opinion

BACKLASH

Dave Chappelle Reveals His Comedy Blind Spots in New Netflix Specials

The superstar standup comedian has come under fire for his controversial take on the #MeToo movement—in particular the allegations against fellow comedian and pal Louis C.K.

opinion

Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

Dave Chappelle doesn’t offend me.

“I’m not saying it to be mean. I’m saying to be funny. And everything is funny… until it happens to you.”

Even as I recoil at the latest bit of controversy-baiting in Chappelle’s new Netflix specials (particularly Equanimity, the more formal of the two), I recognize that my criticisms of the still-funny 44-year-old comedian aren’t rooted in how offended I am by his words. My feelings aren’t hurt. I’m not angry at him. That word “offend” is wielded like a knife, and many times, when discussing a public figure or public discourse, it’s wholly inappropriate. And in railing against “PC culture” and our all-too-easily offended national state, Dave Chappelle makes it clear that he doesn’t give a shit if you are offended by what he says onstage.

“I make it a point to never feel bad about anything I say up here,” he declares directly in Equanimity.

Filmed in his home turf of Washington, D.C., Equanimity is an interesting title for the bigger special: even-keeled, calm, grace under fire. It suggests that the beloved comic sees himself as the cooler head in a world that’s burning. Or maybe he feels he’s withstood a certain amount of fire himself and remained unflappably Dave. The latter seems more true; in his latest specials, Dave Chappelle refuses to be anything but Dave Chappelle.

Chappelle tackles the controversy of his spring Netflix specials head-on. His bewilderment at having been charged with transphobia after joking about trans women (“Let’s go to the club and trick niggas into fucking us. Yeah.”) is tempered with both empathy for the community he routinely mocks and more jokes about that community. His argument is that anyone who would think his words are an excuse to go out and harm someone is an idiot and he doesn’t hate trans people because everyone deserves to be happy. The moral of the story? Dave Chappelle makes fun of everybody—you can get these jokes, too.

With all that’s swirling in the ether currently, isn’t it reckless to charge women with being “weak” as they try to get justice against powerful men?

As Trey Parker and Matt Stone continually spoof pop culture through the most pointed (and juvenile) lens via their long-standing Comedy Central hit South Park, is it fair to demand that Dave Chappelle morph into someone other than the insightful, biting, sometimes sophomoric funnyman he’s always been? White liberals are all-too-eager to castigate Chappelle as though he’s a uniquely “problematic” jokester with waning relevance. But Chappelle, like other comedians such as Chris Rock and Tina Fey, shot to the top of the industry in the late ’90s/early 2000s as edgy, necessary voices for audiences who had been famously marginalized by the white-male-centric comedy perspectives like Jerry Seinfeld and Clinton-era Saturday Night Live. Nonetheless, in the same way that Fey’s feminist persona and work from that period failed in addressing or reflecting women of color, Chappelle’s sardonic look at race and politics never really seemed to hear the women or LGBTQ members of his core audience. He’s still just Dave Chappelle.

And, no, Dave Chappelle doesn’t offend me. He does worry me.

Watching a brilliant comic work through his hang-ups in real time can make for compelling stuff; it’s at the core of the genius of Richard Pryor. Watching Pryor go from the brazen mind that gave us routines like “Super Nigger” and That Nigger’s Crazy to a man renouncing the N-word after a 1979 trip to Africa is part of his evolution as an artist. Chappelle’s journey may one day make for a similar transition. Like Pryor, Dave needs to re-examine how he sees his own people before he can move forward; but unlike Pryor, it’s women and transgender black folks that he needs to recognize as sharing of the black experience and black perspective. He needs reminding that the struggle of black Americans isn’t limited to the oppression of black men by the establishment—it’s inherent in the oppression of all black people and in how black people have been subjugated within our community.

Dave mines his own inadequacies throughout both specials. He’s forthright in acknowledging that he’s not the most informed on every subject he touches onstage (“I never said I was right”) but the introspection is undercut by Dave’s own disdain at the “bitch ass niggas” who insist that he’s done something wrong. It’s unfortunate, because deflecting to defiance in the face of “sensitive” critics—in turning an audience’s being “offended” into a badge of honor—Chappelle misses the chance to truly push himself. It’s bold funny guy vs. the snowflakes, and so Dave doubles down, daring anyone to get “offended” at him just being him.

