Worse than being Transphobic, Dave Chappelle isn’t Funny anymore
Considering the glut of standup comedy specials on Netflix and other streaming services, it’s a lucky few of them that get any attention. Dave Chappelle’s special, The Closer, has been getting more attention than most standups could ever hope for, though the attention is mostly negative, focusing on Chappelle’s transphobic comments and, perhaps more damning, that it’s not really funny.
The big problem with Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, as with all of his comedy since his return from self-imposed entertainment exile, is that he’s not that funny anymore. Much of his routine is not so much offensive, speaking as a non-trans person, as it is boring. Most of his jokes range from bad to mediocre. His best jokes are only “pretty good.” It’s not that I, or people in general, have grown more sensitive and easily offended. Well, some people have. But it’s more that Chappelle is falling behind. As a culture we were already moving away from casually throwing around words like “retard,” “faggot,” and “tranny” during the earlier part of Chappelle’s career. Personally, I’ve gotten more sensitive towards others when it comes to not using derogatory and cruel language about marginalized groups or allowing others to do so in my presence. While not personally offended, I can feel bad for people of marginalized groups when they are insulted or belittled. But, if a skilled comedian tells a truly hilarious joke, however horribly offensive, I’ll still laugh or give props. The problem is not just that Chappelle’s anti-trans jokes are generally ignorant and mean, it’s that most of them suck.
At one point in the show, Chappelle says that he’s been called the “GOAT,” in a rather smug way that suggests if he doesn’t necessarily think he is the GOAT, he does revel in it. Dave Chappelle is not the GOAT. At one time he might have been. If his career had ended with his self-cancelling of Chappelle’s Show, and all we had to judge him on was that and his standup career up to that point, then he could have been the GOAT. In order to be the GOAT, one has to maintain greatness throughout their career. This is incredibly hard to do, of course, and very rare. That’s sort of the point. It makes no sense to have dozens of “greatest of all times.” Dark as it is, a great way to earn being called the GOAT is to die at the peak of your career. If, for example, Biggie or Tupac, often cited as legendary greats and GOAT contenders of the rap world, had not been murdered, and had decades to bloat their catalogues with mediocre and bad music, we probably wouldn’t be treating them with such reverence, but as middle-aged men who used to be great. If Chappelle had died at the height of his career, GOAT status could have been given, but now he’s a middle-aged man and a mediocre comedian that used to be great.
Dave Chappelle was one of my favorite comedians. If only counting his comedy up until 2006, he still is. He was hilarious. He also always told “offensive” jokes. But he used to be much better at it. He could say something horrible in a way which made most people laugh along with him and scathed only the thinnest skins. But it’s not us or the culture that has changed as dramatically as it is him. He was a goofy, sweet guy whose more bigoted and/or insulting jokes could be ignored or taken ironically or laughed at because he was smiling and giggling himself as he told them, sometimes looking embarrassed, illustrating that there was no true malice in what he was saying. Now he’s mostly just a dick who carries himself with a smug superiority and responds to real and (often preemptively) perceived criticism with angry defensiveness, and is only occasionally funny.
There are a lot of problems with Chappelle’s way of thinking and the thoughts he chooses to express. He picks on the easiest threads when talking about trans people and the extended queer community: the idea that everyone is just more sensitive and weak these days, that they can’t take a joke; that many trans women don’t have the bone structure or other anatomical features to be considered attractive, or as attractive, as cis-gender women; misgendering people to rile them. The sorts of things that only hack comedians have ever used as their A material, and which the majority of people haven’t found funny or original in decades. His ignorance is probably most telling in his repeated disparaging comparisons between the Black community and the trans/LGBTQ community, as if there is no overlap or intersectionality between them, as if Black people of diverse sexualities and genders haven’t been critical in both Black and queer activism, as if Black trans women don’t have the unfortunate status of being the most-murdered demographic in America, percentage-wise. He also makes the mistake of defending and agreeing with JK Rowling, quoting her statement, “Gender is a fact.” It’s not. One can argue that biological sex is a fact, but not gender. Literally everyone whose head isn’t so far up their own ass that all they can see and hear is their own shit knows or has accepted in polite company that gender is a social construct. He’s smart enough to understand the distinction.
Chappelle was particularly upset about the criticism he’s received for “punching down” at trans people, the implication being that as a Black man in America he is presumably on the lowest societal tier and so can’t punch down at anyone. This assertion overlooks the fact that he is a famous multimillionaire, and that he undercuts his own point in one bit, where he presumes that a trans woman would have had more reason to be fearful of violence in a redneck bar full of drunken crackers than he did.
Rather than constructing distinctions between Black and trans people, he could, if not more genuinely express solidarity than mentioning his one dead trans friend, choose not to spend the majority of his time talking shit about another marginalized community, one which also faces discrimination and violence, and which has really only begun getting any positive public attention in like the last five to ten years. He defends himself by reminding us in the special that he spent most of his career talking shit about white people. Speaking as a white person, he should go back to that. We can take it. And historically as a race/ethnicity/class, we did a lot more to earn it. Leave trans people alone. And be more funny.
To be fair and not purely critical, there were a few good moments in the special. Much of it wasn’t so bad that it can fairly be called, “hate speech,” or at least recognized as such by a non-trans person. He has one bit about how if a trans woman came to use the stall beside him in a bathroom, he would be alarmed and wonder what she’s doing there, but that if a trans man did so he would be intrigued, specifically as to why they’re squatting over the urinal, then assuming that they must be a veteran with a war wound, and thanking them for their service and sacrifice. Not the most original joke, but smarter than most of them, and it made me laugh.
“Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, it’s not satire, it’s bullying.” Terry Pratchett