Dave Chappelle’s Weak Response to Critics

It's not funny when you have to constantly explain the jokes.

Earlier this month, I discussed Dave Chappelle’s last Netflix special, “The Closer,” and the criticism it faced over allegedly transphobic humor. While I can see where his critics are coming from, I see the work as both further evidence of his brilliance as a comedic craftsman and yet something more. Like most of the greats in the stand-up game, he blends serious commentary in a way that makes it difficult, indeed, to separate the jokes from the man.

But, I noted, in response to a critic’s charge that Chappelle is awfully defensive about a man who claims not to care what people think,

Because, like most of us, there is sometimes a dichotomy between what we think and what we feel. Chappelle is a superstar with more money than he can ever spend and doesn’t need to give a shit about what some rando on Twitter—or even critics at NPR, the Daily Beast, or Vulture—think of him. And, yet, of course, he does. He thinks he’s a good dude and wants people to like him. Especially when he thinks the animosity results from people reading a couple of setup lines in a long bit as a representation of the whole act and, therefore, of him.

This comes out again in his latest bit, which he posted to his Instagram account:

NPR’s Jonathan Franklin provides a partial transcription:

It’s been said in the press that I was invited to speak to the transgender employees of Netflix and I refused. That is not true — if they had invited me I would have accepted it, although I am confused about what we would be speaking about. I said what I said, and boy, I heard what you said. My God, how could I not? You said you want a safe working environment at Netflix. It seems like I’m the only one who can’t go to the office.”

“I want everyone in this audience to know that even though the media frames it that it’s me versus that community, that’s not what it is. Do not blame the LGBTQ community for any of this. It’s about corporate interests, and what I can say, and what I cannot say. For the record, and I need you to know this, everyone I know from that community has been loving and supportive, so I don’t know what this nonsense is about.”

“This film that I made was invited to every film festival in the United States. Some of those invitations I accepted. When this controversy came out about ‘The Closer’, they began disinviting me from these film festivals. And now, today, not a film company, not a movie studio, not a film festival, nobody will touch this film. Thank God for Ted Sarandos and Netflix, he’s the only one that didn’t cancel me yet.”

“To the transgender community, I am more than willing to give you an audience, but you will not summon me. I am not bending to anyone’s demands. And if you want to meet with me, I am more than willing to, but I have some conditions. First of all, you cannot come if you have not watched my special from beginning to end. You must come to a place of my choosing at a time of my choosing, and thirdly, you must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny.”

While this has the desired effect of putting the attention back on his message rather than that of his critics, I don’t see how it helps his cause any.

First, while I not only think he has every right to express his views on these issues but differ only at the margins from them, it’s simply silly to say that this is somehow about “corporate interests” and not “the LGBTQ community.” While it may well be that everyone Dave knows from said community has been supportive, there are clearly a number of people who find his comments hurtful.

I think he’s genuine in not wanting to be hurtful and believe him when he says that he sees transgender individuals as full human beings deserving of love and respect. Yet there’s simply no way to argue that transwomen aren’t truly women—and make cutting jokes in support of that position—without insulting them.

His views on this are almost certainly mainstream. A decade or so ago, they were almost universal. But, coming from a very powerful cisgender man with a huge platform, these jokes are absolutely “punching down.” The fact that he’s Black doesn’t change that. He is laughing at them, not with them. That’s true even if the late Daphne Dorman and other transwomen Dave knows personally found them hysterically funny.

Second, the notion that Chappelle, who has been paid tens of millions by Netflix to produce these comedy specials, has been “canceled” is just silly. He’s making jokes that are simultaneously in alignment with what most people think and that are taboo in the part of polite society where he happens to make a living. So, the creatives at Netflix—who are almost certainly disproportionately more LGBTQ and younger (and thus more LGBTQ-friendly) than the society at large—are naturally up in arms. But the “corporate interests”—in the person of heaven-sent CEO Ted Sarandos—are aligned with the side of profit—and thus Chappelle—rather than said creatives.

