When Comedy is Not Funny

Great comics combine social commentary with humor. Increasingly, they've skipping the latter.

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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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    I’ve never found Gervais remotely funny, as I’m not a big fan of “bitter angry comedian does bitter and angry jokes”. But in the past Chappelle has been truly insightful and funny at the same time. I wonder if his problem is that he really doesn’t want to be a comedian any more, but rather a social mover of some sort. Unfortunately for him there really doesn’t appear to be a pathway, or at least one for people who are serious rather than Trump/Berlusconi attention seeking clowns.

    I’ve run across a few actors, musicians and comedians who seem to want to jump out of the performing arts and into having a big impact on society. The only ones who seem successful, even for a while, are those who set their sights relatively low. Shirley Temple and Kal Pen come to mind.

  2. Matt says:


    I wonder if his problem is that he really doesn’t want to be a comedian any more, but rather a social mover of some sort

    That would help to explain the Elon Musk thing.

  3. reid says:

    I rarely watch comics anymore. I used to love Richard Pryor, as an example, but these days I just don’t laugh as much at things. Old and bitter, perhaps?

    One I have seen several times in the last few years is Jim Gaffigan. I’m sure he’s not for everyone, but he at least understands that he’s there to be funny, and he often succeeds. (I suspect James would like him.)

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Chapelle has decided he’s a prophet, not a mere comic. Pity, because when he does comedy he’s brilliant, one of the best ever. But he’s made the Big Mistake so many entertainers fall into: taking themselves seriously. I’ve never been enamored of Gervais. He did a special once, a sit-down with three other comics: Seinfeld, Louis CK and Chris Rock. Watching that you see just how weak Gervais is in that company. Trevor Noah never did anything for me, either.

    Bill Burr, Taylor Tomlinson, Tom Segura, Anthony Jeselnik, John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress, Attell, Nate Bargatze, the aforementioned Rock and Seinfeld and canceled CK, are all great American comedians who do not confuse themselves with Jesus. But I tend to prefer UK/ANZ comedy (not all of them stand-ups) – Jimmy Carr, James Acaster, Lee Mack, Jim Jefferies, Rhod Gilbert, Bill Bailey, Bob Mortimer, David Mitchell, Greg Davies, Dara O’Brien, Lucy Beaumont, and of course Kevin Bridges and the great Frankie Boyle when I can understand their Scottish accents.

    I blame Marc Maron who is a very good stand-up but was one of the first ‘confessional’ comics. He did it better than Chapelle because Maron takes a more, ‘I’m just a confused regular guy’ approach as opposed to Chapelle coming down off his Ohio mountain with stone tablets.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:


    I wonder if his problem is that he really doesn’t want to be a comedian any more

    Comedy is one of the art forms with the shortest shelf life, and most comedians have a hard time remaining relevant for more than around a decade unless they are continually updating themselves into essentially a new act every so often. A lot of comedians who were big in the 90s and early 2000s keep rotating in new material, but are essentially doing the same act they’ve always done and are getting angry that it’s not working anymore.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Matt: Good point. In Musk’s case though, he has the social maturity of a spoiled 13 year old boy though, and that taints everything.

  7. Barry says:

    Or these guys are simply burned out.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Comedy is one of the art forms with the shortest shelf life

    I like Colbert a lot and I think one of the reasons is demonstrated in an anecdote he’s recounted a number of times. It was advice from a talk show veteran when he had just landed the Late Show gig, “Stephen, just remember, it’s never as bad as you think it was, and it’s never as good.” He follows it up by observing that late night shows are ephemeral, done in a day and then onto the next one regardless of how they turn out. I suspect that accepting this truth will give him staying power if he decides he wants to stay, and if he doesn’t will prevent him from turning the current gig to shit in order to justify leaving it.

    Where he does want to be more profound, it’s rarely about politics or world affairs, but much more often about individuals and their humanity. He seems delighted to find some depth to some random actor (Jake Gyllenhal is the latest example that comes to mind) or singer (Niki Minaj, albeit in a different way) and is truly interested in their POV, even when it differs from his.

  9. DK says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    A lot of comedians who were big in the 90s and early 2000s keep rotating in new material, but are essentially doing the same act they’ve always done and are getting angry that it’s not working anymore.

    Exactly. I’ve said this often about Maher/Rock/Chapelle et al: they’re just mad that many of today’s young folks don’t find them so funny. It’s not much more complicated than that.

    They think they’re owed the same laughs and adulation to which they grew accustomed in the 90s and early 2000s. Like so many of us, they’re bewildered by the fast pace of social change in our digital age.

    So rather than make peace with no longer being hip, as nearly all of us must do eventually, they are increasingly reduced to whining about ‘kids these days’ like cranky old bores. It happens to many of us, sooner or later.

  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    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.

    The thing is, the trans people I know tend to be the snarkiest, most sarcastic, most cynical people I’ve ever met. Trans people are hilarious, and there’s a huge niche there for trans centered humor. The problem is that your routine can’t just be variations on “that woman’s really a man, beat his ass” over and over.

    My two favorite trans jokes right now:

    Just making sure everyone is ok and coping

    I’m not the only one who’s noticed this right?

