Stand-up comedy specials are strange beasts: They must at once capture a moment, delivering timely jokes on the hot topics of today, but years from now, they will also be the way we remember and revisit the best work of our favorite comic minds.
An hour of televised stand-up is to a comedian what a book is to an author or an album to a band: Part of their legacy. Something to be remembered by.
Which only makes it all the more baffling that so many of today’s most successful comedians—most recently British Office creator Ricky Gervais in his Netflix special Humanity—are wasting so much of their precious time on tired jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender people.
Do they really want this already-dated material to be forever committed to celluloid?
One day, the sheer volume of these transphobic jokes—sometimes cruel, usually unoriginal, and often both—will be seen as a glaring, cringe-inducing stain on an otherwise excellent era of stand-up comedy. That contrast should be apparent already.
Load up Netflix or Showtime or HBO and you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a good hour of comedy—and the voices delivering that comedy are thankfully growing more and more diverse.
But no matter which special you pick, you’ll probably have to sit through an interlude on transgender people. It’s as if every major comedian who recorded an hour of comedy in the last two years is trying to meet some sort of quota—or like they’re contractually obligated to work Caitlyn Jenner into their set.
Dave Chappelle spends about one-sixth of the runtime of his most recent Netflix special Equanimity telling jokes about transgender people—like labeling Caitlyn Jenner’s private parts a “man-pussy”—mostly, it seemed, as a reaction to the criticism he faced over the bad transgender jokes in his 2017 Netflix special Deep in the Heart of Texas.
Bill Burr does a bit in 2017’s Walk Your Way Out in which he repeatedly misgenders Caitlyn Jenner and refers to her as “Bruce” while diminishing the significance of the attacks on transgender people’s restroom rights: “Bruce is gonna drop a deuce. Which bathroom should this guy use? I don’t give a shit. This guy has enough money to literally have a Port-a Potty rickshaw running behind him.”
Girls Trip star Tiffany Haddish, in her otherwise winning debut Showtime special She Ready, perpetuated the faulty analogy between Rachel Dolezal and transgender people with a joke comparing Jenner winning a “Woman of the Year” award from Glamour in 2015 to Dolezal pretending to be black while leading a chapter of the NAACP.
Anthony Jeselnik delivers a particularly repulsive barb in his Netflix special Thoughts and Prayers, right after complaining that people are too “sensitive” about transgender jokes: "You can’t even call them ‘chicks’ with dicks any more. No, no. You have to call them ‘men who talk too much.’” The line elicited loud cheers from the audience.
And Marlon Wayans, as Paste wrote, “spends a significant amount of time” in his new Netflix special Woke-ish, telling Caitlyn Jenner jokes. Asked by writer Brock Wilbur how he thinks those jokes will hold up over time, Wayans replied, “In regards to the Caitlyn Jenner thing, I’ve learned that some people are very sensitive.”
These are just a handful of the many, many tiresome minutes in specials of the last two years that denigrate, demean, and dismiss transgender people—and if people get “sensitive” about these hurtful bits, perhaps it’s because transgender people are still being killed, kicked out of their jobs, and attacked in state legislatures.
It should be noted that telling jokes about one of the most marginalized populations in the country isn’t off limits. There’s nothing comedians hate more than being told they can’t joke about a certain group, as Jim Norton made clear in his 2017 special Mouthful of Shame when he complained about being told by a TV network to drop a Jenner joke.
“Just because you’ve been marginalized doesn’t mean that you’re removed from the humor spectrum,” Norton says—and that’s true!
Nor is joking about Caitlyn Jenner off the table. She’s a transgender Republican, after all—an identity rife with internal contradictions if ever there was one. But only a handful of comedians seem to be able to produce anything original on the topic of transgender people without simply echoing—and thereby amplifying—pre-existing prejudice.
One of the only positive examples in recent memory is the delightful Michelle Wolf, who takes a quick jab at Caitlyn Jenner’s personality in her HBO special Nice Lady before defending transgender women’s right to use the ladies’ room, hilariously blaming the political controversy on “a fundamental misunderstanding about what happens in a women’s bathroom.”
“To be fair,” Wolf jokes, “we have made it very mysterious. We always go in groups, there’s a huge line outside, people go in, but they never come out—it’s a whole Willy Wonka situation.”
Wolf’s bit stands out because it’s so rare to see a comic avoid leveraging the latent societal hatred of transgender people for the immediate validation of a quick laugh. Indeed, even some of the stand-ups who do go somewhere new and inventive with their transgender material can’t help but double back on bigotry for a punchline.