In The Bird Revelation, Dave sits center stage for a smaller crowd in what’s billed as a more “intimate and spontaneous” show in Los Angeles. Here, he tackles the recent wave of sexual-assault allegations coming out of Hollywood. Riffing on Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Charlie Rose, Chappelle reserves his more pointed commentary for fellow comedian Louis C.K., who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women. In the wake of the accusations, C.K.’s movie I Love You, Daddy has been shelved, FX cut ties with C.K., TBS suspended production on a C.K.-produced animated series, and Netflix announced it wouldn’t be producing the comedian’s second planned comedy special.

“Jesus Christ, they took everything from Louie,” Dave muses. “It might be disproportionate. I can’t tell. I can’t tell. This is like where it’s hard to be a man. One lady said ‘Louis C.K. masturbated in front of me. Ruined my comedy dreams.’ Word? Well, dare I say, madam: You may have never had a dream.”

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Dave acknowledges that the women are “right,” but can’t resist diminishing their experiences (“They sound weak”) and decrying what’s happening to men in the industry (“You can’t make a lasting peace this way… fear does not make lasting peace”). For a guy who seems to be so clear-eyed in matters where black men have been abused, exploited, and victimized, Dave Chappelle still has a major blind spot when it comes to everyone else. Maybe Chappelle filmed his special before the Russell Simmons allegations became widely known. When black women are among the victims, who stands with them? And do those jokes seem as funny?

“Offended” is the word most callously tossed around in criticism and in defense of comedy. It’s as if so many of us assume that the only reason one would have to criticize a comedian is being personally offended by what was said. But if a guy onstage screamed “Fire!” or “He’s got a gun!” it wouldn’t warrant criticism because of offensiveness—the criticism is warranted because the behavior is reckless. With all that’s swirling in the ether currently, isn’t it reckless to charge women with being “weak” as they try to get justice against powerful men?

Dave Chappelle always has moments in his standup shows where the punchlines pause, and the grin goes away—where he gets dead serious and delivers commentary or makes a historical reference with candor and clarity. In last spring’s Age of Spin, he mused on the legacy of Bill Cosby in the wake of rape allegations against the legendary comedian:

I remember that he’s the first black man to ever win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he’s the first guy to make a cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionately. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African-Americans on his show.”

In Equanimity, the most somber moment is when Chappelle recounts the story of Emmett Till, the black teen who was murdered in 1955 Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Prefacing it as a history lesson for those in the audience not born in America, Chappelle breaks down the horrific story of Till’s lynching and the acquittal of his killers, and praises Till’s mother as “a fucking gangster” for making sure that her son’s deformed face was seen in an open casket at his funeral.

I don’t have to pretend that the crimes against black trans people mirror what black people as a whole have faced for centuries; but I do recognize pain and hate. Like Dave Chappelle, I see the foolishness in white people who act as though black National Football League players are committing a sacrilegious act by kneeling during the national anthem. The underlying spirit in those white fans’ outrage is that black athletes shouldn’t force them to face their disregard for the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police officers. I also see how transgender black people have to contend with their own kind of disregard—the kind that says horrific deaths, like the stabbing of Dee Whigham in Mississippi in July or the murder of 59-year-old Mx Bostick, who died in May after being attacked in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, simply don’t matter that much. I don’t need for there to be 400 years of murdered black trans women to know there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. And part of addressing it is not endorsing the stigmatizing of members of my community who may be the most vulnerable members of that community. R. Kelly jokes are still all the rage while R. Kelly still sells out shows and the black women he victimized continue to pop in and out of the news with no resolution in sight. Let’s keep making jokes—some of the most insightful commentary comes from humor—but who should be the punchline?

Dave Chappelle doesn’t offend me. But he does worry me. I worry that we’ve become so preoccupied with “offensiveness” that we’ve turned being offensive into a virtue. You’re brave if you’re unafraid to say what others don’t like. But as Chappelle points out, we have a president in office whose base clearly believes him to be brave because he says what others don’t like. His approach to policy, diplomacy, and national discourse don’t offend me. They scare the hell out of me.

You can’t be right all the time. But we sure as hell don’t need to make a virtue out of being wrong.