With every piece of backlash, Dave Chappelle is willfully mythologizing himself as a “victim” of an amorphous queer conspiracy to villainize him, thereby positioning himself as the brave and fearless voice of the counterculture.
“This is for my favorite band, the human beings,
The faithful, the graceful, the tragic, the classic”
It serves as a curious introduction to his final foray with the streaming service. Since announcing his deal in 2016, his sets have become increasingly adversarial toward various demographics, with the most recent offering serving as a particularly indignant 72-minute-long coda. Chappelle makes no bones about offering that precaution, cavalierly warning that “it’s gonna get way worse” after a particularly overwrought “Space Jews” joke.
This cadence continues throughout the special: Dave Chappelle pokes, prods, and agitates on topics of feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, race, gender, MeToo, and a potpourri of other ad-hoc ruminations that run the gamut. When the crowd lulls or hesitates, he parries by doubling down, either reiterating the joke or mocking the audience’s wariness. The discomfort, it seems, is where he has chosen to set up shop.
To correct each of Chappelle’s arguments and positions would be a herculean exercise of increasingly diminishing returns. Instead, what can be deconstructed is this sleight of hand Chappelle is playing. With every piece of backlash he is willfully mythologizing himself as a “victim” of an amorphous queer conspiracy to villainize him, thereby positioning himself as the brave and fearless voice of the counterculture. To challenge him is to reflect your own intolerance and rigidity; they are just a conduit for those bullied into silence. It’s a gambit that has also been adopted by Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, wealthy and controversial white men who Dave Chappelle readily calls friends. The latter recently defending Chappelle’s latest special, saying: “he’s just a guy who loves this art form called stand-up comedy, and he tries to do his best navigating this world of talking shit about things and saying outrageous things that get huge laughs, or placating really sensitive groups that feel like they’re in a protected class and then the other people that pile onto that, that also feel like this is a protected class. They equate any jokes with hate and this is where they’re wrong.”
What rings particularly hollow about this defense is how anachronous it is to Chappelle’s rise, where he served as a mellow interlocutor of different demographics. “Chappelle had a keen sense of the archetypal nature of race, and understood just as acutely how people work on a very basic level,” Rachel Kaadzi Gansah wrote in a 2013 profile of Dave Chappelle, later adding, “if I’ve learned anything over these past months, it’s that the best jokes should deliver a hard truth easily.” This had become his calling card; the shock value of any joke would belie a simple observation of the nuances of human behavior and interactions. His boldest ventures into absurdist humor, via The Chappelle’s Show sketches, were prefaced with preambles explaining the impetus behind the bit. Mad Real World, for example, was preempted with commentary about the “fly-in-milk” racial dynamics that were frequently constructed in ensemble reality programs, experimenting with inverting those power dynamics and tropes. (Per Chappelle’s own account, when that distinction blurred, he walked away from the show, leaving $50 million on the table.)
There’s also this joke from Chappelle’s 2000 special, Killing them Softly:
Dave Chappelle: “Somebody broke into my house once, this is a good time to call the police, but mm mm, nope. The house was too nice. It was a real nice house, but they’d never believe I lived in it. They’d be like, ‘He’s still here!'”
[whacks the microphone on the stand]
Dave Chappelle: “Oh my god. Open and shut case, Johnson. I saw this once when I was a rookie. Apparently this nigger broke in and put up pictures of his family everywhere.”
In one fell swoop, he confronts racism, class anxieties, and inherent police mistrust. Most of his most classic, memorable jokes fit this mold: incisive, layered, and pertinent to his audience. In recent years, this has shifted. He has hardened — both physically and emotionally — and his acts seem to be long-winded invectives at those who dare challenge him, interjected with glimmers of his former brilliance, his audience agreeing to an implicit contract of entertaining the fictive boogeyman Chappelle chooses to fight against — to the tune of a $20 million check.
It is not only that Chappelle is ill-equipped to discuss, and therefore joke about, topics of queerness, gender, and feminism, and where they intersect with race and class. It is the shallow level with which he engages with the material he is railing against in the first place. His material on race is shaped not just on his lived experience, but as someone who grew up in a household of African-American studies professors and activists. His framework around the other topics and identities — if we are to take his statements at face value — are constrained to his interactions with people that belong to said communities, paired with shallow, first page Google-results answers to complex topics with just as much rich literature as the culture that he was exposed to about race. Given the bubble that he now lives in, it is not much of a surprise that queer is used as shorthand for white, as is feminism. The Black and brown women who are experiencing the highest rates of transphobic murders, sexual assault, and pay equity issues are rarely sharing the same air as millionaires.
The boldest conceit of the show comes at its conclusion. He pleads for empathy to be bidirectional between the gay and Black community, stating that taking a man’s livelihood is “akin to killing him,” closing with a request for the bad actors — perhaps on Twitter, which he declared as not a real place — to “stop punching down on [his] people.” Presumably, he meant Black people writ large, but the examples he offered — Kevin Hart and DaBaby — betrayed his purported aim, instead demanding care for the precarity of Black entertainers while carefully omitting the context of their circumstances. Since then, the only people who have had their jobs threatened have belonged to the queer community, with Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos prioritizing maintaining his relationship with Chappelle over the existing narrative the company has built of amplifying marginalized voices inside and outside of the company.
Writer and satirist Percival Everett, known for Erasure, said in an interview: “I don’t think meaning exists without form, and certainly form does not exist without meaning. Meaning and story come first.” In present day, some of Chappelle’s loudest defenders champion form, touting Dave as one of the most gifted observational narrative comedians of his generation in style and cadence. I would argue that many are clinging more to the memory of past specials than properly evaluating his current stylings, which seem more petulant and aimless. The story and meaning are vacuous, reflexive reactions to justified challenges to his actions over the years than artfully charted narrative. For The Closer, if the 60 preceding minutes before its final moments hadn’t shown me otherwise, I would have surmised that his lengthy lecture tokenizing his deceased friend Daphne Dorman (a trans woman), followed by a slideshow of Chapelle alongside a cornucopia of the rich and famous — including Kevin Hart and DaBaby — set to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” was a parody of white people’s defensive responses to being confronted on their harmful shortcomings.
Comedy specials are rarely, if ever, filmed in one continuous take. Pick-ups are almost always done after the first taping to catch any misses in audio quality or discrepancies in sound. As I watched the special, I found myself wondering which parts of the routine had to be punched in more than once for home viewers. How many times did the live audience have to hear “I’m team TERF,” and his garish subsequent comparison to Black people’s historical relationship with Blackface?
In yet another feeble defense of the cascading missteps taken by Netflix, Sarandos told THR, “we have to entertain the world, part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs…this kind of commitment to artistic expression and free artistic expression is sometimes in conflict with people feeling protected and safe.” Unspoken is an acknowledgement of the glaring lack of comedy specials for trans and queer comics to explore and joke about their identity outside of the looming shadow of Dave Chappelle’s pointed recriminations, with queer talent thriving in a robust scene outside of the mainstream. Absent a large platform, the terms of trans discourse and humor will continue to be filtered through the lens of the ill-informed and churlish responses of those who can afford to never make a joke again. Trans men and women are being asked to forgo their safety to take a joke. It would be nice, paramount even, if they were given the resources to make them as well.
Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.