I have long been a fan of Dave Chappelle, but I could not make it even fifteen minutes into his new standup special, The Closer, his sixth and final special as part of his gargantuan Netflix deal. He’s always had his blind spots, but when he’s on, he’s on, and he has been one of the most concise voices in comedy when it comes to racial injustice in America. It’s just that over the last few years, he has doubled and tripled down on xenophobia and transphobia in a way that absolutely poisons anything that might have worked in The Closer. I don’t even know if anything in that special does work, because I couldn’t make it out of his set opening, it was so gross. (If you want a full review of The Closer, I point you to Eric Deggans at NPR.)
There is a real strain of resistance among some older comedians to grow and change their act with the times. It’s Gen X “everything is equally awful” irony taken to its worst extreme, and there we find the likes of Chappelle, South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Ricky Gervais, Louis CK, and a host of other comics, popular and not. Comedians will insist that everything and everyone is fair game, that anything can be funny, and that’s true! Anything can be funny, if the right person is telling the joke. Dave Chappelle can tell jokes about race and being Black in America that no one else can, but when it comes to the trans community, he doesn’t have it. The material isn’t there. All he’s doing is attacking an already vulnerable minority and refusing to acknowledge any degree of intersectionality while he’s at it.
Do I expect every comedian to be a PhD in theory? No, of course not. But if you’re going to tackle a sensitive subject in your comedy, you better do your f-cking homework. Because the other side of the “anything can be funny” coin is “in the right context”. And when it comes to the LGTBQ+ community, Chappelle doesn’t have the right context. He is just punching down, using his position as one of the most successful, famous, celebrated comedians of the 2000s to attack a community that is already under siege on all sides. This isn’t funny, it’s just mean. And worse, he holds up the late Daphne Dorman, a trans comic who used to open for him, as shield against criticism. Dorman died by suicide in 2019, but you don’t hear Chappelle addressing that, or what role his “jokes” and others like them played in creating an unsafe and unwelcoming world for Dorman and women like her. No, he just announces he’s a TERF, like that’s something to be proud of, and then plays the “my trans friend” card in a way that would (rightly) infuriate him if someone used him to play the “my Black friend” card.
I’m not searching for perfection in comedy. It’s not possible. The entire art is built on trial and error, and comedy evolves at a breakneck pace, keeping up with changing sensibilities more than any other performing art except maybe music. If you’re writing jokes, you’re going to botch more than one landing on your way to the good stuff, and there has to be room for bad material to fail and for comedians to move on from it without getting roasted for trying it. What I do look for, though, is evolution, that when the bad material does fail, comics keep working their act till they get it right. Sometimes, that means abandoning a premise altogether because you simply cannot make it work—I have cut so many jokes over the years because I couldn’t stick the landing. And sometimes it means working harder and smarter until you get there and the punchline lands. In both cases, though, there is an assumption of effort, that the comedian is trying to write good material.
I didn’t feel that from Chappelle in The Closer. All I felt, right out of the gate, is annoyance, maybe even anger, that he faces criticism for his (bad) jokes. It didn’t feel like there was any effort made at all to be funny, there was just that particular resistance to change that has sunk a lot of comedians over the years. Of course, there will still be an audience for Dave Chappelle. There will be people who simply do not care about his non-jokes at the trans community’s expense—not to mention the xenophobic COVID jokes—and worse, there will be people who show up just for those jokes. Chappelle once feared his comedy being misunderstood by the wrong audience so much that he walked away from his Comedy Central show at the height of its popularity. Now, he is openly baiting the wrong audience to come and laugh at vulnerable people with him.
I will leave you with the words of British comedian James Acaster, who also has specials—well worth watching—on Netflix. He’s talking here about Ricky Gervais (warning for NSFW language), but it might as well be Dave Chappelle. I have rarely been so disappointed in someone I once admired.