabs at queer people, but would like to note my privileged stance as a cisgendered, supported member and ally of the community.

So, what is Dave Chappelle actually mad at?

America’s disregard of black lives.

When referencing the recent cancellation of 29-year-old rapper, Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, known by his stage name, DaBaby, Chapelle expresses outrage that the social repercussions for the rapper were much more severe following his homophobic comments at 2021’s Rolling Loud Festival than when Kirk shot and killed a black man merely three years ago. 19-year-old, Jalyn Domonique Craig, died of a gunshot wound to the stomach in 2018 after an altercation in Walmart in which Kirk claims to have fatally wounded the man in self-defense. Chappelle highlights the “disparity” in the public’s reactions to literal murder and homophobic rhetoric. Chappelle’s true aggravation is at the fact that Kirk’s career went unaffected by his murder of a young black man, with the rapper going on to sign with Jay Z’s label, Roc Nation, in late 2018, with Chappelle stating, “in our country you can shoot and kill a nigger but you better not hurt a gay person's feelings.”

Militant wokeness.

Chappelle is angry at the internet, at call-outs, cancel culture, and viral smear campaigns. Yet, instead of making an example of the domineering sense of social justice and internet pile-ons that can be extended to a person on the internet simply for promoting the wrong kind of haircare vitamins, Chappelle instead commented on the internet’s cultural minefield in the context of queer people, or “newer gays” as he distastefully labelled them. Repeatedly, Chappelle referenced that saying the wrong thing would get him “in trouble,” suggesting to me that perhaps the jokes directed at the LGBTQ+ community are coming from a place of hurt and embarrassment, of being misunderstood and unforgiven for past mistakes. Chappelle has misplaced the butt of the joke on the LGBTQ+ community, when really, I believe him to feel isolated by the unappeasable army of the easily-offended.

Our obsession with celebrity culture.

Throughout the show, Chappelle recounts a number of invasive interactions he’s had with members of the public, like being filmed interacting with a maskless waitress when out for dinner with his wife. Chappelle commented that the intent of the person behind the camera was to catch him saying something politically incorrect and publicly shame him for it online. He also presents a situation where he was being followed from store to store by a woman who wanted to confront him for remarks that she deemed sexist, to which Chappelle asks where she heard this material, imploring “did I follow you to your car and do my act?”. This scenario not only hammers home the dangers of internet hearsay, but highlights the invasiveness that having a high profile invites into a person’s life, exacerbated by social media which bridges the gap between performers and artists, and their audiences.

White privilege.

The above altercation escalated to the point where the person filming, who happened to be a gay man, called the police on Chappelle. Chappelle goes on to make the painfully profound point that “gay people are minorities until they need to be white again,” which is painful in its ignorance, because of course being a minority and being gay are not mutually exclusive, and profound because Chappelle is expressing the hierarchy of race still abundant in America. His issues here are with police brutality and racial profiling, yet Chappelle belittles this point by going on to make toxically masculine remarks about the gay man’s clothing choices, which are totally irrelevant. Throughout the show, Chappelle dismisses criticisms that his jokes “punch down” on the LGBTQ+ community, which I would have to agree with. If anything, this is an example of punching sideways. The shifting of Chappelle’s outrage from the threat of danger felt by black Americans in police presence to the fact that a white gay man used his white privilege completely ignores the existence of black queer men, as does his later impression of a transwoman brashly stating, “I’m a girl now, nigger, you must treat me as such.” Chappelle’s clumsy observation here only serves to divide us further, putting blackness and queerness at impossible odds with each other, not to mention the complete exclusion of black trans identity.

Cancel culture.

About halfway through the show, Chappelle recounts a story from 2005 when, young, uneducated, and ignorant, he was performing transphobic material which included the use of slurs such as “tranny”. He acknowledges that his “pronoun game was not as nice as it is today” and admits that he’d never even heard of the term transphobia at the time. I’d argue that, like Chappelle, the majority of cis and straight people were indifferent to the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community in the early 2000s. But as I expressed earlier, it is only when we empathise and learn that we can grow as a society. It seems that Chappelle is hurt that despite the growth he feels he has achieved today regarding tolerance and understanding, it is still the article that was written about him following that show in 2005 that is quoted today.

It was at this point that I almost started to feel sorry for Chappelle. I was slowly realising that I had dissociated the dense, palpably offensive narrative surrounding him from the living, breathing 48-year-old man that he is. Chappelle expresses his frustrations with this himself, stating that a lot of his critics have “never seen me for themselves, they just repeat what they’ve heard,” and at this point, sitting on the sofa, I swallowed shamefully. I recalled a line from earlier in the set and let its message sit heavy with me for a moment, “it’s art, and you’re free to interpret this art however you’d like.”

And then my conscience flip-flopped again because the problem is, this message applies to everybody including people who hold extremist, anti-trans views, and who may misinterpret the satirical nature of Chappelle’s comedy and use it to fuel their violent tendencies towards trans people. It also includes the black trans youth, one in three of which attempted to take their own life in 2019, who may interpret Chappelle’s satirical commentary as a personal attack on their identity. So, while I strongly resonate with Mark Twain’s reflection quoted earlier, that nothing should be off-limits in comedy, I do think our consideration for the wellbeing of others needs to be prioritised over the shouts of Chappelle’s supporters that “it’s just a joke!”

And while I personally still believe that Chappelle’s entire performance was nothing more than edgy comedy, satirical slants, and a little bit of unintentional ignorance, there’s no denying that some of his jokes should be left in the dark, uninformed ages of the early noughties. We can do better than rape jokes, better than reinforcing harmful stereotypes and targeting another person for their appearance.  In 2021, the year that has seen the highest record of fatal hate crimes against the trans community, there can be no space made for purely spiteful commentary on trans anatomy, that will only incite hate and self-doubt. This is why I am in support of the employee walk-out and peaceful protests that happened on the 21st of October outside Netflix’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Do I think Chappelle’s piece should be banned from Netflix? No. But I do support the need for more exposure to trans creators, stories, and performers across all mainstream media. I also think that a trigger warning should be issued at the beginning of The Closer, and maybe even all comedy that toes the line of intolerance. Because although I - Miss Boohoo Sensitive Pants - was not triggered, and did not find Chappelle’s comedy personally offensive, I am not trans, so whatever I feel doesn’t matter. And I mean that in earnest, because I will never know what it feels like to be a prisoner of my own body’s biology.

I’ll leave you with the concise words of Craig Jenkins, who gave The Closer an ambivalent review on Vulture and summed up the exact sentiments I went to bed pondering on Sunday night: "how much you enjoy The Closer will depend on whether you're able or willing to believe the comic and the human are separate entities and to buy that the human loves us all, and the comic is only performing spitefulness for his audience."

Amara Sage
Amara Sage

Contemporary YA Author who microblogs about Veganism, sustainable living, books, and mothering her two dogs and a small jungle of houseplants.

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