  11. James Joyner says:

    @reid: Indeed, Gaffigan is one of the few big-name comics I’ve seen in person. Oddly—and I forgot to mention this in the post—his most recent special (quite a few months back) was not at all Gaffiganesque. He was much darker and edgier and, alas, didn’t pull it off for my tastes. NYT’s Zinoman loved it, though.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    There was some yahoo banging on about this related to SNL just yesterday on the “Guy who wants to be angry Rush Limbaugh” show on the RWNJ Portland AM station. His conclusion is that the world has discovered that liberalism isn’t funny but can’t say so because of advertising dollars–or something, he got real disoriented midway through.

    I never go to standup performances. I did in Korea occasionally, but I was always the guy who would harsh everybody’s mellow and joy by asking when the guys who tell jokes were going to be on, so I stopped going.

  13. Mimai says:

    Last year, I saw Mike Birbiglia in a small club. He was working through new material. Literally came out with a stack of index cards, some of which he wrote earlier that day.

    I’d seen him before in a large theatre doing a polished set. And it was great. Of course it was.

    But I really really enjoyed the recent “rough draft” show. The setting was intimate, and he seemed even more vulnerable than is typical. It worked well with his style.

    Mike Birbiglia keeps his compass set to the most important role of a comedian — be funny!

  14. Mikey says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Greg Davies

    He has a special on Netflix (or maybe Prime, I can’t recall) and I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. He’s hilarious.

  15. Kathy says:

    The only stand up act I’ve ever gone to see was Rita Rudner in Las Vegas. I forget if it was in 2009 or 2010.

  16. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’ve really liked Jimmy Carr in the past, but his last special was just so hacky I had to turn it off after about 15 minutes.

    Related to all the talk of Gervais/Chappele is Acaster’s bit skewering them a year and a half ago. Brilliant.

    Gary Gulman’s special is mentioned in the OP. His newest one is indeed very good, but his previous special–The Great Depresh, about his time in a mental health treatment center–I think will become a canonical bit of standup.

    If you’ve never seen him, watch him explain how state abbreviations came to be.

  17. Beth says:

    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.

    I can guarantee you would not feel this way if you had to put up with this garbage everyday. Especially when the envelope pushing isn’t funny. Oh great, a whole mother round of “women be shoppin’” level jokes interspersed with all the other crap.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We’ve been watching Taskmaster on YouTube the last couple of weeks. Davies is amazing. Lucy Beaumont was a delightful insane person. She was so absurdly weird. I strive for that level of absurdity.

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    Lucy was the real surprise of this latest Taskmaster – which of course I watch. The three of us were trying to find the line in Lucy between just weird and clever, intentional weird. She’s obviously smarter than the character she ‘plays.’ Have you ever watched Greg Davies’ stand-up? It’s on YouTube. He’s great, and Alex Horne is a dark genius.

    Have you watched the season with Rhod Gilbert and Acaster? Gilbert’s a longtime buddy of Greg’s and fucks with him brilliantly, and Acaster is Acaster.

    ETA: I assume you know about WILTY?

  19. Beth says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I don’t know about wilty. My partner watched all the episodes of every series, but I didn’t. That show was wild though.

    I did see the Acaster/Gilbert one. That was brilliant. I’ll check out Davies standup. lol, the only thing that freaks me out about him is that he sometimes reminds me of my dad. My dad was (is?) a major POS, but he could be affable and charming in a similar way.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    My eldest daughter and I have three big areas where our Venn diagrams overlap – we’re both political animals into arguing (she is formidable, all my bullshit skills plus my wife’s deeper research skills), a mutual love of overpriced restaurants* and things like oysters, caviar, truffles and in her case all things Japanese, and our weird thing for British panel shows. She started me on WILTY and Taskmaster.

    *First dozen or so years of her life she ate nothing but buttered pasta and Nutella. Finally got her to try steak. Rather stupidly, I got her to try it not at Outback but at Morton’s, and a medium rare filet must have thrown a switch. Now she’s an avowed socialist who’ll fight me for the last gram of caviar. Rather like when, after years of hearing she’d never be interested in such things, I bought my wife a diamond ring. And, well, turned out she didn’t mind diamonds all that much. Sigh. Sometimes I begin to wonder if I’ve been played.

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    Acaster is brilliant, and his takedown of Chapelle et al was brutal. Very smart boy. (I think he’s in his late 30’s, so, yeah, a child.) @

    Greg Davies is never not funny. Have you seen the story he told on Graham Norton’s show? Ryan Gosling practically wet himself.

  22. I saw Gaffigan in person not that long ago and have long loved his work. It was a great show.

    Likewise, we saw Seinfeld live back in November–it was a truly excellent hour of standup.

    (Acaster is hilarious and I need to really watch more of his stuff).

  23. DrDaveT says:

    I assumed this would be an article about Will Farrell.

  24. Neil Hudelson says:


    Bite your tongue! He’s one of the maybe 6 genuinely funny people SNL has produced.

  25. DrDaveT says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    He’s one of the maybe 6 genuinely funny people SNL has produced.

    De gustibus and all that. I love to laugh, but WF has never induced that particular reflex in me. Can you point me to something of his on YouTube that you think is really funny?

    (Is it just that his movies are totally unfunny, but his sketch comedy is good? I could imagine that being the case…)