Whenever I think to look at the work of a comedian through a critical lens, I fear coming across as a humorless killjoy. And as someone who, at least to a nominal degree, understands the critique some folks have about increasing hypersensitivity, it makes me ultra cautious to not judge a comedian’s material devoid of context.
However, there is something else to consider: when called out on their prejudices, or at the bare minimum, their misguided musings, many comedians like to cower behind the pretense that it’s “just jokes.” And after that, they’ll babble about political correctness.
For sure, you’ll be told that they’re an equal opportunity offender as if it was some sort of a get-out-of-criticism card. Then they, along with their fans, may proceed to bemoan how everyone is just so uptight nowadays. It’s smug, it’s dismissive, and above all, it’s lazy.
In his most two-recent Netflix specials, Dave Chappelle presents each of these sentiments as he addressed the criticism leveled at his previous comedy specials for the streaming service.
“It’s too hard to entertain a country whose ears are so brittle,” Chappelle opines to great applause. “Motherfuckers are so sensitive; the whole country has turned to bitch ass niggas.”
While I can acknowledge that I sometimes worry about how quick many are to condemn and dismiss those who speak from a place of ignorance rather than maliciousness instead of making an effort to educate, it’s important not to confuse a purported growing sensitivity with marginalized people now having space to say to public figures “Hey, that’s not okay!” thanks to the advent of social media.
Not hearing about a problem sooner doesn’t make it less any of a problem because you learned about it a bit later. Moreover, if you are told exactly what is wrong about whatever you said and you stubbornly repeat the pattern, what does that say about you?
We must also remind ourselves that jokes do not come out of a vacuum. They speak to an individual’s point of view on a given topic, or in other cases, their nescience about it. So as much as I appreciate the genius I saw on Chappelle’s Show and respect the right of an artist to forgo “political correctness,” it does not excuse the stupidity exhibited in his comedic observations about trans people.
After quipping that the trans community hates him the most, Chappelle makes clear that he likes trans people, always has, and never had a problem with them. You see, he’s “just fucking around.” Yet, while acknowledging “they mean what they say,” he goes on to say, “Them niggas cut they dicks off, that’s all the proof I need.” There is also a comparison made between trans people and Rachel Dolezal.
Select apologists might suggest simply sucking those quips up and brushing it aside, but even if trans people did, what mostly troubles and ought to spark concern in others is how he posits the trans community as majorly white and enjoying the wide-ranging support that has long eluded other minority groups.
Chappelle claimed: “My problem has always been with the dialogue about transgender people. I just feel like these things should not be discussed in front of the Blacks. It’s fucking insulting, all this talk about how these people feel inside.”
Black people have long self-identified as LGBTQ more than white people have. Furthermore, of all the trans women that have been murdered in recent years, an overwhelming amount of them have been trans Black women. They are the most vulnerable. And who is mostly responsible for their deaths? Straight Black cis men that look like Dave Chappelle. If he weren’t so dim about the subject at hand, the potential consequences of these kind of statements might have on the public would dawn on him.
There was talk of Kevin Spacey, too, and one of his accusers, Anthony Rapp. “Kevin Spacey sniffed that shit out like a truffle pig,” he said. “And not to victim-blame, but it seems like the kind of situation that a gay 14-year-old kid would get himself into.”
As many have pointed out, Dave Chappelle is out of touch. He is an old, straight Black man with a very specific and rigid point of view. He sounds like someone set in his ways trying to speak on issues he is clueless about and could not care less if anyone is offended.
In assessing his most recent specials, I kept circling back to this comment in the midst of all those trans jokes: “I mean, it’s funny if it’s not happening to you.”
It is indeed so easy to laugh at something that doesn’t relate to you.
Yet, I can’t help but recall what Chappelle said about a particular sketch from Chappelle’s Show that helped pave the way for its infamously abrupt end:
a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races. The Black pixieplayed by Chappellewears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long.
His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them.
"When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."
I guess we all have our sensitivities, but it’s too bad that a few of us are selective about when to realize such reality. Chappelle is going to talk about whatever he wants and whomever he wants. It’s his prerogative. He’s still funny in select moments.
As a comedian who offers social commentary, wouldn’t it serve him right to know a little bit of what he’s talking about? Wouldn’t that make his jokes actually funny? It would certainly make them less dangerous.
Ultimately, what I got from Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix specials is that he listened to critics without truly hearing them, went on to make the same mistakes or worse, and a new fear: maybe Dave Chappelle doesn’t have that many more interesting things to say.