Comedian Dave Chappelle's newest hourlong special, The Closer, pokes fun at people's pieties, sprinkled with a tenderness that Chappelle has long supplied. It's humane and irreverent and, yes, he directly deals with the criticism and cancellation attempts he's gotten from transgender activists; why wouldn't he? He's never been one to shy away from good material.
If you were reading reviews of the special, you wouldn't know that. "Too often in The Closer, it just sounds like Chappelle is using white privilege to excuse his own homophobia and transphobia," sanctimoniously declares an NPR piece, clumsily arguing that he thinks that the plight of the black man in America trumps oppression faced by all other identity groups, intimating that Chappelle is just looking for thinly veiled excuses for his own purported animus. A Daily Beast headline reads "Dave Chappelle, and the Week From Hell For Trans People."
Chappelle's comedy exists in the liminal space between irresponsible and downright dangerous to trans people, or so his critics' argument goes. He's gratuitously edgy, pushing the envelope because he knows he can, allegedly prioritizing little glimmers of comedic payoff over nurturing a culture that's comfortable and welcoming for trans people. But he jokes about almost everyone in a manner that could cause discomfort if you're overly preening and self-serious. This man jokes about hoping "white bitches" get tear-gassed at the Women's March!
No one is safe from Chappelle's jokes—but also, everyone is safe from Chappelle's jokes, given that words don't directly cause harm, and that Chappelle is not uncaring or unfeeling. He seems sincere when he insists he's "not indifferent to the suffering of someone else" (before launching into a joke about taking a shit at Walmart and trans bathroom bills and DaBaby killing a guy, of course).
"These transgenders…want me dead," Chappelle says later on. "Every time I come out on stage, I be scared. I be lookin' around the crowd, searching for knuckles and Adam's apples to see where the threats might be coming from."
"A nigga came up to me on the street the other day, he said, 'Careful Dave, they after you,'" Chappelle says, pausing, his eyes wide. "I said 'What? One they, or many theys?'"
Jokes like these have inspired outcry from within Netflix. Lower-level employees took to crashing a company meeting of executives; media sites dishonestly declared that "Netflix Employee Who Criticized Dave Chappelle's Special Gets Suspended," neglecting to mention in the headline that it wasn't really the criticism that was the problem, but rather the unkosher practice of crashing leadership's meeting. (Many media outlets, from The Daily Beast to The Verge to NPR to The New York Times neglected to convey the appropriate nuance in their headlines.) "It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employees for tweeting about this show. Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so," a Netflix spokesperson clarified to Variety, failing to stop the deluge of misleading headlines.
Earlier this week, Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos issued a careful rejoinder to his employees, some of whom were staging a walkout in protest of the company airing the Chappelle special. "Our goal is to entertain the world," Sarandos wrote, "which means programming for a diversity of tastes.…We also support artistic freedom to help attract the best creators, and push back on government and other censorship requests." Excerpted below:
With The Closer, we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (such as further marginalizing already marginalized groups, hate, violence etc.) Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn't directly translate to real-world harm.
The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy – without it causing them to harm others. We are working hard to ensure marginalized communities aren't defined by a single story. So we have Sex Education, Orange is the New Black, Control Z, Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle all on Netflix. Key to this is increasing diversity on the content team itself.
With this, Sarandos delivered a decisive blow to the words-are-violence crowd. Well-adjusted adults should be able to coexist in a world with people who don't share their tastes, morals, sensibilities, and convictions. They ought to be able to work for a company that platforms content that does not conform to their own personal sense of what is worthy or even prudent. You will not break, or be mowed down in the streets, simply because Chappelle said transgressive things in a Netflix special; the supposition that our world works that way is unfounded.
Chappelle's comedy is at its strongest when he's engaging with issues that are actually quite hard to stomach, issues requiring both deftness and heart. His suicide-related comedy (the Foot Locker guy/Anthony Bourdain bit, from Sticks & Stones; the bits about Daphne Dorman's plight, from The Closer), which oscillates comfortably between irreverent and humane, is some of his finest work. And his trans-related comedy indicates just how much he wishes he could opt out; he reserves his right to just not care that much about people's pronouns and niche subcultures he's not particularly interested in.
He tells us later on in the special that he's happy to have friends who are trans—provided they're not humorless—implying that he sees them as individuals, not as symbols or representatives of any one idea or thing. There's no categorical opposition to being friends with trans people expressed, not even once. (In fact, Dorman's story, which he tells right before closing out, wholly counters the idea that Chappelle has no heart for transgender people.)
But the great disappearing act that is Chappelle, who famously quit The Chappelle Show and moved to South Africa (and worse, Ohio), has announced with his latest special that he's once again dipping out. Receding from the limelight is Chappelle's specialty; he famously walked away from $50 million when he felt like it was time to stop doing his show, and he's indicated, with this latest special, that he's neither interested in backing down from his beliefs and sense of humor nor in relitigating the same things over and over in the public square.
Surprising no one, Chappelle—the man who once dreamed up Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn't realize he's black—failed to make an adequately sensitive special, and he failed to make one that pleased or mollified critics. But he succeeded at making a special that was both funny and tender, if only people would stop chattering about his purported sins long enough to listen.