Still, I don’t think it would be tenable for Netflix, HBO, or any other big corporation to distribute and promote future Chappelle specials that continue down this path. Not only will the backlash not be worth it but we’re fast approaching the point where continued jokes about the anatomy of transgender people simply won’t be funny to the most coveted demographics the networks are trying to court.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Humor, Standup Comedy,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SKI says:

    I think he’s genuine in not wanting to be hurtful and believe him when he says that he sees transgender individuals as full human beings deserving of love and respect.

    Why? He punches down. Why do you think he doesn’t know or understand what he is doing?

    we’re fast approaching the point where continued jokes about the anatomy of transgender people simply won’t be funny to the most coveted demographics the networks are trying to court.

    We’ve reached that point.

    8
  2. Kylopod says:

    He thinks he’s a good dude and wants people to like him.

    I think that’s true of most comedians (insecurity is practically part of the job description), especially when the adulation they receive goes to their heads. But it also blends with a toxic celebrity culture of gaining recognition through notoriety and outrage, as well as the mythology surrounding the field: the memories of Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor, the notion of comedians as modern-day jesters speaking truth to power, which has some validity but also gets people to avoid looking at the negative side. It’s not just the punching up/down distinction. Comedy has always had elements that don’t age well; this was true long before so-called “cancel culture,” and when you overlook this, you end up making excuses for simply being reactionary under the mantle of pushing boundaries.

    6
  3. KM says:

    I think he’s genuine in not wanting to be hurtful and believe him when he says that he sees transgender individuals as full human beings deserving of love and respect.

    Change “transgender” with “female”, “Black” or “disabled”. Notice how hollow an excuse that sounds?

    Perhaps he’s not trying to be an asshole but that’s what’s happening. I’m absolutely sure there are women, minorities and disabled individuals who use self-referring slurs and think hurtful jokes about them are super funny. Doesn’t change the fact the jokes are still sexist, racist and ableist.

    He knows that and is getting the appropriate blowback. You wanna be edgy and “go there”? You do a routine you know if gonna be offense and piss people off? This is what happens. When you piss people off, you don’t get invited to parties. When offend folks, you don’t get to headline things or walk the red carpet. Failing to read the room on purpose then whining no one wants to sit with you is very telling – who did you think your audience was and why did you think the people who mattered were gonna be cool with this?

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  4. wr says:

    If you say “nobody summons me” when you get a congressional subpoena, at least you can make the claim that this is an act of bravery. If you say it to a bunch of Netflix employees who make a fraction of what you do, you’re just a self-righteous pig.

    I’ve avoided this “controversy” until now because I thought both sides were playacting — Chappelle pretending he doesn’t punch down to stir up just the kind of attention he’s getting and the protestors for choosing to get stirred up over some comedian daring to say words that offended them.

    But with this move, Chappelle proves himself to be the loser. He has my permission to go to hell a little faster than his opponents.

    3
  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ve been more and more invested in British stand-up. It’s more brutal than American comedy but with one big difference: they always punch up. (I also appreciate the absence of narcissistic soul-baring.) Somehow people like Jimmy Carr, Rhod Gilbert, David Mitchell, Aisling Bea (Irish, not British), Dara O’Brien (also Irish), Greg Davies, Sara Pascoe, Bill Bailey and more manage to be witty, funny, amusing without punching down. James Acaster is a brilliant original and one of his best bits is a savage take-down of Ricky Gervais for punching down at the trans community.

    Punching down is never brave. It’s not comedy, it’s bullying.

    11
  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    I admire Chappelle’s intellect and skills, and as the years wore on I kept expecting him to find a way out of the cul-de-sac he was obviously driving into. Sadly, no. Oh well. Bye, Dave.

    2
  7. KM says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Risqué jokes are just that – risky in a social and reputational sense. They fall flat and you risk upsetting people in a way other kinds of humor doesn’t. If your style relies on being borderline offensive, you need to know where the border is and if it’s shifted over the years. If you keep on driving full speed, eventually you’ll end up on the wrong side with a hell of a time getting back.

