When Comedy is Not Funny
Great comics combine social commentary with humor. Increasingly, they've skipping the latter.
Over the last few evenings my wife and I watched the most recent specials starring Trevor Noah, Ricky Gervais, and Dave Chappelle. They had one thing in common: despite us liking the comedians, the performances were mostly unfunny.
NYT critic Jason Zinoman tackles Chappelle’s “The Dreamer,” which we watched on its New Year’s Eve debut by sheer happenstance, as we had no inclination that it was on the offing.
The wildest moment in the new Dave Chappelle special, “The Dreamer” (Netflix), arrives about two-thirds of the way through when the comic says he’s about to tell a long story. That’s not the unusual part.
Some 36 years into a storied comedy career, Chappelle, 50, is better known for controversial yarns than carefully considered punchlines. At this point in the special, he tells the crowd in his hometown, Washington, D.C., that he is going to get a cigarette backstage, asks them to act as if he were finished and says he would prefer a standing ovation. He then does something I have never seen in a Netflix special: He walks off for a smoke and costume change, leaving the stage empty. He strolls back as everyone waits, politely clapping. No one stands. He sits down and even mentions that he didn’t get the standing ovation, grumpily.
He could have cut that out but didn’t. Why? Was it to reveal that his crowd refused to be told what to do, how he doesn’t mind, as he said at another point, if most people didn’t laugh at some jokes? Was it to include a momentary reprieve from the self-aggrandizing tone of the hour, which begins with rock-star images of Chappelle walking to the stage in slow motion and ends with a montage of him with everyone from Bono and Mike Tyson to the Netflix C.E.O. Ted Sarandos? I have no idea, but what sticks with you in Chappelle’s sets these days is less the jokes than the other stuff, the discourse-courting jabs, the celebrity gossip, the oddball flourishes.
Later, Chappelle says, “Sometimes, I feel regular.” As an example, he describes being shy at a club where a rich Persian guy surrounded by women recognizes him and the comedian imagines him telling the story of seeing Dave Chappelle the next day. The idea that this is Chappelle’s idea of regular is funny.
While I’ve found most of Chappelle’s Netflix specials tremendous, showcasing his incredible talent as a comedic writer, they’ve gotten increasingly tedious and self-referential. But his bit highlighted that. It’s not just that I didn’t find it funny. It was pretty clear Chappelle doesn’t care whether he’s funny at this point in his career.
The last time he released a Netflix special on New Year’s Eve was in 2017, which now appears to be a turning point in his career. After vanishing from popular culture for a decade, Chappelle came out with four specials that year, a radically productive run that was the start of a stand-up phase that would grow to overwhelm the memory of his great sketch show, which then dominated his legacy.
“Chappelle’s Show,” now two decades ago, began with a brilliant sketch about a blind Black white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby. It was inspired in part by Chappelle’s grandfather, a blind man named George Raymond Reed, who had served on the D.C. mayor’s commission for the disabled. Reed was funny. His Washington Post obituary reported that in describing how to spell his name, he would joke: “Reed with no eyes.”
Back in 2017, Chappelle began making jokes about transgender people — and he hasn’t stopped, in special after special, show after show. How you feel about this fixation is baked in, at this point. He begins his new hour with a labored trans joke, before saying he’s finished making them. (Fat chance: They are as much a part of his brand as his name on his jacket.) Then he says he has a new angle: disabled jokes. “They’re not as organized as the gays,” he says. “And I love punching down.”
He covers other topics. There’s a big set piece about Chris Rock getting slapped at the Oscars, the most popular subject of 2023 in comedy, and he does some cheap racial jokes, like an elaborate bit merely meant to set up his doing an Asian voice.
The trans bits by both Chappelle and Gervais have gotten tired, to be sure. It’s not so much that I find them offensive but that it’s the same joke over and over. At this point, they seem to be more about continuing to tell them despite the backlash to prove that they’re not buckling to the pressure than about entertaining an audience.
Likewise, jokes about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock have run their course. And, again, the point of the bit seemed more to highlight that Chappelle hangs out with celebrities than to make people laugh.
At one point, he tells the audience that people in comedy think he’s lazy because he’ll tell a joke for a crowd of 20,000 that makes only two or three people laugh, but they will laugh hard. He goes on to tell that joke, an impression of the dead people on the Titanic seeing the doomed OceanGate submersible coming toward them, and it’s silly and fun, a throwback to earlier days. The truth is the more common criticism you hear these days is not that Chappelle aims for a niche but that he seems to prefer making points to getting laughs.
