Dave Chappelle’s Comedy of Bitterness

Dave Chappelle’s Comedy of Bitterness

Dave Chappelle’s Comedy of Bitterness

In his recent special The Closer, and his response to critics of it, he outlines a strange version of identity politics where comedians are always the victims. 

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Dave Chappelle often describes stand-up comedy in liberatory terms. In his 2018 appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld’s talk show on the craft of comedy, Chappelle cast stand-up as a vehicle for unbridled self-expression: “The guy on the stage, that’s the real guy. The guy that’s off the stage, he’s the one that lies to people, or doesn’t say what he actually thinks, and all this other shit, just so that guy can exist uninterrupted.” The stage, in this parable, authorizes a freedom that the world restricts.

Chappelle embellished this idea in his 2020 performance piece 8:46, which was filmed and released during last summer’s nationwide police brutality protests. Named after the duration for which Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, Chappelle’s formless set of anguished outbursts, sermonizing, and off-the-cuff jokes proposed a kind of covenant between comic and crowd. “The only reason people want to hear from people like me is because you trust me. You don’t expect me to be perfect. And I don’t lie to you. I’m just a guy.… Every institution that we trust lies to us,” he said. In this version of the parable, the stage becomes a sanctuary. It doesn’t just enable freedom; it secures it, demarcating the line between insiders and outsiders.

Over the last few years, this embattled, us-against-them stance has shifted from an element of Chappelle’s work to its nucleus. In his latest special, The Closer, he grows more pugilistic and needling, his insults more bitter than insightful. The abrasive, defensive set, though intermittently funny, proposes a bizarre permutation of identity politics in which influential comedians and celebrities sitting atop heaps of cash are underdog victims of draconian scolds who can’t take a joke. The false inversion distorts the lopsided power dynamics between comics and their critics and denies detractors the license Chappelle demands for comedians. In the same breaths, he preaches freedom and dismisses feedback.

Chappelle presents The Closer as a capstone to his suite of Netflix specials, which the platform began releasing in 2017. “I came here tonight because this body of work that I’ve done on Netflix, I’m going to complete,” Chappelle says early in the set. He follows that pledge with an hour of incensed hand-wringing over his reception by the media, feminists, and trans people, groups who, he insists, overreact to his brand of comedy. While his previous specials riffed on the headlines, this one nitpicks them, revisiting old gripes and fixations at length.

Many of the jokes here take the form of corrections rather than musings, as if Chappelle is fact-checking his rap sheet. Everyone except him and his fans is viewed as hysterical and uptight, unable to appreciate art that does not placate them. This grudging, combative outlook is manifested not just in the content of his diatribes but in his stage presence too. Chappelle sets are usually slapstick and visual, the comic doubling over at his own jokes, pantomiming absurd actions, and contorting his face in exaggerated confusion. He remains a physical performer here, but there’s a notable uptick in shrugs, grimaces, shouts, and sighs.

Chappelle couches his broadsides in the perceived hypocrisy of his critics and the obviousness, in his mind, of his solidarity with groups he mocks. He doesn’t hate queer people, he explains repeatedly; he just resents their inability to tolerate his jokes, their political successes relative to Black people’s, and their shifting loyalties. “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again,” he says, delivering his thesis statement of sorts. In his view, he is a whistleblower and queer people are double agents, duplicitous allies who say they’re down with the cause but have the feds on speed dial. Conveniently, these queer people are always white. While he’s right that racism looms in progressive circles, he’s more interested in saying “Gotcha!” than in unpacking his observations or honing his barbs.

Chappelle never seems to consider that the people whom he skewers as “too sensitive, too brittle” might actually be the opposite: too hardened by experience to trust him as he promises solidarity but practices hate. Comedy has become a treacherous space in the past decade, a haven where “joking” has become cover for all manner of bigoted and reactionary politics. From television creators “ironically” flirting with white supremacy to sketch artists and sitcom writers persistently donning blackface, the genre has grown rife with provocateurs.

Many comedians of Chappelle’s generation see themselves as foot soldiers in a war against cancel culture and political correctness, but they undersell their station and overstate their persecution. Comics air their grievances from the largest platforms in the world, yet in their telling, they are the oppressed and downtrodden ones. Free speech actually is under attack, but not in comedy clubs. State legislatures are dictating how educators can teach about racism. Banks and credit card companies are punishing sex workers. Social media companies are partnering with nation-states to silence dissent. If comics weren’t so invested in their own martyrdom, they might have a role in these conflicts.

Chappelle’s defiant pose in his new special grows perfunctory as he hits familiar beats, especially as The Closer builds to a brutish and protracted salvo on trans identity. The turn begins with him recalling an argument he once had with a trans woman: “She kept calling transgenders her people…. I said, ‘What do you mean your people?’ Were y’all kidnapped in Transylvania and brought here as slaves?” But it gets much worse from there: For the final third of the set, Chappelle proudly declares himself a TERF, defends J.K. Rowling’s transphobia, and relays a self-serving story about his friendship with a trans comic, Daphne Dorman, who died by suicide in 2019. Chappelle tacitly attributes this event to a Twitter backlash that arose from Dorman defending his transphobic jokes. Aggrieved by how some trans Twitter users treated her, he decides to claim her as kin: “I don’t know what the trans community did for her, but I don’t care because I feel like she wasn’t their tribe, she was mine.” Tribe. Mine. That provincialism is the heart of Chappelle’s kvetching. Though he speaks of openness and freedom in his frequent exaltations of comedy, it’s only his people who get to speak with impunity.

He’ll likely get his way. After Netflix released the special, the company faced an internal outcry from trans employees. Citing the special’s transphobia and previous discussions about Chappelle’s material in past specials, the employees staged walkouts and other labor actions. (One trans employee who helped organize the walkouts was fired by the company for leaking to the press, an allegation she denies.) Some workers have proposed that the company append a content warning to The Closer, while others have suggested it remove the special. Through it all, the CEO of Netflix has stood by Chappelle, explaining in a memo obtained by Variety: “Our goal is to entertain the world, which means programming for a diversity of tastes.”

Despite the company standing by him (or perhaps just following his lead), Chappelle has responded to the negative press by anointing himself an agitator. “Do not blame the LBGTQ community for any of this shit,” he says to a crowd in an Instagram video announcing live screenings of an upcoming documentary about him. “This has nothing to do with them. It’s about corporate interests and what I can say and what I cannot say.”

Let’s check our notes: World-famous comedian Dave Chappelle, insulated by a corporation with whom he’s had a long-standing relationship, insists he is being censored—in an ad for his latest product. This is the strange circularity of cancellation, as experienced by public figures: They defend themselves; they dismiss their critics; their peers shower them with support; and their brand solidifies, setting the stage for the next windfall. The punch line to all this absurdity is grim, but I think we could use a laugh: Chappelle’s first Netflix special was titled The Age of Spin.

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