    1
  8. Neil J Hudelson says:

    Seconding recommending James Acaster. A couple years back I was staying with a friend as she went through initial rounds of colorectal cancer, and we put on one of his netflix special. Really original comedy, fresh, and IIRC, completely PG. I don’t have any issues with blue comedy, but I really respect comics that can have me rolling on the floor while never using vocabulary or material that’s bawdry.

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  9. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    Ok, just started watching his Gervais bit, and he’s definitely not PG.

  10. Audrea Athena says:

    «Yet there’s simply no way to argue that transwomen aren’t truly women—and make cutting jokes in support of that position—without insulting them.»

    He’s not arguing. He’s regurgitating the most shallow allegations made by those who do argue such. That’s what’s so insulting about the cutting jokes. They show no nuance, no understanding of the deeper issues. He’s not offering anything original or even an ironic insight to the debate.

    It is possible for people to argue for radical or exclusionary notions or policies without being insulting. It is even possible to do so and be really mistaken without being insulting. But to simply reassert popular slogans is facile, even without the cutting jokes.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:
    Yes, he announced he’s going blue. I doubt it will stick.

    If you like food he does a podcast with Ed Gamble in which they invite guests – usually comics – to walk through their ultimate, fantasy meal. Gamble is funny but rooted in reality. Acaster is. . . well, you’ve seen Acaster. This is a classic TV appearance.

  12. Gustopher says:

    I think he’s genuine in not wanting to be hurtful and believe him when he says that he sees transgender individuals as full human beings deserving of love and respect. Yet there’s simply no way to argue that transwomen aren’t truly women—and make cutting jokes in support of that position—without insulting them.

    No one put a gun to his head and forced him to do a special mostly about transgender folks. No one forced him to use this material in a high profile Netflix special.

    Sometimes the right answer is to just shut up.

    Making jokes about a minority group you’re not a part of is going to be like walking through a field of land mines. There are things you’re going to be oblivious to. Chapelle is a big boy, he should know that.

    But sometimes, even when we should shut up, we just have to keep speaking — that’s a pretty universal experience.

    If he’s trying to make a joke about the privilege white trans folks have over black folks (a big chunk seemed to be in that direction), that can be done without punching down, but maybe try it out somewhere small with some friendly yet prickly trans folks who can say “Dave, man, I love you, but, uh, not that one…” and then listen.

    Not censorship, craftsmanship. Refining the material so he knows where it is hitting.

    Honestly, it seems like the same problems as the Baldwin thread, just with jokes rather than a loaded gun. Handle shit that can hurt people with a bit more care.

    4
  13. EddieInCA says:

    @wr: @Michael Reynolds:

    You two, combined, hit my view exactly. I was agnostic on it until this latest take by Chappelle. Now he can just F right off.

    2
  14. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Excellent. I’ll check out the podcast.

  15. Kylopod says:

    @EddieInCA:

    I was agnostic on it until this latest take by Chappelle.

    It seems almost inevitable in situations like this that the person digs in.

    1
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Hmmm… I thought Dave Chapelle’s 15 minutes for “The Closer” were over. Oh well. 😐

    1
  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Agreed. I think that Kevin Bridges and Peter Kay are two of the funniest people I’ve ever seen.

  18. Beth says:

    I wish this whole thing would go away.

    3
  19. de stijl says:

    I wrote Chapelle off a few weeks back. Sucks, cuz he used to be a hero to me.

    I just don’t want to deal with that attitude. Like not all trans folks are white? Chappelle coded LGTBQ+ as white.

    Look around.

    Fuck him. That was a stupendously bad take and a bad read of the room.

  20. Chris says:

    People who say he’s punching down, don’t get it. As a black man he’s punching up… and that’s the satire! Was anybody paying attention when he said that he admired what the LGBTQ community had been able to do in in their movement. Instead, they took offense at a black man looking up at their success, in contrast to the long plight of the black community, and having a bit of fun at their expense. Their reaction was to rally the LGBTQ troops to publicly shame and strangle the jester for his observations, which simply served to prove his point.