Indeed. But they’re not even new points at this stage of the game.
As I’ve written multiple times before, I don’t object to social commentary from stand-ups. Indeed, it’s what makes Chappelle and Gervais great. I’ve seen less of Noah’s standup but his original act was a poignant commentary on the racial injustices of the apartheid system in his native land, from the perspective of a biracial man. I do, however, expect the social insights to be blended with, well, comedy.
Now, there are exceptions. Chapelle’s half-hour commentary on the George Floyd murder, “8:46,” wasn’t funny. Nor was it intended to be. He was using the megaphone his stardom and connection with his audience had earned him to speak form the heart on an important issue.
And maybe he was doing the same in “The Dreamer,” and I just didn’t get it. It just struck me as more self-aggrandizing than either funny or insightful.
Zinoman turns to Gervais next:
This happens to some star comics. This month, Ricky Gervais released a dutifully predictable collection of jokes about supposedly taboo subjects. That special, “Armageddon” on Netflix, makes Chappelle look fascinating and unexpected by comparison.
Gervais trots out complaints about people being easily offended, before setting up bits that lean so hard on the assumption of that response that there isn’t much more to them. His fans eat it up. But what’s striking about his hour is the justifications, the defensive explanations, the spelling out of themes. Fine, make your Holocaust and pedophile jokes. But how about: Show, don’t tell.
Comedy is a crowded field, but for most audiences, it’s still defined by its biggest stars. Chappelle and Gervais are part of that elite, and the distance between them and the rest of the stand-up world feels greater than ever.
The rest of the essay is devoted to praise for a new special from Gary Gulman that I haven’t seen and therefore won’t comment on.
As noted earlier, I was surprised that there was a new Chappelle special. Ditto Gervais and Noah. Indeed, in the cases of Chappelle and Gervais, I strongly suspected that they were routines that I’d already seen–a suspicion reinforced by the fact that they’ve adopted stage uniforms that don’t differ from show to show.
For his part, Gervais blames Netflix for the lack of advance publicity:
The British comedian’s controversial stand-up show, titled Armageddon, was made available to stream on Christmas Day without much fanfare from the streaming service – and, despite being mauled by the critics, it has since become a huge hit.
However, Gervais addressed Netflix’s lack of promotion in a post shared the week before release, suggesting that Netflix had refrained from placing posters of the film in public.
The comedian told his followers on X/Twitter: “Netflix aren’t doing any posters because they can’t be arsed.” When one of his fans asked why the service wasn;t “advertising” the show, Gervais replied: “They think it’s going to be huge whatever.”
The stand-up special did an effective job promoting itself thanks to the furore surrounding a controversial jokethat inspired a petition calling for its removal.
A teaser for the show previewed a section about his work with theMake-a-Wish Foundation, in which he jokes about how he approaches messages for terminally ill children who ask for him. He also uses an ableist slur against them.
Appearing on BBC Radio 5 Live, Gervais hit back at those who expressed their upset over the joke, questioning whether people were actually “offended” by it.
“I’m literally saying in the joke that I don’t do that. But people have a reaction. They don’t analyse it,” he said. “They feel something – that’s what offence is. It’s a feeling. That’s why ‘I’m offended’ is quite meaningless. What do you want me to change?”
Gervais suggested he finds it easy to ignore backlash against his jokes, adding: “I’ve got a duty to the people that like it and get it. I wouldn’t sit down with a heckler would I? If I’m playing to 20,000 people, I wouldn’t stop the show and explain to them. I ignore them.”
The comedian tweeted a content warning about the material in Armageddon days before release, writing: “In this show, I talk about sex, death, paedophilia [sic], race, religion, disability, free speech, global warming, the holocaust, and Elton John,” he said.
“If you don’t approve of jokes about any of these things, then please don’t watch. You won’t enjoy it and you’ll get upset.”
Earlier this month, disability charity Scope warned that “language like this has consequences” and that “the people this kind of language impacts are real”.
“Language like this has consequences. The stage is real. Netflix is real. The people this kind of language impacts are real,” their message read. “‘Joking’ about this kind of language trivialises it. It risks normalising the abuse that many disabled people face on a day-to-day basis.”
Again, I’ve long been a fan of both Chappelle and Gervais and don’t object to their material as offensive. Pushing the envelope on people’s comfort zones is part and parcel of comedy and they’re both masters. The problem at this point is that it seems like it’s the same envelope over and over.