Jim Norton, for example, talks freely about his experiences having sex with transgender women in Mouthful of Shame, debunking the idea that it makes a man “gay” to do so. But then he advises people who follow in his footsteps to not “look at the feet” at first because they’ll think, “Oh no, those feet scored 13 points in the fourth quarter—I’m fucking gay.”
Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che talks in Michael Che Matters about realizing that the slur “tranny” is “hurtful” after a transgender friend asked him, “How would you like it if I called you ‘blacky’?”
Che could have just mugged for the audience, or put a quick pin on the joke, but he goes for the easy laugh he knows he can get by simply repeating the slur: “Well played, tranny, well played.”
And Louis C.K.—for all of his repugnant behavior off-stage—manages to produce one of the more poignant thoughts about transgender people in his special 2017: “[Being transgender] is a tough road,” he jokes, “but I envy them on this level: That they’ve figured out what’s going on with them, and they fixed it. What an amazing gift— to know what the fuck is wrong with you. Who else gets to have that?”
It is, for a fleeting moment, perhaps the best observation about being transgender that a cisgender comedian has ever produced: poignant, off-kilter, and wholly original without punching down.
And then C.K. immediately compares being transgender to waking up and feeling like you are an owl—a common transphobic trope that was popularized by the South Park episode “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” in which Kyle’s dad gets surgery to become a dolphin after Kyle’s teacher gets sex reassignment surgery.
There is perhaps no deader comic horse these days than the idea that transitioning from one gender to another is akin to a human becoming an animal.
In Straight White Male, 60, Dana Carvey jokes that he has “a friend who is trans-bestial”—that the friend is “becoming a cat.” It’s language that, whether Carvey knows it or not, was born in anti-transgender circles, where jokes about “identifying as a helicopter” or being “trans-species” are all too common.
Which brings us to Ricky Gervais, who has been roundly critiqued this week for devoting much of the opening of his special Humanity to the idea that being transgender is like identifying a chimpanzee named Bobo. (“I’m gonna have species realignment,” he jokes, if you can call such a labored routine a joke.)
The Bobo bit in Humanity directly follows an extended re-litigation of the controversy over a Caitlyn Jenner joke that Gervais told at the Golden Globes in 2016, when he came under fire for calling the transgender Olympian “Bruce.”
Gervais pretends as if he’s going to explain why his original joke wasn’t transphobic, but, as so many comedians tend to do, he doubles down instead, grotesquely and inaccurately describing the practice of male-to-female sex reassignment surgery as having “your cock and balls ripped off and a hole gouged out.”
By the time Gervais has got it all out of his system, a quarter of his special is over. His return to stand-up will forever be 25 percent transphobia, 75 percent everything else.
It is heartening, at least, to see that after two or three years of comedians being fixated on transgender people, critics seem to have finally had enough.
Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz dubbed the “opening 20 minutes” of Humanity “transphobic,” saying that Gervais has “made his already thin skin almost transparent.” Indiewire’s Jude Dry noted that the comedian’s extended Bobo analogy is actually “one of the most common and insidious arguments used by conservative and religious groups to deny transgender people basic human rights.”
Paste comedy editor Garrett Martin scathingly summarized the special as follows: “All in a day’s work for a fifty-something multimillionaire whose last watchable TV show was over a decade ago and who has somehow turned into comedy’s most prominent defender of transphobia.”
But Martin’s most damning insult of all is calling Gervais’ habit of insulting others “boring.” Indeed, at a certain point, the glut of transphobic jokes we’ve seen in specials over the last two years ceases to offend—and it just becomes dreadfully dull.
In some ways, what we’re seeing is the result of a time delay: Most of these comedians probably started developing this material back when Caitlyn Jenner first came out, touring on it the next year, and signing deals with TV networks shortly thereafter.
By the time they’ve been recorded, edited, and delivered, many of their transgender jokes are dead on arrival, already out of step with our current environment. In the rush to have “something to say” about one of the biggest cultural news stories of the decade, they have produced specials that pump the brakes on sorely needed progress, putting themselves squarely on the wrong side of history.
When the younger generation—which supports transgender rights by a large majority—grows up and looks back at today’s stand-up specials, they will ruefully observe comedians who opted for the short-sighted satisfaction of a nasty Caitlyn Jenner joke in 2018. Those jokes will have aged poorly.
While good stand-up comedy has to be timely, the trick is to not let it date you. The trans “jokes” of Gervais and his peers do precisely that, and a lot worse besides.