    1
  21. Kylopod says:

    @Chris:

    People who say he’s punching down, don’t get it. As a black man he’s punching up… and that’s the satire!

    Sorry, that’s bull. Dave Chappelle is wealthy and famous. He’ll never go hungry. While I’m sure he’s experienced plenty of racism in his life, he’s never had the experience of having his entire identity questioned, of being called a fraud and a predator purely by virtue of his identity as a black man. It may be true that LGBT rights appear to be progressing faster than black civil rights have historically–but that doesn’t mean that Chappelle, as an individual, is punching up by insulting that community.

    If you want to look at a fairly thoughtful handling on the subject, see Wanda Sykes’ routine about being a black, gay woman in America, where she makes it very clear that these are apples-to-oranges comparisons and that you quickly run into absurd territory trying to equate the experiences of these different (but overlapping) communities.

    From what I’ve seen over the years, anyone who starts a conversation about marginalized groups by getting into a “Who suffered more?” debate is heading in the wrong direction. It should be possible to work to help raise everyone up without turning one group against another.

  22. Chris says:

    @Kylopod: Everyone is part of some perceived marginalized group. It is just not funny when you are on the bottom, devoid of hope, and everyone is laughing at your expense. When not at rock bottom, we can always argue over what is funny, but Chappell’s bit essentially invites the LGBTQ community to the club of comedy fair game instead of victimhood. A better response would have been brilliant comedic retorts to Chappell’s observations, but so far that has not been the case… again, proving Chappell’s point.

    1
  23. Kylopod says:

    @Chris:

    Everyone is part of some perceived marginalized group.

    But it isn’t subjective. I realize there are a ton of white, male, cis, straight, Christian men in the US who perceive themselves to be oppressed, but they’re simply wrong. And even if you are legitimately a member of one such group, it doesn’t mean you understand the experiences of another such group. It’s like those anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who claim they’re like the Jews in Nazi Germany–the most charitable reading is that they’re speaking from ignorance; they don’t understand what real oppression looks like but they do understand that being labeled as oppressed gives a person a certain level of cultural power and respectability in our society. It’s like the Mark Twain quote, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.” Nobody wants to actually go through what any truly marginalized group does, but a lot of people envy the claim to be a member of said group–like admiring someone with just one hand without ever really wanting to go through life one-handed.

    A better response would have been brilliant comedic retorts to Chappell’s observations, but so far that has not been the case… again, proving Chappell’s point.

    So you have to be a brilliant comedian in order to criticize a brilliant comedian? Sorry, that’s absurd. Chappelle’s talents do not place him above criticism from anyone who does not share those talents.

  24. Chris says:
  25. Kylopod says:

    @Chris: I’m not sure what point it is you’re making in posting this article. It doesn’t address anything I said.

  26. Chris says:

    @Kylopod: Clearly we seem to be communicating past each other. Forgive me for not responding to your responses of my posts in a manner that provides for a greater understanding. Peace!

    1
  27. Kylopod says:

    @Chris: Fair enough. And let’s be clear: I think the article you posted is perfectly relevant to this thread. I just thought it didn’t relate to what we were discussing, yet you posted it as a reply to a comment I made. I wasn’t talking about the issue of cancellation, I was simply trying to examine the merits of Chappelle’s arguments, particularly with regard to the question of whether he was punching up or down.

  28. Chris says:

    @Kylopod: I was seeking to move on from this thread. However, your last comment glosses over the article in question by limiting it to a “cancel” commentary. While, it does speak on that point, it does so much more, as it also provides more context regarding Chappell’s comedy routine, including tone and tenor. For example, did you completely miss how Chappell’s observations about DaBaby’s actions (and the subsequent cultural and societal reactions to said events) can’t be reconciled with the idea of punching down. Again, peace!

    2